To College Students, with Love

Date Posted: 11/29/2012

Good things often start with food, particularly when young adults are involved. When sophomore Edwin Lopez, an education major from Houston, and several of his college buddies came to the Wesley Foundation Center on the campus of Lamar University, they were greeted by delicious smells and friendly faces from McCabe Roberts UMC just three miles down the road.  Six of the students responded immediately to this “tasty invitation” to come to church the following weekend.


“We see Lamar as part of our mission field,” says Pastor Rodney Graves, “because we know there are students looking for a church while they are away from home, and some perhaps that have never had a church home.” He adds, “We picked six students up that following Sunday and five of them joined the first day!”


The reason? “What got me, and still gets me,” says Edwin, “is the love there. At McCabe Roberts UMC I feel the kind of love I would get from my own mom, so much so that I am considering staying around here this summer just so I can continuing attending church!” Many of the older members have been lovingly adopted as pseudo-grandparents.


Pastor Graves and wife Ava invite the students for lunch in their home every Sunday after church, which Edwin says is the highlight of his week. “The Graves treat us as if we are their own children and we sit around the table and laugh. We are so comfortable we often tell them our problems and challenges each week and they share their wisdom. This whole experience has inspired me to bring more people with me to church.”


McCabe UMC’s outreach to Lamar students has extended beyond Sundays. “We’re now having an interactive young adult Bible study on Wednesdays, tailored to the concerns of college students such as how to make good decisions, have healthy relationships and confront the culture.” Additionally, Pastor Graves says McCabe UMC is using Facebook to promote sermon series and conversations, and video clips and drama to be more engaging.


Pastor Graves is excited to see how ‘Investing in the Young’ has revitalized his multi-cultured congregation of 70 to do more outreach to the community. He often walks the neighborhood to build trust and relationships, so much so that residents come talk with him, stop in to play the church piano and even pull weeds on occasion. “We are all realizing we need to embrace the world beyond our doors and do something different or become extinct. So, we are offering things our community needs: English and Spanish classes, a computer lab and a community garden.”


He is encouraged to see the church culture taking a different turn. “The influx of the young has given our congregation a spark of hope. We have a sense of doing something new that will help this church continue after we are gone,” he adds. “We are part of the neighborhood and people know us and we know them. I am excited the young people want to be here, but even more excited that they are coming to us with ministry ideas of their own. Thanks to the leadership of our Lamar students, over 200 homeless people enjoyed a gourmet Thanksgiving dinner cooked by hand in the church kitchen -- and it was their idea! I just love the fact that young adults don’t need three months and 20 committee meetings to do ministry.”


Pastor Graves does not believe in the “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” principle. “We didn’t stop with the horse and buggy. Life all around us keeps improving, and if we are to move forward with our world-changing message, the church needs to keep improving, as well.”


Salem UMC Also Knows the Outreach Power of Food


“For years, Salem UMC members have joined loyal volunteers from our United Methodist Women in helping feed the Lamar students and our photos tell the rest of the story,” says Salem UMC Pastor Carolyn McCall. “We truly believe it's been a blessing for the church and for the students.  Our vision is to continue as long as we can provide a meal with God's help.”


She recalls the biggest group gathering when a barbeque pit beckoned their nostrils. “Students came from everywhere!” she says. “Many of us sit and talk with students about their faith and futures. We have a great time visiting and sharing.”


She knows it is important to engage and encourage college students because “the young people are the immediate future leaders of the world. And in this world, the church exists where the love of Christ is taught and expressed in various ways to many people in the world.” Adds Carolyn, “If the church can show the love of Christ through such a simple and sacrificial act of service and generosity, then we are building a foundation of God's love in the midst of a troubled world full of sin and destruction. With this act, the students will see and experience that much love is given and they too are able to give love to others. This is my prayer and my pass it on!   Not only that, but we have been commanded to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.”


Ministering to Young Moms

When Pastor John Warren asked Wesley Foundation Director Angelita Dirden what First UMC Orange could do for Lamar students, she mentioned a need for special ministry to young mothers attending the college. “We already had a MOPS group going for Mothers of Preschoolers, so we just expanded that ministry and several young college moms have come recently.” Volunteers mind the nursery while about 30 moms from the church, college and community enjoy adult interaction and special speakers at lunch. According to the pastor, this has proven to be a meaningful and cost effective way to reach young people with a new layer of support.


Adds Angelita, “Young people tend to have a very harsh view of the church, these days, so The Wesley Foundation partners with about 24 churches in the area in an effort to mend that perception by demonstrating a genuine interest in them. 


When the local congregations come serve several hundred students at our Community Connect lunches, they stay for a few hours to hear what’s on the students’ hearts and even pray with them. Building trust takes time, but I am grateful to all these churches for going the extra mile to invest in the students’ spiritual growth while they are away from home.”