By: Amanda Yanchury
One hundred years ago this October, Methodist Bishop James C. Baker established the first Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois. Meant to be “stable, a rock, something to build upon” (hence the word foundation), the organization sought to take in college students for a campus ministry program and to be a “home away from home,” where students could study and pray.
Since the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, the Wesley Foundation has had a physical presence on the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus. The local outpost started with five or six committed students, had about 20 core student participants a year ago, and now has some 80 students engaging with it in various ways—although the real success has been in creating positive awareness of the United Methodist Church on a campus that hadn’t seen a United Methodist presence in more than 20 years.
The Wesley Foundation’s director, Rev. J. Cody Nielsen, has run the foundation’s programming from the beginning. Although it is still a place for prayer and study, it has evolved into a safe space for theological reflection and general fellowship. The Wesley Foundation holds regular worship services, organizes mission activities, and offers small group book and Bible studies. Both Methodists and non-Methodists are involved with the organization, “and frankly we like it that way,” the website says.
“All of what we do focuses on four main pillars: community, discipleship, worship, and social justice—with communion in the center of it all,” Nielsen says.
“We organized the first multi-faith week at the University of Minnesota; we’ve held social justice activities like the Delete Blood Cancer bone marrow donor-registration drive; we’ve organized mission trips,” Nielsen says. “And through it all, we’ve focused on hospitality and welcoming and creating an environment on campus where everyone can come in and leave feeling awesome.”
Joe Abe, a junior at the University of Minnesota, has been involved with the Wesley Foundation since the beginning. Elected president last year, he has ramped up organizational efforts—setting goals for his position and encouraging other officers to do the same, hosting regular meetings with set agendas, and tracking involvement at campus-wide events.
Abe says he’s often asked, “What’s this Wesley place you are always going to?” That question prompted a “What’s Wesley?” campaign that launches this fall and that aims to educate students about the Wesley Foundation and raise awareness of what it is, and more importantly, what it does on campus. A lot of students are interested in social justice, and the Wesley Foundation is an inclusive community.
“We’re centered on this notion of ‘all means all,’” Abe says. “We’re an accepting community, and we want to be a home away from home for students.”
Nielsen cites growth in student participation and the solidification of the United Methodist brand at the U of M as key accomplishments during the foundation’s first two years on campus, but he says it’s time to do more.
“The Wesley Foundation is creating this space for the students to live out the church themselves,” he says. “It truly creates the leaders the future church will be led by.”
Nielsen says the “What’s Wesley” campaign will have a website (www.whatswesley.com) and a hashtag so as to encourage students to follow the conversation on Facebook and Twitter. The campaign will also feature a “wordle,”—a graphic made up of words—using terms like “love,” “ecumenical,” “social justice,” and “worship,” so that students can better understand what the organization stands for. The foundation intends to put this design on T-shirts and flyers that will be posted around campus.
“We hope to stir conversation about what we’re about,” Abe says. “Campus ministry is such an important transition for United Methodists in terms of the church they knew as children and the church they will come to know as adults. It’s a big step in your faith walk.
“When you come to college, you’re looking for a home, and the Wesley Foundation’s been that for me—I’ve grown as a person and with my faith—and we want to let others know how to get involved.”
Nielsen says the Wesley Foundation’s mission is to be “transformative for the journey of faith and life,” adding: “We are transforming lives while allowing students to transform us for the better.”
Amanda Yanchury is communications assistant for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church