The Wesley Center

A Home for Faith and Justice

The Wesley Center
Wesley Center students participate in a walk to end hunger.

“This isn’t youth group, 13th grade. This is a place where people of good conscience come together, collaborate and grow.” —The Rev. Warren Light.

In the 2013-2014 academic year more than 1,000 young people walked through the door of the Wesley Center in Eugene, Ore. They came for Bible study, fellowship over free meals and to seek a faith home in their college years.

But they also came to put their faith in action for justice work on issues as diverse as assault prevention, gay rights, disability activism and ethnic identity organizing. They came to find a welcoming community where their needs were understood and their interests fostered.

The Rev. Warren Light prioritizes advocacy in the Wesley Center’s mission, creating a safe, supportive space. The Wesley Center serves mostly the University of Oregon but also offers services to the students of nearby colleges. The mission and vision is United Methodist to the core, with Micah 6:8 as the foundational principle: “Love justice, practice kindness, walk humbly with your God.” Mr. Light understands this calling as an expansive one.

“I believe that different organizations have different callings,” he said. “Oregon has a largely unchurched population, and so we have a mission of goodwill: If we believe we can make a difference, and then we work and achieve that difference, people will be drawn to our community.”

For Mr. Light, this coming together embodies a Christian message and a profound commitment to the needs of those in the community.

In addition to traditional Wesley Center activities, Mr. Light offers counseling to students and opens the doors of the Wesley Center to a variety of organizations and groups from the campus and the community. When a neighboring Christian college banned their LGBTQ group from meeting on campus property, they were welcome at the Wesley Center. A room has been set aside as a Muslim prayer room. A disability activist group has been meeting on the property for years, and a whole series of events in support of women’s rights has been hosted by the Wesley Center, including a recent production of “The Vagina Monologues,” from casting to rehearsal to performance.

Mr. Light welcomes this diverse group of stakeholders.

“We want to start a conversation and lead the way to opportunities in this community,” he said. “We are thrilled to support the talent and powerful voices of activists in the community, to engage in the work of faith, love and justice.”

Kerry Snodgrass, an honors student and a member of the leadership and activist community who graduated from the University of Oregon in June, found the Wesley Center through her involvement in sexual assault prevention work. Although she does not consider herself to be part of a church she felt welcome and affirmed.

“I consider [Mr. Light] a mentor,” she said. “He did so much for my development as a leader. He recognized my passions and put me forward for the Oregon Attorney General’s Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention, where Mr. Light also serves.”

Ms. Snodgrass said Mr. Light balances welcome without pressure. “He has always supported my inclusion, invited me to programs and introduced me to people. He is actively involved with events and networks between communities. I never felt any uncomfortable pressure to take part in the religious activities,” she said.

Finding voice

Many individuals who would not join a conventional church find a home at the Wesley Center through these points of connection and the free, safe space provided. This commitment and vision has been supported by the board of the Wesley Foundation. The United Methodist campus ministry has nurtured this vision and has expanded to include members of local churches as well as students, community leaders and a designated United Methodist Women liaison.

Wesley board member Erin McGladrey is a specialist at the University of Oregon Women’s Center and has experienced her work with the Wesley Center as a “coming home” to values of her youth. Ms. Gladrey grew up not going to church, so her “coming home” experience with the Wesley Center is profoundly connected with advocacy and justice.

“My family’s commitment to civil rights issues and working toward justice, free thinking and lively discussion, focus on the public good over personal gain and strong work ethic come so clearly from the church,” she said. “As someone who works to empower women in their academic and personal lives, I am renewed by seeing the leadership of young women in the church. I am delighted to see young women generating ideas, leading discussions of faith and shaping the ministry. The Wesley Center has created a space where women from many backgrounds find their voice.”

Another core way the Wesley Center is shaping ministry in Oregon is through work with the Safe Sanctuaries movement, which provides education and support in sexual violence prevention for local ministries. Students perform role-play scenarios to address harm and to equip people with language and understanding to confront these issues.

United Methodist Women

The varied interests and partnerships in mission dovetail with the Wesley Center’s connections with local United Methodist Women groups. These groups provide weekly meals for Wesley Center students and have in recent years become a major source of financial support.

“Food is important to college students on a tight budget. A home-cooked meal, even a simple one eaten with a supportive fellowship, nourishes the body and the soul,” said Jo Ann English, a member of United Methodist Women and the Wesley Center board of directors. “We provide the home-cooked food and enjoy getting to know the students as we share a meal with them.”

Beyond this, however, is the dual commitment to social justice. “United Methodist Women has been doing the work of advocacy and progressive thinking for over a hundred years. This is a natural connection,” Mr. Light said.

Ms. English described how the United Methodist Women has supported student volunteer trips, including mission trips to work on the U.S./Mexico border, and how they recently provided a scholarship to a young woman so she could attend the Oregon-Idaho Conference United Methodist Women Young Women’s retreat focused on human trafficking.

“When Roxy Olsson attended the young women’s retreat, she returned to present what she had learned to our United Methodist Women and how she would use this in her efforts to end trafficking,” Ms. English said. “Most of our United Methodist Women members would not qualify as ‘young’ women so this was quite a treat for us. Our group has been focusing on human trafficking in our part of Oregon for several years. Her passion was inspiring to us, and her program was very informative.”

Students have become involved at Eugene First United Methodist Church, serving on its justice and mission matters team, participating in church musical groups, volunteering with HIV activism, providing labor at food pantries and participating in a variety of education efforts, from homelessness to immigration.

Organizing tips

Wesley Center members shared some best practices for helping college women organize for mission through United Methodist Women. Mr. Light said the focus has to be on the students’ passions, and provide for both connection and action. Ms. English spoke to young people’s need to feel that their time is respected and “spent wisely.” Both agreed the most productive intersections occur when passions overlap and talents are complementary, allowing for student leadership and the benefits of the wisdom of United Methodist Women members.

The Wesley Center hopes to build greater connections with their United Methodist Women supporters through greater shared programing and by piloting a formal mentorship arrangement between students and United Methodist Women members. The Wesley Center and United Methodist Women are interested in learning more from the students about how students are struggling, and which world issues fire their passions.

“Young people are running from closed-mindedness, coldness and overcontrol,” Mr. Light said. “They are running from institutions that have allowed an unjust status quo to continue. This is something we should all be running from. United Methodist Women has been leading this charge for decades and championing social change and justice in the church all along. That’s why we do this work: to provide a space to make a difference and to welcome different viewpoints. We are not trying to make United Methodists of everyone but to create connections and opportunities that really matter.”

Katie Dwyer is a member of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colo., and a former member of the Eugene Wesley Center. She is currently studying Human Rights Law at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Posted or updated: 8/31/2013 11:00:00 PM