When an acquaintance invited me to attend University Mennonite Church upon my arrival in State College, I didn’t know what to expect, and I definitely didn’t know what to wear. That first Sunday, I noted the absence of buggies outside of the church (a good sign) and was relieved to find that the Mennonites within looked relatively normal (fortunately, I’d left my bonnet at home).
That said, my reception was anything but typical. Rather than acknowledging me with the customary polite nod, the people in the surrounding pews turned and asked about my life, job, and interests. The service included an exquisite poem, read by its author during the offertory; a time of sharing joys and concerns in which the congregation enthusiastically participated; and beautiful hymns. At the conclusion of the service, I was swarmed by at least half of the congregation, several of whom invited me home for lunch. I then followed everyone to the basement, where people were drinking coffee out of mugs (not styrofoam cups!) and one woman had set up a mini market with vegetables from her farm.
I cannot tell you how refreshing it was to attend a church service like this. In the past, I’ve had the same struggle that many of my friends have faced. I want to be in a church community that includes people my age, but I’ve found my generation increasingly divided between those who profess no faith at all and those who have embraced a black-and-white, fundamentalist theology that I just don’t buy into. And there’s the problem of “meat markets”–Sunday schools for twenty-somethings where you’re more likely to be sized up as a potential mate than challenged to live out your faith or work through your doubts or examine the scriptures. It’s often S.O.L. for those of us looking for a community where we can reconcile our faith with our intellects, where taking a “historical-critical” view of the scriptures isn’t a heresy, and where theology and beer are complements, not mutually exclusive.
I feel very blessed to have found University Mennonite Church, which has a thriving college, grad student, and young adult group. I feel genuinely welcome there, and that same hospitality is extended to everyone who comes in its doors. I agree with its commitment to service and social justice. I believe it is a place where I’ll have freedom to develop my theology and discuss my doubts. And most important, I think its pastor and members are truly devoted to following Jesus and living out the implications of that commitment.
The church retreat at Camp Hebron in September embodied everything I love about University Mennonite Church. It concluded with a beautiful service, during which Pastor Dave preached on overcoming our desires to isolate, to exclude, and to see our enemies fail. He encouraged us to reach out and include others, even our enemies. He transformed the words of Psalm 23–“He prepareth a table before me in the presence of my enemies”–into a poignant image, a table where Jesus enables us to sit with our enemies. During the sharing of joys and sorrows, a man pointed to an autistic child on his lap (the son of another church member) and praised God for his enthusiasm during worship. When the time came for communion, a bowl of grapes was set out for the children and for those unready to partake in the sacrament. No one returned from the communion table empty handed.
Postscript by Joel Weidner – After spending several years at our church, Lucy has moved on, but we’re thankful for the time she was among us.