Recent research shows that the key to effective ministry isn’t having the right words to say or even praying the right prayer. Surprisingly enough, it’s Henry Weinhard’s Root Beer. Other effective tools this study identified were curried vegetables, herbal tea, and a listening ear.
Alan Grove (“grove like the group of trees”) is a student leader in UPC’s University Ministries. Living in a fraternity, he brings intentionality to his lifestyle that often leads to questions of how to be both a witness of Christ’s love and relevant to the community he lives in. This led to his discovery of the Root Beer Phenomenon.
“Guys will drink in the back alley,” Alan said. “I used to think that because I don’t drink I couldn’t hang out with them there. But now I grab a Henry’s and head out back. When they ask me what I’m drinking, I go, ‘you know, just a Henry’s Root Beer. It’s my favorite.’ Then I’m secure in who I am, we have a good laugh, and it’s a ton of fun.”
What Alan knows and continues to discover in his ministry is that, as we’re transformed by Christ’s work in us, the call is then to participate in God’s transformation of the world we live in.
Sarah and Nick Tosti are a young married couple who, like Alan, encounter Christ by loving their neighbors here in the University District. “The people that you are often in the most contact with are the people you invite into your home and your neighbors, so they are the people you have the most opportunity to love,” they said. “This is such a unique neighborhood where we feel God can work in grand ways. We want to be in relationship with our neighbors whether they are homeless, families, or college kids renting a house.”
For the Tostis, this means providing a place to stay, hosting Young Life small groups, and getting to know their neighbors in a neighborhood where people have traditionally kept to themselves. They said the greatest challenge facing their neighborhood is “for people to see difficult living situations as opportunities for love and service and not points of contention.”
International students make up an increasing proportion of the students attending the University of Washington and living in the neighborhood. As they arrive from all over the world, they seek to establish a community where they can build friendships and be known in their adopted city.
UPC’s International Friendship House (IFH) has long served as a neighborhood hub where international students gather and share their lives with one another. Polly Yorioka, the resident manager (“they call me the House Grandmother”), explained that “the purpose of the IFH is really to be a welcoming place for any international student who’s looking for a place to belong, to be known—particularly students who aren’t Christians and maybe don’t have a background in the church. So we make it a safe environment where we really try to show Jesus by caring about them, serving them, and praying for them.”
The most frequent expression of this welcome is Tuesday evening dinners. Operating on a well-rehearsed cooking rotation, the eight IFH residents create meals inspired by cultures from around the world for 30–50 visitors each week. Joyce Lee, a resident who just moved in this fall, said, “I especially pray for the hearts of people coming to dinner. Everyone comes for different reasons—like free dinner, or to make friends—and so I pray for their hearts, that they would be open to God.”
When Jesus came in the flesh, he didn’t just save our souls for some future event—namely, our transition to the next life—he showed us a new (better) way to live here and now. In The Message, Eugene Peterson sums it up in his paraphrase of John 1:14, writing, “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” This truth may lead one to believe that when our Lord taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” he didn’t mean for us to wait passively. These folks living intentionally in the U District have embraced the belief that God’s kingdom is embodied in our relationships, and so they make those relationships a priority.
As Mike Cates, one of the IFH residents, chopped a sackful of onions for vegetable curry, he spoke of sharing life together. “When you live together you share each other’s burdens. You share the joys and pains of life together, and in that way we’re able to model what the body of Christ is all about. We’re a body that is able to resolve conflict, for example, and we ask ourselves how we can do that in a way that shows who Jesus is and reflects the kingdom of God to our wider community.”
Taylor Jacobs, who like Alan is a UMin student leader, says, “In the Greek system, you can really see how people are made to live in community—there’s a desire to be a part of something bigger than yourself. You see these sides of people that are like, ‘Oh my gosh, you are amazing at making people feel welcome,’ but they do it through avenues that can be unhealthy.”
These student leaders are challenged by the balance required in building community and living out faith. Taylor says, “There’s this sense in society that once you start living like Jesus says, in this identity that you were meant to live into, you’re supposed to ditch everything you’ve been a part of. But looking at the life of Jesus, I understand that he didn’t see a divide between the secular and the sacred.”
Alan said of his beginnings on Greek Row, “For the first time in my life, non-Christians were becoming some of my closest friends. I didn’t feel understood because they didn’t know Jesus. On the surface, they knew what I did do and what I didn’t do, but they just couldn’t understand my heart.”
Maddie Larson lives in a sorority and has had some great conversations along these lines. “At one point this girl named Sam—she’s about the sassiest girl I know—came up to me and asked, ‘hey, why aren’t you drinking?’ just really in my face. I said, ‘you know what, if you don’t make me drink then I won’t make you go to church.’ She said she could respect that. We’ve been really good friends ever since.”
Like the Tostis, Jeff and Marilyn Vancil are in a different life stage than many of their neighbors. Representing the empty-nester contingent, they fill their home with college students for small group meetings, meals, prayer, and fellowship. The Vancils are a part of Vision 16, a network of about 120 students who live in five houses and a number of families and couples who live intentionally in the neighborhood. Jeff said, “It’s a remarkable deal in a secular university to have this kind of intentionality at this scope, not only in terms of living together, but in terms of intergenerational investment.”
For the families involved in Vision 16, there’s been a huge shift in their own worldview as they grow in relationship with each other and the students they work with. Jeff summed it up saying, “It’s normal in this community to have friends—and these are friends, they’re not projects—with a 30- or 40-year age difference.” And the benefits go both ways: “It’s not just the adults saying ‘we have so much to give; we’re going to benefit these poor kids.’ We are learning a ton, and it’s more than just how to use Facebook. This generation has a worldview that’s generous.”
Marilyn said, “There’s a fear on the part of the older generation, saying ‘I don’t have anything to give, or I’m not cool.’ Then there’s an intimidation on the young side, saying ‘Do they have time for me? Do they really care about me?’ If we get over that and realize we have a lot to offer both ways, then those relationships can happen. These students lean in, they want to be invested in. If we reach out, they won’t hold back.”
Jeff summed up an adage from his years working with Young Life: “Kids don’t care if you know—what to say, what their music is, how to dress, all that stuff—they don’t care if you know, but they know if you care.”
As Joyce prays over the table she sets for Tuesday dinner at the IFH, asking that their guests’ hearts be open to God, she says, “I also pray for myself, that I would have a passion to talk with them,” to help them feel known in this place.
While this study on connecting with neighbors was largely (OK, entirely) unscientific, the results are quite hopeful. What Alan once thought was a barrier to relationship became a comedic conversation starter. What was intended as an insult to Maddie sparked a genuine friendship. Students who drop by the IFH for a free dinner don’t—at first—realize what heartfelt prayers are prayed over them as they arrive. The question for everyone who seeks the coming of Christ’s kingdom in their lives is, What do you have to offer your neighbor today? And secondly, will you?