Take Note: Ben Wideman On Faith, Peace, And Social Justice
Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective. He helps Penn State students grapple with big questions that lie at the intersection of faith, peace, and social justice.
Wideman talked with WPSU about his Mennonite background, how he came to do this work, and what it means to find a third way in a country that often wants us to choose sides.
Transcript: Cheraine Stanford: Welcome to take note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. As campus pastor for the 3rd Way Collective Ben Weidman helps Penn State students grapple with big questions that lie at the intersection of faith, peace and social justice. He works to share his Mennonite faith while creating an inclusive community with students from a variety of religions and beliefs. He studied at Eastern Mennonite University and got his graduate degree from fuller Theological Seminary, where he realized his passion for campus ministry.
Ben, thank you so much for joining us.
Ben Wideman: Thanks for having me.
Cheraine Stanford: So, let's just start with the easy stuff. Can you just actually explain what 3rd Way Collective is?
Ben Wideman: Yeah, 3rd Way Collective was started about five years ago. Local peace churches, primarily University Mennonite Church had noticed that students on Penn State's campus often felt like they had to choose between their faith identity and the Justice causes that they cared most deeply about. It was almost like they're facing a crossroads. And fortunately, the Mennonite Church here in town has this rich tradition of compelling their faith to stand up for faith for peace and justice causes. And we thought we could extrapolate from that and bring that to campus and offer students a literal third way to say as people of faith, you can stand up for the causes that you believe in. And our hope was that from the beginning, we would encourage Penn State's faith community to take a stronger stand for justice causes that our campus and community were going through, but also to remind the Justice community, the advocacy people that are out there, the people of faith also belong at the table. And also need to be there providing their wisdom and insight and perspective.
Cheraine Stanford: And what kinds of activities does 3rd Way Collective do and participate in?
Ben Wideman: We started out assuming that we were the ones with all the answers. And so our schedule early on was heavily leaning towards sort of info sessions, trainings, speakers focusing on stuff that we thought the students need to know. Very quickly, we realized that students didn't really need one more lecture in their lives. And we had simultaneously been doing home cooked meals and dinners and other kinds of spaces around our community. And we found that students in sort of casual conversation that was unstructured ended up getting to the social justice and peace topics that we were really curious about, and they didn't necessarily need the structure that we were providing them. And so what we've ended up leaning in as our identity has unfolded over the last few years is table conversations.
Primarily providing students with a space to belong to have the conversations about the tough stuff that's happening in their lives, and to guide those conversations, reminding ourselves that we are all spiritual beings. And regardless of what faith tradition we come from, we hope that there's some kind of truth that you can go in there to help apply to the most important things that we're all facing in our world today.
Cheraine Stanford: Can you explain the significance of the name of the group what does third way mean especially in the context of the Mennonite tradition from which the organization started?
Ben Wideman: We were trying to find a name that would be welcoming and inclusive to people from any tradition and Mennonites just happened to see themselves as neither Protestant nor Catholic but a third way. And we liked that that also resonated with our polarizing community in context and culture. We thought, offering a third way in a divided world, provided a sense of hope that perhaps instead of shouting at each other across the aisle or across our differences, we could offer a pathway that would, that would be a third way, a literal third way to people. And so that's where the name comes from. The second part collective was because we talked to a lot of other campus organizations, who mentioned that they were struggling to get students to commit to one singular group. And we liked the idea of building a broad reaching collective of connected students and community members, rather than a small insular group of students.
Cheraine Stanford: And I've heard in some of the, you know, talks you've done talking about another idea of the third way of, you know, people feeling like violence is one answer, for example, and not doing anything is another solution and that there could be a third way. And that struck me as sometimes it's probably pretty hard to think of what that third way could be. Do you help people think about what that could look like?
Ben Wideman: Absolutely. I think it's a myth that our only two options are fight or flight. And I think often the best solutions to problems are when we start to think beyond those two paths. I think about moments on our campus, we had some kind of angry street preachers show up a couple of years ago. It seems like they were against everything. You know, they had a banner that shouted, basically, all of the things that they thought were evil about a college student’s experience, and their presence really started to spark a lot of anger. They were in front of the LGBT Student Center and students came out, really wanting to argue loudly and passionately for the causes that they believed in and a few of our student officers realized that all this was doing was creating a kind of violent feeling situation. And so, we started wandering through the crowd passing out stickers that had the tri-colored welcome your neighbor refrain on it. And very quickly, we realized that other conversations were happening that were distracting from the violence of the person who had shown up on our campus. And after a very short while, things it kind of calmed down to the point where people began to drift away. We realized in that moment that we were not promoting passivity, we weren't encouraging the crowd to like, just walk away and do nothing. We also weren't encouraging the crowd to like, bring their righteous anger in a violent method. We were kind of proposing an alternative to that and those moments where we see so the crystallization of the third way are really beautiful and magical when they take place and I think they are often harder paths to follow and they're not ones that we feel intuitively and so they take more creativity and and a more of a listening presence to be trying to have sense of what a better path might look like.
Cheraine Stanford: How do you find a balance between staying true to your Mennonite faith, which is such an important part of your life, but then also, I know it's very important to you to be inclusive to others and to others who may not even have a faith background? How do you balance that?
Ben Wideman: Yeah, for me, I think a lot of it is about the pathway that my life has taken. Like a lot of kids I was bullied during middle school and my Mennonite community was the one place where I felt I could fully be myself and fully belong there. And so when I think about that, that's often when I think about church as its best, you know, providing that safe haven for people who feel like they've been alienated. And so I think that propels me into all kinds of different spaces. That's why I stand next to LGBT students who feel like they don't have a place because they don't fit a social norm. It's why I try and stand up for students from other faith traditions and be a more inclusive and welcoming place and in a community that often only privileges those with the Christian tradition. That's why I try and speak out for students with other skin colors because we come from a we have a predominantly white looking student body, and often our students who are underrepresented don't feel as much as at home as their white counterparts do. So, it's really reminding myself of those early stories that shaped me and trying to be that for other people.
Cheraine Stanford: What do you wish people knew or understood about what it means, at least for you to be Mennonite to come from that tradition?
Ben Wideman: I think part of the challenge with a denomination or a tradition like the Mennonite tradition is that there's a lot of diversity in it. A lot of theological diversity. And most people when they think about the word Mennonite immediately jumped to sort of Amish light, right? like people wearing plain clothes, driving horse and buggies. And they don't expect it necessarily to be a progressive theology that might be standing up for LGBT inclusion or creation, care of the environment, those sorts of things. And so I think that's the biggest challenge is trying to present an alternative to the traditional views that people have of what a Mennonite can be. But it's got a very rich tradition of especially standing up against violence. And I think that's probably the strongest pillar that I have to stand on from my tradition. And so, if we can try and create peace in a whole multitude of different ways, I think that I'm being true to, to my roots, even if the more conservative folks in my tradition might not see it that way. That's how I've interpreted it. And that's what I hope people experience when they come into contact with a person like me or someone with my kind of theology.
Cheraine Stanford: You've written about the importance of showing up in spaces where ministers are rarely seen. Can you give an example of what a space like that might be?
Ben Wideman: Yeah. I think, especially when it comes to, to justice movements to advocacy spaces, people don't expect people of faith to be there. And so when I come to a protest, or when I come to a march or community forum, introduce myself as a Reverend, I think that is has the power to be transformative, to remind those around me that people of faith should be showing up in these kinds of spaces and speaking up, especially for those who feel marginalized.
Perhaps the most crystallized memory I have in my head is, shortly after the last presidential election season, students organized a rally, sort of speaking their displeasure at the current administration. It was primarily organized by students of color and students from the LGBT community. And when we arrived as a group, there was again a street preacher on hand basically telling everyone that they were going to hell because they did not affirm the current president. And I went up and had a conversation with that person and tried to present another perspective that these were students were hurting because the way that they were feeling marginalized by the word spoken by the politics of that moment. And student photographer snapped the picture of the two of us kind of engaging each other, this sort of angry street preacher and this other person myself.
Afterwards, she approached me and said, Can I get your name for this image? It's going to be used in The Collegian or something like that. And I said, I'm Reverend Ben Wideman, and she did like a triple take. in her mind. She was looking at a sort of religious radical, engaging a secular person with no faith, who is more sane in her mind. She did not imagine that it was two people of faith, wrestling with their faith and how to engage the world at this moment. And I think that's helpful that's helpful in and reminding students that there are people who believe in what they believe in who also come from faith traditions, who are willing to take risks, perhaps, to show up in spaces that people of faith often have done damage in the try and be an alternative to that into to try and offer some hope in the midst of really difficult spaces.
Cheraine Stanford: I think one of the spaces that I was maybe at first surprised to see that you are associated with was the Penn State's clothing transit where transgender and gender non-conforming students can select clothing free of charge without, you know, maybe the discomfort of being in a store that is separated by gender. Why did you choose to be involved in that?
Ben Wideman: I chose to be involved in that because of one single human being. Very quickly after I arrived on campus, I started meeting students from the LGBT community who also identified as Christian. And they shared with me that for them in a lot of different spaces, they felt like they had to choose among their identities. So in the LGBT Student Center, they often felt like they had to hide their faith identity. And in the spiritual center, they felt like they had to hide their LGBT identity. And so after some conversation, I helped them begin an organization called Receiving With Thanksgiving, which was Penn State's first LGBT Christian network. And, tragically one of those students passed away, a trans student by the name of Eli Roe, and in a way of sort of remembering Eli, a funeral was held on campus. And Eli's parents came to me and said, you know, Eli had been rejected from his faith community. A local church no longer wanted to acknowledge him as a child of their own because of the the, the identity that he had. And they said, you were his pastor, you were there when the church rejected him. We want you to officiate at the funeral. So that was deeply moving. We organized a speaker series in Eli's memory and as we were doing that students began saying there's got to be a way to sort of walk with the trans community in a more personal way, not just to walk alongside them, but to actually offer them something of value. So we did a transgender clothing exchange several months after his passing kind of in his honor, and we got a bunch of people in the community to donate clothes that they no longer used. And we said anyone from the LGBT community could come and take as much or as little clothing as they wanted. After holding that for a few times, the LGBT Student Center reached out and asked if they would be able to take those clothes and make it a permanent part of Penn State's institution. And so, the clothing transit was born. All because of really one person and trying to remember Eli to remember his story and to remember that he was a person who stood up for the justice causes that he believed in because he was a person of faith. And, and that clothing closet lives on in memory of that.
Cheraine Stanford: I assume that that was probably one of the toughest parts of your experience. I know Eli, sometimes known as Miriam.How did their passing impact you and you know, your ministry?
Ben Wideman: I think when a student passes away, it is simultaneously the hardest part of my work and the most beautiful part of my work. To be able to walk with students and family members who are grieving makes me feel fully affirmed in my sense of call to be a minister standing with, especially with marginalized peoples or people who are grieving or hurting. I think it's a bittersweet moment because, you know, I never wished for that to happen. But I think it points to the need for people to be moving into spaces that we don't often assume people of faith end up. There's a lot of loneliness and isolation that comes with with death. And, and so when we, as faith leaders can walk alongside people in those spaces, it's, it's deeply moving.
Cheraine Stanford: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. Our guest is Ben Wideman campus pastor for the 3rd Way Collective, a student organization at Penn State focused on faith, peace and justice.
In many ways, when you choose a life of service, particularly, being a pastor, you choose a life where you belong to others. I think you belong to the community. How have you learned to set boundaries or balanced that you also have a family. How does that balance play out for you?
Ben Wideman: Yeah, having a family is actually a pretty helpful part because they're a good sort of litmus test for when I'm overextending myself. They tell me and I'm appreciative of that both the voice of my partner and also our children saying, “Hey, we haven't seen you enough in a while.”I'm very fortunate to have an advisory team that understands self-care that recently gave me three months sabbatical and pushes me really to be working less, not more, even though there's plenty of work out there to be done. And, and so that's how I try and find my balance. I think, part of uncovering a possible third way is to care for the soul and care for the individual. And so, I cannot, I'm doing a disservice to the students that I work with if I'm overextending myself all the time, but telling them that they need to be resting. Like I need to demonstrate that.
I also take breaks and I also rest and they should to. To be a more vibrant and full human being.
Cheraine Stanford: What are some of the big justice issues that you think we're facing now? As a community and as a country?
Ben Wideman: Yeah, I was just having this conversation with 3rd Way Collective student leaders and
they mentioned a couple of things that I think are helpful reminders for me one is cause fatigue, I think because the way we consume media right now there's just so much that we are supposed to care about. And so it is really about finding the balance finding both your passions and your pathways that help you feel like you're making a meaningful difference, and also trying to find the balance that you need to be healthy enough to continue to work at some of these things. Something else that's really on my radar right now is this idea that a lot of young adults feel really lonely. They feel very well connected, broadly connected. Social media helps with that. But they also feel very isolated often.
And especially at a campus like Penn State, you can feel very lost in a sea of 46,000 students. And so we really do need to be working hard to provide in whatever way we can some sense that you belong to a community that's bigger than yourself, that you belong to a community that has your back if something unjust is happening to you, and that you belong to a community that you can share the burden of all the things that we're supposed to be caring about right now.
I think that's really at the core of what we're trying to do this fall into continually remind ourselves of that.
Beyond that, there's always things that pop up. I remember my first fall in 2014 was when the Black Lives Matter movement really took off across this country. And we hadn't planned for that. We hadn't set that as our goal in the fall. But it happened and we had to adapt and be willing to move in that direction.
None of us could have anticipated the very public way that our community felt the violence of the shootings that happened last spring. We had to adapt and respond to navigate those in ways that felt meaningful for our students and for the community members that connect with us as well. And I'm guessing that there will be things that come this fall in the spring in our community that will transform us and will not be things that we were planning for.
Cheraine Stanford: Tell me about the bicycle ride that from State College to Washington, DC that you participated in, what was that for and why did you choose to participate?
Ben Wideman: Yeah, I've made a good friend with Professor Dr. Jonathan Brock up who, several years ago in a way to raise awareness for Pennsylvania interfaith Power and Light, a wonderful organization, interfaith organization that tackles climate change. He rode his bike with a couple of friends from State College to Washington, DC to both raise support for the work of Pennsylvania interfaith Power and Light, but also to advocate on Capitol Hill to, to tell our elected officials that people of faith care about climate change and want their politicians to do something about that. And so for the last several years, that bike ride has happened every spring just after the semester is done. And for the last three or four years, I've gone along on my own bike, stopping in small towns along the way, sharing our stories about why we as people of faith care about this listening to the people who are hosting us talking about the way that climate change is affecting their lives. And and carrying those stories with us. When we get to DC we get to talk to our elected officials from all across Pennsylvania, and talk about why this is a moral issue and why climate change is affecting all of us and why they need to do something about it.
Cheraine Stanford: So, climate change, LGBTQ issues, Black Lives Matter, standing up for marginalized communities. This is not easy work. What do you do when you get discouraged or frustrated?
Ben Wideman: I think about the small stories, I think about a student who stood up at last year's coming out rally and said that without 3rd Way Collective and a few other organizations in their life, they probably wouldn't be here because they probably would have taken their own life. I think about students who I meet, who have gone through something that is shaking their faith that has made them jaded with the tradition they grew up in and are looking for one final sort of something to redeem that their faith tradition before they give it up completely. And when they find out about 3rd Way Collective and then it stands up for the things that they think are important that their faith tradition, for some reason has forgotten about.
That's salvation for them, that provides them with a space to redeem what they thought they're about to lose. And I think that's what keeps me going. And that's what provides my work with a lot of its value.
Cheraine Stanford: So with, you know, from your background, and I've heard you talk about the word “peace” a lot. Can we have peace in America? Is that something you believe is possible in our country in our world? And if so, what it what is it going to take?
Ben Wideman: That is not a simple question. I think peace needs to start at a local level. I think peace starts with each of us and peace starts in small ways in our local context. And my hope is that the work that we are doing the work that our colleagues on campus and in the community are doing to stand up for all these different justice issues, that has a ripple effect in Central Pennsylvania, that people look to us to say, hey, there's something special happening there. And perhaps we can bring that to our community too.
Cheraine Stanford: What do you want the lasting impact of the 3rd Way Collective and also your work to be?
Ben Wideman: I think that we're already seeing some of those changes. Because of 3rd Way Collective and receiving with thanksgiving, ripple effect has been created, where there are now spaces for LGBT students to be both people of faith and fully embrace their sexual or gender identity as well. That's happening in other ways as as well on our campus. There's more collaboration between justice minded groups and organizations. There's more of a crossover between our campus and our community. And that momentum is moving in the right direction. And I don't want to take ownership for all of it. But I think that a congregation who had a very simple vision for student organization that stood up for peace, justice and faith has led to a lot of these major changes. There are now a couple of other spiritual groups that have hired people to focus on social justice stuff around their faith tradition. And I don't think that would have happened if 3rd Way Collective wasn't launched.
I think even the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, which is officially titled The Center for Spiritual and Ethical Development is leaning in more now to the ethical side of that equation. And not just saying we're home for spiritual groups, but we stand up for the ethical causes that our students are in need of engaging. And I think that's a lasting legacy. Even if this organization shuts down tomorrow, I think there's enough momentum and some of the things that we have started that have been institutionally affirmed that I'm excited about that. And it gives me a lot of hope for what is possible.
Cheraine Stanford: Not that you're old or anything, but what do you think you've learned from working in community and spaces with people who are younger than you, and also at just a very different stage in their lives, very pivotal part of their lives.
Ben Wideman: I think the most important lesson that I've learned is that sometimes I have to get out of the way, especially around that Black Lives Matter movement in my very first fall here. I approached it, feeling some things I anxiety that like, what do I have to offer? And I remember walking into an early planning meeting and approaching a student and saying, “Is it okay if I'm here, like, can I actually be a part of this?” And it's absolutely I thought, Oh, no, now I have to say, what do you what do you want from me? And I'm not going to have anything that they actually need. And the student said, “All we need from you is to stand beside us. All we need from you is you to be a presence here as we lead this movement.” And I think that's something that we often forget, I think those of us who might be a little older, often think we need to be the ones pushing the movement. And we forget that sometimes, all we need to do is just walk alongside people, to empower them to do the work. Receiving with thanksgiving was a wonderful organization. But it was led by students who had a heart for that kind of work. 3rd Way Collective is a great organization, but nothing really happens unless the students get behind it as well. Same thing for a lot of the other justice causes in our community. I think the older adults can help empower. We do have resources, and we do have connections that can help students take those first steps. But I think it's a misguided thought to think that we are the ones with the answers bringing it to the student body.
Cheraine Stanford: Ben, thank you so much for coming and talking with us today.
Ben Wideman: You're welcome. Thank you so much for having me. This has been a lot of fun.
Cheraine Stanford: As campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective Ben Weidman helps Penn State students grapple with big questions that light the intersection of faith, peace and justice. He works to share his Mennonite faith while creating an inclusive community with students from various religions and beliefs. He studied at Eastern Mennonite University and got his graduate degree from fuller Theological Seminary, where he realized his passion for campus ministry.
Here more take note interviews on our website at wpsu.org/takenote.
I'm Cheraine Stanford WPSU.