by Jeanne Roe Smith
Being a United Methodist deaconess has allowed me to integrate my calling to love, justice and service ministry within the university setting for the past 15 years. I did not come to this calling easily or without deep soul searching. It was a life journey to integrate my deepest longing to help others in ways that build and affirm their own self-worth and create systems of justice through access and education grounded in faith and practice.
As a child of the civil rights movement, the power to challenge and change injustice and inequality were part of my faith development as well as social conscience. It wasn’t until I was an adult, however, that I began to understand my personal and professional life could integrate both my concern for the well-being of others and the faith tradition that called me to seek and claim a professional relationship within The United Methodist Church.
At United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, I began to explore my call to professional ministry within our denomination. At that time, I was uncertain of which path I was being called to—elder, deacon or lay. I was discerning how to fulfill my sense of call to mission and community ministry and was uncertain of which path would fulfill my call to servant ministry. I was blessed to encounter two women who both shared with me their experiences and information about the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner. They encouraged me to explore that relationship as well.
When I read the role and ministry of the deaconess, I knew I had found the right “fit.” My lifelong concern for creating systems of justice, care and compassion is articulated clearly in the role of the deaconess:
- Alleviate suffering.
- Eradicate causes of injustice and all that robs life of dignity and worth.
- Facilitate the development of full human potential.
- Share in building global community through the church universal.
These words and the historic ministry of women who dared to dream of full participation in the work and life of the church inspired me then and motivate me today to continue this legacy of compassion and justice. As I began my professional ministry in campus ministry at the Wesley Foundation in Cincinnati in 1998, I found this calling and these principles to be critical to our denominational efforts to address our faith and practice with young adults and the academy.
The issues we face as a society are played out on campuses across the country and world. Young adults are at a crucial time of life when they are testing the strength of their roots, beliefs and abilities. They are learning that beliefs, values, family and ideas are not limited to only their experience, culture or tradition. Campus ministry is the church in mission to the university, creating connections to a life of reason, faith and service. In order to build principled Christian leaders for the 21st century, campus ministry connects the church to young adults seeking to build a better world. Campus ministry provides faith formation and leadership opportunities for students, education and worship experiences and community to engage mind, body and soul.
These principles guide my work today at Wesley Foundation serving UCLA, where I serve as the executive director and campus minister. The ministry here has a long and rich history of social justice and community building. From helping local Japanese Americans create a local congregation post–WWII anti-Japanese sentiment to becoming the first reconciling community beyond the local church, the foundation has been a strong advocate for inclusion and acceptance of all God’s people.
Today our work continues to build bridges between the university, local churches and community by addressing issues of access and opportunity. Like those before us, we engage students, faculty and community to identify concerns and work collaboratively to find resources, information and provide spiritual and theological frameworks to educate one another on the current realities we encounter in creating God’s beloved community. We live out our Wesleyan heritage of personal piety and social holiness by engaging students in authentic exploration of faith, practice, service and education.
Informed by the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits,” our ministry is working with students and administration to address current challenges for students and families. With the increasing cost of higher education, struggling economy, immigration, interpersonal and community violence, global unrest and religious intolerance, students are bombarded with mixed and confusing information that we address in a variety of ways.
“Because we believe, we act” guides us to reach out to students who experience marginalization and limited access to higher education and the resources many of us take for granted, like food, shelter and health care. The 580 Café is our outreach ministry that provides a place for students to find food, study space and a caring community where they are welcomed as valued and valuable community members. Through a peace and justice grant from the General Board of Church and Society, our DREAM Ambassador programs educates local congregations on immigration reform and the real experiences of immigrant students and families. Open Table worship invites students of all beliefs and even unbelief to share scripture, music and dialogue on faith and justice issues.
As a deaconess I serve in this ministry as a representative of our denomination, to speak and educate on current issues that separate us from one another and God and work with the diverse communities, peoples and institutions to create systems of access and justice for all God’s peoples. Because we believe, we act to build, become and be God’s beloved community!
Deaconess Jeanne Roe Smith is campus minster and executive director of the Wesley Foundation Serving UCLA, Los Angeles, Calif.
Read more about Ms. Smith in “A Spiritual Home at UCLA” by Myka Kennedy Stephens, featured in the June issue of response.