First Wesley Foundation celebrates 100 Years of ministry

By Paul Black*

Students took part in a worship service commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first Wesley Foundation. Shown, from left, front: Olivia Harris and Rose Craig. From left, back: Kevin Anderson and Christopher Leon. Photo by Kaitlyn Conrad.

Students took part in a worship service commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first Wesley Foundation. Shown, from left, front: Olivia Harris and Rose Craig. From left, back: Kevin Anderson and Christopher Leon.
Photo by Kaitlyn Conrad.

URBANA, Ill. – In the midst of celebrating 100 years of campus ministry at the Wesley Foundation on the campus of the University of Illinois, Illinois Area Bishop Jonathan Keaton challenged campus ministries everywhere, asking, “What good news of the gospel is available to students who live with their backs against the wall?”

Keaton was the preacher for the 100th anniversary celebration held Oct. 13 – exactly 100 years after members of Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church in Urbana initiated an intentional effort to care for the religious life of a secular university.  The first Wesley Foundation’s ministry model has inspired campus ministry efforts ever since – both in the United States and around the world.

“One hundred years ago, we learned afresh that the church ought to be anywhere the people of God gather,” Keaton said. “And so it happened. A new path over ‘the wall of separation between church and state’ emerged. As a result, the church sought to give Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and to God what belonged to God.”

Utilizing the scripture text of 2 Timothy 2, Keaton said the narrative, like all New Testament books, was rooted in a dream.

The late Bishop James Chamberlain Baker identified the dreamer of the Wesley Foundation as the Rev. Willard Nathan Tobie, who was pastor of Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church. In his book, The First Wesley Foundation, a history published in 1960, Baker wrote about Tobie’s work. “His compelling dream in the building of Trinity Church was that it might serve the students and faculty of the University,” Baker wrote. “I pay my wholehearted tribute to him because of his prophetic vision and undefeatable purpose.”

Doing Your Best for God

Bishop Jonathan Keaton preaches at the 100th anniversary celebration for the Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois at Urbana.Photo by Kaitlyn Conrad.

Bishop Jonathan Keaton preaches at the 100th anniversary celebration for the Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois at Urbana.
Photo by Kaitlyn Conrad.

Quoting the late theologian Howard Thurman from his book Jesus and the Disinherited, Keaton said one of the major insights was that the church must answer the question, “What does the gospel have to say to the man or woman who lives with his back against the wall?”

“A question like that has challenged the very heart of campus ministry decade after decade,” Keaton said. “Given the freedom students feel entering college and the opportunities to make a gaggle of choices, they soon learn that expectations from home, the school, and the university plus the expectations they have of themselves have them against the wall. If they need help and the Wesley Foundation sees itself as one resource for students, are you really prepared to help?”

Keaton asked whether the ministries are shaped to reach the “Nones,” those that pray but do not believe in God; and the millennials, who are looking for a safe place to explore faith issues.” Keaton noted that many millennials say, “We’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”

Keaton said students are wrestling with personal problems, not denominational problems. He asked what the gospel has to say to these laments:

  • I am struggling with my identity.
  • No one really understands my faith crisis. I feel lost in a strange land. I’m from Korea.
  • I’m down to my last $20.
  • My parents got divorced; then my mother died.
  • No one wants to date me.
  • I lost my boyfriend.
  • Competing academically with so many smart people is difficult.
  • Flunking out of school is a real possibility. How can I explain this failure and money wasted to friends and family?
  • Can you keep a secret? I am in love with my Poli Sci professor. What should I do with these feelings?

“Give of the best of your service. Love them as God’s children,” Keaton said. “Offer and find them food, drink, clothes, medicine, friendship, or visits if necessary. Be genuinely concerned about their welfare. Pray that when you do all you can, wherever you can, and as long as you can and it’s not enough, you’ll give it to God. For you will have done your best for God.”

University of Illinois student Hannah Rickey says the importance of a home away from home is huge. “It’s a wonderful community and a place to call home.”

Another student Reshmina Williams agreed and said the emphasis on social justice was one thing that attracted her to the Wesley Foundation. “I really love the social justice ministry (such as the food ministry),” she said. “And there are so many awesome role models here.”

Feeding the Community

The University of Illinois Wesley Foundation is unusual in that a local congregation, Urbana Wesley United Methodist Church, shares the foundation facility.  One of the major ministries of the church and foundation is a food pantry, which serves more than 1,200 persons monthly.

More than 600 volunteers – many of them with no other connection to the foundation and church – work in this ministry, which has continued to experience exponential growth over the past five years.

A 2010 article in the local newspaper (, noting a growth in outreach to an ever enlarging Hispanic population, told the story of how two dozen volunteers took Spanish classes in order to communicate with clients rather than expecting the clients to speak English.

The monthly food distribution has become a one-stop shop of social services in which various agencies staff tables to assist clients while they wait their turn to receive food.

Leadership Development

Keaton noted the contributions of Baker, who served 21 years at the Wesley Foundation followed by Dr. Paul Burt, who served 31 years.  “On leadership, especially gifted leadership, the present and future of numerous human enterprises hang in the balance. Said differently, every bishop and cabinet knows that appointing the right pastor to a church significantly increases the chances that ministry at a given church will flourish and grow like seed in fertile soil,” Keaton said, reflecting on the long tenure of the clergy at the Wesley Foundation.

Looking to John Wesley, Keaton noted, “Top down or bottom up, campus ministry can be successfully established. It may be said that Oxford University was the first site of a primitive version of the Wesley Foundation. It had no denominational impetus, funding, or facility. It was created ‘of, by, and for students’ as a way to care for their religious life.”

Keaton noted that the Holy Club met for prayer and Bible Study, Holy Communion, and fasting. Beyond the campus, they visited prisoners in jail; poor families received food baskets, and their children personal tutors. “If the Holy Club is not a spitting image of one aspect of the work of the Wesley Foundation movement, I don’t know what is.”


*Black is director of Communication Ministries for the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of The United Methodist Church. Kaitlyn Conrad also contributed to this report.

This story provided by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church

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