A Growing Concern for Christian Service

Prayer ChapelA remarkable movement of ministry began at Westmont in the late 1970s. Although it grew out of a long tradition of Christian service, it bore a new vision – and a new vitality. Students like Dave Dolan ’78 and Gordon Aeschilman ’79 challenged their peers to stretch their concept of ministry. Not only did they desire to serve God in more diverse ways, but they wanted to take full responsibility for their ministries. Today, students direct ministries themselves, without supervision from faculty and staff.

Christian Concerns, the organization that oversees all student ministries, began to change under the leadership of Dave Dolan. He was the last person elected to this position – the co-directors now choose their own successors. Dave made Christian Concerns more visible on campus. “The key was telling students about the needs that existed and letting them know that Christian Concerns could help them meet those needs. To spread this message, we got as much publicity as we could – we even put flyers in the bathrooms.”

President David Winter, then in his second year at Westmont, gave Dave a great deal of encouragement. His open-door policy made it possible for students to spend time in his office. “I can’t say enough about David Winter’s leadership style. He has tremendous confidence in student leadership. Not many college presidents trust their students as much as he does.”

Dave and the president discussed Christian Concerns and how to manage it effectively. “I realized how important it was to have a good organizational chart. Ours was simple, yet practical. Christian Concerns oversees three programs – on-campus ministries, off-campus ministries, and world ministries.” Programs on campus include Bible studies, a vespers service, and the Barnabas committee, a group of students who pray for and encourage others. Outreach to the local community falls under off-campus ministries: visits to the elderly and the physically and mentally challenged; work with juvenile delinquents and teenage mothers; help for the homeless and disadvantaged. Students participating in short-term missionary projects around the globe come under world ministries.

But Dave realized that Christian Concerns needed something more than a good organizational chart: it needed capable leaders. In fact, the success of the organization depended on the development of student leadership. “It doesn’t do a program any good if you have great leaders one year, but nobody to take their place the next year. Pretty soon the program will fall flat on its face. The key is proper leadership development – there has to be someone there to take the torch. And there have been some excellent Christian Concerns leaders over the years.”

One of the most visible ministries of Christian Concerns is Potter’s Clay, the annual missionary trip to Ensenada during spring break. Gordon Aeschilman co-founded Potter’s Clay in 1978 to expose students to a different type of environment. “It began with my own spiritual search. I came to Westmont with misconceptions about how much responsibility a Christian college takes for involving its students in Christian service. So I started visiting Ensenada on my own to experience something radically different. I spent most of my time in the downtown area and the dump. I helped people build shacks out of whatever material we could find, and I also washed a lot of kids’ hair, trying to get the lice out.”

Along with Clara McKinney Maranville ’79, Gordon developed a plan to allow other students to share the lessons they had learned in Ensenada. “We knew that we couldn’t save the world by going to Mexico. But the experiences I’d had in Ensenada challenged some of my narrow-minded categories of what Christian service is. We wanted others to benefit from these experiences. Eventually we came to see that Potter’s Clay is a great opportunity for giving, but we originally conceived of the program as a way for students to learn.”

All that Gordon and Clara asked of the administration was time during chapel to announce the trip. Then they went to work on the logistics of getting over 200 students to Mexico. “We begged for buses and tents from local churches. The College helped us cut down our costs by getting a grant for $2,500.” The students contacted the Garcias, a family that lives on a farm on the outskirts of Ensenada. They agreed to let students camp on their property.

Gordon remembers the task of planning what would happen once the students arrived. “We agreed that we couldn’t simply arrive with a prepackaged program. The Mexican culture is so much different than ours that we couldn’t pretend to know what to do. We did have general plans of what we could do – there were construction crews, some medical people, and a few sports teams. But we tried not to lose sight of the fact that we were visitors. It was important that we let the local pastors call the shots.”

But then disaster struck a little more than a week before the trip. Ensenada was hit with massive flash flooding. Dave Dolan remembers sending the team leaders to take a look at the damage. “They came back ready to call the whole thing off, but I said, ‘Let’s go ahead and do it anyway.’”

Gordon recalls offering students the chance to stay home because of the flooding. “To our surprise, 50 more people signed up. That was very encouraging, particularly because we needed to adjust our plans quickly because of the flooding. We needed all the help we could get. Pretty much everything we did that first year was related to emergency aid.”

In 13 years, Potter’s Clay has grown and become an important Westmont tradition. About 500 students travel to Ensenada each spring to work with local pastors and build housing. Gordon is pleased with the progress Potter’s Clay has made. “I think the program has improved. It’s great that so many students go. But the real measure of success is in the sensitivities and the relationships it develops.”