Good morning. My name is Jeff Decker, and I first came to Wesley in October 1998.
The first time I came to Wesley, I entered through the courtyard door by Watseka Lounge to attend the Midweek service on a Wednesday night. The door was open and faces Green Street, so it seemed to be the logical place to enter. Looking back, I realize that I have probably never used that door since my early visits to Wesley. This was years before the Methodist Church’s “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds” campaign, but that door was open for guests to find their way in.
I also did not come to Wesley like many people. I didn’t see the table at Quad Day, didn’t grow up in the Methodist Church, didn’t have a pastor at home who sent the names of new college students to the campus churches, and came as a transfer student instead of a freshman. I walked past a sign several times about a Wednesday night service at the church that seemed to be in the middle of campus. I had taken a year off from campus church groups after a bad experience with a national group at my old college.
I left Midweek quietly without talking to anyone the first few times. I started attending after the semester was under way, so most people already knew each other and I didn’t know anyone. I enjoyed the service but don’t always want to get mobbed by too many people zeroing in on the “new guy”.
I remember the first time someone talked to me after Midweek. Many of my friends have talked about the first person who talked to them at Wesley, and for many it was Sara Isbell who grew up here. But as I’ve peered back through the fog, I remember someone else who talked to me first. I was standing by a couch near the open courtyard door deciding whether to make a break for it again and anonymously slip out into the night, and another student started talking to me. She was also a junior and also a transfer student like me, not a freshman like most of the new people. She was just a regular person talking to me as a new person, not someone on a mission to talk to every new face before they leave. She also knew Wesley people from having visited campus many times in previous years before she transferred to the University of Illinois. She was the perfect person to greet me at a new place and a really wonderful way to be welcomed by someone in the same situation as me.
In those years while I was in grad school I spent many days in Sara Isbell’s office talking about life and faith and struggling with both.
Through the years I served various positions on committees – Foundation Council, student treasurer, Trustees/Property Committee, and Finance Committee and worked with Linda Rosa in the office.
As I walk through Wesley I silently pass places and remember the times of great meaning in those spots. I remember where I was standing in Watseka Lounge when I was first welcomed to Wesley. I helped build the Wesley Theater with John Gutzmer when we were both in grad school. I suspect we both enjoyed that more than grad school at times. In the same years, I closed The Etc. Coffeehouse more weekend nights than anyone except John. Cara always came along but I think was getting really tired of it by the end of the year. I’ve watched the changes and renovations over the years and especially recently and been so happy to see it persist and change form to meet the needs over time. And similarly with Midweek, I understand it meets in a different place and is probably different than it was when I was a student, and that makes me happy that the traditions and practices have changed as people come and go. I’ve come into this sanctuary at night to ponder my life. I’ve come in here and played this piano right in front of me late at night when I’ve lost people close to me and didn’t know what else to do.
After college I drifted through other churches around town over the years – going or not going. In reality, that meant not going to church far more than going. I never found a home and recognize stories other people have told of visiting various churches and not finding a place or not being welcomed or even noticed. As a personality trait, I will seek anonymity around people in a situation if it is an option, but I eventually want to be noticed and included.
A few years ago I was in the hospital for a few weeks. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and eventually I had exploratory surgery to figure things out. Wesley was one of the first places I went by myself after I was home and on my own. I still had many weeks of recovery ahead of me, and there was every reason to stay home and sleep in on a wintery Sunday morning between Christmas and New Year’s. But I got up and went to Wesley on a cold, snowy morning.
This is the point where it would be nice to say that I felt a flash of inspiration or was moved to go, but that wasn’t the case. If anything, it was a sense of searching or desperation. Last year Pastor Miriam talked about “Just Show Up” in the first sermon in the “Worship Practices” series in the sense that you don’t always feel divinely inspired to do something. Sometimes you just keep trying even when you don’t feel the spiritual connection. That spoke to me and where I often find myself and where I was when I first came back to Wesley.
There was a new Sunday School class starting the first or second Sunday I came back to Wesley, led by John and Cara Gutzmer. I met the Ashlynn and Andrew Stillwell that week, and that might have been their first week at Wesley. Through that class I’ve met other people, and it is the first time I’ve felt a sense of church community as an adult. It is also the first age-matched peer group I can ever recall. I never had that growing up and was often the only person my age in church for several years in either direction.
Aspects of the Wesley theology are also very important to me. Nobody cares how or when you were baptized – sprinkling, immersion, infant, teenager, or what denomination. I know there are other churches that don’t recognize the validity of baptisms other than their own and want to re-baptize people. Our tradition respects the variety and breadth of other traditions and would never ask someone to be baptized again to be a part of Wesley. I was not baptized at the age or in the manner typical of Methodist churches, and nobody has ever suggested that it was inadequate in any way.
Similarly, open Communion is very important to me. I’ve been to other churches where there was confusion about whether you are allowed to take communion as a visitor or member of another type of church. I really love the beginning of the Communion words: “You do not have to be a member of this church or of any church. Everyone is welcome regardless of your status – race, gender, economic situation, etc. This is God’s table.”