03086_000_012Their numbers are few, but the Saints at the Institute of Religion at Kansas State University feel like a million!
“We’re close,” they all said, “very close.” And in the campus branch sacrament meeting, with fifty adults squeezed shoulder to shoulder in the living room of a nineteenth-century house, it was easy to see what they meant!
But as the sacrament meeting went on, another kind of closeness emerged. The reverence was impressive, the bowed heads and mood of meditation during the sacrament invited the Spirit of the Lord, and it was easy to forget the cramped quarters when a young couple, new to the campus branch, told the sweet, simple account of their conversions: He, born in the Church but fallen from activity after his parents’ divorce, was converted by the faith of his bride, the discipline he learned in the army, and most of all by the burning desire for happiness within him. She, born in England to atheistic parents, was touched from childhood by a faith in God that led her from church to church until finally she found “the gospel that made sense!”
They spoke shyly, unsure at first—but in that congregation of friends what started out to be a speech quickly turned into a warm conversation. By the end of the meeting, hearts were as full of the gentle Spirit as that room was full of people.
There are 40 active Saints in the Kansas State University Branch. Most of them are students at the university, which has an enrollment of about 18,000. For every Latter-day Saint on campus, there are 500 nonmembers.
“How does it feel to be outnumbered 500 to 1?” I asked.
“It feels like a missionary opportunity,” answered Allen Skidmore, a computer science major who had married just three weeks earlier.
And the missionary opportunity is taken seriously: in 1976 there was one convert baptism per month in the campus branch; the year before, thirty new Saints had come into the fold.
But being such a tiny minority is not always an asset. There are problems: like finding a suitable roommate. Fortunately, Kansas State University is located in the town of Manhattan, right in the heart of the “Bible belt.” There are strong, active Christian youth groups on campus, and it’s possible for a Latter-day Saint student to find any number of students to live with who don’t drink or smoke.
“And yet,” said Blake Cooper. LDSSA president at KSU, “it’s still hard to find someone who isn’t a Mormon who still lives up to LDS standards.” Blake’s LDS roommate had just left to go on a mission. “I’ll miss living with a fellow Mormon,” Blake said. Experiences he had valued might be impossible now. For example, when Blake had received an important answer to prayer, his roommate had been right there, a friend he could share his testimony with. “But it’s hard to talk to a nonbeliever about some of those precious, personal things in the gospel. They need the basic principles—while sometimes I’ve got to talk about deep things, personal things that are hard for someone outside the Church to understand.”
Blake Cooper was lucky: at the last minute, a Latter-day Saint family in town offered him a room in their home. Some other students aren’t so fortunate.
“It gets lonely sometimes. You have friends in class, you have people you say ‘hi’ to, but the gospel is so central to your life,” said Rosemary Dukelow, a predesign student. “The deepest places in your heart—it’s so much easier to share them with somebody who has had the same experiences.”
Saints must live in the world—especially students in colleges where Mormons are few and far between—and yet they can’t be of the world. Always separate, “peculiar” people, they need the close association with other Saints that the institute provides.
“It’s not just religion classes, though the classes are great,” said Roger Terry, first counselor in the campus branch presidency. “Sometimes it’s hard to study on campus—so much commotion.” Roger, a graduate student of soil physics, even has office space on campus. “But sometimes it’s better just to come here. There’s just a feeling at the institute—a quiet atmosphere. You can think and contemplate if that’s what you want to do. You can do what you need to do.”
And it’s not just for peace and quiet that the Latter-day Saint students come to the historic mansion that now houses the LDS Institute. “There’s always somebody here. Ping-pong in the basement, of course. And people to talk to. Friends. You come here for a break.” Roger laughed. “Before a test, after I’ve studied, I just come over here and play ping-pong for a half an hour. It loosens up my brain, relaxes me. I do better on the test.”
Because the institute building at KSU is also the meetinghouse for the campus branch (institute director William Jefferies has also been serving as branch president), branch members—like active Saints—everywhere find themselves at the building many times a week on Church business. Everybody holds two or three positions. Brand new converts are called to positions—sometimes even before they are baptized. There are meetings, activity nights, things to do.
Time after time they told me, “When you get feeling lonely or down, you just call up somebody or come to the institute. And when you’re feeling happy and excited, you just call up somebody or come to the institute. You know that somebody’s going to care.”
“I think being the building that this is,” said Vickie Hiebert, a convert of only one month when we talked. “I mean, this was meant to be a home, not just a building for meetings. It was built for people to live in, and it feels good to come here to study, or just talk to somebody. It’s a home away from home.”
Of course, since there’s always something going on, if you really don’t want to study, it’s easy, to get distracted. But by and large these are dedicated students, and they don’t forget their purpose for coming to school. They major in computer Science, pre-law, interior architecture, design, education, geology, zoology, and especially agriculture—a lot of them are from the farm, and plan to return to farming after they graduate.
And none of them lack purpose. They have plans, goals.
Scott Wedekind, an amateur writer, worked hard in the two years after his conversion to prepare for a mission: now he’s serving in the Mexico Hermosillo Mission, bringing to others what he so recently received.
Jim Tanner, a military attorney stationed at the nearby army base, worked for months to get ready for marriage and a change of careers—from law to family counseling. He’s the kind of man who achieves his goals, whatever the obstacles: his courtship with his new wife was conducted largely by mail!
Blake Cooper is dedicating his life to the study of plant pathology. His goal? “The world needs more and more food. I want to find ways to help provide it.”
Madelyn McArthur, a returned missionary and graduate student in counseling, is preparing to be a wife and mother when her fiancé returns from his mission. She has already been a great inspiration to him: she taught him the gospel when she served as a missionary in Manhattan several years ago!
Perhaps it is that very dedication to righteous purposes that draws these students together in friendship and fellowship. Since they are going the same direction, and for much the same reasons, they love nothing more than to help each other along.
“With so few Mormons here,” Roger Terry said, “you can’t pick and choose who you’re going to like. You more or less need to be friends with everybody. You have one or two friends who are particularly close. But those close friendships aren’t closed friendships: you still reach out to include everybody.”
William Jefferies, institute director and branch president, believes that one of the most remarkable achievements of this group of Latter-day Saint students is that they have resisted the natural tendency to break up into cliques. “In a group this size, associating constantly with the same people month after month, it would be easy to develop an elite group that might shut others out, causing jealousies and ill-feeling. But the only time an ‘in-group’ like that started to form, those who were in it, as soon as they realized what was happening, made a conscious effort to include others. Nobody here wants to be exclusive. After all, when you cut somebody off, you lose as much as they do—probably more—because of your lack of charity.”
Though the Latter-day Saint students are a tiny minority on campus, they have been highly visible since the organization of the institute three years ago. This is partly because of the building: the old house at 1820 Claflin Road, built in 1860, is one of the oldest surviving residences in Riley County, Kansas. When it was dedicated, and on other occasions since, top KSU administrators have come to the building. There has been favorable press coverage.
Another way the Saints attract attention is through a “Meet the Mormons” class in the KSU-sponsored “University for Man,” an unstructured system of free classes. Many people have first learned about the Church through these classes, and the students invite their nonmember friends to attend.
In many ways Kansas State University is unusually fertile ground, a good place to nurture an institute of religion. The campus, originally an agricultural school, still has its roots in Kansas farm life. The people of the region are basically conservative, and the strong Christian movements on campus make it easier for a Latter-day Saint to be openly religious.
Perhaps that is one reason why, when William Jefferies came to Manhattan as the institute’s first full-time teacher in 1974, local Latter-day Saint students flocked to it. Dee Ann Moore, a senior in elementary education, was a student at Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho, when her family wrote to her about the new emphasis on the institute at KSU. Manhattan is a lot closer to Dee Ann’s lifetime home in Ullysses, Kansas than Rexburg. “And I came right here,” she said. “This does feel like home—newcomers, Mormon or not, are invited to everything, made to feel welcome.” Dee Ann has no plans for leaving Kansas. “Here, where there are few Mormons, you have to be sure to live the gospel completely. Kansas is a good place to live, to raise a family. Your neighbors may not be Latter-day Saints, but most are good people just the same, trying to live a good life.”
Quite a few branch members are the sons and daughters of local Latter-day Saint families. Manhattan Ward has been a source of leadership in the Topeka Kansas Stake, and the ward’s strength has helped the campus branch to thrive.
When they graduate from high school, Young Adults from the Manhattan Ward usually start attending the KSU Branch along with students from out of town. Saints from nearby Fort Riley also attend.
When branch members get married they stay in the branch—until the birth of their first child. “When they’re actively involved in family life, raising children and so on,” said President Jefferies, “their whole life-style changes. They need what the regular ward has to offer. But for the young people who are single or newly married, the branch is a good strong focus for them, a place to associate with other Saints who have common goals—and about the same amount of free time.”
The campus branch began as a dependent Sunday School, and under the leadership of its first president, KSU professor Iwan Teare, made the jump to being an independent branch of the Church in February 1975. In the 2 1/2 years since then it has become a vital, stable organization, and as current branch president William Jefferies pointed out, “Nothing gets young people involved in the Church like calling them to responsible positions where they have to work.” Rarely has a young person proved unequal to a calling in the campus branch. On the contrary, “they magnify their callings so much it keeps me hopping to keep up with them;” President Jefferies laughed.
The institute at Manhattan, Kansas, for all its achievements, is not unique. For years the leaders of the Church have urged Latter-day Saint students to attend Institutes of Religion at colleges and universities near their homes, and as the strength of the youth of the Church fills the Institutes of Religion, they become the “leaven in the loaf,” giving a spiritual lift to the campuses where they attend school.
“I feel,” said Dave Powers, a returned missionary from Taiwan, “that the institute is where I belong. Here I can keep doing missionary work. I’m close enough to home [Leavenworth, Kansas] to be an active part of my family. And here in the ‘mission field’—is it still the mission field when there’s a stake?—there’s more of a chance for a convert of four years like me to serve. Hold responsible positions. Make more of a difference.”
And these Latter-day Saint students do make a difference—to each other, to their nonmember friends, to the adults who serve them and work with them. And through their frequent association, working together, having fun together, feeling the Spirit of the Lord in their lives, they find themselves being shaped into the men and women they want to be. “I’m growing up,” more than one of them said to me. “I’m learning what makes me happy.”
I asked Roger Terry what made him happy. “First and most important,” he said, “is my relationship with Jesus Christ. Whenever I’m unhappy I can think about it, reflect on it, and I almost always realize that somewhere I’m not doing what I should.” Then he smiled. “I guess happiness depends a lot on other people, too. My wife and I—we met in fourth grade in Idaho—we make a lot of difference to each other. When we’re getting along great, everything else—school, problems—it’s easy, I’m happy. Those few times when my wife and I aren’t getting along so well, then we’re unhappy. I think that’s one of the unwritten commandments: Thou shalt be happy with thy wife!”
When I asked others what they had learned about happiness, the answers were nearly the same. Many of them had earned their knowledge of happiness through difficult experiences. Others had been happy most of their lives. Still others had found it when they found the gospel.
“What makes me happy?” they said. “The Lord. Loving the Lord, knowing that I’m trying to be worthy of his love. And people. These wonderful people around me. I’m happy when I’m serving them, and because I know they care about me.”
The Lord said the same thing from the beginning: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart.” (Deut. 6:5.) “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Lev. 19:18.) These are the lessons the Saints at the Institute of Religion in Manhattan, Kansas—and in other institutes—are learning.
They won’t stay at the institute for more than a few years. But the strength they have acquired there they will take with them when they leave. They will be a leavening not only to the world, but also a strength to the Church, wherever and however they serve, and in the future to their own families.
I realized when I left the institute building only twenty-four hours after I had first seen it that within those walls there is a lot more going on than class-work. And what is going on is good.