Young Life Lite

Cider, Skeptics, Pickles and Penn

Young Life College at the University of Pennsylvania doesn’t look like Young Life on other college campuses. In part, that’s due to the nature of this Ivy League school where the business of preparing for the future doesn’t stop at the Wharton School. Here, they say, students don’t go anywhere without first putting on their Penn Face. (The term used for appearing self-assured regardless of any inner struggle. It’s such a common term that Penn Face is mentioned in freshman orientation skits.) Penn’s a serious place for the serious-minded.

So instead of attracting students with offers of laughter and fun, on Friday mornings, from 10:15 to noon, Young Life College staffer Theron Huff positions himself at a table on Locust Walk, “trying to look semi-normal” as he and one of his campus ministry colleagues offer free hot apple cider to all passersby. It’s a college version of contact work with Huff doing his best to be seen and earn the right to be heard. Huff said, “It takes longer to earn it with college students. As a mentor of mine put it: Middle schoolers ask, ‘What do you think of me?’ High schoolers ask, ‘What do I think of you?’ and college students ask, ‘What do you think … ?’”

Over the years, Huff has noticed that while the campus is home to some great Christian ministries, there are few places where skeptical students can ask questions or challenge the tenets of the Christian faith. Rarely do the students feel heard. So Huff started this table ministry and its companion, the Wednesday Skeptics Dinner. As Huff says, “The idea behind the table is to be approachable, for students to tell us what they think, why they disagree and to invite us into that dialogue with them.”

One Friday, Huff met a freshman named Harrison who started their conversation stating, “I’m a Jew by heritage.” Huff assured him, “So was Jesus.” Harrison followed with, “He was the King of the Jews, right?” Huff agreed, saying, “That’s actually what got him killed.” And then they were off.

The two talked about the meaning of life, the value of morality in the absence of a supreme deity and other light-hearted topics. “He stated his perspective wonderfully,” said Huff. “And when Harrison hadn’t considered something he would humbly say, ‘I’ll have to think about that.’ Harrison made the Christian’s point incredibly well when he said, ‘If eternity is promised to us, then it makes anything worth enduring to gain it.’” Spot on, thought Huff.

Harrison continued: “But let’s say the deity who allows people into this glorious eternity has a skewed idea of how to let people in and makes us eat 1,000 pickles a day in order to be accepted.” They agreed that, though it would be worth it, the requirement would be both annoying and difficult. (And possibly a dill breaker.)

That’s when Huff posited a different thought. The essence of Christianity, he said, is that “God took on flesh in Jesus to eat those 1,000 pickles a day for us. He didn’t have to, but He was willing to and now freely offers us eternity. That was the point of Him dying as ‘King of the Jews’ — to bring it full circle — so we might have eternity.”

Then Huff invited Harrison to continue their conversation — at the Skeptics Dinner or any other time. Giving Harrison his business card, Huff prayed he would reach out. Thirty minutes later, he did. The two have met eight times since as Huff continues the steady, quiet work of evangelism on a campus where even the brightest minds can’t figure a way out of the pickle we’re all in. Only Jesus could do that. Thank goodness He did.