Ripples of Faith
An interview with Chaplain Steve Kellough of Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois (previously published on CBN.com)
The name Todd Beamer became known across America on September 11, 2001. Todd was one of those on United Airlines Flight 93 who apparently foiled efforts of the hijackers and grounded the flight in rural Pennsylvania. (His widow Lisa was introduced at the Capitol when President Bush addressed Congress shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks).
Todd was a Wheaton College alumnus -as was Jason Oswald, working just above where American Airline Flight 11 struck the south tower of the World Trade Center. Jason had just moved to New York and begun his job 3 months prior. On American Airline’s Flight 11 was the grandmother of Jacob Anderson, a current student at Wheaton, and Rev. Jeffrey Malednik, a Wheaton grad-school alumnus and pastor at Christ Church of Oakbrook, Illinois.
Thus in that single moment in time, hundreds of college students and faculty and thousands of lives in and around Wheaton, Illinois were immediately, deeply, and personally affected.
The great majority of Wheaton’s 18-22 year-old students were unfamiliar with death -in any form – and understandably sensitive to such a world catastrophe – especially one that so personally touched them. These classmates, friends, and family members had names. Jeff left a widow, 4 children, and his church family; Jason, his fiancé and both of their families. Todd’s widow Lisa had 3 children, was expecting and has since delivered their 4th child; Jacob’s grandmother, who had been visiting family in Boston, left a void with many AIDS patients, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program where she ministered, her 5 children including Jacob, and many more grandchildren. Like ripples in a pond from a single pebble, the ring of friends, relatives, fellow-students, and other lives that were touched is ever widening.
The ripples, however, began long before September 11th as Jeff, Jason, Todd and Jacob’s grandmother each made peace with God at various points in their lives. Particularly because of those personal relationships, Wheaton’s Chaplain Kellough shared with me; staff and counselors found comfort that the student’s responses to their grief were underscored with hope.
Though plunged into an abyss of crossroads the students were, he felt, “Looking for ways to use their spiritual resources”. Compelled as all of America to watch the tragedy unfold, students were grieving at the personal loss – not only for Wheaton and themselves but for the world, and “they immediately began thinking more seriously about their faith, using the time of mourning seeking help and seeking God for peace.” Immediately they left their classrooms, rushing to join the faculty who stood like sentinels, lining the perimeter of the chapel, so students could approach them for prayer.
This was truly an “American Moment”, for there were no distinctions at Wheaton that day, – student and staff, class and rank were one in spirit, for all were grieving. Time would show this was no temporary detour – it was a complete and life-changing U-turn for hundreds of students. Staff and the campus community alike witnessed the beginning sparks in the chapel that day. Following an open invitation to come to the microphones and share comfort, scores upon scores of students lined up immediately to share scripture they had memorized or to read scriptures of comfort and hope. Hours later, that first memorial service was closed in unison as throughout the chapel tens of students who had not made it to the microphones turned to those next to them, and communicated through the scriptures the comfort of God to all who had gathered together. The spirit of unity and the cacophony and fervor of hundreds of voices corporately sharing scripture was, Chaplain Kellough shared, not unlike what he imagined might be experienced in heaven.
But the students’ “heavenly changes” had just begun. Emotionally drained staff members were amazed at the number of services the students initiated as they saw the need for prayer and worship. The campus where Jason Oswald (described by many as a very Godly man) and his best friend were alumnus hosted a Saturday memorial service officiated by Holy Trinity Church of Hyde Park, the church Jason attended. The following Monday, a chapel service was a tribute to the memory and honor of those 4 lost by Wheaton’s family and the world. Sue Malednik, 3 of her 4 children, and Jeff’s mother joined the memorial service where Sue touchingly commented how proud Jeff was of being a graduate of the grad school and of wearing his Wheaton college ring – even that fateful day. Lisa Beamer was looked up to as a courageous and unique person who was given supernatural grace and strength to be able to set aside her own grieving as she was asked on Larry King, Oprah, and other programs to speak of her faith, Todd’s faith and his character in light of the unusual tragedy and circumstances.
Watching Lisa’s faith in action inspired the students to continue their spiritual turnabout. But the students did not stop at inspiration alone. United, their focus galvanized as they held several other special services with as many as 600 students attending individual services. It became obvious to family, friends, staff and community that the students were finding the need for a devotional life more important than before. Suddenly, the chaplain noted, small groups were a more important priority and the scriptures were more compelling. “Another thing that struck me,” Chaplain Kellough shared, “was how their actions demonstrated their interest in debunking consumerism and materialism by affirming their spiritual resources. Like a light at a crossroad, the students showed the way to many, first centering on their spiritual relationship to God, then as well to what they could do – quickly responding to first Timothy 2, verses 1 and two “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone–for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” by praying for their leaders, and praying more fervently than ever for peace in the world.”
Then the dramatic U-turn of the students of Wheaton College took on a more personal aspect, for Chaplain Kellough described how the students experienced personal revival. Devouring scripture and given constantly to prayer, they opened themselves to self-evaluation and they rediscovered how Jesus called them to be peacemakers. Unafraid of scrutiny, and putting their new enlightenment into action, student after student called or went home, repairing, affirming and developing closer personal relationships with parents and siblings, as well as friends.
Through these students and the staff, Wheaton College’s mission and ministry goal to integrate faith and learning was maximized and lived out during the days following September 11. Although some urban schools closed campuses for security purposes, Wheaton deliberately did not, allowing students and faculty to process all that happened in the light of faith, allowing for prayer and discussion using the particular discipline of each course, finding the Christian response to war and tragedy. Consequently, students’ reaction was that they will forever look at the world in a different way, for such an attack on humanity was a revelation to them of the fallenness of the world. The evil efforts of those who wanted to use the tragedy for their own financial benefit, developing scams within 24 hours that pretended to be collecting money for relief, shocked them and was a grim reminder of the depth of evil in our world today. But, at the same time, they were touched at the contrasts in multitude of reports of the love of God shown through people with acts of genuine caring and love.
“These events, though difficult, gave us a realistic view of our world,” said the obviously sensitized Wheaton students — intent on a new mission. Desiring to do relief work or help those who were struggling in New York, Pennsylvania, Washington and other parts of the world, students responded immediately by changing previous decisions concerning their spring and summer plans. Individually and collectively they began prioritizing and re-evaluating priorities of life – both short and long term. Unashamed, telling how they now felt called by God to work for Christ in some work of compassion and relief for victims of hardship, hundreds of students vocalized and demonstrated that the material things they had been going after “are now unimportant – the goal of a big salary and a nice house were no longer the priority.”
A sense of urgency for evangelism pervaded the campus, for the need was seen so much more dramatically as people filled the churches, seeking for resources of faith. It was comforting, Chaplain Kellough assured me, to watch those good things happening in light of all the bad they’d just experienced.
Despite the exhausting and demanding time as their link to God as the pastor of Wheaton College, or perhaps because of it, Kellough acknowledged a spiritual deepening himself, citing an intensified personal prayer life, and experiences of an “unusual very-present strength and source of help in the Lord within the unusually increased workload.”
As Kellough recalled crying out to God for words to comfort the entire campus, he also recalled how it all began – immediately after the planes hit the trade center and the pentagon: “Even that first question on everyone’s mind of “Why can such a thing as this happen?” – was bypassed, he marveled, as students asked instead – “Who? “Who do we go to in times like these?”
Their conclusion – a firm and unshakable resolve – “There is only one place to go to and that is God” was inspiring. Inspiring because it is true, but also inspiring because those young students were open and honest enough to turn from their present course and redirect every area of their personal lives to pleasing and serving God.
Their resolve and their God is still active today as these never-the-same students head toward their former career goals with new and deeper perspectives and goals. Oh yes, they will still be lawyers, teachers, pastors, accountants and everything in between – but their vocations are no longer just “jobs” for they have researched well how they can serve in each area as ministers to those in need, while using their talents to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They are the first to tell you that the students of Wheaton College are moving forward on their new course. Through their lives, their decisions and their actions they say, “…although there is much evil in this world there is still a loving God, and we need to look to Him for help, for understanding, for comfort and direction.”
Their world has already experienced some of the life changes they have made as a result of their resolves and commitments. Our world too, is beginning to bear their fruit – graduates of those who have tossed out into the waters of life their pebbles of faith. Year by year as each of these hundreds of students graduate and carry their faith into the world the ripples will broaden again and again.
How can I be so certain of this? The scriptures have promised it.
2 Chronicles 7:14
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
Let’s pray today for all the families left behind, for all the survivors experiencing PTSD, and for America.
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Todd Beamer’s Father -and others share their stories.