Spiritual Farmer Finds Common Ground
September 1, 2020
By: Rev. Meg Gaston
When thinking about the future of the church, it isn’t hard to wonder what role, if any, the young people of today will take on. Most of us are familiar with the fact that as students graduate from high school and move onto college campuses, their involvement in church varies. There are a number of parents who worry about how much their children will interact with the church when they are no longer taking them. Rev. Ted Henry, pastor of Banner Elk UMC and Chaplain at Lees-McRae, understood these worries as he noticed the need for college students to have a safe space to talk about the difficult questions around faith and the church. After hearing from some of the college students that they had been kicked out of one of the on-campus faith groups for wanting to go deeper and broader in their faith, he realized there needed to be something that was more inclusive. One evening Ted met with seven students and talked about what it was they were looking for, hearing that they all wanted to find a common ground that all students could share. These students dreamed of having a space where they could find common ground with students who weren’t churched, or had difficult experiences with church, or just wanted a place that was safe to ask questions without judgment. This would quickly become a quasi-campus ministry made up of both students who grew up in church and also those living on the fringe, the unchurched, and the LGBTQ community.
Ted also wanted to make sure that this wasn’t just another group that only talked about certain things but also did work to show where their hearts were. Community service is one of the main aspects of this ministry that got a lot of the unchurched plugged in. Ted started bringing the group from Common Ground to his missional network backpack program. The students would meet together at the ministry, be fed by one of the local churches, and then serve in a number of ways. They helped with the backpack ministry, but also they helped at a hospitality house (a transitional living facility in Boone that serves seven counties in the High Country), helping run arts and crafts, working in the garden, and even helped with some Habitat for Humanity projects. Ted’s approach was very much so “I don’t care if you go to church or not, but come with us to these projects so that you can see what people at church do.”
Common Ground has ebbed and flowed since it first began with attendance fluctuating based on what students at the time needed; but Ted’s passion to help these kids and show them God’s love in a new way helped change how faith and a relationship with God were viewed at Lees-McRae. Many of these students had to double check that Ted was a pastor because of how different he is and how comfortable they have felt coming to Common Ground while being an atheist or someone who is usually on the margins.
Common Ground started out by renting a room at the Historic Banner Elk School, but after serving and caring for this ministry over a number of years, it is now an official Wesley Foundation. Even though it is now associated with the Wesley Foundation, Ted is intentional about making sure they don’t meet at a high steeple church, where some students have been excluded, or in a classroom. He wants this to be a place where the students can come to hang out and have a space of their own in which they are comfortable.
There are meals shared every week, often something Ted cooks himself. In addition to Common Ground he has started a worship service called “555” on campus for the students who want to add in the worship service component to this group. In all that Rev. Ted does, he wants to make sure that students feel safe, seen, and loved when they come to Common Ground. He knows that some of these students’ only idea of church people is one of hate. But slowly and diligently his mission has always been about planting seeds, showing the students what’s different than what they’re accustomed to. Ted is a spiritual farmer who is planting seeds of change.