Campus ministry is more than a 9-to-5 job
Some might say it's a matter of fate, while others might see a bit of irony in the situation.
Although Ira DeSpain took a break from religion as a student at Baker more than 35 years ago, now, as Baker's spiritual leader, he hopes to reach out to as many students as he can.
"I want to be able to help guide their questions as they deal with their own spirituality," DeSpain said. "I was always raised in the church and I had to step back and see if it was for me. That's what college students are doing, seeing if God is for them."
Now in his 13th year at Baker, DeSpain, 54, said he loves his job more than ever. Of course, it wouldn't be surprising if orange blood courses through his veins. His parents were both Baker graduates in the 1940s. He married his wife, Barbara, in 1969, while they were both students at Baker. His daughter, Jennifer, graduated from Baker in 1997, and son, Dan, in 2001. When DeSpain took 13 students to Alabama during spring break this year to work on Habitat for Humanity projects -- his 10th trip -- Barbara and Jennifer both joined the group.
"I really enjoyed going to school here, so it's fun to be a part of what Baker's future is about," he said.
On any given day, DeSpain might be found leading a Bible study, serving as a guest preacher at another Methodist church, working with students on community service, teaching a class or presiding over convocation at an evening event. Unlike most jobs at Baker, serving as campus minister is a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week commitment. Some might balk at praying with the football team at 10 p.m. on Fridays during the season or spending an evening visiting a student dance to "experience their life with them." But DeSpain said it's all part of the job.
"I want to demonstrate integrity and ethical living," he said. "I'm not there to spy or to judge.
"What I want to be is non-threatening. These four or five years in college are the only time people have the opportunity for everyday contact with the clergy."
With 29 different religions and Christian denominations on campus, one of DeSpain's greatest challenges is being well versed in the beliefs of other religions. He calls it a "challenge of my credibility."
"That's part of my function -- to give students new and perhaps manageable models of what it means to be religious or spiritual," he said. "They're the ones who will have to decide the place of religion and spirituality in their lives."
For Courtney Hodges, a Topeka junior, who is Catholic, the religious difference has never been a problem.
"He doesn't seem like a Methodist minister. He just seems like a close friend if I need someone to talk to," Hodges said. "He is open and honest. He makes it a point to get to know us."
Another challenge most ministers don't have to face is working with a congregation that is constantly changing as seniors graduate and new freshmen enter. Although Chapel was required when DeSpain's parents attended Baker, and encouraged for credit while he attended, today's students have a choice.
"I don't want to stand in front of a bunch of people who are angry about being there," he said. "No one is forced to get to know me, which I prefer."
When summer approaches, so does the busy wedding season. Even for students who had little interaction with DeSpain during their four years at Baker, many turn to him to marry them when they graduate.
"Our influence is greater than we think," he said. "For some, I'm a substitute father or Barb is a substitute mother. For others, I'm just a face on the landscape, but the important thing is, we're all part of the same landscape."