Madeleine Wattenbarger’s heart for the city

I became involved with CCO my sophomore year at Penn, when my understanding of the Gospel transformed from one of disconnection to one of profound connection. 

Towards the end of high school and the beginning of college, I began to notice that my ideas about Christianity felt disconnected from my lived experience. Christians weren’t always the nicest people I knew; they weren’t the most justice-oriented, or the most truthful, or the most loving. They weren’t the smartest people I knew, or the most thorough critical thinkers; they didn’t seem to have more answers than others. They certainly didn’t have the most charitable history. When I looked around me, I felt that the values I’d absorbed through my Christian upbringing were pretty easy to find elsewhere, and I saw a lot of people outside of Christianity who seemed to be doing them a lot better. 

So what was the Gospel, aside from a life insurance policy vaguely tied to a strict and poorly upheld moral code? It seemed disconnected from my life. I increasingly couldn’t say what Christianity meant or why the person of Christ should matter to me.

I entered college vaguely hoping to figure out some of these things, but spent freshman year rarely, if ever, speaking about faith. I attended a Christian event here or there, but I generally felt skittish around the most devout. I was embarrassed that I lacked answers to my big questions; I didn’t know how to ask the questions I had, or who to ask them to, or if they were even allowed. A chaotic year followed, one much like that of most college freshmen. I constantly questioned my identity, community, and ethics—issues which were stirred up by my academics and social life.

I didn’t grow closer to God because I finally figured out who I was, or because someone sat me down and explained Christianity over again, better this time. Rather, I returned first to the people of God, who welcomed me in without requiring me to sort out my qualms or formulate my identity. 

My sophomore year, the CCO ministry at Penn had begun a number of new initiatives, including a weekly worship service that met in a living room. Here I found intimacy and grace that I’d dearly missed. Mike and Sonja Chen, the CCO staffers at Penn, welcomed me regularly into their home and lives, for Sunday lunches and discussion groups; my fellow students exhibited similar shocking hospitality to me. I encountered the Gospel in a new way through them: they lived with critical and prayerful intentionality; they asked questions and disagreed on their answers; they sought to live as the church. 

I began to understand the Gospel as a narrative that encompassed all facets of life. I saw people asking what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection meant for how they used their houses, for how they approached their fields of study, and for how they pursued friendships. This reoriented how I thought about Christianity: the implications of the Gospel could be seen in everything I did.

I began to realize that God’s plan involved more than my making it through life avoiding moral failure. Seeds of redemption appeared everywhere. My vision of God’s kingdom expanded as I realized how complete was Jesus’ victory over death. This meant I could see his connection to my relationships, my academics, my ethics, and beyond.

This journey caused me to deeply interrogate my personal and academic pursuits. Throughout college, I’ve repeatedly confronted the systemic brokenness of all parts of society that isolate the privileged and exploit the vulnerable. Meditating on Jesus’ ministry to the poor and his works of reconciliation has convicted me that I need to address those ends through my own work. 

In particular, I’ve examined how our world’s injustice manifests in cities, and I’ve chosen to major in Urban Studies. I hope to pursue work that affirms the dignity of the marginalized, as Jesus did, and that attempts to manifest His redemption in our cities. Throughout my intellectual, personal, and spiritual exploration of these topics, my CCO staffers have encouraged and challenged me; they’ve recommended books, pointed me to resources, and affirmed my questioning. 

I’ve been motivated to seek discussions of faith in situations and relationships outside the Christian community, rather than shying away from difficult topics. I can now share the Gospel with others with confidence, having experienced its power in my own life. 

Through my experience with the CCO at Penn, I’ve grown to understand the profound and thorough connection between the Gospel and all parts of my life. I am a different girl.

—Madeleine Wattenbarger, University of Pennsylvania 2016, Urban Studies

This story first appeared in the summer 2016 issue of On Campus magazine.