When Brad Kenn spent 18 months working with at-risk youth in Belo Horizante, Brazil, the opportunities he had during college “to put my faith into action” paid off.
Kenn is one of seven graduates of United Methodist-related Pfeiffer University in Misenheimer, N.C., who became immersed in the school’s emphasis on mission and is now serving with young adult mission programs of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
The others are Mary “Meg” Gaston, Beth Kauffman, Joy Prim, Nick Haigler, Alex Devoid and Diamond Pate.
Their on-campus role model is Phil Wingeier-Rayo, who started at Pfeiffer as a missionary-in-residence in 2003 before becoming a full-time faculty member. He served as mission intern in Nicaragua and, in 1991, became the denomination’s first missionary to Cuba in 30 years.
Mission is part of the Pfeiffer DNA. The university now has just under 1,000 undergraduate students at its Misenheimer, N.C., campus, but it began as a small institution founded by a woman missionary named Emily Prudden.
Pfeiffer requires students to devote 150 internship hours to “engaged learning” in local, national or international settings. In the past, students have worked on transitional housing with the homeless in Stanley County, pursued urban ministry in Charlotte and led international mission trips in coordination with a host organization.
Wingeier-Rayo believes that Pfeiffer’s undergraduate major in mission, called “religion and intercultural studies,” is a first for a United Methodist-related college or university. About 10 to 12 students are part of the major at any one time, along with a few minors, he said, and some go on to seminary.
Other students pair the mission major with another major, such as nursing, psychology or social work. “They will have a calling and want to do mission work but they worry about ‘how I’m going to earn a living doing this,’” he explained.
'God just really changed my heart'
Gaston, 24, commissioned last August, was first assigned to South Korea, assisting staff providing ministries for migrant workers at a Korean Methodist social service agency. She is now in Japan.
Her involvement in annual mission trips to West Virginia during her middle and high school years expanded into international trips — Cuba, Guatemala and Kenya — while attending Pfeiffer.
And despite a love of math and a license to teach, those trips helped redirect her vocational focus, at least for now. “While I was there, God just really changed my heart,” explained Gaston, part of the Mission Intern class of 2013 with Kauffman. “I really felt I was called more to mission than I was to teach.”
She appreciated being able to talk with a few Pfeiffer graduates about their experiences with the board’s young adult mission programs. “It’s just a really good support system to have,” she said. “To have an entire university behind you is pretty amazing.”
Currently, the Board of Global Ministries has 49 participants in the Mission Intern program, including seven who are graduates of Africa University in Zimbabwe, and 23 in the US-2 program. Global Mission Fellows, a new mission opportunity building on those two historic programs, will be launched in July.
While the mission agency receives multiple applications from other colleges for its Generation Transformation programs, “what makes Pfeiffer really special is they do have a major with this mission focus,” said Hannah Hanson, mission interpreter for the board’s young adult mission services.
In many ways, she added, the mission programs are a “natural fit” for Pfeiffer students who have learned flexibility and adaptability while partnering with the community near campus and understand the concept of “ministry with” those in need.
A former mission intern, Hanson realizes the value in colleges and young adults spreading the news about mission opportunities. “My life was transformed because a friend sent me the application,” she explained.
Prim, 26, who was commissioned with Haigler and Devoid in the Mission Intern class of 2011, said she “saw the bond that comes” from sharing the Pfeiffer experience. “Pfeiffer has a very big focus on servant leadership,” she said. “That was what first started pushing me in the direction of this program.”
A native of Yadkinville, N.C., about two hours north of Pfeiffer, Prim was a varsity swimmer and elementary education major. A spring break trip to Nicaragua during junior year helped her learn how to communicate creatively with speakers of another language, good preparation for her placement in Hong Kong.
‘I feel like I’m where I belong’
Her work there with underpaid migrant domestic workers, who also are subject to violence and abuse, has many similarities to what she encounters at the Filipino Migrant Center in Long Beach, Calif.
Prim has embraced the center’s mission so wholeheartedly that she is considering options that would allow her to stay after her term is completed in July.
“For the first time in my life, outside of my four years at Pfeiffer, I feel like I’m exactly where I belong,” she explained.
Wingeier-Rayo will be leaving Pfeiffer to lead the Mexican-American and Hispanic-Latino Church Ministries Program at United Methodist-related Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, but he knows the mission mindset can be found throughout the school’s faculty and staff.
The mindset “that service is really important” both in the community and in the world, along with the ability to interact directly with professors, is what kept Kenn ,now part of the Mission Intern class of 2012, happy at Pfeiffer.
‘They want you to dig even deeper’
While growing up in Phoenix, the 24-year-old was deeply involved in church activities. His interest in pursuing youth ministry — he graduated with a bachelor’s degree — led him to the university. “They want you to dig even deeper and they want you to explore your faith,” Kenn said.
In his U.S. assignment at Gator Wesley Foundation, which serves colleges and universities in the Gainesville, Fla., area, Kenn hopes to apply his learnings from Brazil to college students. He expects to start seminary in 2015.
Pate, 23, a religion major at Pfeiffer, graduated last May and started training for the US-2 class of 2013 in July. “When I was growing up (in Nevada), I always loved going on mission trips,” she recalled. “It was the highlight of my year.”
Her first placement linked her with “A Future With Hope,” a Superstorm Sandy recovery program created by the United Methodist Greater New Jersey Annual (regional) Conference. That experience showed her how wide the scope of mission could be. “It was more than just rebuilding, construction-wise, it was rebuilding people’s confidence and making them feel secure again,” she said.
Pate, who will begin at Garrett Theological Seminary in 2015, recently moved to Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, N.C., where she is assisting with clients and the work teams.
“I feel like Pfeiffer really set the foundation for my ability to connect church ministry and mission at the same time,” Pate said. “I now know that you can lead a church and still be mission-minded.”