Members of Gator Wesley dare to imagine



Dream. Go. Do.

Thanks to Next2016, those three words have taken on new meaning for Anna Swygert, Alejandra Salemi and other members of the Gator Wesley Foundation. The phrase served as the theme for the biennial college ministry conference, which was held Nov. 4-6 in Atlanta and allowed the University of Florida students to worship, learn and serve alongside hundreds of other young people from across the country.

“It was really cool to be with other students who are in the same boat,” said Salemi, a 19-year-old sophomore from the Orlando area. “It was just a place for people from all over the country to come together and speak about our dreams and our hopes and our aspirations and how that ties into being godly people in college.”

Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, of the West Virginia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, shares a message with college students Nov. 6 at Next2016 in Atlanta, Ga.

When Swygert made plans to attend Next2016, the senior psychology major wasn’t sure what to expect. Like most college students just months from graduation, she was busy and tired and simply excited about hitting the road for a break. But before the weekend was over, she found herself invigorated in a way she hadn’t expected.

“It definitely renewed my passion,” said Swygert, a 21-year-old from Lakeland who’s in the process of discerning her own call to ministry. “It also opened my eyes to a lot more activism that I didn’t know existed in the church.”

‘A very cool space’

The Next conference has grown out of Imagine What’s Next, a United Methodist movement that aims to inspire creative action among college students in their churches and their communities. A program of the General Board of Higher Education & Ministry, the event is described on its website as a “high-energy gathering of dreamers, activists, and difference-makers who put their faith and gifts to use in authentic and effective ways.”

This year’s conference took place at the historical Tabernacle theater in downtown Atlanta. “It’s this really big building with all these different rooms … lots of big couches,” said Heather Pancoast, co-director of the Gator Wesley Foundation, who attended with Salemi, Swygert and two other students. “It’s a very cool space. They had different locations throughout the building where students could go meet with other students and campus ministers could go meet with other campus ministers.”

The whole idea, Pancoast said, was to get the students thinking about their vocation and gifts and talents in terms of their faith. “College is all about what’s next,” she said. “What is my calling? What am I going to study? How is God going to use me?” Swygert agreed, adding that she enjoyed connecting with other students who are eager to serve but also have questions and fears. “Being able to go through it together and have really deep conversations was great,” she said. “It was encouraging to see that so many people are excited about their faith.”

Part of the solution

The conference was centered around periods of creative worship called “episodes” that blended live music and a variety of art forms ranging from painting and pottery to the spoken word.

The episodes also featured a unique array of speakers including Shane Claiborne, a Christian activist and author and founding partner of The Simple Way, an intentional faith community that serves the poor and homeless in Philadelphia; Farhana Sultana, a professor, speaker and author whose passion is increasing access to clean water across the globe, and Ignacio Ponce, a recent graduate of California Polytechnic University and the co-founder of My Familia, a tutoring program designed to help underprivileged students pursue higher education.

Gator Wesley members Megan Becker, left, and Anna Swygert, pose for a photo at the Jimmy Carter Library on Nov. 5 in Atlanta during the Next2016 conference.

“It was really a message of empowerment and advocacy for (college students) to become part of the solution,” Pancoast said. “This event was very broad in that it wasn’t just for students looking into full-time ministry. It doesn’t have to be about working at a local church.”

Hands and feet of God

On Saturday of the conference, students had the chance to attend various roundtable discussions on disaster relief and global ministries or participate in service projects at the Atlanta Community Food Bank and other agencies. Swygert chose to tour the Carter Center and was encouraged by the variety of ministry opportunities available to young people.

“It’s comforting,” she said. “I like knowing there’s a path where I can use my gifts and passions.” In fact, in recent months, she’s been rethinking her long-time plan to attend medical school.

“I realized that the things I like about being a doctor, I don’t have to be a doctor to do,” said Swygert, who is pondering multiple paths, including a chaplaincy and a dual-degree program in social work and divinity at Duke University. “I think the church itself is changing, and it’s less about going on Sundays and more about getting out into the community.”

Salemi, who attended the global ministries roundtable, emerged more determined than ever to return to her native Colombia to provide health care and nutritional education to the sick and poor.

“I want to go back home to my origins, my roots, I guess, and give back there,” she said. “I think health and medicine is a ministry of its own kind. Doctors and nurses and anybody who works with patients are kind of the hands and feet of God. And we’re kind of following under the Great Physician, which is Jesus Christ.”

By the end of the weekend, Salemi had not only even decided to change her major from pre-med to dietetics to be able to pursue more community outreach, she was ready to get started. “You don’t have to be graduated to make a difference,” she said. “… You don’t have to wait until you have that piece of paper to change people’s lives. You can do something now!” 

--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer who lives in the Fort Walton Beach area.

Editor's Note: The featured photograph in our carousel linking to this story represents students from Gator Wesley Foundation, Florida State Wesley and Tennessee Tech Wesley. The three groups bunked together at quarters provided by the Georgia Tech Wesley Foundation as part of the Next2016 conference in Atlanta in November.  


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