Empowering Students Through a Center-Based Ministry: UT, Austin in the 50’s-70’s by Bob Breihan

Empowering Students Through a Center-Based Ministry:

The University of Texas at Austin in the 50’s-70’s

By Bob Breihan


At age 18 my career aspirations were simple: be an electrical engineer. I had no idea what a campus minister was, but was fortunate to arrive at the University of Texas where one of the best, Paul K. Deats, filled that role.  I quickly realized the strength of such a presence in student and campus life — Paul was simply there: smart, confident, personable and not afraid to speak his mind.   He made a lasting impression on me in a very short time. Later, after two more years in the Navy as an engineering officer, and a year to collect necessary credits to graduate, I would come to my “Jesus Moment:” shall I work with machines and electricity or with people? After thinking, praying and talking to almost anyone standing still (or even walking slowly), I chose seminary (over law) and so the journey began

In my senior year at Perkins Theological Seminary in 1952, I was asked by a Methodist Conference leader to lead a program of youth work and leadership education. He was eager to have me start and sent me to a conference in Michigan the next day!  A short 18 months later, the Wesley Foundation at the University of Texas asked me to follow Paul Deats, who was dismissed for being too “pink.” (Remember this is the early ‘50s.)  Again, I agreed, with no further instruction for my new task than: “Just don’t do what Deats did” (which was to attract all manner of criticism for his espousal of pacifism and liberal views in general). They added, “Since you were in the Navy we know we can trust you”  — I decided not to mention my own relatively recent conversation to pacifism and forged ahead.

As a newbie, I worked under this mantra: “Ask all the questions you can think of for one year – people will be glad to talk.” Just seek to understand the context – and keep a log privately. I reasoned that if you ask the same questions in the second year, folks will begin to question you and wonder. “Be interested but not persuaded by what you hear. Say ‘I hear you’ and ‘we’ll see’ as often as you can.”

The Wesley Foundation at that time had no set program, no structure — except a student council — so I spent a lot of time with those students, with Methodist faculty and administrators at the University, probing their thoughts and opinions

We had the traditional format of the time: several Sunday school classes on Sunday morning, taught by university faculty, church members, and state officials – all were well attended. Sunday night was the main event – dinner, followed by singing, then a speaker for 45 minutes, but always finishing up in time for evening service at the church!

One of my enduring concerns was to help students get connected with the issues of their time and their context in Austin. During the week, groups of students volunteered in city social service programs, many in East Austin, the traditionally African-American side of town. Staff from these agencies often gave presentations that helped students see both the potential and the challenge involved in such work. Then there were state and national Methodist Student conferences – I worked to get students there so they could realize the broad scope of student activities at that time.

Also, I made it a practice to talk with students about their studies and their professors – who pushed them to grow, by challenging their beliefs. In this way, I encouraged a bridge of conversation between the university setting and the students’ faith connection. One such example was a botany professor who regularly questioned their beliefs in God. Conversations with him and others in the sciences led to some special programs where high school kids were brought to the campus from all over the country. The purpose was to keep the dialogue going, opening the students to a new way to look at science.

My own values and my willingness to cross over into different areas of inquiry and action in this way repeatedly brought new commitments. For instance, my pacifism led me to Friends meetings and to the program work of the American Friends Service Committee. In addition to helping set up workshops in Austin, I became involved in strategic planning for a six-state region which included establishing the first integrated child care facility west of the Mississippi.

Another fruitful exploration came through my contact with Dean Page Keaton of the UT law school. An SMU law professor and a professor of ethics at Perkins School of Theology (both in Dallas) had been teaching a joint course focused on abortions. When I told this to Keaton, he readily took to the idea and for several years we ran a weekly seminary between the Presbyterian and Episcopal Seminaries in Austin and the students and faculty from the law school.

In the midst of these endeavors, in 1959, 25-30 campus ministers across Texas came together to press the Texas Methodist Student Movement to appoint me as interim (then permanent) director, replacing a strong nominee from the more conservative, church-centered part of that commission. This involved extensive travel within the state, attending to 25-27 campuses, meeting with school presidents or deans and sometimes mediating between a campus minister and an administration when the minister took a position on a controversial social issue.

It was heady work, often satisfying, but took me away from family more than I would have liked, so I was ready when the Wesley Foundation board requested me to drop this broader assignment and return to lead the local program in Austin. A Bible chair position was staffed for academic student courses and a creative colleague, Rev. Eddie Shaw, developed “The Guild of Lay Theologians,” in which about 100 participants each dedicated two hours a week to private study of a paper on a theological issue, then spent one hour of participation in a 12-member Guild group led by a local clergyperson. Those involved went through a 4-year program in this way and “graduated” with a certificate signed by the United Methodist bishop at the time.

About this time, I was elected president of a newly forming Citizens Commission on Human Relations. With others, I worked to integrate restaurantsdowntown and around the university campus. While students participated in sit-ins, I would go to the various managers and try to get their cooperation, but instead many downtown stores chose to close their lunch counters rather than integrate. One manager did agreed initially to welcome black students and their families; soon others were eager to come as well, so the Nighthawk Restaurant soon welcomed any and all black citizens. A list of those places that agreed to serve the students was then compiled and circulated in the black community.

The Citizens Commission pressed in other areas as well, demonstrating at a newly opened skating rink and making steady efforts to integrate Austin movie theaters also. Students were very active in all these efforts but success was very slow.  A meeting with a well-known civic leader and the managers of the downtown theaters resulted in one small victory:  allowing blacks to use the balcony of the Varsity Theater on the edge of the campus.

The location of the Methodist Student Center across the street from a large state university campus presented numerous possibilities, and some problems. The center was open until 10pm every night, often for outside groups to use the building.  We reasoned that students needed to have a safe space where they could freely discuss social issues important to them.  The Center became associated with open-minded approaches to all faiths as well; when an Islamic student association could find no other place to meet, we welcomed them once a week for quite some time.

A further expression of this kind of commitment was ICHTHUS Coffee House, open every Friday and Saturday night from 7-midnight, which served coffee, tea and bakery goods, and displayed the work of local artists. Students were recruited to oversee the Coffee House and were also informally coached to listen to students who came in and also to explain in purpose of the Coffee House in nontraditional language.

Each week, a speaker was invited to make brief remarks throughout the evening and engage in dialogue with anyone who wished. We also had singers (including Pete Seeger and Janice Joplin!), poets and occasionally a staged drama in a nearby auditorium. Another innovative use of the Center space itself was for major theatrical productions. At one time a group of African-American students had a small ‘company-in-residence,’ in cooperation with the coffee house.

The times they were “a-changin’” in the late 60’s, and the emphasis on dialogue and speaking one’s mind led to my participation in the Southwest Regional Draft Counselors. This group developed as the military draft had increasing presence in the life of program students. They cooperated to publish the regulations for local selective service boards, and we also made sure to have someone on stage whenever military personnel made a presentation at local high schools. I had many occasions to sit with young men as they struggled with the question of becoming a conscientious object to the deepening war in Vietnam.

Another issue arose from a different direction when the director of student health services approached me regarding the vexing frequency of ‘problem pregnancies’ among University students. Together we formed the Coalition for Sexual Understanding, to educate teachers, counselors, and social workers across the state who were involved with adolescents and young adults.  Guidelines were developed through this process for sex education and counseling in whatever context they might occur. Additionally, I joined the Clergy Consultation for Problem Pregnancies, a nationwide network which began to address the need for safe and legal abortions to be available for those who desired.

The students associated with the Wesley Center were themselves initiators of programs as well, including a work camp each year over Easter weekend (this was prior to the advent of longer spring breaks). Fifty to 75 students went in car loads to help with specific projects, such as building a summer camp for the Centro Sociale, a program of the Methodist Board of Missions. They were completely in charge, a source of great pride to them and center staff as well.

Community-building and providing hospitable space for students, who were often overwhelmed by a large university, was always a priority. Through my community involvement, I and several others established a volunteer-staffed all-night Hotline to Help for the larger city.  It was a natural extension to tend to students in a program called The Listening Ear, which took place at the Center.

We enlisted volunteers from one of the strongest churches, and each was asked to be at the center one evening a month, from 10pm to 6am, simply to listen, without judgment, offer coffee – and discourage those who came from trying to sleep overnight there! This program was very successful, with a consistent flow of folks sitting and talking through most of the night. Many years later, these same volunteers speak of all they learned by serving in this way and how grateful they were for the opportunity.

I look back on my experiences in campus ministry with wonder – that there were so many diverse opportunities for programming and services. Basically, the times were right for empowering students to think and act for themselves. The University and surrounding businesses were very responsive to student interests and needs. The Church itself was still a potent influence in communities across the nation, and as a result there was a great interest in tending to student needs when they left home for college.

But by the early 1960s, this cohesive set of interests began to come apart. Over the following years, careful listening and attention to ways that campus ministry could play a creative role, kept our programs going until the mid to late 1970s.

By the 1980s, the Church’s overall influence had steadily waned, large centers such as the Wesley Foundation were a thing of the past ( ours was taken down in 1981), and much smaller, often fragmented, campus ministry coalitions were left to respond to students’ spiritual needs. I  give thanks for those who have continued in this calling — shedding old ideas and structures and seeking to imagine new forms and styles of ministry that provide a solid, God-based presence for students today.  May their efforts be blessed!

Bob Breihan was active in student and campus ministry from 1951-81, after which he served as Associate Pastor at University UMC in Austin till 1986. From 1986-2001, he was the Founder/Director of the New Life Institute, a center for Counseling and spiritual Growth, then the senior therapist there till 2012. He and his wife Sarah Bentley are happily retired in Austin.



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