Home Going

Northwestern College isn’t just my alma mater.

It’s my home.

My soul is entwined with this school, this campus on the lake. I grew up down the road, and over the years, this place grew as familiar and comfortable to me as my own bedroom.

It started when I first visited the campus, at age 10. My parents took me to see the drama department’s world premiere of “The Dawn Treader.” They knew I practically inhabited Narnia, and guessed, rightly, that I would be beside myself to see one of the Chronicles told on stage.

I was completely enchanted that night. Sitting in the rose-colored seats of the Totino Fine Arts Center, I fell in love. By the time I was in the backseat of the car, sitting in the sea of winding strand of red brake lights leaving campus, I announced to my Mom and Dad, “I’m going to college here.”

They laughed the knowing laugh of parents. What does a 10-year-old know about college, especially after her only exposure to this one had been a stage bursting with a giant ship and actors dressed as valiant mice and greedy dragons?

On that account, they were right. I knew nothing of college, and I had no scope to make such a grand decision. But something in me knew instinctively that love at first sight isn’t always a fluke. My decision stuck. That night, I left a little bit of my soul along the shores of Lake Johanna.

I left another piece when our church did church on campus while our church was being built. (Too many churches? Sorry. Curse of the pastor's kid.) For more than a year, I sang hymns while balancing on the spring-loaded chairs in Maranatha Hall and I learned how dangerous it was to drop a crayon at the top of the theater incline. I splashed in the fountain outside with the other pastor’s kids when our parents talked too long. I went to Sunday school in the college cafeteria, tucked in a booth that was tucked in a niche that used to be a confessional. (The campus had originally housed a Catholic seminary.) The spit wads I traded with my friends when our long-suffering teacher got long-winded are probably still embedded in the brick walls.

When I was a freshmen in high school, I successfully auditioned for the college fall musical, on a recommendation from my English teacher, whose husband was artist-in-residence at Northwestern. The musical was “Fiddler on the Roof.” I was nothing more than a chorus member and dancer, a village girl – or in one scene, a village boy, since only men are allowed to dance the famous bottle dance. Evening choral practices, afternoon dance class, two long weeks of dress rehearsals, a real dressing room and college kids who were kind to me – it was heady.

And so I came full circle. I was in every fall musical after that, through the rest of my high school years. The King and I. Oliver. Once, a spring drama based on the life of Joseph. I made friends and nourished crushes and developed a taste for campus life.

Maybe no surprise, my first job was at Northwestern. I worked in the Blue Room, a banquet and wedding reception hall, that is next to the stunning chapel (left) where hundreds of couples get married each year. I wore a 100% polyester black dress and a white apron and white collar and served the Blue Room’s famous ice cream punch to countless wedding guests. At Christmas, I would serve thickly frosted yule kaka to people coming to see the annual Gamble Family Christmas. It was a good job, an entrance into the world of waitressing, with an endless supply of free plum chicken.

Most of my youth group leaders were either students or alums of Northwestern. Our youth pastor himself was even a part-time employee; he was waterfront director, which is no small thing for a campus that is surrounded on three sides by water. My fondest summer memories root in the campus beach, on the island connected to the mainland by a rickety bridge. My closest friends and I built a sand volleyball court, raked Canada goose poop, swam to the floating dock, called Pepsi and Reese’s a balanced lunch. We never got the hang of windsurfing, despite out countless tries. Instead, we fashioned them into crude, first-generation wake boards. We would stand on top, hang on to the tow rope and yell “Hit it” to whoever was behind the wheel of the competition ski boat that belonged to our youth pastor. We tanned easily, laughed often and had no clue that our lives were near idyllic.

To this day, I can’t drive on campus without smiling, without my soul exhaling with a contented sigh. This is my home. Few other earthly places hold such a sway over me. Every direction I look, a memory lurks. The lakeside lawn scattered with giant oak and massive fir? We used to play capture the flag there. The ancient bathrooms in the basement of Nazareth? It was the closest bathroom to the beach, so it became our changing room, especially when a Blue Room shift overlapped with a sunny afternoon. (No bride cares if the servers at her reception have wet hair that smells of lake water, right?)

I say all of this so you’ll understand why I went to chapel twice last week, with Kieran and Teyla in tow, to pray for and with the student body as Shaun Groves spoke and sang and asked them to consider what is enough. I couldn’t stay away and let Shaun come to my home without being there to welcome him, to petition our great God to do a work in the hearts and souls of my extended family.

Shaun spoke a powerful word, as those of you familiar with him would expect. He challenged the students to make sure they aren’t hoarding their manna, to consider sponsoring a child through Compassion and do what the church was intended to do. He told the story of Kiran and her indefatigable joy – the same morning Melissa posted this, ironically -- and once again, I was struck with the happiness of a girl who has nothing but Jesus. I pray she is just as happy today, just as blessed.

And Shaun being Shaun, he made a few quips about our cold weather and how he’s pretty sure the Hebrew words for manna and quail translate more correctly as chicken and biscuits in modern vernacular. I’m told he also covered Justin Bieber at the Thursday evening coffeehouse venue, but as I was putting babies to bed at the time, I can’t say that with certainty.

Before he left, Shaun and his cohorts painted The Rock, a longstanding Northwestern tradition. Fifty Compassion kids were sponsored by Northwestern students, which makes my soul smile. Those students are signing up to receive a gift, even if they don’t know it yet.

I received a gift as well. Spending time on campus with my two little ones, watching them walk into my most cherished memories, was a treasure.

(Can you see Teyla on the far left, playing on the rock sculpture? Oy.)

Even more, being there while Shaun spoke, praying in the wings, interacting with the students. It fed me, in a way I can’t quite explain. It made me feel like I wasn't just a Northwestern alumnus or a stay-at-home Mom. For a few hours, I was in the thick of it. Past and present and future merged. There’s something about coming home that does that, I guess.

And Teyla? She got a gift too – in addition to the bag of caramel corn we bought at the just opened and gorgeous Billy Graham Community Life Commons.

Meet Sadi, our newest Compassion child.

Because the only thing sweeter than going home is the family awaiting you there.


  1. Oh, I love this so much, Kelly. First and foremost because of that gorgeous last line, but almost as powerful are your sweet memories of that place. I could identify on so many levels with what you said because I love my alma mater in just that way. I met my husband at Wheaton, got my first job there, raised my babies in the shadow of the Tower, and have so far sent one child there. I'm now teaching there, and I'm so happy to be back on campus.

    Northwestern looks gorgeous!!

  2. I kinda love this more than I know how to say. It's a special place, for sure. Loved (LOVED) hearing all your memories. Maybe Teyla will end up there someday. : )