Multiversity Place: Campus Neighborhood is More Than a College Town

Rev. Larry Moffet stands on the front steps of First United Methodist Church, on a portico he calls “the neighborhood’s front porch.” From here, the senior pastor has an admirable view. To the left is Old Main and campus, built by the same community of Methodist pioneers who founded his congregation. Ahead are residences of all kinds: homes, apartments, Alpha Gamma Delta sorority. And to his right, he sees businesses: senior citizen apartments, a thrift store, the barbershop where he just got a haircut.

The people Moffet sees from this porch are just as varied. He sees in a single glance college sophomores and retired septuagenarians soaking up the same sun. Lifelong University Place residents and people visiting campus for the first time walk past every couple minutes.

Rev. Larry MoffetThe diversity of this view is no random accident. “The pioneers who built this church didn’t face it toward Old Main,” Moffet said. They easily could have. They could have just as easily turned the church’s back on campus, and faced west. They didn’t do that either.

“They built this church so that the front steps would be visible both from Old Main and from the businesses to the west,” he said. It was a decision that reflected an understanding that has served the university, the church and the community from the very beginning. None of these three entities exists in isolation from the other two.

“The idea,” Moffet said, “is to put learning, faith and community all so closely together that they strengthen each other.” He quoted John Wesley, who called on Methodists to “bring together those two so long divided: knowledge and vital piety.”

While “those two” in Wesley’s statement are often regarded as the university and the church, in Moffet’s interpretation, there is equal room for community. He sees community reflected in the adjective, vital. The University Place community surrounding both campus and church is the source of vitality for both.

If we value our faith or our learning, but ignore our community, then we inevitably lack vitality. But when church, university and community act together—unafraid to touch shoulders, yet with respectful self-differentiation—then Moffet believes that “strength builds strength.”

Moffet sees signs of this shoulder-to-shoulder dynamic working well across University Place’s history. When First Church was built 100 years ago, its members didn’t refer to its main room as a sanctuary. Moffet said, “They called it an auditorium.” That wasn’t to minimize its function as a place of worship. Rather, it was to better allow the space to serve multiple purposes. “It was also a place for town hall meetings. They designed it to accommodate the campus and the community.”

But perhaps more impressive than any history of multipurpose facilities is the university, church and neighborhood’s history of joint community action. Moffet had high praise for UPCO, the University Place Community Organization, and its track record in mobilizing church, campus and community toward the common good.

UPCO’s recent successes include the long term beautification of North 48th Street, the renovation of University Place Park (home of Prairie Wolves softball), the opening of a new Lincoln Police Department sub-station just southwest of campus, and movements to keep University Place’s only grocery store and only post office open. NWU and First Church were UPCO’s invested partners in each of these efforts. Moffet said, “These are examples of the surgical way that community, university and church work together in University Place.”

We benefit from the progressive foresight of the pioneers who founded this university, this church and this community. But that foresight does not in itself ensure the ongoing closeness of the three. “I’ve been to places where it used to work, but doesn’t anymore,” said Moffet. “I think you keep it going through constant conversation. That dialogue builds trust.”

Working in our favor is the fact that this cooperative approach is now almost universally embraced as a best practice in community development.

“Who would have thought that this cooperative model between university, church and community that we adopted in 1887 would be so ‘with it’ in the 21st century?” Moffet said. “Almost all neighborhoods have lost that sense of layered life in a small, walk-able place. We’ve always had it.” And we’re not about to give it up.

More than a century of “strength on strength and grace upon grace” make Moffet and First Church willing partners as NWU acts on its campus master plan for facilities. (See page 17 to learn more about that plan.) He knows that it will eventually and dramatically change his view from University Place’s front porch.

Someday, the campus parking lot that congregants use before worship on Sundays might be gone. And a new university building may stand in its place. “We’ll figure out parking later,” Moffet said, smiling.

He embraces the prospect of change. “A new building means people,” he said. And more people mean more partners, more community. More knowledge. More vital piety.

Strength on strength. Grace upon grace.