This weekend, I’m heading to homecoming weekend at my college alma mater for the first time in…well…a long time. Possibly decades. The occasion? A 40-year celebration of ACO, or Allegheny Christian Outreach, the place where I found my identity as a college student and my calling as a post-graduate. I know I will not see as many of my old classmates as I wish I could attend, and as today is my 45th birthday, I have enough life experience and perspective to know that you can never go back. But I’m excited to reconnect with people I haven’t seen since we were teenagers (or barely in our 20s), and I look forward to meeting those from generations of college students before and after me. It will be what it will be, and I’m going into it with an open mind and an open heart.
In honor of the occasion, I offer up the essay I wrote almost a decade ago, describing my earliest encounter with the people who would change my life. It all began with the Green Party at the White House.
My life changed when I attended a green party at the white house. Anyway, it started to change.
It was September 1984, the end of the first week of my freshman year at Allegheny College. Karen, a senior and my SOA (that is, Student Orientation Advisor), asked me if I wanted to go with her to “a green party at the white house.” It went without saying that the “white house” to which she referred was not the White House, Meadville, Pennsylvania being a good distance from Washington DC.
It had already been a week of new experiences. First there was the matriculation ceremony and residence hall bonding of my first day of college — and the tearful farewell to my parents. (I was okay until I had to hug my mother goodbye.) Then there were meetings with my new faculty advisor and the chaos of registering for my first term of classes. There were mixers between the freshman women of third-floor Walker Annex and the freshman guys of first-floor Edwards, complete with flashbacks to youth group ice-breakers. We actually lined up, boy-girl-boy-girl, and passed an orange from one end of the line to the other, tucking it between our chins and our necks — no hands allowed. And who can forget the Video Dance where I won a Madonna LP (yep — this was the pre-compact disc era), featuring favorites like “Holiday” and “Lucky Star” and “Borderline”? (I gave that record away within the week. It skipped.)
It’s possible that the “Freshman Teas” happened that week as well. That’s when all of the first-year women were escorted in groups, by residence hall floor, from one fraternity house to the next. We were all dressed up, and the brothers from one of the fraternities even presented each of us with a single red rose. Some of us were naïve enough to believe that this was the kind of chivalry we could expect all the time. Most of us had been clued in by upperclasswomen as to what was really going on. The “meat market” had begun.
Anyway, when Karen issued her invitation, I was in my first-week-of-freshman-year adventuresome mode. I had no idea who lived at “the white house” and hadn’t a clue as to what a “green party” might be. (In 1984, Ralph Nader’s political aspirations were unknown — at least, to me.) But I rounded up a few friends from my dorm and off we went.
It turned out that a few guys that Karen knew lived in the white house, a college-owned building which was white (go figure) and which was used as residence hall overflow. These guys — Kevin and Carl and Tim — happened to be student leaders of something called “ACO.” ACO was a student organization which met every Friday evening, and Karen proudly told me that she had never missed a meeting. I eventually discovered that ACO stood for Allegheny Christian Outreach.
The living room of the white house was crowded with students, most of whom I had not yet met and all of whom were very friendly. Many of them were dressed in varying shades of green, and objects were strategically placed around the room — on the coffee table, the mantel, the floor — which were also green. A bottle of Scope® mouthwash, a comb, a bowl of M&Ms®. Eventually, between the so-what’s-your-name, where-are-you-from, have-you-picked-a-major-yet threads that we freshmen were getting a little weary of, someone swooped in with Styrofoam bowls and gallons of (green) mint chocolate chip ice cream.
Then the door flew open and a man wearing bright plaid golf pants and a grass-green blazer appeared in the archway. He was older than the rest of us, and he was very colorful — both figuratively and literally. “Rock and roll!” was a refrain that punctuated most of his conversations, that night and throughout the year. He worked the room like a politician, making a comedic welcoming speech and shaking hands with all of us — those he knew and those he didn’t. His name, I learned later, was Arlan Koppendrayer, and he was a campus minister; worked for some organization called the Coalition for Christian Outreach. But I didn’t put that together until much later. For weeks, my friends and I simply referred to him as “the rock and roll guy.”
That’s pretty much all I remember about the green party at the white house. And to be honest, that event in and of itself was not particularly life-changing. In fact, I’m not sure it even made it into my journal at the time.
I remember it now because it’s September. The back-to-school buzz is contagious, even when I’m not going back to school. I drove through Pitt’s campus last week and saw the boxes and old furniture stacked up on the curbs. It’s hard not to reminisce about what it was like to be a college student — half a lifetime ago!
And it’s hard not to be grateful to the senior who took me under her wing and invited me to an event that I’d never have sought out on my own. That weird little party provided me with an entrée into a fellowship of people who ended up having a profound effect on my life — and many of them remain an important part of my life today. Those students encouraged me to grow deeper into a faith that I barely knew I had. They nurtured leadership abilities in me that were as yet untapped. They allowed themselves to be used by God, and God eventually called me into a field of work that I didn’t know was an option when I first set foot on Allegheny’s campus.
This article was originally published in the CCO’s Ministry Exchange, September 2002.