Changing the Odds at the University of Maryland

One campus ministry's growth from 3 to 170.

  • by Rich Atkinson
Photos by Guy Gerrard

Other Christians tried to warn them. "You'll be lucky if 30 people come," they said.

Stubbornly hopeful, Ryan and Jenny Penley posted flyers around the University of Maryland campus, inviting students to the first Cru meeting in years.

Several years earlier, while students at Virginia Tech, Ryan and Jenny had dreamed of starting something here.

Near Jenny's childhood home and mostly a commuter school, the campus boast a student body of 37,000 students from 139 countries.

On that first night, 35 Maryland students ventured into the basement classroom in Juan Ramon Jimenez Hall.

They feasted on free ice cream and played games.

"There was a good vibe in the room," Ryan remembers. But he was believing God for much more than just people in seats. Like a quarterback calling the play, the staff member with Cru spoke up.

"If you are looking for a group to plug into and just to have fellowship, this group isn't for you," he said. "I would love to point you in the right direction to other groups on campus, some other places you can get fed, but this is not what we are going to be about. We are going to be about building up students, but with the idea of changing this campus."

The next week only 3 students returned.

Julia Winters was one of them. "I knew with that vision," she says, "I wanted to be a part."

Ryan began to coach Julia on how to take her faith to others, modeling it first with one student and then letting her try.

"I just loved the way he engaged with the student," says Julia. "He just started a conversation. Ryan was able to bring up questions even though the guy didn't agree."

After that training time, Julia remembers realizing, "I can do this. I didn't know how easy this might be."

But not everyone was as excited as Julia, today a staff member with Cru.

Jenny recalls the beginning, 5 years ago: "Our first year, there would be some nights Ryan would come home, and no one had shown up for a meeting," she says.

"We are not so concerned about failing," says Ryan, "so that lines up with going out and starting something new."

By now, the Penleys were very familiar with helping start new campus ministries.

In 1998, Ryan went with Cru's first summer mission trip to Venezuela; that August, Jenny moved to work there as a missionary with Cru for one year.

In 2003, the couple spent a year and a half in Melbourne, Australia, with a team of friends from college, starting a campus ministry at a school down under.

Ryan focuses on coaching students in the University of Maryland's Cru group, called Cru.

The role comes naturally to him, even at home with his four children. Outside their 3-story townhome in Greenbelt, Md., Ryan watches his 2 year old soon, Asher, stretched belly-down on a longboard. "Good job, Asher! You have no fear!"

Caleb, 6, smacks golf balls into the side lot across the street. "Great job!" Ryan says after each hit.

And when Eliana, 4, hangs from a tree branch longer than 10 seconds, she jumps to the ground to her father's cheers. "That's a world record, Eliana!"

Similarly, Ryan cheers on the college students around him.

"I just have a heart for these students," Ryan says. "I love meeting these guys and getting in their lives."

One of the young men he has met and mentored is elementary education major Tim Remo.

"Ryan has definitely helped me a lot," he says.

During a very stressful time, Tim started to question whether he should be a teacher.

"I just told that to Ryan. I got all teary eyed, broke down, I couldn't talk," he says.

Tim remembers his friend's gentle response. "Ryan was just there and said, "Can I pray for you? Let's pray!"

Before Ryan's freshman year at Virginia Tech, he would not have suggested talking to God. His life changed during his second semester.

"I never wanted anything to do with God. I didn't believe in Him," Ryan says.

Sports, he admitted, wasn't filling the void in his life, nor were relationships.

Then Ryan's good friend Liz started talking about Jesus, so he began to investigate Christianity more seriously.

He went to a Cru meeting on campus at Virginia Tech, peppering a staff member with questions for hours.

Ryan placed his faith in Christ later that night and remained involved with the growing Cru group at Virginia Tech through his senior year.

Ryan still remembers life without Jesus; that terrible reality of feeling lost.

His friend and mentor, Paul Watson, points to this as Ryan's ultimate motivation.

"He tears up," says Paul, who works with another Christian mission group. "It grips his inner being. He feels for the lost at an absolutely deep level."

On a Thursday afternoon at 3:00, Ryan meets Michael Allred, a student he mentors, at the top floor of the Stamp Student Union.

Walking down the flight of stairs into the food-court area, Michael and Ryan approach a table with 3 students, their laptops and Chick-Fil-A fast-food in front of them.

Crouching down next to one student named Karam, Ryan asks permission to go through an informal survey together.

He pulls out Soularium, a tool using 50 photos that stimulate spiritual dialogue, and asks 5 questions.

"Choose a picture that helps describe your life," for example; "choose another that helps you describe God."

One young man points to a close-up picture of a dollar bill. Another picks an image of a small bird cupped in human hands.

The men talk together for a few minutes; soon the students leave to go.

Afterward, Ryan and Michael pray for them, asking God that the men might visit Cru tonight.

Ryan teaches the importance of evaluation after every outreach; people can learn from both failure and success.

Last May, Ryan and Jenny celebrated success at the final Cru meeting of the school year.

Stadium seating in room #2203 of the Art and Sociology building is at a premium.

Parents and family join the normal group of students, leaving only a few of the 200 seats empty.

The crowd spills into the upper aisles with 30 people standing behind the last row of seats.

Cru now averages 170 students each week.

While introducing the 5 people going into full-time ministry with Cru, Ryan holds up two different colored sports jerseys.

"We started giving out T-shirts to interns and staff members. You get a red jersey if you are on the home team and coming to Maryland. You get a black shirt if you are on the away team."

The away team, he explains, represents missionaries going oversees. So far, that includes people sent to Africa, Australia and Asia.

When these 5 individuals begin their new jobs, 21 jerseys will have been awarded. Each shirt has a number on the back: Ryan and Jenny have numbers 1 and 2 respectively.

Their dream is becoming a reality. Students are reaching beyond University Boulevard and the Maryland campus.

They're reaching the world -- one student at a time.