Modern-day prodigal son
Wes Woodell, a one-time disciple of Satan, took a video camera to San Francisco State University and let it roll.
Woodell, a Christ follower on fire for the Savior he once disowned, approached students and quizzed them on their religious views and understanding.
Who do you believe Jesus was?
“An inspirational guy kicking it in Israel,” replied one young man in a video posted on YouTube.
“The Bible says he was just a regular dude who happened to be the Son of God,” a young woman said.
“An important historical figure and philosopher,” answered another.
On the campus of 30,000 students, Woodell discovered a wide diversityof perspectives on questions ranging from belief in God to whether allreligions lead to heaven.
More importantly, he said, he confirmed what he already knew: College students are open to religious discussions.
“I can’t tell you how awesome it is to work with this segment of thepopulation because you can sit down and talk to them without reallyhaving any fear,” said Woodell, 29. “They want to talk about it.”
‘FALLING DOWN DRUNK’
Just a few years ago, Woodell would have seemed the most unlikely person to move 2,000 miles to seek the
A Church of Christ preacher’s son raised in Arkansas, he rebelledstarting in high school and experimented with marijuana and cocaine.
In his early 20s, he sought fulfillment in celebrity and became a majorplayer in the Memphis, Tenn., party scene as a disc jockey for a rockstation known as “The Buzz.”
“It got to the point where I wouldn’t even come into work unless I was just falling down drunk,” he said.
His devastated parents, Jim and Geraldine Woodell, prayed for their son while mending their own broken hearts.
“It was difficult to reconcile the contradiction of ministering toothers while our own son needed to be saved,” said Jim Woodell,executive director of River City Ministry, which serves the poor andoppressed in North Little Rock, Ark.
A modern-day Prodigal Son, Wes Woodell said he found himself alone onhis couch one day, consumed by his personal hell — and consideringsuicide.
That’s when he felt an unexplained yearning to open the Bible he hadkept closed. “God, if you’re real, I want you to speak to me,” he criedout.
Through the Scriptures revealed that day, Woodell said, he came tobelieve — without a shred of doubt — in an almighty God.
“But I wasstill really a rough character,” he said. “So I went from talking abouthow God didn’t exist when was I drunk to talking about how cool Jesuswas when I was drunk.”
’WE KNEW SOME OF HIS STORY’
As part of his recovery, Woodell decided to join the Marines, but a blood-pressure problem stalled his enlistment.
Living at home again with his parents, he decided to work out for a month and see if his physical condition improved.
His dad suggested he might enjoy doing the conditioning in Florida,where family friend Gary Lambrecht preaches for the Bay Area church inTampa.
Woodell agreed, unaware the plan involved more than sand and waves.
One of the first people he met in Florida was a young woman namedAiriel Simmons, a University of South Florida student. Campus ministerLynn Stringfellow had baptized Simmons after meeting her at the fitnesscenter where she worked. When she asked about the “CIA” onStringfellow’s shirt — standing for “Christians In Action”— hedescribed it as a bunch of college students who got together to “singand stuff.”
“That sparked my attention,” she said. “I really hadn’t made any good friends yet and wanted to.”
What Woodell didn’t know was that Simmons — and the rest of the college group — had started praying for him before his arrival.
“We knew some of his story,” Simmons said. He impressed her as “interesting and cute but way too full of himself.”
Woodell’s dad had sent money to cover his expenses, but it came with aprice. His job: underlining verses that accompanied evangelistic studyguides pasted inside Bible covers. When not working, he hung out withstudents in the campus ministry.
“I was longhaired, smelled like cigarette smoke, prideful, arrogant,condescending, not a pleasant person to be around,” he said. “They justloved me, warts and all.”
After returning home, he studied the Bible some more with his father.
Baptized as a teen to impress a girl, he was ready to give his life toChrist for real. After his second baptism, he returned to Tampa tospend a year working with the campus ministry.
Simmons noticed a dramatic change.
“He was a different person. He was serious about God,” she said. “Really, it was a passion that I hadn’t seen in any other guy.”
They started dating and fell in love.
When his year in Tampa ended, Woodell moved back to Arkansas — with hisnew wife — to attend Harding University’s Center for Advanced MinistryTraining. They started a small-group study at a Searcy coffee shop andbegan baptizing people they taught.
In 2005, Woodell attended the National Campus Ministries Seminar inNorman, Okla., and was struck by a U.S. map showing hundreds of dots —campuses with no Church of Christ presence. He began organizing anannual conference of “missions-oriented” campus ministries at Hardingand — working with Stringfellow — launched an organization calledCampus Ministry United, with a Web site at campusministryunited.com.
The dream: “empowering Christians to reach young adults with the goodnews of Jesus Christ on every major university campus in the world.”
When Woodell first came up with the idea, Stringfellow said, “Let’sjust say I laughed at him. But Wes proved all my doubts wrong.”
So far, Campus Ministry United has planted campus ministries in Miamiand Corpus Christi, Texas, and taken a major step toward one in SanFrancisco.
The Woodells and their two young children moved to the City by the Bayearlier this year to work with minister Richard Blythe andHarding-trained domestic missionaries Paul Fletcher and Paul Crites atthe 50-member Lake Merced church, across the street from one of thelargest apartment complexes in California and a few blocks from SanFrancisco State.
“The Lake Merced Church of Christ facility is located in one of thebest strategic spots in the U.S. and perhaps in the world,” said MarvinCrowson, Harding’s domestic missionary in residence, a key figure inlaunching Campus Ministry United, which hopes to partner withadditional churches to start campus ministries and train leadersnationwide.
Marc Santamaria, 27, a law student at San Francisco State, was baptizedafter getting to know Woodell and the other missionaries. On a recentSunday, the son of Filipino immigrants enjoyed a homemade lunch at theWoodells’ apartment, then returned for a Bible study that night.
He said he appreciates the “Bible-based” nature of the church andhanging out with fellow Christians — be it watching a movie or justtalking about sports. In the future, he hopes to help facilitate Biblestudies.
“He’s just so passionate,” the new convert said of Woodell. “Hemotivates me to get involved and be a leader for God. … When he speaks,everything’s from his heart and from God. He truly has a gift.”
It’s a gift that his parents never imagined during their son’s darkest days.
“Wes is no longer snared by Satan — he’s in Jesus, dedicated to God,set apart for holy purposes,” said his mother, Geraldine Woodell. “Andif that’s not enough, God has also graciously given him the beautifulwife that he needs.”
Wes believes his experience prepared him to help college studentsconfront the trials — and temptations — so many face.
But he’s quick toadd, “Anybody who has encountered Jesus is prepared.”
FeedbackVery good article. Wes is a good example of how Christ can change your life. He is doing great things for God. His work with CMU and CIA is prodicing “Much Fruit”.
The face of Campus Ministry is changing because of what God is doing with Wes.Lynn StringfellowBay Area Church of ChristTampa, Florida
USANovember, 10 2009For sustainable faith and witness, beware of presenting “the Good News of Jesus Christ” as a message (which it is not) instead of Jesus’ self-revelation in his perfect death on the cross (which is the essence of the gospel). GBY!Ephrem Hagos–Addis Ababa, Addis Ababa
EthiopiaNovember, 5 2009It is been such a amazing thing to know Wes before and after he discovered the truth of God’s love! What a powerful example of not giving up on someone and of trusting that God can work in even the hardest of hearts! We love you Wes and Airiel!TiffanyAshland Church of ChristAshland, OH
USANovember, 4 2009