A visitor to the home of Gene and Carol Guest once told some friends that her hosts did not “do retirement” very well. “They are so busy it’s ridiculous,” she said.
Gene and Carol admit that they are extremely busy as volunteer InterVarsity staff members working on the campus of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, New York. But they think they are doing retirement very well, since they have found something that they enjoy doing very much.
Gene and Carol have been involved in college student ministry through a variety of churches for much of their lives. But as they approached their retirement years, they anticipated that what they had to say would be less and less relevant to young American college students. The Guests considered volunteering for international student ministry, knowing that students from some Asian and African cultures revere elders.
However, their son and daughter-in-law were invited by the USMMA chaplain to start a Bible study in order to develop a stronger sense of community among midshipmen. Gene and Carol helped with the Bible study and took it over when Jonathan and Annalyn moved to Portland State University to work with InterVarsity in International Student Ministry.
The invitation made five years ago has worked out so well that Gene and Carol are now known as Mom and Dad Guest to the student body.
Cookie Café on Campus
Those terms of endearment come especially easily every Thursday when Gene and Carol serve milk and cookies to all comers in Land Hall (the campus activities center). Cookie Café started as an afterthought to kill some time one day in 2007, and has now become a campus institution.
“I brought ingredients to make one batch of cookies and a gallon of milk,” Carol recalled. “After I finished baking, I tiptoed around to where everybody was studying or sleeping and just left some for them. They all said, ‘This is delicious. Are you going to be here next week?’”
Now regional parent organizations are responsible for baking and shipping the cookies — 100 dozen per week for a total of a quarter million cookies during the 2008-2009 academic year. The Guests work with a volunteer parent to coordinate each week’s distribution. The Cookie Café has become such a campus institution that when school officials cancelled classes and activities recently following the sudden death of a student, they kept the Cookie Café open so that people had a place to go to talk to each other.
More than Hugs and Cookies
But the Guests are more than just parental surrogates. They want to see midshipmen prepared for the challenges of life and career, anchored in a Christian faith that transforms lives. “Today there’s a lot of talk about worship, but it’s just singing; there’s talk about feeling close to God, but it’s just an emotional thing,” Carol said. “We think the mind has to be trained, to give an answer for their faith, to be prepared for any questions that might come up in class, and to face the life challenges beyond.”
Gene has two seminary degrees and a PhD in the philosophy of religion. “Midshipmen can leave Kings Point with a pretty strong biblical foundation,” he said. Gene’s experience as a USMMA midshipman, then later as a faculty member and an employee of a USMMA contractor, has also help the Guests know how to develop relevant teaching and programs for the midshipmen.
“We know the culture; we know what the students face and what’s ahead for them. That gives us a platform and insight that makes the ministry unique,” Carol said.
Retired to Serve
Through leading the Sunday morning Bible study, coordinating a special class for women midshipmen called Band of Sisters, working with the leaders of the Monday evening Christian Fellowship Club, offering their home to midshipmen on weekends, and other creative activities that they have initiated, Gene and Carol have the opportunity to see God at work in the lives of hundreds of young men and women. In that respect they are no different than most InterVarsity campus staff members.
However their retirement status, which they thought would be a drawback, gives them an extra advantage. “We’re finding our ages to be a real asset, and we weren’t expecting that,” Carol said.
A year ago when the Guests celebrated their 42-year wedding anniversary, some midshipmen were eager to celebrate with them. “You don’t understand,” one told them. “You give us hope. We see you guys still love each other. You still hold hands. You are still best friends.”
The Guests say that they have worked with two very supportive chaplains, who are assigned to the USMMA by the Navy. Another change is coming up this summer, and they hope to continue to have a positive relationship with the new chaplain.
And they are certain that the original invitation for bringing them on campus has achieved the anticipated goal. “We’re developing community and the whole school knows it,” Carol said.
Kings Point Spotlight interview with Gene Guest, part one
Kings Point Spotlight interview with Gene Guest, part two
Kings Point Spotlight on the Cookie Cafe