Austin O’Donnell stood at the utensil station in the Canyon Commons at dinnertime, scanning
the room for someone to sit with. Someone waving caught his eye, and he saw a guy from his Bible class, someone with whom he had exchanged a few words, sitting at a table. He returned the greeting and went over to sit with him.
Thus began one of O’Donnell’s closest friendships, and one of the turning points of his freshman year at George Fox University (GFU).
Talking to O’Donnell now, in the midst of his sophomore year, he is confident and open with his story. But GFU was not always a place where he felt at home.
“[First semester] was one of the darkest points in my life,” O’Donnell said.
As a commuter in Fall 2016, O’Donnell did not feel like a part of the GFU community at all. He had people who would call him a friend, but nowhere he felt he belonged. He was a floater, knowing lots of people but always feeling alone.
All throughout this time, O’Donnell felt like God was calling him to get some people together for a consistent small group meeting, but he kept fighting the idea out of fear of failure. He prayed constantly for God to bring him good friendships, getting frustrated when nothing was happening for him.
Then, during finals week of first semester last year, a snowstorm hit the Portland area and O’Donnell was stuck on campus for three days. Since he was a commuter, he did not have anywhere to stay.
O’Donnell then ran into Caleb Weaver, the guy that waved him over to eat dinner with him that one night, and asked if he could stay with him. Those three days they spent snowed in at GFU were when their friendship really began to take shape.
On the last day before winter break, during a quiet time, God really put it on O’Donnell’s heart to start a small group, and encouraged him in that if he failed he would learn from it, but he needed to trust Him.
So O’Donnell gathered about eight friends in the prayer chapel, and weekly spent time in community, worshipping and praying. Fast forward to today, and this small gathering has expanded to more than 30 people.
This season taught O’Donnell many things about community and about friendships. One of the biggest lessons learned was a perspective shift that changed everything.
He cited Proverbs 18:24, “A man who has friends must himself be friendly,” to describe his shift from thinking about how he wanted friends to be brought to him, to how he could go be a good friend to others.
“I hear from a lot of students that deal with this loneliness, and feeling like they’re not really connected with people in a genuine way,” said O’Donnell. “My encouragement is to show yourself friendly and ask yourself, ‘How can I be a friend to other people?’”
O’Donnell’s experience that first semester of college, as well as experiencing exclusion this summer in a “floater” position at a summer camp, has given him a passion for making others feel cared for.
This has led him to his position as a Peer Advisor for freshman LIBA classes.
“That so reinvigorated me that first semester and this summer because God had me revisit a lot of the loneliness that I’ve experience before in deeper ways, in heavier and harder ways,” said O’Donnell.
For anyone who does not feel like they have found a community yet, O’Donnell encourages you not to stop searching for your people—people who love you and love Jesus. Focus on being a friend to those who need one, even if it is not reciprocated by some.
“I don’t think that this is necessarily a plug, but if anybody wants to be a part of a community that
cares about them and that loves Jesus: Saturday night at 8p.m. at Hancock House, anyone is welcome,” said O’Donnell.
A few weeks after O’Donnell and Weaver really became friends, Weaver revealed that that day in the commons, the first night they had dinner together, he had actually been waving to someone else. When O’Donnell had waved back, Weaver just went with it because he was interested in getting to know him as well.
This was an example, O’Donnell said, of how God creates beautiful things out of accidents, in perfect timing.
Reported by Emma Lindberg
Photographed by Jessica Holder