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A Life-Changing Lesson

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This is the story of a tall, dark-haired German…a short, Missouri redhead…a big, silver dishwasher...and a life-changing lesson.

Have you heard the crazy theory called “nominative determinism”—the idea that some folks are attracted to certain jobs because of their name? These actual people serve as examples:

  • A Wisconsin firefighter named…Les McBurney.
  • An Australian ophthalmologist named…Dr. Seawright.
  • A Detroit music teacher named…Ms. C. Sharpe.
  • A New York lawyer named…Sue Yoo.
  • My favorite fitting name: OCC’s cafeteria manager is…Teresa Baker! (The Missouri redhead in our story.)

Teresa Baker really is an excellent baker—she once owned her own catering company. But if the word Teacher were a last name, that might fit her even better. OCC’s student employees can tell you: Teresa’s kitchen is a classroom, and school is always in session. I need your help to equip that classroom, but first, the tall, dark-haired German…

That would be Thomas Mergel. When he came to the U.S. as a German high school exchange student, Thomas lived with some Ozark grads and met Jesus. He ended up enrolling at Ozark in 2014. (When the lanky, 6’5” freshman stayed with our family over Christmas break, he sang “Silent Night” for us in the original German.) So…why is he still an Ozark student now, eight years later?

College students struggle with time management. They skip study time for friends, sleep, and movies—which often lowers their academic marks. (I saw a dorm room poster that said, “Type in ‘Netflix’ to get 50% off your grades.”) Thomas was no exception: working consistently and fulfilling responsibilities were challenges. He wasn’t ready for the discipline of college, so he left Ozark for a few years.

But now he’s back as a student, and Thomas’ best teacher might be Teresa Baker. When she’s not at Ozark, Teresa is helping her husband Ron on their farm—hogs, cattle, grain, lots of chores. She can’t be more than 5’3” tall, but as Shakespeare wrote, “Though she be little, she is fierce.” “She’s got a strong old-fashioned work ethic,” says OCC cook Kyle Kleespies, and since 2010, she’s brought that work ethic to the Ozark cafeteria.

Students love her. “Being hungry college boys, my cousin Jake and I had a selfish motive at first,” says recent grad Josiah Weece. “We thought, ‘If we talk to the cafeteria lady, maybe we’ll get extra food.’”

But a real friendship quickly blossomed. “She’s not the stereotypical Hollywood cafeteria lady—frumpy, grumpy, more grunts than conversation,” says Josiah. “Teresa’s all hugs and smiles. She would ask about your day, and you felt seen and heard. She even came to my wedding.”

Feeding 500 folks a day takes a team, and Teresa shows the same love to her student employees. “She runs a tight ship, but she cares about us,” says student worker Emily Todd. “When we’re having a rough day, she checks on us…then remembers to ask again a week later. When we’re running behind in the dish room, she jumps in and washes dishes with us. One time, I got hurt, and she drove me to the doctor.”

Like our profs, Teresa knows she’s shaping students into servants: “We lean hard into prayer together. As we’re working, Leah [caf staff] sets Scripture cards on the kitchen counter for student-employees to read and meditate on. And we’re teaching them skills that aren’t just for the cafeteria, but for their future ministries and families.” Keep reading to learn how she shaped that tall, dark-haired German…

Since returning to Ozark, Thomas Mergel has worked in the cafeteria, mostly at the industrial-sized silver dishwasher. Watching Teresa, Thomas has certainly learned that a leader cares. “She is gracious and hospitable—she’s invited us over to her house. One time she took James [a student worker from India] and me to an Amish market with her grandkids. She listens and loves.”

But Thomas is a biblical communication major, and Teresa is also teaching him skills he’ll need in ministry:

  • Thomas’ time management challenges? “When she heard I was behind on homework, she sat down to help me. She called one of my professors to tutor me, and she worked with me to create a study schedule.”
  • Struggles fulfilling responsibilities? “When I started, I had a hard time consistently appearing for work. Teresa sat me down and said, ‘Every role on this team is important, and we don’t schedule you if we don’t need you. You can’t let down the team.’
  • Lessons on how to treat people? “When people drop their dishes off at my washing window, they sometimes say, ‘Thank you.’ Teresa put up a sign to remind me to say, ‘You’re welcome.’”
  • Motivation? “She wants us to work with excellence. Next to our clock-in, she put Colossians 3:23, ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…It is the Lord Christ you are serving.’”

Speaking of fitting names: in German, Thomas’ last name Mergel refers to a “fertile type of soil,” and the seeds Teresa has planted in Thomas are bearing fruit. “I’ve done well this semester,” says Thomas. “I’m more consistent with my schoolwork, we’re serving more people in the cafeteria than ever, and I’ve even made suggestions on improving our dishwashing efficiency that Teresa has implemented.”

A tall, dark-haired German…a short, Missouri redhead…a big, silver dishwasher…and Thomas will tell you: the lessons have been life-changing.

Teresa has seen fruit in other students like Thomas. “I have a stack of notes at home kids have sent me through the years. They are treasures.” She’s not listed as faculty, but Teresa’s kitchen has been a life-changing classroom for many. Will you help me equip that classroom for future students?

The dishwasher where Thomas Mergel works needs replaced. Our repairman has kept it patched together, but recently said, “It’s time to get a new one.”

Over Christmas break, we’re scheduled to have a new dishwasher installed at a cost of $27,000. We’re also installing a much-needed charbroiler/grill at a cost of $10,000. Would you consider a year-end gift toward that $37,000 to equip our kitchen with a dishwasher and charbroiler/grill?

By the way, my own last name Proctor? In England, a proctor is a “high university official.” (Maybe “nominative determinism” isn’t crazy after all.) As the “high university official” here at Ozark, one of my jobs is enlisting financial support for our mission. So I’ll ask once more: Would you prayerfully consider a generous gift toward our Christmas break installation of a dishwasher and charbroiler/grill?

Thank you for considering such a gift. Not only will you help feed 500 of our 700 students, but for a few dozen student-employees like Thomas, you’ll also help teach them skills they’ll need in ministry.

Can I mention one last fitting name? “You are to give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:21) This Christmas, let’s celebrate our Savior! And Teresa Baker might remind us: when it’s time to do Christmas dinner dishes let’s pick up a dish towel and imitate our Savior.

Yours in Christ,

Matt Proctor

P.S. Teresa is retiring at the end of this year, and her cook, OCC alum Kyle Kleespies, will take her place: “He’s coming in so ready.” Would you pray for Kyle as he carries on her work of food preparation and ministry preparation?