Building relationships through food and conversation

Steaming soup, a marvelous main course, delightful sides and a mouth-watering dessert—these words can make any college student’s mouth water. Esther Nafziger and Wendell Badertscher have been inviting Bluffton University students into their home for a five-course meal since 1989.

Esther and Wendell moved to Bluffton in 1988 when Wendell got a youth leader position in the area. A year into making connections in the community, they knew someone who was attending the university and invited her over for dinner.

After enjoying the conversations and connections they made, they decided to begin inviting multiple students over for dinner

Students gather around the table at the Nafzigers’ home. Photo provided

every week—and it’s only grown since then.

The couple began by getting a list of Mennonite students from the university to invite, then once they were in the guest book, they would be invited back again the following semester or year.

“We’d invite those who had already been to come back and bring three or so friends with them,” said Wendell. “That expanded it from being just a Mennonite audience to an everybody audience.”

The small world of Mennonite connections made students more relaxed and comfortable about going to a stranger’s house for dinner when there was a mutual connection.

“We once had a student call their mom to make sure it was all right they came over,” Esther said. “It was funny because he was from Archbold, where I’m from, and with his parents’ help, figured out who I was.”

Esther loves spending time in the kitchen, and she has accumulated countless recipes—which feed more than just what she and Wendell can eat.

Slowly the dinners grew into four to six students one or two nights a week. These days, Esther and Wendell have six to eight Bluffton students around their table up to five nights a week in the fall, and three to four evenings in the spring.

The dinners began as an extension of Wendell’s ministry, but turned into hospitality and a way to connect with students in the community.

Esther began by calling hall floors to invite students, which eventually evolved into email invitations, and has since progressed to Facebook.

Sometimes Esther invites around four students and asks them each to bring a friend; other times she invites one student and asks them to bring five or six friends along with them.

Such a great number of students have enjoyed meals around the Nafzinger’s table, they can’t even estimate the total number over the last 28 years. The most students they’ve ever hosted in one semester was 280—while Esther was still working full time.

They have several guest books with the names and information for every person who has visited their house since they got married. Students are invited to list their name, year, hometown and major.

Their home has even been opened to parents of graduating students on graduation weekend. Longer term relationships have stemmed from these evenings; Esther and Wendell have received wedding and graduation invitations from former students.

On days when students come over, Esther spends most of her entire day preparing for the evening’s meal.

“Sometimes I have an hour to spare to go for a walk,” Esther said.

They have a garden that supports much of the meals—sweet potatoes, green beans, soy beans, tomatoes and zucchini are all grown in their back yard. When the students are gone for the summer, Esther and Wendell spend their time in the garden preparing and freezing the produce.

Senior Megan Good has eaten around their table a handful of times and appreciates the opportunity to meet and talk with people she may not know on campus, as well as enjoy a family like meal.

“Having a nice home-cooked meal after eating in the Commons for a while is really nice,” Good said. “It’s like a family dinner, and Esther and Wendell are genuinely interested in the things you have to say.”

With Esther’s love for creating menus, she keeps intricate records which assure no student gets the same soup, main course or dessert. She also keeps track of who visited with whom. Almost each meal contains a new recipe, but students are never required to eat anything they don’t like.

“We believe in the value of family having a meal around the table together,” Wendell said.

When he was a student at Bluffton, students were seated in groups for dinner by who showed up at the same time. They were ushered by a student server and everything was served family style. This blended students together and encouraged across-the-board conversation.

“Our dinners accomplish sort of the same thing in a small way,” said Wendell.

Esther and Wendell’s favorite parts of their dinners are hearing the students’ stories, hearing about travel experiences and how things are going on campus. The coming and going conversations of the evenings keep them in touch with the students, their lives and hot topics on campus.

As travel enthusiasts, Esther and Wendell greatly enjoy hearing about students’ cross-cultural trips and experiences. Above all, the laughter around the table is their favorite piece.

“Sometimes we’ll go in the kitchen, getting things ready, and if the group is comfortable together they’re having fun with each other and laughing,” Wendell said. “We love it and wish we had a tape recorder going to play that on blue days.”

It’s debatable who enjoys the evenings of delicious food and enjoyable conversations more—the students or Esther and Wendell.

“I’ve loved the conversations and food every time I’ve been invited over,” said Good. “I always look forward to the opportunity to visit.”

“The most rewarding part,” said Esther, “is the longer term friendships that have come from/through these meals.”

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Alyssa Eby

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