This article originally was published in the November 2015 issue of The Lutheran magazine.
If you were to walk through the doors of Hope Lutheran Church in Bozeman, Mont., looking like a college student, chances are that Don and Diane Heyden would be the first people to greet you. For the past seven years they’ve played an important role connecting college students with their congregation.
Every month, the Heydens host a dinner for Montana State University (MSU) students at their Bozeman home. As many as 20 students get together to unwind and share a hearty meal of chili, casseroles or burgers.
The Heydens didn’t set out to host regular gatherings when they invited several MSU students to their home seven years ago. Hope Lutheran was building a new church at the time, and the couple was involved with the landscaping. Andrew Byl and Patrick Bender, who were spending the summer in Bozeman between their sophomore and junior years, volunteered to help. To show their gratitude, the Heydens began inviting them over for barbecues. After school started, the dinners continued. Roommates tagged along. Then roommates invited other friends, and, well, everything sort of snowballed.
And that was just fine with the Heydens, who relish their role as surrogate parents or grandparents.
“We have one large extended family that is absolutely wonderful,” said Don.
Stephen Schmidt, Hope Lutheran’s lead pastor, said that on Sundays he often notices the couple sitting with at least a handful of college students during the worship service – always in the second row, although sometimes they spill over into another pew.
“They embody hospitality,” he says. “It’s a natural spiritual gift they have.”
The Heydens’ gatherings provide not only a home-cooked meal but laughter, camaraderie and stress relief for the students who attend. Their home is a place where students can eat, connect, have fun and be silly – and then leave refreshed to do homework, said Amanda Olsen, who began attending the dinners as a freshman.
Although many of the students who attend are Lutheran, everyone is welcome. “We have Presbyterians, Catholics, Methodists,” said Diane.
There’s not much better than getting to relax and have a home-cooked meal after a long week of schoolwork and tests, says Andrew Bender, a recent graduate who attended the monthly dinners for all four years of his college career.
Bender and his girlfriend also visit the Heydens outside of the scheduled monthly dinners once or twice a month, going over to play cards or just hang out.
“It’s nice to be around a different generation and a different demographic,” especially a couple with important life lessons and interesting stories to share, said Bender. “We really think of them as our Bozeman grandparents.”
When someone’s 21st birthday does roll around, there’s a good chance the Heydens will treat that student to a celebratory drink. (If you’re over 21 and want to sip a beer at the gatherings, that’s fine, but just know that Diane has a spreadsheet with everyone’s date of birth, and she keeps track!)
Before retirement, Diane was a sixth-grade teacher and Don was an engineer. Married for 36 years in what is a second marriage for both, the couple moved to Bozeman from California 18 years ago. Don was tired of the desert and was drawn to Montana in part because of the excellent fly fishing.
The Heydens have six children from their first marriages, offspring who are spread out in Washington, Utah, California, Arizona and Alaska. But they consider the college students that visit them to be family as well, and the bonds forged run deep.
Diane estimates that they’ve seen 22 of them graduate with bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees or both. Many of them still keep in touch, letting the couple know when important life events occur or simply checking in from time to time with a phone call or an email. The Heydens even made their way to Nebraska for the wedding of one of their “firstborns” – their term for the original group of students that attended their first dinner – traveling with some other firstborns from the early days.
Diane said she enjoys seeing how students mature from the time they begin attending as freshmen to the time they leave as graduates. As they get comfortable with the group, some students grow much more outgoing, Don notes.
Part of that blossoming probably has something to do with Diane’s effervescent personality.
“Diane is very outgoing and bubbly and talkative and really just wants to know everything about you when she meets you, and it’s just great,” said Olsen.
Not even a huge snowstorm can derail the monthly meals. When a winter storm knocked the power out, the group carried on and had a memorable time, even though the food was less abundant than usual. “We shared more stories and laughed harder than I think we ever had,” said Shannyn Wilson, a student and lifelong Lutheran from Whippany, N.J., who has been attending the dinners for three years.
Olsen, who is a mechanical engineering major, says she’s been grateful for the chance to meet other students with whom she wouldn’t have crossed paths otherwise. “It’s good to have community with each other as well as Don and Diane,” she said.
The dinners have also been a catalyst for many students to find a place for themselves at Hope Lutheran.
When the Heydens invited Wilson to a dinner the first Sunday she visited Hope, she admits she was hesitant to accept but said she’s forever grateful she did.
“Because of that dinner I continued to attend Hope, began working in the nursery, attended the college ski trips, joined the college singing group one Sunday a month and helped direct the youth play this past winter,” said Wilson. “Honestly, all of these activities became opportunities because on my first day people introduced me to Don and Diane.
“Don and Diane are like a third set of grandparents for many of us, and two of the most amazing people I have ever met. With Don and Diane you know that you always have someone who loves you and wants to spend time with you,” said Wilson.
The Heydens feel much the same.
“We just thank the Lord for the blessings of these kids every single day,” said Don.