CANTON, Ohio — Amy Kittle expected to grow as a person during her years as a college student.
She had no idea that part of her growth would be spiritual, much of which she attributes to her relationship with a husband and wife ministry team at Malone University, Jeff and Linda Leon.
"As a member of the women's basketball team, the Leons would hold devotionals with us and also graciously welcomed us into their home. Our time spent with them helped us grow spiritually, both individually and as a group. They spoke the word of God in such an effective and impactful way that I was always excited to hear what they had to say," said Kittle, 23, a graduate of Malone now attending graduate school at Kent State University.
The Leons, of Canton, recently received the Excellence in Campus Ministry award from the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a campus ministry that joins with churches, colleges and other organizations to help college students live their Christian faith in all aspects of their lives. The honor is given to campus ministers who have helped transform the lives of students, have participated in weekly Bible study with students, regularly have shared the gospel and have intentionally and actively supported diversity.
Jeff Leon, a life coach with the Coalition for Christian Outreach, and Linda Leon, director of spiritual formation, have served in campus ministry at Malone since 1995.
Both said the honor caught them by surprise. They said their commitment to campus ministry is an outgrowth of their love for college students.
"We do the work because we want to invest in college students, so it just feels awkward to get an award for something that we feel we should be doing anyway," Jeff Leon said.
"When you're at a place like Malone, where there's a huge partnership with the staff and coaches to help students grow spiritually, it's sort of embarrassing to be singled out," Linda Leon added.
The Rev. Randy Heckert, university chaplain at Malone, said the Leons are well-deserving of the award. He described the couple as "an exemplary team of what it looks like to live out our Christian faith in action."
"They love students and regularly open their home to them for meals, fellowship, mentoring and Bible studies," Heckert said.
The Leons agree their primary goal is to help students figure out how faith will play out in their lives.
"We want the students to feel a sense of hospitality, that they are welcome into our lives, that we care about them," Linda Leon said. "We want them to know that brokenness is in everybody's life, and in the world, but that God's love is abundant."
The Leons, who have been married nearly 19 years and have two children (Abigail, 13, and Noah, 11), often finish each other's thoughts — exhibiting their mutual desire to help students discover or better understand the love of God.
"Our hope is to get the students to understand that the creator and sustainer of the universe is crazy about them," Jeff Leon said. "If they understand God loves them, always has and always will, no matter what, then they can begin to see why it's important to shape the way they live for the creator and sustainer of the universe."
Kittle said she benefited as much from the example the Leons set as the words they uttered.
"They never tried to force anything on us but reached out and showed us that we could trust them and that they are our friends," said Kittle, of Port Washington. "Personally, they helped me see the bigger picture and gave meaning to what I was doing each day, whether that was through basketball or something else. I feel that I was a good person before I came to Malone; they made me a better and more complete person."
Malone is a private Christian liberal arts university affiliated with the Evangelical Friends Church. It is ranked among the top regional universities in the Midwest in U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges 2012 and is recognized by the Templeton Foundation as a leader in character development.
For information about Malone, go to www.malone.edu.