Building the Universe, Each in Our Own Inexplicable Ways
This essay offers a historical review of the different ways that service has been incorporated in church-related higher education during the past century. This review will orient readers to the various “models” of service in higher education as well as, hopefully, shed light on both how and why particular faith-based colleges and universities have engaged in service activity. My approach will be historical, and it will have a twentieth-century focus. The challenge in an overview like this is to tell parallel stories without conflating them too much: the story of mainstream American higher education and the many Christian students, faculty, and staff within it alongside the smaller story of faith-based colleges and universities as they participated in service of multiple kinds. Several typologies of faith-based higher education have emerged in the literature, including those found in Hughes and Adrian’s Models of Christian Higher Education (1997), James Burtchaell’s Dying of the Light (1998), Robert Benne’s Quality with Soul (2001), and others. These and other models can be useful for setting up a framework that connects theological traditions with models of service and that could be fleshed out further in future research.
Discussing service in the context of church-related higher education over the past century might be compared to discussing water with fish. Service is ubiquitous. So much has been and is being done in the name of service at so many complex and committed institutions. There are rich traditions of service, but also a complex sea of terms and approaches. This research has taken me into theological waters that are deep, and that I am not entirely equipped to interpret. Different institutional theological personalities have profound effects on pedagogy and programs, and putting a proper picture together might take a degree of personal knowledge and empathy that only an insider to each tradition can pull off.
So it is fitting that I begin with a story from the complex theological and organizational reality that is the Calvin College Service-Learning Center and its student leadership. If you are familiar with the Reformed tradition, which is typically defined by its strong commitment to a cerebral approach to transformationalist discipleship, you may be amused to hear that I regularly refer to the work of our office as the “Anabaptist corner” of our Reformed campus. What I mean by that, just to be clear, draws from an insightful quote Richard Hughes and William Adrian included in their 1997 book, Models for Christian Higher Education (1997, 6). They cited a Goshen College professor who notes that while “the Reformed model (Calvin) tends to be cerebral and therefore transforms living by thinking, the Mennonite model (Goshen), on the other hand, transforms thinking by living and by one’s commitment to a radically Christocentric lifestyle.” The students who work in my office regularly draw inspiration from diverse intellectual lights such as Henri Nouwen, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Wangari Maathai, Shane Claiborne, Jim Wallis, Jane Addams, Charles Marsh, and John Perkins; and from such diverse intellectual traditions as Catholic social teaching, progressive evangelicalism, New, as well as ancient, Monasticism and International Development literature.
I began my work at Calvin in the fall of 2002, and it was in that fall ten years ago that a particular student arrived at Calvin College. In addition to this student’s desire to do well in college and to find his place in the world, he had two primary passions: fighting racism and protecting the environment. I was privileged to serve as this young man’s professor during his first semester. A job at the Service-Learning Center enabled him to hone skills in protest and activism, skills that he put to use when a giant gymnasium was proposed for the center of campus, to be built on land that played host to the oldest growth of trees on the college property, several irreplaceable species of plants, and a few types of raptors that were beautiful to observe and rare elsewhere on the campus. In the Service-Learning Center, he had resources and colleagues, mentors and fellow lamenters, and work to do. While he lost the battle to save the woods, he continued organizing a semi-annual research conference for public display of student research on ways the campus could be a better steward environmentally. He also participated in the work of the Multi-Cultural Student Advisory Board, leading discussions about white-male privilege based on personal experience. After graduating, he went on to collect two graduate degrees from the University of Michigan, one in Environmental Studies and one in Public Policy, and he currently serves as a recruiter and staff member for the Au Sable Institute for Environmental Studies, a place where “students encounter the wonders of God’s world, and the challenge of caring for creation.” Just after graduating from Calvin, this student was featured in Sojourners magazine in a story about how current students are demonstrating a new kind of activism, one that engages their institutions at the level of administrative and bureaucratic discourse rather than simply at the protest level (MacIvor-Andersen 2008). Also featured in that story were students from Eastern University and Canadian Mennonite University, both with stories of how students in the so-called millennial generation are more interested in diplomatic and meaningful change activity than in fiery efforts that yield little common ground or change.
The question of whether or not “talking for change” is a model of service and activism that is new to and somehow representative of faith-based higher education in contemporary society is a relevant one. Several models of service, activism, or pious civic engagement appear on various faith-based campuses. Some are exclusively placed within the existing curriculum, while others exist only outside the curriculum. Some are focused on evangelism, others on social issues or justice. Most are directed at local or domestic outreach, but others only serve internationally. Most of the time, service is directed at short-term acts of mercy, but occasionally campuses find ways to connect service activities with movements for justice. The models are complex and multiple. And as my student demonstrated with his anti-racism and creation care passions, these models and programs can spring from many different sources within a college or university, including from within individual students.
So what, exactly, is service? And is there anything unique or noteworthy in how and why service is, and has been, practiced at faith-based colleges and universities? Service is a tricky concept to discuss, because it is one of those concepts, like culture, with many competing definitions. For example, groups of believers gather in college chapels and sanctuaries all over the country for worship services. Faculty at all colleges and universities are asked to participate in teaching, research, and service. ROTC programs on many campuses prepare young men and women for military service. Our admissions, financial aid, financial service, and campus stores attempt to provide a high-quality customer service for students and their families. And since the 1960s volunteer service has been a significant activity for university students that has intersected with their lives in both co-curricular and curricular ways. More recently, inter-faith dialog has been prompted on some of our campuses around the common experience of service for the common good. Here, another anecdote from my context at Calvin might help orient our discussion of service with a proper degree of complexity.
When students first arrive at Calvin College, they are met, not surprisingly, with a day of service-learning as a welcoming and orienting activity. About a decade ago, the planners of this activity, in which about a thousand students participate, decided that too much food and packaging was being wasted, and they implemented a creative arrangement through which new students are introduced to the physical process of dividing up waste into recyclable, non-recyclable, and compostable materials. Then, a few years later, after many years of ham and turkey sandwiches, meat was finally cut out altogether and now this program offers students a choice of vegetable or peanut butter sandwiches for nutrition during the day. Student planners also struggled with the question of transportation. The easiest way was to put each group in an individual van, but they decided that ideally they would work to introduce students to the local rapid-transit authority, and put as many students as possible on the local bus. The bus system is now a sponsor of the event and sends additional buses out on our day of service in order to accommodate our large number of student riders. In addition, the artwork on the annually designed t-shirt shifted a few years ago from campus-generated graphic design to the work of commissioned local artists, producing high-quality woodcut designs and other work that also serves to generate local economic activity. In addition to all this, folks at Calvin wondered about where all those t-shirts were being produced, and how they could better reflect the Christian values of stewardship and justice in the decision regarding a t-shirt provider. After careful research and consultation with a local alumni vendor, the student leaders decided to stay with the multi-national t-shirt supplier, Gildan, after reading that watchdog groups were pleased with recent efforts made by the company to reduce sweatshop conditions in their factories. Students who went out on the service projects were given the opportunity at the end of the day, during the time reserved for reflection on the day, to write a letter to Gildan thanking them for recent changes in their business and production practices, and over four hundred letters were generated and sent to Gildan that day.
I offer this example as a way of illustrating the complexity with which the subject of incorporating service should be and is approached by students and staff at church-related colleges. As Wendell Berry reminded us in last spring’s Jefferson lecture on the humanities, “it all turns on affection” (Berry 2012)—and I would add, affection for everything. A wise sage in my Reformed tradition once said, “nothing matters but the Kingdom, and because of the kingdom, everything matters” (Spikeman1992, 266). In this sense, service matters all the way down to the mundane decisions about who, with whom, what, when, where, and how it is undertaken.
A complex understanding of service as a concept is an important background for our grasp of the many models of service at faith-based colleges and universities. Sometimes service falls under the category of a program; other times it can also be a pedagogy; and at other times service is an expression of a campus philosophy or a reflection of its theology.
A helpful paradigm that informs my comments on this century of service, at least for Protestant or evangelical institutions, is drawn from philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff.
A past president of the American Philosophical Association, Wolterstorff also taught philosophy for three decades at Calvin College followed by more than a decade as the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. His pioneering intellectual work addresses areas including epistemology, aesthetics, political philosophy, and philosophy of education. Thirty years ago, in September 1982, in a lecture at Wheaton College, Wolterstorff suggested a three-stage paradigm for understanding the question of how Christian higher education in North America had come to that particular moment in its history and where it would likely go from there (Wolterstorff 1983, 14–18). Wolterstorff acknowledged that there were many exceptions to his caricature. For example, Lutheran and Catholic colleges and universities do not enter deeply into his paradigm.
Wolterstorff suggested, in brief, that when “the darkness descended” in the aftermath of the 1925 Scopes trial, most Protestant, faith-based colleges responded, predictably, by going “underground” and by emphasizing personal piety, evangelism, and foreign missions rather than the intellect. Rather than moving toward social and cultural engagement, these schools withdrew from culture and erected walls of protection.
The second stage began as college enrollments burgeoned after World War II and was still underway when he gave his address in 1982. In this second stage, educators and leaders at faith-based and church-related colleges and universities once again began to realize the value of the liberal arts tradition of preparing students to engage fully with the stream of high culture—work from the natural sciences, theology, philosophy, music, painting, poetry, and architecture. Students are offered good and beautiful ideas as well as skills to develop and master. Integration became the watchword, and already in 1982 the idea of the “integration of faith and learning” was so prevalent that Wolterstorff was only half-joking when he proposed a ten-year moratorium on the phrase.
But most intriguing about his paradigm is the way it anticipated what was to come next, the third stage. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wolterstorff was in the middle of his own personal renaissance as it related to justice and scholarship. He recently had become more personally aware of the actual plight of oppressed minorities in South Africa and of Palestinian people in the Middle East, and in the light of these personal experiences, he anticipated a third stage, in which the leaders and educators in church-related higher education would begin to move from integration and culture to “reforming society.” This stage assumes all the good work of stage two and does not turn its back on the importance of the cultural heritage of human beings. But the important new move would be from “works of culture” to the “person” of society. Prisons and urban areas, hunger and racism, communism and war—or peace studies—would enter the consciousness of these church-related colleges and universities, and students would begin to leave the cloistered ivory towers and learn in the midst of the people.
But Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Calvinist- Reformed tradition is certainly not the only perspective that has influenced the development of this story. Leading lights like Ernest Boyer from the Brethren church, Michael Himes from the Roman Catholic tradition, Richard Hughes from the evangelical stream, Richard Solberg, Brian Johnson, and Caroline O’Grady in the Lutheran tradition, John Howard Yoder and Susan Fisher Miller in the Mennonite tradition, and Paul Kemeny from the Presbyterian tradition—each of these, among many others, have provided windows into the various Christian narratives in America through which I approach this story (see especially: Boyer and Hechinger 1981; Himes 1995; Hughes and Adrian 1997; Johnson and O’Grady 2006; Miller 1994; Kemeny 2007, 1998).
Ernie Boyer, for example, before becoming Chancellor of the State University of New York, federal Education Commissioner in the Carter administration, and the long-serving president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, began his college studies in the 1940s at Messiah Junior Bible College, now Messiah College, a school that is presently a leader among evangelical colleges in the area of student service-learning. With echoes of Wolterstorff’s anticipation of stage three, Boyer gave a speech in 1989 on the importance of student service in which he articulated the need for colleges and universities to be involved in health care, crime prevention, urban renewal, tax reform, and child development in schools (Boyer 1989). He also emphasized that the university has a duty to focus on local and regional issues. Although he saw the university as necessarily engaged in a wide range of service opportunities and with a global perspective, he argued that the local “place” was important and that the university must strive to be a meaningful part of the place in which it is located.
An Overview of The Twentieth Century
A brief historical overview of the twentieth century may help orient us to our contemporary situation. As the nineteenth century closed, the Christian church in America was still working out its response to the relatively new threats of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the development of higher biblical criticism among intellectuals in Europe. The end of a long period of relative harmony between faith and higher education was beginning to come into view. And much more could be said about the ways in which this emerging disharmony affected the church-related colleges, but suffice it to say for now that it had the unintended positive effect over time of reducing animosity between Protestant and Catholic institutions of higher education.
Early in the twentieth century, students at the more hegemonic Protestant colleges and universities across America developed a fever for missions, especially foreign missions. Students learned about missionary life and prepared themselves for it by learning cultural and vocational skills that might enable them effectively to share the gospel in remote places after graduation. Revival was a catalyst to this movement on many campuses (see Howard 1979). At this time, both faith-based colleges and some of their erstwhile sister institutions in the faith were still working out their commitments to faith along with other elements of their identities. They conducted numerous experiments toward developing a proper understanding and implementation of institutional civic responsibility.
During the first decade of the twentieth century, groups like the Student Volunteer Movement were active on campuses in the attempt to evangelize the world in their generation. In a narrative worth pondering, institutions like (the famously “godless”) Cornell University graduated such luminaries as John R. Mott in the late decades of the nineteenth century. Mott and his colleagues in the Student Volunteer Movement worked hard to preserve the faith of many universities like Brown and Cornell through the efforts of small bands of women and men who were committed to the spread of the gospel both on campuses and around the world. Wolterstorff’s stage one was the pervasive paradigm in this period, where Christian faith was perceived as a barrier to full engagement in the normal work of higher education—the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge—rather than as a catalyst for intellectual identity for schools. For some of these Christian schools, fear—rather than intellectual zeal—became their defining characteristic. As the influence of a liberal, nonsectarian Protestantism grew, the leading universities were able to maintain a layer of faith-filled influence in their work, but the colleges and universities from more conservative theological traditions were more likely to avoid civic and cultural engagement.
The story of the Baylor Foreign Mission Band is relevant here. Formed in 1900, the “Baylor Band” borrowed its model from the national Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, led by John R. Mott. Reported numbers vary, but this small band seems to have produced at least five hundred foreign missionary graduates of Baylor during the twentieth century, certainly the most among Southern Baptist colleges and perhaps more than any other school (see Pitts, “Recruiting for Missions”).
Noah Byers, the first president of the Mennonite Goshen College in the late nineteenth century, was intricately connected into this era’s ethic of service as evangelism. His college roommate at Northwestern University was Burton Little St. John, an early president of the Baylor Band and personal secretary to John R. Mott. It was Byers who coined the Goshen College motto, “culture for service,” in 1904. He could not have known how prescient it would prove to be. This phrase has served as a description and an inspiration for a kind of faith-inspired higher education at Goshen for over a century.
Also around the beginning of the twentieth century, Walter Rauschenbusch and other religious leaders pioneered the “Social Gospel” movement wherein the needs of the poor were connected to the work of the college and the church in deep ways. Immigrant families in the growing urban areas were recipients of the efforts of student groups that began justice and charity work such as settlement houses and citizenship classes.
The two World Wars had many effects on student-service culture. For some campuses, returning soldiers brought with them a cultural savvy and a seriousness about life that tended to broaden the mood toward the larger world at faith-based institutions. Depending on their theological traditions and stances on peace, war, and non-violence, campuses drew very different lines on the question of supporting men and women in service. After World War II, and with the GI Bill and its burgeoning effect on American higher education in general, there arose a renewed interest in evangelism and ministry.
The founding of Newman Centers, as well as para-church Protestant evangelical organizations like Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Navigators, Campus Crusade, and Young Life, portended an era of service, fellowship, and personal testimony as a guide for Christianity’s role on campuses. The creation of the Peace Corps beginning in 1960 led to a way forward for students who wanted to get involved in positive international change that did not involve enlisting in the armed services. Goshen College’s Study-Service Term began in 1968 and still sends students out annually on a thirteen-week, cross-cultural semester that begins with cultural, language, and historical learning and concludes with several weeks of engaged service abroad. Goshen historian Susan Fisher Miller suggested that “in creating SST, Goshen College had taken out a new lease on (former Goshen president) Lawrence Burkholder’s old questions of involvement and withdrawal, responsibility, and compromise, and the proper place of Mennonites in the ambiguous twentieth century” (Miller 1994, 249).
Goshen’s Study-Service Term also served as a precursor, along with the Peace Corps, to an explosion in international study, travel, and service. The many study-abroad options offered by Lutheran, Mainline, and Catholic colleges and universities as well as by the Protestant group known as the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities might be seen as faith-based versions of a larger movement in higher education toward international engagement through study and service abroad.
The story of Catholic higher education is also complex; it experienced a notable shift in the wake of the Kennedy presidency, the papacy of John XXIII, and the Second Vatican Council. In this era, according to historian Alice Gallin, “many attempts were made by Catholic colleges to enlarge areas of freedom for the students and to involve them in the governance of the institution, the ecumenical efforts in their local communities, and volunteer service to the poor” (Gallin 2000, 31).
A leader in this story, DePaul University, made huge strides forward after Vatican II in recovering and developing a Catholic identity and expanding a local and international commitment to serving the poor in uniquely Vincentian ways. The University Ministry offices and the Steans Center for Community-Based Service Learning and Community Service Studies serve as institutional hubs for these activities (Meister 1998; Dalton 2006).
The activism of the 1960s was embraced by some faith-based colleges and universities and ignored by others. Wheaton College, among others, developed a mandatory ROTC program that enrolled all freshmen and sophomore men between 1952 and 1969. Pepperdine University has an enlightening archive of photos on their university website demonstrating institutional support for men in service during the Second World War as well as Viet Nam. (I could not find any such photos from Mennonite colleges.)
Justice and civil rights movements included many precursor activities to service-learning, including the voter registration drive in the South during the summer of 1964, along with a heavily university-based anti-war movement, the war on poverty, and rising agitation for gender equity. Each of these issues created a need for action, and colleges and universities served as laboratories for connecting issues and action.
Perhaps not coincidentally, in the same year of Wolterstorff’s address, 1982, the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame was formally established after more than two decades of student service in underserved populations. The CSC’s roots go back to 1961 and the founding of the Council of the International Lay Apostolate (CILA) by Fr. Larry Murphy, MM, and his students. The CSC formalized the energy put forth for decades by groups such as the Neighborhood Study Help Program (1963), the Office of Volunteer Services (1972), and Cooperating Activities Uniting Students and the Elderly (CAUSE; 1973). Soon, the popular “Year-Off Program” that ran under the auspices of the CILA was at work in Peru and Chile, and later became known as the Latin American Program for Experiential Learning (LAPEL).
The Calvin College Service-Learning Center was born in 1964 as a local tutoring club among students known by the acronym KIDS, or Kindling Intellectual Desire in Students. Much later at Calvin, beginning in the early 2000s, an annual student-organized Faith and International Development Conference wed missions and global development movements along lines drawn by the International Statement on Human Rights and the UN Millennium Development Goals, enacted in the year 2000.
By the 1980s most campuses had developed programs in volunteerism, but the programs often had a complex relationship to the rise of the yuppie student culture that viewed college as a passport to privilege. In 1985 the presidents of Georgetown, Brown, and Stanford universities initiated a national organization called Campus Compact to counter the narrative that all university students were materialistic and self-centered and to provide structural support to the development of meaningful campus engagement activities. Faith-based colleges have not generally led this movement, but they have joined it along the way. The Lutheran Volunteer Corps and the Mennonite Central Committee are good examples of organizations doing good work providing opportunities for global and local service beyond the university years. In interesting ways, mapping a campus’s decision to join forces with Campus Compact is one measure of its commitment to developing a deep culture for service that is collaborative and integral.
A rise of volunteer movements in the 1980s was baptized by Protestant Christian colleges but followed a national trend. Formation of the national group Campus Compact led to an interesting hesitation from evangelical schools to join this secular movement. This hesitation continues, as schools with separatist impulses choose to organize their own activity or simply avoid national trends.
Service-learning programs, with their still-forming emphases on programs, pedagogies, and philosophies of education, have played an important expansive role in providing a touch point between theory and practice for very diversely committed students ranging from pious doers of the word to more cynical but active justice-seekers.
Since the 1980s, a new movement in service has been in the area of study abroad, as well as campus and departmental engagement and research on student civic engagement. Each of these movements have been aided by plenty of research and experimentation in pedagogies like service-learning and community-based practice. Justice questions have emerged as social networking and the Internet have shrunk the world and made nearly instantaneous communication normal. Student activism has shifted from old-fashioned marches to Change.org and Facebook petitions, and research has given student generations labels ranging from Boomer to Buster to X, Y, and Z. Recently, study-abroad programs have attempted to integrate meaningful service-learning pedagogy with cultural learning or multicultural competency. Finally, bringing the conversation all the way to the present, there is a fascinating movement afoot to harness the power of mutual service to do some of the heavy lifting toward inter-faith dialog and understanding. DePaul University and Gordon College, among many other faith-based colleges and universities, have been involved in the White House initiative to connect college students’ service-learning efforts with a greater understanding and tolerance of religiously diverse traditions. Through participation in the President’s InterFaith and Community Service Challenge, colleges are making an effort to harness the power of community service experiences to bring students from a variety of religious traditions—as well as those from no tradition—together under a common banner of service to foster mutual understanding while contributing to the common good.
Models for Service in Faith-Based, American Higher Education: An Overview
Programs that incorporate service within the Lilly National Network of Church-Related Colleges and Universities have a variety of characteristics. Some are exclusively academic, distinguishing between a pedagogy like service-learning and a co-curricular activity like volunteering or ministry. Other efforts are overseen within the Student Life-side of campuses, encouraging students to use their non-academic time to participate in the activities of a church or a local community organization. Sometimes the explicit goal of service activity is evangelistic, to bring people into the salvation that Christ’s kingdom offers. Another model involves the identification of a particular issue or need in the world—for example, combatting sex-trafficking—and organizing time, money, and intellect in the fight against issues and injustices. Most service programs are concentrated on local communities surrounding colleges and universities, while students on alternative service-focused spring break and summer trips will often drive to areas ravaged by disaster to provide a week or more of immediate relief efforts. International service is common under the banner of mission trips, and while much more time and money is spent on international mission trips, local service efforts continue to thrive. New efforts to place students from Christian, or church-related, colleges in service environments that will expose them to positive elements of world religions with which they have little first-hand experience are growing.
Since the 1990s there has been a flourishing movement connecting faith-based higher education with the national activities of Campus Compact and other organizations. Messiah College holds a national conference every two years on faith-based service-learning. DePaul University has hosted two iterations of the National Faith, Justice, and Civic Learning conference, and will again host in the summer of 2013.
My institution, Calvin College, published a book, Commitment and Connection: Service-Learning and Christian Higher Education, in 2002 (Beversluis and Heffner). Colleagues at Gustavus Adolphus College published the work mentioned earlier, The Spirit of Service Exploring Faith, Service, and Social Justice in Higher Education, in 2006 (Johnson and O’Grady). A revival of interest on the part of many faith-based colleges and universities in the work of John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association seems evident. And now, this well-timed Lilly Fellows conference. I hope for a spark of energy in the direction of empowering our faculty and students to make Wolterstorff’s prediction become a reality—to get our scholarship, our co-curriculum, and our institutional engagement efforts all pointed in the direction of inhabiting a world that is culturally rich and that includes all manner of persons and experiences that can be part of the learning process for our students and for us.
Each year in the August days of training for the student leaders hired to work in the Service-Learning Center, I provide a morning reserved simply for the development of a staff covenant. One year they chose Mary Oliver’s poem, “Song of the Builders,” as the substance of their covenant. In the poem, Oliver describes watching “a single cricket; / it was moving the grains of the hillside / this way and that way” (Oliver 2004). The students focused on the poem’s attention to energy, to reflection, to hope, and to the subject of “building the universe,” each of us “in our own inexplicable ways.” The story of service within church-related institutions of higher education in America has this element of the inexplicable to it. Questions of faith and culture and theology and eschatology, of the difference our service makes in the trajectory of Christ’s kingdom in our world and in our lives—these are all in play as we incorporate service each in our own spheres.
I close by pointing to the thesis James Davison Hunter has recently developed in To Change the World (2010). In this contentious and sweeping text, Hunter offers a posture for Christians that any of our programs designed to incorporate service would do well to heed. His suggestion is that we set out to be faithfully present, and leave the changing of the world to God. Keep moving the grains of the hillside, this way and that way. Do so in the confidence and hope that God is making all things new.
Jeffrey P. Bouman is Director of the Service-Learning Center at Calvin College.
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