Monday, April 28, 2008

A film review: Night and Fog (1956)

A short, thirty minute French documentary film, Night and Fog, eloquently describes and shows the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. It was produced by Alain Resnais in 1956, and was the first documentary film to be made about the holocaust. Presenting a mixture of black and white newsreel footage with color footage, Resnais invokes a conversation between the past and the present as he summons viewers to always remember this terrible human tragedy, and also stand on guard against future oppressors, tyrants, and murderers. This film stands in the canon of excellent documentary films, and is one worth watching. Be warned, there are startling images in this short film.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

You learned what?...

What exactly is it that we are learning when we do service-learning? It is interesting, few teachers would walk into a classroom and be content with students learning absolutely anything. Instead, syllabi are designed and goals are set wherein content is constrained so as to teach students certain things and not other things. The result, no one class can ever provide students with the whole picture, but it can keep the standards high and set those students on a path towards developing a rich and deep body of knowledge. But then we come to the issue of service-learning, wherein the boundaries and goals are not nearly so clear.

To offer some explanation of service-learning, it as a reciprocal exchange wherein the dichotomy of server and learner are deconstructed to reveal that serving and learning happens simultaneously, and so the traditional conceptions of a person helping and a person being helped are done away with in favor of a more dynamic and organic model that reflects the fluid nature of human relationships. It is relationships that are at the bottom of service-learning. In every experience of service we form a relationship with someone, someplace, or something, and therein we consciously or unconsciously set in motion a process whereby we both affect and are effected.

Questions quickly arise, though, as to what service and learning are and look like inside of this model. I would venture to say that for better or worse we have a clearer conception of what acts of service might look like (though in a future post this would be another issue worth exploring), but we are not so clear about the learning part of the service-learning experience.

Each year the Service-Learning Center at Calvin College organizes and implements a large scale event called Streetfest for new, incoming students to the college. During this event, students spend most of the day visiting a local area non-profit, helping them with whatever needs or projects the organization might have for them that day. After completing some work with the organization, students gather in small groups to reflect on their experiences, discussing what they have learned. My question is, what kinds of things are students supposed to learn? I am not asking what students must walk away saying they have learned, but rather, is service-learning so open that any and all kinds of lessons learned are desirable? Or rather, does the pedagogy of service-learning actually intend something, in particular, to be learned?

Perhaps the answer to this question is academic based service-learning wherein teachers utilize service-learning as a tool to accomplish the goals of their course. In this classroom setting, a teacher can direct students to reflect on certain things so as to form conclusions about specific material, issues, or questions. But does service-learning then also take place outside of this structured classroom environment? At Calvin College, beyond academic based service learning, there are also service-learning programs such as Streetfest and community partnerships within the residence halls that students take part in. In these programs, the settings are far less structured and defined. Does this mean that the domain of possible lessons learned is broadened for this type of service-learning? Or could it be that service-learning is not a nuetral practice, and regardless of whether teachers or classrooms are involved, the very act of service-learning disposes students towards learning something particular? Could it be that, just as the pedagogy of service-learning is born out of a deconstruction of the traditional binaries of server and served, and places a subsequent emphasis on appreciating the dynamics of relationships wherein exchange takes place that it also then inscribes that same disposition in students in the form of learning about close analysis, an appreciation for complexity and tension, and perhaps, just maybe, even political convictions relating to seeking justice. If this is the case, then a whole series of questions follow, most interesting among them, though, is whether service-learning is, in fact, the bi-partisan, safe, cute, tame, and nice pedagogy that so many seem to think it is, or is it something that is volatile and risky as it threatens to disrupt the status qou, set practitioners ill at ease in their previously unexamined thoughts and opinions, and call into question the very systems of society that give rise to and support the problems facing any given community?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Food Crisis

This photo was taken by Tyler Hicks of the New York Times. It is a picture of a Haitian gathering food or anything else of any use from the massive dumping grounds outside of Port-au-Prince in Haiti following rising food costs in the capital city and widespread hunger that has sparked protests. For a snapshot of the food crisis taking place in Haiti and throughout the world, see this New York Times article.

About This Blog

One of my favorite bands is a California based group called Switchfoot. With a reputation for thoughtful and hopeful lyrics, the band makes an interesting move toward the end of one of their biggest albums, The Beautiful Letdown. In a song called “Adding to the Noise,” the band observes that our society is filled with noise and sound, by which they are referring to the perpetual stream of noise (t.v. commercials and shows, radio DJs, and so on) that surround us but never penetrates us in any meaningful way. Then, in a risky move, the band says,
“If we're adding to the noise
turn off this song.
If we're adding to the noise
turn off your stereo, radio, video...”

Remaining true to their condemnation of meaningless noise, Switchfoot refuses to be another contributor to this pollution. So they take the chance that they will be turned off, but they will hope that they have done their job well enough that they have created not just mere noise, but instead, a meaningful blend of words and instruments to have a deep impact on their listeners and thereby earn their listening ears. It is with this frame of mind that I have approached creating and writing for this blog, the Service-Learning at Calvin blog.

There is no shortage of blogs on the internet. Blogs are easy to start, often free of charge, and offer little structure and few restrictions for posting. As such, there is a lot of noise, so to speak, out there amidst the digital domain of the internet. Some of this noise is tremendously meaningful stuff, and some is exactly that stream of noise that Switchfoot was talking about, the perpetual stream of sound buzzing around us but failing to penetrate us in a meaningful way.

It is the goal of the people contributing to the Service-Learning at Calvin blog to create thoughtful and intelligent conversations about a wide variety of topics, but particularly topics relating to justice, shalom, service-learning, higher education, and the combinations of any of these along with many more. Posts may take whatever form an author might desire, whether it be art, words, sound, video, or anything else. This blog is as much an expression of who some of the people in the Service-Learning Center office are, as it is a medium by which to promote broad based conversations about what we think are meaningful topics, and to hopefully inspire action in pursuit of a world in harmony between humans, nature, and God.

It is my particular hope that this blog might become a longstanding part of what the Service-Learning Center at Calvin College does. I think there is potential in this blog for some incredibly vibrant conversations and posts that inspire new thoughts and, just perhaps, even lead to action. In time, I hope that more people find this blog and become regular readers of it, as well as contributors. It would be a great thing for this blog to have an ever-larger group of contributors, such that it became a strongly pluralist setting wherein multiple perspectives are expressed, and thereby, the conversation enriched.

Blogs, as one tool amongst others, represent a powerful way to open up conversation to a far larger audience than could have been previously imagined. I do not advocate that we worship at the altar of communication technologies, but I do think that it is important to recognize that as the field of service-learning continues to grow and adapt, it will need to make use of such tools as blogs, facebook, YouTube, and other media. This blog is one such foray into that still unexplored domain.

With all that said, though, I recognize that this blog could become just another source of noise pollution, failing to ever truly reach people in a meaningful way. If this blog ever does become that for you, the reader, then, as the band Switchfoot did, so also I will say,

“If we're adding to the noise
turn off this blog…”

However, it is my hope that we can work hard enough to offer up thoughtful and intelligent posts so as to generate a meaningful exchange with everyone that might come across this blog. If you have any ideas about how we can create a better space for intelligent conversation, please share those with us.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Angry Christians, Faithful Christians

The Christian tradition has always had an awkward relationship with the human passion of anger. At times, throughout the church's history, prominent authorities have held that resorting to anger is once and always a sin. The desert fathers, in particular, held this view, for instance Cassian said, "Intense emotion of anger for whatever reason blinds the eye of the heart." On Cassian's view, there were no exceptions to the passion of anger, it was always a sin. An earlier desert father, Evagrius, held a similar view, but allowed for individuals to be angry at their own sin, however all other anger disrupted the holy task of prayer, and was therefore a sin. Yet, other authorities in church history have held a view that rightly ordered anger can serve a good end, and thereby should not be rejected entirely. The medieval, Christian thinker, Thomas Aquinas, made a distinction between the passion of anger and its manifestation as either a vice in the form of wrath or a virtue in the form of righteous indignation. For Aquinas what was essential to shaping the passion of anger for good was the expression of charity, or love, in conjunction with the expression of anger. But love here should not be read as an ambiguous feeling or concept, for Aquinas, charity, or love, was understood clearly as seeking a friendship or relationship with God. Thus, as we step back we see that, according to Aquinas, where anger was directed by reason and charity, it served a meaningful role in the Christian life.

I believe that Aquinas' account of the passion of anger fits far better with Scripture than a view that attempts to reduce anger to a sin in all or nearly all cases. I am not saying that we all need to cultivate feelings of anger, instead I mean something far more specific, I mean that there is a place, even a need for righteous indignation within the Christian church today. That is, there is a need and a place for anger to express itself insofar as it holds God in view as its object or goal, where anger and love are entwined together.

To give an example of what I imagine here, take the person who encounters the situation of a specific person who is terribly impoverished or abandoned by all relatives or friends. The person that witnesses the crises of this other person cries out against the situation, mourning and aching, they say "this is not the way it is supposed to be," but then, not stopping at mourning, they begin to reflect or perhaps even talk with this person, and they come to understand the intricate blend of individual choices and institutional pressures, things controllable and uncontrollable, that have led to where this person is right now. At this point, mourning turns into indignation, not at the individual, but at the larger communities and society that we are all a part of, that have or has created and sustained the structure of systems and institutions that perpetrate injustice, and directly or indirectly lead to the tragic situations of countless people throughout the world. But this indignation is not a free floating, ambiguous feeling without any grounding, instead it is an indignation that is rooted in the mourning that recognizes that things are not right, which is rooted first in the love or charity that seeks God and the way He intended His good creation. It is by this genealogy of God directed love that indignation is not merely indignation, but is righteous indignation. However, where charity or love facilitates this process of being moved to a form of good anger, it also completes it, or perfects it. The righteously indignant person next moves to respond in a deliberate and definite manner to the needs of this other person through acts of compassion and kindness because of their love for God and this person, their neighbor.

Undoubtedly this example raises questions about what it means to help another person, how God communicates with humans and what He communicates exactly, what is controllable versus uncontrollable, and the list goes on, but if I may, I would like to bracket those questions for the moment. Instead my point here is to show that anger, as expressed as righteous indignation, can be a good thing, even a very good thing. Moreover, I would assert that it is not merely just one good tool from which to draw on amidst life's experiences, but rather, insofar as it is bound up with charity, or love, that cornerstone of Christian faith, it is an essential and necessary movement of the faithful Christian. On this view, Christians must daily set themselves against the pressures of apathy and maintenance of the status quo. Instead, we must be prepared to be righteously indignant, and open to all the confusion, questions, guilt, and feelings of being ill at ease that they may bring. But it is not enough to just be prepared, we must in fact, be righteously indignant at times, because the world is not as it should be, and there are people that are hurting and in pain because of it, and we have played a role in perpetrating such injustices, and we have a role to play in correcting those injustices.

One of the formative communities that I am a part of at this point in my life is Calvin College, a collection and combination of specific people, buildings, ideas, and practices. So for a moment I will address myself to this community. Calvin College is an institution that subscribes to principles and tenets of the Christian faith, and many of the people that are members of the Calvin community are sincere Christian believers. In this context, we have reason to fear the silence. I do not mean the prayerful or meditative silence, but rather the silence that comes with complacency, apathy, and maintenance of the status quo. If we listen or look around us and do not hear or see the rumblings and shaking fists of righteous indignation, there is reason to question ourselves. So my question, how is the community of Calvin College acting out righteous indignation informed and perfected by love?

To return, make no mistake, there is a manifestation of anger that is absolutely evil, that intends pain and suffering as its end, which is malevolent at heart, and is far removed from rightly ordered love. This is what we could call wrath, and is a type of anger that should be rebuked and decried as a terrible wrong and sin. However, to see only this side of anger, and thereby reject the root passion of anger altogether is to lose the redemptive side of anger, wherein anger as righteous indignation is entwined with love, and moves us to serve God more faithfully by working to accomplish His vision for a world without pain and suffering, poverty and hunger, violence and bloodshed. While rejecting wrath, we should hold fast to righteous indignation, because there is power in it to serve God and seek His vision for a good world.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cultivating Humilty

In a world that asks us to take sides and make choices, it is easy to reduce everything to us and them, me and you. We position ourselves on one side of a line that we drew in the sand long ago but then forgot that we ever did, and we look outwards, always looking at the "them," that which we don't believe to be ourselves. It is the unfortunate reality, though, that our ability to understand the world in terms of "us and them" or "me and you" is more often the inability to looker deeper within ourselves, and see us in them, myself in you. When we do this, the line in the sand is dissolved with the shuffling of feet walking back and forth, people talking with one another and shaking hands.

When we believe things so strongly, things that seem so good, it is hard to take the tempered perspective, to look within and see the world outside more clearly. Instead, the passion of deep conviction more often spurs us towards a rhetoric that posits sides in opposition to one another. This present election season is an obvious example of this. However, even outside the spotlights and soundbytes, there is this tendency still. Within the service-learning community there can be a tendency to see the action of volunteering as inferior to that of service-learning, and the proponents of each perspective and practice stand on opposite lines arguing with one another. But if we take a moment, we stop and realize that human beings are never so well ordered as to do anything so consistently. Service-learners are never just service-learners, but rather there are times when what they are doing is much more akin to volunteering, and vice versa. Concepts and practices of volunteering and service learning do not lie on opposite sides, but rather collide and wrestle with one another in a single person. I recognize that I, myself, am one of these people, never perfectly consistent in all that I do and say.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Service-Learning through Community-Focused Nursing

My name is Krista and I have worked in the Service-Learning Center this past year as an ABS-L Coordinator for the Spanish Department. In my nursing and Spanish classes I have been able to see how service-learning can help me apply knowledge and skills outside of the classroom.  
Compassion is crucial for all areas of nursing, but in the community setting, nurses may be even more out of their comfort zones and thus need to bring in more focused care. As I am in my final semester of nursing at Calvin, I am completing my community-focused nursing clinical rotation. While in the past we have worked with the individual in a more community-based nursing, we are now looking at the big picture of the whole neighborhood as our client. I am learning the great need to patiently listen to the needs of the community, without carrying in my own assumptions of what those needs might be. I am learning to recognize what resources and assets the community has so that I can best focus on how to educate my clients and teach them to educate each other about resources that address their health concerns. Though time is limited when working with clients, I appreciate when I can sit and listen and actually offer more direct care. Nursing feels more comfortable and worthwhile to me when I can work in the communities that are often overlooked. However, I must remember to go beyond the feel-good concept of “helping others” but instead form more of a partnership with the agencies and resources that already exist in the community, working side-by side with them. Humility is incredibly essential in this line of work, as community health nurses advocate for the individuals who live in the communities. Nurses do not understand everything about the lives of our clients, but we must learn to accept what we do not know and to trust in God to guide us through humble and patient open hearts.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Will Calvin College live up to its Christian commitment to take care of God's creation?

This image was taken from the cover of Grand Rapids Magazine, wherein a feature story details how West Michigan, and particularly Grand Rapids has displayed an extraordinary commitment to environmental sustainability. From Mayor George Heartwell's efforts to purchase 100% renewable energy for all government buildings in Grand Rapids to Guy Bazzani of Bazzani Associates designing some of the most innovative environmentally sustainable buildings in the country to the new Metropolitan Health Hospital integrating key environmentally sound technologies into its operations and building to the outstanding example of local companies like Herman Miller that are working to eliminate all waste from their operations by 2020; Grand Rapids, and Western Michigan, generally, is doing some amazing work to improve our impact on this world and manage natural and limited resources more effectively.

But while the Grand Rapids community continues to display forward thinking and progress with regards to an improved commitment to environmental sustainability, I do not see the same commitment being displayed here at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. It is true that in 2004 the college completed the Vincent and Helen Bunker Interpretive Center that makes use of cutting edge technologies to showcase environmentally sustainable practice. Indeed, the college should be applauded for construction of this building. However, since the completion of this building, Calvin College's commitment to the environment has been less clear, in fact, there are signs of regression in its commitment to the environment.

Take a quick walking tour of the campus, and you will be astonished by the amount of new construction taking place. In the past year the foundations and framework for the new Spoelhof Fieldhouse Complex have been completed, as well as a completely new extension to the existing dorm of Kalsbeek-Huizenga. Additionally, plans are in place to completely renovate the interior of the Fine Arts Center as well as construct an entirely new building that will serve as Student Commons. In short, Calvin College is undergoing massive building projects as it continues to grow and change. But does Calvin display the same commitment in these building projects as it did in the construction of the Bunker Interpretive Center?

The answer to that question is not nearly so clear. While the Bunker Interpretive center is a LEED certified building, exemplifying some of the highest standards in the building industry for environmental sustainability, the new buildings are not forecasted to be LEED certified. Surveying the web pages revealing news, progress, pictures, and statements about the new buildings, there is little hint of any substantial commitment to environmental sustainability ( Certainly one hopeful sign is that one floor within the new dorm wing will be reserved for students passionate about environmental stewardship. My growing fear, though, is that Calvin College does not exercise a consistent ethic of environmental care. Instead, administration adopts a utilitarian analysis wherein an emphasis on environmental care is only warranted when it will help the bottom line, which more often than not seems to be about the economics. Undoubtedly, the new buildings will be great for glossy publications that the college sends out to attract prospective students, but in the meantime, are we taking care of the natural environment that our campus exists within and affects?

If the administration fails to exhibit as equally strong of an environmental commitment to new buildings and building renovations as they did with the Bunker Interpretive center, they threaten to reduce the Bunker Interpretive Center to a mere token effort instead of a monument representing the beginning of something truly transformational and powerful happening here on Calvin College's campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan. So while, as the Grand Rapids Magazine article highlights, West Michigan, and especially Grand Rapids, is showing strong signs of "going green," Calvin has yet to prove itself in such respect. Moreover, for Calvin College, in particular, the stakes are not merely whether they will join a national awakening to environmental stewardship or not, but rather, will they live up to their asserted claims of a Christian commitment to stewardship of creation and daily efforts to bring about Shalom, that future day when all of humanity, God, and nature will exist in right relationship with one another.