Monday, June 30, 2008

Summer Reading Two: Place and Particularity

Just for a little context, this reading “Theorizing Liberal Arts Education and Place” comes from Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity which was the written product of the Embrace our Place interdisciplinary study that various Calvin Faculty and Staff participated in.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this article. I believe that it speaks eloquently to what the goals of Christian Higher Education should be. It also speaks to our particular goals here at the Service-Learning Center. Early on in the article it says, “When the specific place sees higher education as a resource for the big questions being faced, dynamic opportunities develop.” I personally see a strong connection here to Service-Learning, and hope that the opportunities that we are fostering and cultivating do maximize these opportunities for both the sake of student s and the sake of the community (which really cannot be separated).

Before I go on, this quote seems to highlight only the benefit the “specific place” receives from this interaction, thus leaving out the benefit those in higher education receive. Although this quote may seem to do this, I believe in practice it does not. This being said, this particular quote points to the necessity of “the specific place see(ing) higher education as a resource.” In this it is clear that the community needs to view higher education as a resource before the relationship can develop. Our question needs to be how can we better aid the “specific place” in seeing higher education this way.

Lastly, this reading begins with talk about higher education and its propensity to create individuals “who are unable to care for real people in real places.” I think that this is an incredibly true insight and is often a discussion that is ignored in academia. At the same time it this article emphasizes the importance of Place and the obligation Higher Education has to instilling a sense of responsibility into students. Much emphasis is placed on this discussion of the importance of Place as a new topic of conversation in Higher Education. Do we see this as a new conversation in greater society or just in Higher Education? Has this conversation been taking place, just using different language? Is it possible that even our discussion of Place is an example of the inability those in academia have to relate to those outside of that particular community?

Becca Timmermans

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Discussion: "The Work of Our Hands" by Debra Rienstra

This summer, our Service-Learning Center staff will be reading a number of different articles related to the work of our office. Every two weeks or so, one of our staff members will post a brief summary of an article and then pose some questions for discussion. Our hope is that next year’s staff, currently scattered from Singapore to Guatemala to Eastown, will be able to use the comment section as a forum to discuss different issues/ideas raised in these articles.

The first article on the docket is a chapter in Debra Rienstra’s book So Much More: An Invitation to Christian Spirituality entitled “The Work of Our Hands.” In this chapter, Rienstra offers some reflection on the spiritual discipline of service, exploring, among other things, service as a form of “grateful obedience” and as an act that points and works toward the Kingdom. In the chapter she also explores the relationship between sacrifice and service as well as the idea of vocation or, as she would prefer to say, vocations.
What I found most interesting about Rienstra’s chapter was one of the “paradoxes” of service that she highlights. On the one hand, as Rienstra puts it, “our behavior has enduring consequences.” People are working hard to create just governments, to discover scientific answers to disease, to reform health care and education, etc. Surely, this work being done is work for the Kingdom. On the other hand, however, we must keep in mind that our service and work for social justice is small and will not in and of itself bring the Kingdom. Rienstra writes, “...the danger is that we might get all triumphant and think that we’re doing it and not God. Humanity is evolving; we’re contributing to progress; and if we keep at it, someday angels will descend on clouds to thank us” (214).
The paradox circles around the importance of our actions: the service we do, the choices we make, the ways we live, etc., can all point to and push toward the Kingdom, yet ultimately God is the one working to establish God’s Kingdom; our works both matter and they don’t. In the end, Rienstra seems to be pushing her readers towards humility, towards acknowledging that God does not need us or our service but graciously allows us to enter into the work God is already doing to restore the world. She uses the metaphor of a child in the kitchen with his mother:

"The truth is that most of the time, we ought to concentrate our efforts on staying out of God’s way. We are probably less like secret agents and more like the little kid who wants to “help” bake cookies. He spills flour and measures things inexactly and eats a lot of the chocolate chips. Mom has to intervene to clean up the messes if any of the cookies are going to turn out. It’s a terribly inefficient operation. Yet it has value other than efficiency, in teaching the child and in the loving companionship built by a shared task. I imagine God sometimes would like to shoo us out of the way and get down to business without our help. But like a wise mother, God generously welcomes us back again and again into the kitchen."

I think the discussion of if/how/why our service matters is an interesting one. It is both humbling and relieving to know that God is the one at work in restoring the world, that it doesn’t all rest on our shoulders, and I am grateful to Rienstra for making that clear. I do fear, however, that this idea of God’s sovereignty can give Christians an excuse to not be as attentive to the work of social justice, to their personal decisions about how/where we live, shop, eat, and work. I think a certain level of responsibility and agency seems to get lost when we go too far in emphasizing God’s sovereignty instead of our own choices, but that could just be my rebelling against my Calvinist background...

What are your thoughts? What are the dangers of one side of the paradox being emphasized more than the other? What role do we actually play in realizing the Kingdom? What are some other parts of Rienstra’s chapter that you appreciated and/or took issue with? Please join the discussion with your own thoughts, comments, or questions about the article.

Monday, June 9, 2008

StreetFest 2008!

Well friends, the theme has been decided.
The study done by Embrace Our Place published in fall 2007 uses interdisciplinary research to explore the intersection between the liberal arts and the particulars of place. It talks about developing care for place. This “care” comes from understanding one’s location in the context of personal relationships. It involves “attentiveness to particularity” and “requires attentiveness to otherness.”

The title of StreetFest this year is “to embrace fully.” My desire for these three days is to encourage conversation centered on the importance of place and interconnectedness. This is, to emphasize two specific points:

For four years these students will be in a particular place, part of which involves the city of Grand Rapids. StreetFest serves to encourage students to engage the community in which they will be living. That is to interact, explore, and celebrate! This is an event where students have the opportunity to learn about the many ways in which they can participate as active citizens in this particular place. It is my hope that dialogue will encourage an attitude of excitement and a willingness to embrace Grand Rapids fully. This event serves to foster consideration for future Service-Learning endeavors, promoting a spirit of openness and thoughtfulness while discouraging the perspective that narrowly predetermines specific aspects/areas of the city.
The idea “to embrace fully” equally refers to the individual student’s role within the larger web of interdependent members. I wish to encourage students to recognize their own position within the community and to realize both their voice and responsibility. Their task in this community is not to come and speak to a place, but to participate in a place. My hope is that their StreetFest experience will encourage students to offer themselves to this place, through relationships and care.

There are several exciting projects percolating at the moment. Art, color, and local resources! I will share them with you as they progress. For now, I would love to hear feedback on the theme (feelings, ideas, reflections).

Your faithful coordinator, Reb.

Interested in looking at the entire Embrace Our Place study? Please do! (

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Themes, Beauty, and Brokenness.

And so it begins again, that reoccurring summer Service-Learning Center angst around what this year’s StreetFest theme will be. After much deliberation on the part of Rebecca, our StreetFest coordinator, and a brainstorming session or two, we seem to be circling in on a few possibilities.

Interestingly, as we have been discussing the possibilities for this year’s theme, one of the topics that has come up a number of times is the beauty of/in brokenness.

Is there something beautiful about brokenness, brokenness experienced on both individual and societal levels? If so, what is it that makes brokenness beautiful? Is it the “stuff” born of brokenness that is beautiful or is beauty inherent to brokenness itself? What does the relationship between beauty and brokenness have to do with service-learning or, more specifically, StreetFest?

We are hoping to start a discussion about the relationship between beauty and brokenness in the comments section below; please feel free to join in the discussion with your own thoughts, comments, or questions.