Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Souls on Fire

Hi S-LC alumni, current workers, and visitors. My name is Robert Bogdanffy, currently an intern for the summer at the Service-Learning Center. I am currently a sophomore at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA and also an international student from Romania. Just over one year ago I graduated from a Romanian high-school in the small city of Petrosani. The story of how I ended up studying in the U.S. and working in the S-LC is relatively long, so I am only able to give you some succinct information about that and about the foundation I work with.

While in high-school learned about this foundation that works with youth and promotes civic engagement through Service-Learning and informal means of education. This foundation that I later ended up joining, which became the best thing that ever happened to me is called the New-Horizons Foundation []. As a beneficiary of one of their programs called “Impact” I opened my eyes towards the need in my community. It is still surprising to me today to see how much this program helps youth and how little they know about the need around them. Many times we can recognize a country as materially needy, yet we do not often think of a country as lacking social capital or we do not make an effort to see why a certain need exists. The Communist era that lasted for roughly 45 years has left its mark on Romanian society not only in economic terms, but mostly through a deeper heritage within us. What the New-Horizons foundation is trying to do means counteracting this heritage, fighting against apathy, against the lack of trust-- in other words trying to build social capital. Sustainable international economic development is based on a climate of trust, and where that is lacking, nothing functions properly. Vaclav Havel once said “Without commonly shared and widely entrenched moral values and obligations, neither the law, nor the democratic government, nor even the market economy will function properly.” In the effort to educate people about this need in Romania, the foundation then began partnering with U.S. institutions among which were Northwestern College and Calvin College. A connection now exists that enabled me to study at Northwestern College as a full time international student. The summer position in The S-LC was made possible through Dr. Jeff Bouman’s support of the establishment in Romania.

Now let's get to the introduction of Charles Marsh’s book “The Beloved Community” entitled “Souls on Fire”. You may ask yourself, how does this really connect to what we’ve been working on in Romania, and all the similar efforts like ours through the world? Martin Luther King is quoted in the chapter as clearly defining the civil rights movement’s goal, “the end is the creation of the beloved community” when referring to the happenings in Montgomery. In the same way, reflecting upon our work in the world, we ask: What is our communal purpose? Why do we try to build social capital? Why do Service-Learning? Why do we struggle with these complex and most often philosophical ideas, trying to find more just societies in an unjust world; what is our end goal? There are many incomplete answers to those questions, such as peace or prosperity, yet none of these seem to capture the complete experience that believers in Christ are striving towards. We understand that we are called to live a righteous life, obtain salvation, love our neighbor, and what Martin Luther King does is capture this in one goal that has been reduced to one word: Shalom. Creating the beloved community is bringing Shalom to God’s earth. What higher purpose for the created matter, than for a sinful world to become a mirror of the glory of God? In order to have Shalom though, we need a number of preconditions that were enumerated above, conditions such as justice, morality, even happiness or good intentions. Acting as agents is no simple task. It is not limited to preaching the gospel; it many times also implies establishing these organizations and addressing need wherever it is on the globe and in any form it appears. The problems of the world are complex, the solutions are not always straight-forward, some of the questions are formidable, questions like “How do you teach morality?” or “How to reeducate something that has become popular culture?” Yet with all these challenges, we must stay firm, and “Souls on Fire” captures the essence of the fuel that keeps burning within us, of the divine gift that stays alive through grace and keeps us focused. For people who have opened their hearts with agape love, there is no outside motivation needed. This is the characteristic of this highest form of love. It transcends reason, question, intellect; it is simple, pure, joyful, harmonious and selfless love.

Charles Marsh ends his introduction urging us to accept this spiritual vision that animated the civil rights movement. I would go even further to say not only to accept it, but also spread it through your service and dedication as an example to the world. We have seen time and time again that this love and service is contagious, but does it have the potential to spread worldwide? I guess that is all up to you and me to answer! Will you rise up to the call?

All your thoughts/comments/ideas are welcome!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Protest: Personal or Communal?

       In Chapter 4 of his book God’s Politics, entitled “Protest Is Good; Alternatives are Better”, Jim Wallis argues that communal protest can have enormous “transformational” power if channeled into the form of an “alternative”. Wallis breaks his chapter down into two main points:     

         1. Saying “no” (e.g. protesting) is good, but proposing alternatives is better.

   2. During our “most difficult and darkest moments” we must reconnect with relationships that nurture us and our faith in the sanctity of life.

Wallis, Director and Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners, wrote in reflection upon his experience protesting the Iraq war. Up until the “eleventh hour”, Wallis promoted his “Six-Point Plan” (a document detailing a peaceful alternative to war) in both the United States and overseas. Rather than merely protesting Bush’s decision to go to war, Wallis and his like-minded peers advocated for an alternative. Together these Americans presented a strong protestation to their own government’s foreign policy. Wallis claims this form of protest is powerful, “effective and transformational”, and able to “illumine a society to its need for change.” For Wallis, “protest should be making a promise”: An explicit promise made by a community.

There are several important weaknesses to this view of protest:
  • Wallis assumes that one or both of the two major sides might be willing (or made willing) to listen to a legitimate alternative. It seems historically that frequently the major power players in politics are driven by irrational thinking. Fear, greed, and anger are blinding and compelling at the same time and politicians are not afraid to manipulate their constituents using these emotions. I’m no Machiavellian, but the reality I’ve seen is that legitimate alternatives are not given legitimate consideration because other priorities take over.
  • Wallis assumes that the public are disciplined and educated enough to seriously consider an alternative (international quake zone summit or Michael Jackson’s memorial service?).
  • The kind of diplomacy Wallis advocates would require a degree of unity nationally and globally I have never witnessed in my life. In order for a plan like Wallis’s to be taken seriously, Americans and nations across the globe would have to wholly commit to the values of the doctrine and its authors: in this case pacifism and trust. As honorable as I believe these values to be, for any alternative to gain momentum, it would have to appeal to large, but different groups. In the process of gaining support, the original supporters risk watering down the original alternative, simplifying, and reducing it into a simple black and white option. This tends to happen in American politics because Americans naturally prefer bipartisan politics: it’s easiest for us to react in black and white ways.
As for my understanding of protest, I have been heavily influenced by Wendell Berry’s essay "A Poem of Difficult Hope.” Communal protest for a counterculture alternative is an ideal I admire, but when it comes to daily life I find Berry’s view far more powerful and far more comforting:

“Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out for longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone's individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Finally, the Theme for StreetFest 2009: Walk Humbly

Although in the same sentence as do justice and love mercy (Micah 6:8), “walk humbly” is not met with the same enthusiasm. God doesn’t gives us the option of walking humbly, he commands us to. The hope for StreetFest is that this idea of walking humbly will be explored and that students, faculty, and staff will commit to a new way of seeing and participating in this world.

Walking conveys quite a different message than running. Running means stress, speed, and desire to get from point A to point B as fast as possible without slowing to observe what’s in between. Walking, though, is much the opposite. Walking still gets you from here to there but it allows for, even encourages, fellowship, conversations, intimacy with the surroundings, and the ability to see a place in its true form.

Walking can be powerful- it was the pace from which Christ administered his love on the least of these in society. If we are to emulate Christ we must also walk- walk in order to notice the details of God’s creation, walk to create opportunities for meaningful conversations, but most importantly walk to be in stride with those who are struggling.

Humility can be applied many ways as well. First, as we walk through life we must be humble before Christ. Our savior left heaven to die for this spoiled world. He lived his life here- never commuting from heaven. He not only healed and preached but spent time and socialized in a non-serving way. He lived with prostitutes, prisoners, non-Christians, and by doing so showed that they were just as deserving of his attention and saving as anyone else. We must respect that this was Christ’s focus, and be humbled by the knowledge that we weren’t necessarily the type of people that were on the top of God’s list to see.

We also must be humble before others. Too often we elevate, spiritually, people with a well-rounded Christian education, people who have clear criminal records, those who attend fancy churches, and people who are gifted with the ability to thoughtfully articulate themselves. As we (should) know, none of these things make a person closer to God. Instead we should be humbled that every single person was made in God’s image. We should be humbled that the people we “serve” are just as connected to God as we are.

An attitude of humbleness is necessary in working towards the Service-Learning Center’s goals of long-term relationships, racial reconciliation, and cultural intelligence. “Walk Humbly” is simple and familiar, but rarely is it importance dissected as frequently as other commands.

In other StreetFest news, we have again commissioned the work of a local Grand Rapids artist. This year, Rick Beerhorst, a Calvin grad, is helping us translate our thoughts into a meaningful logo. The Beerhorst family consists of Rick, his wife, and their 6 children who all make up “Studio Beerhorst”, the family business. They are committed to the city of Grand Rapids and have mastered the art of car-less living by intentionally buying a house within walking distance of the Famer’s Market, grocery stores, and places of worship. All of these lifestyle choices make Rick a perfect artist to represent what StreetFest attempts to communicate to incoming students. I will update more as details emerge!