Thursday, June 17, 2010

Service-Learning Conference at Messiah College

Last week Thursday, Friday and Saturday found seven of us (four summer student staff and three of us from the professional staff) on the road to Grantham, Pennsylvania for the bi-annual national conference the folks at Messiah College host on Faith-Based Service-Learning.

On top of being a great road trip, we were able to meet some wonderful colleagues and learn about what is happening in the world of service-learning and civic engagement all around the country, and in same cases, the world. The conference theme was "Sustaining Our Call to Service," and there were excellent discussions about the many aspects of the theme over the three days of the conference. Dr. Richard Hughes gave the opening plenary address, and he went over a rationale for service as a central Christian practice, as well as a key practice found in religious traditions ranging from Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Hinduism. He pointed out the need to see service as foundational to our faith-based practice, even if and when it becomes passe' among college students. Other plenaries included Gretchen VanderVeer, the Director of Leadership Development and Training for the Corporation for National and Community Service, and two panel discussions - one with local community partners from the Harrisburg area, and another with practitioners involved in international service-learning from the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox traditions within Christianity. Peppered in between the plenaries were a wide range of paper presentations and workshops. Meal times and breaks were full of deeper engagement with topics and practices, as well as institutional and geographic limitations, and wider discussions about the role of particular faith traditions in how service-learning looks 'on the ground' in various contexts.

I was able to visit the Harrisburg Institute on Friday afternoon, thanks to the hospitality of Dr. Susan Hasseler, the Dean of Messiah College's Dean of the School of Business, Education, the Social Sciences and Community Engagement, and Craig Dalen, the manager of the Harrisburg Institute. Situated in the heart of downtown Harrisburg, it houses 25 students committed to living and learning in the heart of urban Harrisburg, even while they take classes at the suburban campus 20 minutes away in Grantham.

We were energized by the conference. Lots of good conversation about ways to deepen partnerships, better assess learning, extend the conversation and the practice on our campuses, and collaborate one with another.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Reflections on Three Years at the Service-Learning Center

Reciprocity. The hyphen. Shalom. Community. Embrace your place. Discernment. Journey. Reflection.

These are all words I have heard frequently throughout my time at Calvin, and particularly in the three years I worked as a student in the Service-Learning Center.

Often, at least in ‘Calvin circles’, these words can become cliché losing their depth and significance.

There was a time during my career at Calvin that these words did lose significance for me, at least in a Christian sense. I clung strongly to the ideas of reciprocity, reflection and tolerance, but I had grown weary of the church and its institutionalism of Christ. I stopped attending church regularly and my prayer life was sparse.

Yet, every week we still gathered as a staff to share in community together, to talk about our work and at every meeting we would incorporate some Christian practices, such as reading or prayer. Although I would not choose to implement these practices into my life, the fact that I knew they meant a lot to my coworkers and supervisors ensured that I respected them and reflected upon them.

This year, my senior year at Calvin, has been a tough and yet beautiful year for me. I came into the year quite burned out from a hectic summer, yet determined to be involved in a variety of activities since the ability to multitask and do many things well was something that I used to define myself.

During this time I began attending a church that observed traditional Christian practices, and also maintained strong themes of justice, peace and gender equity – themes which I had felt were missing at other churches I had attended. I found a sense of assurance whenever I attended.

In November I fell mysteriously quite ill and with low energy and a high heart rate, I was forced to drop all the activities that I had used to define myself. I needed to learn to be okay with failure. I was propelled to admit my weaknesses and ask for help from other people.

And most of all I had to learn to place my concerns, my health, and the people I cared for in God’s hands. I had to discover that who I am is not defined by the things that I do, but by the Being who created me. These were hard lessons, but it was through embracing my community and taking time to reflect that I was able to fully embrace being in God’s loving arms.

A pinnacle of my journey this year took place on a Thursday night in the fall. I had missed about a month’s staff meetings due to my illness. The week I returned the theme of the meeting was faithfulness. I knew that in recognition of God’s faithfulness and the faithfulness of the love and care I had received from my co-workers I needed to be honest with how I was truly doing, both emotionally and physically. So, with a shaky voice, I shared with the group how I was honestly doing. To be that weak and vulnerable was incredibly difficult, but I felt compelled to be a witness of the journey God had been leading me on.

It was then that I realized what a gift it is to work in this office. The deep care that we share, the emphasis on community and the continual Christian practices have truly and deeply shaped me.

So what I have learned in my three years working in the Service-Learning Center? Well, my professional skills like event-planning and administration have definitely been honed. I have learned how to work both independently and within a team. I have also seen the importance of relationship building and been reminded of the fact that community is not limited by time or place. Yet, as I reflect I realize that all the phrases I started this post with have been worked more fully into my life. For me they are no longer cliché nor insignificant, they are instead phrases that shape the hope that I have and the way in which I live my life. Of course, I am broken and live within a broken world, so I often fall short of serving God’s purpose, but through ideas like reflection and journey I can learn and grow through my misgivings.

And in the end it comes back to hope. Hope of a God’s kingdom on earth. Hope for complete health in mind and body. Hope for a time when there is no brokenness. Hope in a God who deeply loves and cherishes all people.

How will what I have learned and experienced at the Service-Learning Center be demonstrated in my future? How will concepts like community, reciprocity and discernment be played out? Only God knows, and that gives me enough hope to continue on this journey.

Kelly DeVries
Graduate Summer Intern at the Service-Learning Center