Last week our summer student staff met with the summer orientation staff for one of our regular professional development sessions. The topic was the Reformed Identity of Calvin College, which was established from the beginning as “messy.” One of the foci of our conversation was the question of our agency in the process of redemption, something about which Calvin’s vision statement makes some claim when it says that “Through our learning, we seek to be agents of renewal in the academy, church and society.”
This got me thinking about what it is that we hope for students who go out into the communities of this city/country/world to do service-learning. To what degree are these people agents for God’s redemption in a broken world in the short time they spend serving there? In the four years I’ve worked professionally in the Service-Learning Center, this question has been a compelling one that I come back to perennially. One of the keys here, I think, is the phrase “Through our learning…” which qualifies our claim of agency.
So, what does this mean for students who might spend an afternoon stocking a food pantry for StreetFest? Or a week encountering the complexity of coal mining’s impact on Appalachian communities? Or a semester tutoring an English language learner at an urban elementary school? Or many hours interviewing community members for an ethnographic study in Peru?
My hope is that at the conclusion of each student’s experience, they might view their situation through a lens of shalom. Imagine what this place would look like in the fullness of God’s kingdom. Each person encountered would be living an abundant life, expressing their unique giftedness as an image-bearer of God. Relationships would be restored in such a way that each interaction contributes to the other’s flourishing. The flora, fauna, and built environment would all declare the glory of God. True shalom will be even greater than we could possibly hope or imagine.
But our communities are far from this vision of shalom. They are broken, fallen. Comparing our actual experience to the kingdom can help illuminate further questions: Has my service done anything to alleviate the brokenness here? How are people and organizations working towards renewal? How does the sin that affects all of my daily actions (and inactions) contribute to the brokenness I’ve seen? What is my agency in the fallenness of our world?
We trust that in spite of overwhelming brokenness in the world, Jesus Christ has power over sin. Through his resurrection, he will prevail in the redemption of this world. We may feel powerless, on a tiny boat about to capsize amidst torrential downpours, hurricane force winds and monstrous waves. But if we lift our eyes in search of the horizon hidden behind the storm, we may see a ghostly figure amidst the squall. That person, who with a word from his lips can command the rain to subside, the wind to cease, and the waves to still, beckons us to step out of our boat and walk towards him through the storm.
It is not in our own power to walk on water or to calm the storm, but with the power of the risen king behind us, we can step towards shalom.