Community Engagement and Calvin’s Mission

Calvin’s mission, mentioned above, requires active participation from students for its fulfillment. The closing phrase, “to be Christ’s agents of renewal in the world,” is grounded in Christ’s promises to make all things new and God’s invitation to humanity to join in this work. As such, Calvin students are encouraged to fully engage with the world, envisioning that “what is a vacant lot can become a community garden. What is a muddied river can become a fresh water supply. And what is a broken relationship can become reconciliation in action” (Calvin University, 2019, para. 8).

This vision is expanded upon in the College’s Vision 2030 statement, which states that by the year 2030, Calvin University will be a “trusted partner for learning across religious and cultural differences” and will “[seek] understanding and [promote] the welfare of the city and the healing of the world” (Calvin University, 2019, para. 3). Further, Calvin conceptualizes its calling as a Christian college as “educating for shalom.” That is, engaging each academic discipline through the lens of how it can be utilized to restore wholeness, harmony, and right relationship in our fallen world.

This calling is made manifest in Calvin’s educational framework, which states that the education of Calvin students will be oriented toward:

  • Learning that is deep, broad, and engaged;
  • Faith that is informed, courageous, and lived;
  • Citizenship that is local, global, and Christlike; and
  • Vocation that is responsive, discerning, and dynamic.

Wolterstorff: A Champion of Christian Engagement

A key figure in the development of the Reformed vision as it has taken root at Calvin is philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. It would be difficult to hilly and briefly encapsulate the effect of Wolterstorff on the institution, given his nearly seventy-year relationship with Calvin since enrolling as an undergraduate in 1949. Serving as a student editor of the college newspaper, Wolterstorff graduated from Calvin in 1953 with a degree in philosophy and immediately enrolled in a doctoral program in philosophy at Harvard, graduating three years later in 1956. After brief stints in Europe at Cambridge and in Amsterdam at the Free University, Wolterstorff took a teaching position at Yale, and soon after accepted a faculty position at Calvin beginning in 1959. In his three decades teaching philosophy at Calvin, Wolterstorff contributed immeasurably to Calvin’s development, including chairing an important committee to revise the core curriculum at Calvin in 1965-66; and in so doing he led a movement to think deeply about the purpose of a Christian college. The resulting publication from the Calvin College Curriculum Study Committee (1970), titled Christian Liberal Arts Education, radically altered the academic trajectory of the college, introducing a sweeping conception of what faith is with the following passage:

How do we exercise this faith? When a man believes in God, what does he do? The answer of the evangelical Christian is this: Faith can and must be exercised in everything a man does—in singing hymns, but also in sweeping floors; in offering prayers, but also in studying mathematics; in acts of mercy, but also in tending gardens, and writing philosophy. The Christian’s allegiance to God is not exercised merely in some special and isolated “religious” activities, the others being neutral and indifferent. On the contrary, his allegiance to God is exercised in the whole width and breadth of his life, in the whole scope of human activities. The Christian does not try to renounce all cultural activities and withdraw into some special sphere of the religious; rather, he engages in all these activities gladly and willingly and eagerly, seeing in them a means of exercising his faith in God.

(p. 30)

A hearty rationale for community engagement and justice work came from Wolterstorff in the form of a commencement address he delivered at Wheaton College in 1982, which was later published in the Reformed Journal as “The Mission of the Christian College at the End of the Twentieth Century.” In this address, he laid out a three-stage explanation of the trajectory of Christian higher education in America, predicting the arrival of the third stage. In this third stage of development, Woltcrstorff argued, Christian higher education would outgrow the work of the second stage, which had seen Christians in the academy move beyond a fearful and defensive posture to an embrace of the stream of high culture, a full investigation into the arts and sciences. In the third stage, he envisioned an essential move toward reforming society. This move in stage three required an expansion of the focus of Christian higher education from a focus on culture to a focus also on society.

This envisioning was a call to move the project of teaching and learning into the realm of persons who interact with each other, beyond just ideas about people and society; He suggested that this third stage move toward persons in society' would necessitate three new characteristics of colleges and universities. First, he suggested that Christian colleges would need to become much more international in their focus; second that they would have to “package the learning” in new, more relevant methods and topics, suggesting programs in “peace and war, nationalism, poverty, urban ugliness, ecology', crime and punishment” (Woltcrstorff, 1983, p. 17). Third, he determined that institutions and their faculty' and students would have to move beyond theory to engage in some form of practice, to move from learning about the world to seeking to change the world for the better. Woltcrstorff (1983) anticipated the discomfort some may feel at the suggestion that Christians should set out to change the world in these ways. He asserted:

Such talk makes us nervous. Should the Christian college really' aim at shaping the social actions of its students? Is that not indoctrination? Should we not rather put the various options in front of students and let them choose? My answer is that we have never acted this way' in the past. Does the Christian college not cultivate understanding? Does it not cultivate authentic piety? Can it now responsibly do anything else than cultivate peace, cultivate the dignity of the prisoner, cultivate the care of the earth, cultivate a home for Palestinians?

(p. 34)

Stage three, one could argue, is embodied by the work of CCEGL and the CPI. These are international in scope, facilitating countless opportunities for theory to move to practice, and determined to live as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.

Programmatic Examples of Community Engagement

These (and other) aspects of Calvin’s mission and Reformed commitments have led to numerous examples of community' engagement in the pursuit

Equipping Students for a. “Specific Uprising” 193 of shalom. Embracing Calvin’s identity as an institution of rigorous intellectual inquiry, the Nursing department established a community nursing curriculum, partnering with four neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. As a result of efforts to listen well to its community and foster reciprocal partnerships, Plaster Creek Stewards emerged out of OCE, which hosts over 300 volunteers, 100 student researchers, and 30 educational presentations each year in their threefold approach of research, education, and on-thc-ground restoration to help restore the local Plaster Creek watershed to full health.

One final example, and the focus of this paper, is the CPI. Abraham Kuyper, the influential Dutch theologian of the late-nineteenth and early-twcnticth centuries, famously stated that “there is not a single square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” (Kuyper, 1880, p. 26). Modified to a common campus vocabulary, Calvin University espouses that “every square inch” of the world belongs to God. It also teaches that every person is created in the image of God. These convictions led to the formation and growth of the CPI, through which Calvin and its partners hope to be “agents of renewal” by helping to transform the lives of prisoners through restorative justice and rehabilitation, transform the culture of prisons through peace-building and shalom, and transform our local neighborhoods and communities through the evolution of all who arc involved.

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