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Faculty: Vocation Stories

A Vision for Shalom
Susan Sytsma Bratt

The word activism may conjure up images of rallies, sit-ins, and protests of a by-gone era. However, for Dr. Jeff Bouman, activism is more than an event; activism is any action that speaks into injustice. Ultimately it is the work of the Church when done well and faithfully, and is a way of life.

Students may come face-to-face with injustice during their time at Calvin. Studying the Civil Rights movement in Political Science 101, or noting the change in housing stock in the few blocks between East Grand Rapids and Eastown may provide students a brief encounter with social injustice. However, for a number of students, encounters with injustice are sustained face-to-face, hand-to-hand in various service-learning placements from soup kitchens, to community programs, to classrooms around the city of Grand Rapids. As director of the Service-Learning Center, Dr. Bouman helps expose students to facets of the world beyond the College’s boundaries. Dr. Bouman observes that, “Calvin students experience a longing for justice, but there’s a gap between activism and service.” It is precisely this gap that prompted Dr. Bouman to design his course “Reformed Activism: Student’s Heads, Hands, and Hearts in Service to God’s Kingdom” under the Lilly Faculty Scholars Initiative.

Dr. Bouman is no stranger to Calvin College. Born in Grand Rapids, MI he attended Calvin College, graduating in 1987. While a student, he majored in sociology because it was light on requirements. However, Dr. Bouman also unofficially majored in residence life and student leadership, as he was interested in other people. Serving on campus as a Resident Assistant, he found “I had an interest in deepening Calvin students’ faith commitments.” Upon graduation, this passion translated into a career beginning as a Resident Director at Grove City College, in Grove City, PA, returning to Calvin as a Resident Director, and then for a few years at Gordon College in MA. Working with students in service-learning at Calvin has been the watershed experience for Dr. Bouman, as it has allowed him to bring together his interests in student affairs and teaching and learning. While he enjoyed his career, Dr. Bouman and Julie, his wife always had a heart for justice. This passion led them to serve as missionaries for a year in Mexico, where both he and his wife carefully considered their vocation. Ultimately, questions about higher education and faith formation and the Reformed concept of educating for shalom led Dr. Bouman back to graduate school.

Dr. Bouman left his post as a Resident Director at Gordon College in 1997 to begin doctoral studies in Higher Education at the University of Michigan. The story of higher education and its relationship to religion piqued his interest and guided his studies. Intending to pursue a teaching position at a secular university, Calvin College was the last place to which he expected to return. Yet, ultimately he could not ignore an invitation to consider the position in service-learning. He returned to Calvin a third time in 2002, this time as the faculty Director of the Service-Learning Center. Returning to Calvin a third time allowed Dr. Bouman to explore an inherent interest in pedagogy and his view of the classroom as a signpost of the Kingdom.

Supervising student staff workers at the Service-learning Center, Dr. Bouman observed few students connecting service and activism. Service-learning scratched the surface, raised a few questions about history or justice, but did not deeply impact the students. He wondered why few students were connecting their service and activism, leaving out careful lessons that applied to life. As a result, he created a course for student staff at the Service-Learning Center to bridge this gap between their encounters with injustice and their worldview.

Five students took the course when it was piloted in the fall of 2005. The course was designed to study the relationship between college student activism and Reformed faith. Structured around weekly readings, journals, and service-learning activity, the course culminated with each student writing their personal philosophy of student activism. As a result, the course allowed students to, as Dr. Bouman put it, “synthesize the story of student activism in American higher education from multiple perspectives within a Christian framework.”

Over the course of that semester students were able to fill in the gap between activism and service. Dr. Bouman notes that the “course placed a more formal framework around the service-learning student staff were already doing in the community.” The impact that the course had on some students was significant. One student from the pilot course, Katie Timmermans, served as a research intern for Dr. Bouman during the summer of 2005, and continued her efforts into the next academic year as a Teaching Assistant. Several students from the first class, including Sylvia Harris, Lance Kraii, Daina Carr, and Andrew VanStee have each contributed to a growing movement among Calvin’s off-campus students toward intentional community called Our Place. The group planned activities that explored activism, connecting with faculty and staff. In addition, VanStee has been very involved as student of the Faith and International Development Conference. The student planned conference is held each January and draws in up to six hundred students from across the United States and Canada. Each year the theme of the conference changes, but the goal is to bring in a variety of professionals to speak on topics related to international development and connect undergraduate students to professionals in this field.

Activism at Calvin College is not limited to this course and these particular students, but rather Dr. Bouman hopes to help foster a community of activism at Calvin College. Dr. Bouman has observed several changes around campus that point toward a shift in this direction. Noting the new International Development major with over one hundred students, “I see the dark side of missions and colonialism taking a back seat while students now wrestle deeply with the complexity of development around the world.” He has also observed “the group of students who are involved with student organizations related to social justice growing every year.” He sees an awareness growing around campus to the centrality of the Body of Christ. From this theology comes practice, and that’s where activism comes into play. Looking ahead, Dr. Bouman is teaching the course in the spring of 2008 to a group of four second year students. He is excited about the potential for growth, one student at a time.

Activism at Calvin College has spread beyond protests and rallies, beyond one time service-learning, toward a way of life that holistically connects faith, learning, and ultimately educates for shalom. The faith and development conference is one powerful example that Calvin students are passionate not only about speaking into injustice, but about getting on with the work of the Church, about being the Church right now.

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