Unexpected Christian Passions
by Susan Sytsma Bratt
Expectations abound as students begin their first year of college. Students anticipate making new friends, learning new subjects, and perhaps even deciding a major course of study. Along the way, many students discover new passions as well as a few unexpected twists and turns in life.
Deborah Lemmen came to Calvin College with a desire to weave together her childhood passion for horses with her gifts for writing and music. She was considering schools with equine science programs, but the Worship Apprentice program and a strong Communications Arts and Sciences program led her to choose Calvin. Deborah quickly found friends and community in her residence hall. She even found a place to use her musical gifts that first year, leading worship in her residence hall and for a campus wide Bible Study. As that year progressed, Deborah learned more about the Worship Apprentice program that drew her to Calvin, and she decided to apply.
Worship Apprentices are responsible for facilitating worship on campus from daily Chapels to weekly LOFT (Living Our Faith Together) services. Working on the LOFT team, Deborah’s responsibilities included hospitality as well as worship leadership and planning. Deborah says that “Being part of a team was exciting. Some of the most valuable experiences that year were conversations we had late into the night at the Worship Apprentice office.” Mentoring was another significant aspect of the Worship Apprentice program. Early on in her second year, mentor Cindy de Jong introduced Deborah to another Lilly Vocation program, the Jubilee Fellows program, which is typically geared toward third year students. Deborah submitted an application. “I did not expect to be selected because I was a sophomore.” However, Deborah was selected, and joined the Jubilee Fellows group the spring of her sophomore year. In addition to leading worship as a Worship Apprentice, Deborah participated as a Jubilee Fellows in a semester of reading and discussing ministry with then Chaplain Cooper and a cohort of twelve Fellows.
Spring semester of her sophomore year was pivotal for Deborah. In addition to serving as a Worship Apprentice and Jubilee Fellow, Deborah took a religion class taught by Professor Crump on Acts and the Synoptic Gospels. This class was a watershed. “Pieces of my faith came together and were simultaneously pulled apart. I gained a picture of Jesus reaching out to the marginalized in that class. I started to wonder about that and what it meant for my life and the life of the Church, what it meant for worship.”
These questions informed all areas of her life. Jubilee Fellows not only gather for a semester of study, but also serve in a congregational ministry for ten weeks the following summer, so Deborah requested an urban placement, far from the corn fields of her hometown Hamilton, Michigan. “I was passionate about social justice issues related to poverty, and Jubilee Fellows gave me a tangible urban ministry experience in Seattle.” Deborah spent the summer learning about ministry in a Christian Reformed Church plant named Sanctuary in the heart of Seattle. Part of Sanctuary’s ministry includes partnering with The Green Bean, a non-profit coffeehouse committed to community outreach and development. Deborah recounts, “It was an exciting summer with varied experiences from being a barista in a non-profit coffeehouse, to planning and leading weekly worship, to learning about the community and its needs.”
She also took her questions about the nature of church to her internship. She came to realize, “The faith I had seen in some places wasn’t big enough. I felt like there was more to faith, life, service, and calling than what I had seen and experienced before.” Meeting weekly with her internship mentor, Betsy Turnbull, provided a safe space to have conversations about these questions. “It was interesting for me to ask these big questions about faith on this program to train ministers. I felt the irony and didn’t know what to do with it. Betsy challenged me not to run away from asking the big questions and seeking out answers, reminding me God is big enough.”
In the fall of her junior year Deborah took her passion for social justice and her newfound pattern for wrestling with her to Ghana. The renowned Ghanaian hospitality and friendship shaped Deborah. “I developed a sense of calm and peace about my questions. I held onto the notion of hospitality, creating space for others, and being a friend to the stranger.” Deborah’s focus on hospitality had its roots in her work as a Worship Apprentice and barista at the Green Bean Coffeehouse in Seattle, but it was deepened in Ghana.
The semester abroad also gave Deborah some space to reflect on vocation. “I knew I wanted to work closely with people, and I felt called to do that in a place of poverty. Ghana affirmed that for me.” Deborah then took this knowledge with her back to Calvin for the remainder of her junior year. She jumped back into western life adding a youth ministry internship at Oakdale Park Christian Reformed Church to her full course load. “That internship was an experience of seeing students with different backgrounds come together in one space.” This second internship affirmed her passion for working with young people, but not in a congregational setting. Deborah reflects “I want flexibility in journeying alongside young people to be a voice in their life. Congregation based youth ministry often entails expectations from the congregation about particular programs and youth group meetings.”
Deborah graduated from Calvin in December 2007 and moved to New Jersey to begin a job that combines her passion for social justice and youth. She interviewed for the job in the summer of 2007 while visiting her friend Sarah Geurkink, who was a summer intern at New City Kids. In January she started her job as the After School Center Director. According to their web site, New City Kids is “Using the arts, learning and leading to disciple children into the whole life transformation of Christ New City Church is a part of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.” In addition to the After School Center, New City Kids has a thriving worship band, drama troupe, teen employment training, and weekly worship that is led by kids. Reflecting on her time at Calvin “Calvin prepared me profoundly well for my vocation. I was able to experience an array of opportunities that brought me to New City Kids.” Deborah’s experience as a Worship Apprentice and Jubilee Fellow gave her the space to ask hard questions about worship, faith, and calling. Her time in Ghana reinforced her calling to hospitality, and now Deborah gets to live that out each day as she welcomes children and youth to the After School Center.
Meanwhile, a dream about opening a non-profit coffee shop is percolating. Her friends Sarah Geurkink and Kyle Sandison, also former Jubilee Fellow, share that dream. Both are moving to Jersey City to see if there’s a need for such a space and ministry. Kyle will intern at New City Kids and Sarah hopes to find a job. Together, they envision a place where all are welcome to come and sit. For now, Deborah is most excited about the opportunities she has each day to greet kids by name with a smile, providing them with a safe place for them to learn and play. “I see God calling and challenging me to be a more compassionate and generous person.” Deborah is far away from the horses and corn fields of Michigan. She’s taken a few turns and found a home in Jersey City where her passions for justice and ending poverty are met with the privilege of coming alongside kids as a friend and mentor.