Living Outside the Box
by Susan Sytsma Bratt
Each student comes to Calvin College with a unique story shaped by a particular context. Growing up in Los Angeles as a child of a Christian Reformed pastor, Nathan Brink was shaped by a multi-cultural school life and predominantly European-American church life. This tension led Nathan to apply to live on the Mosaic Floor, an intentional multi-cultural residential floor, at Calvin College for his first two years. Background aside, Nathan was like many freshmen trying to find their way in a new community.
Nathan started his time at Calvin College on the pre-medical track. An exchange with Biology Professor Joy Bonnema during his first semester caused him to reconsider. “In the second week of class she asked me, ‘are you sure you’re supposed to be pre-med? What about ministry?’” Professor Bonnema’s question pushed Nathan to consider pursuing a vocation in service to the church in a new way. As Nathan explained, vocation prior to college was “something others named for me: ministry. I had a strong aversion to vocation as a result.” Still reluctant to consider ministry, Nathan changed his major in the second semester. He switched to Philosophy noting, “I didn’t study philosophy in high school, but quickly found I loved it. I enjoyed the professors, the classes, looking at the world in a particular manner.”
But then Nathan had a chance to explore ministry after his first year at Calvin. He spent the summer interning at a church plant in Eva Beach, Oahu, Hawaii. Nathan had previously connected with this congregation through a chance meeting with the pastor while on a high school choir tour. Nathan’s conversation about ministry with that pastor that left him wondering where God would lead him. The pastor called Nathan during his first semester at Calvin, asking if Nathan would consider a summer internship. That summer in Hawaii allowed Nathan to experience worship and ministry out of his father’s shadow. Ministry in Eva Beach also placed Nathan in the midst of ministry that responded to the social oppression of ethnic minority groups. The church was focused on community outreach and development in this context.
Nathan returned to his second year at Calvin with new questions about vocation. He heard about the Jubilee Fellows Program, a program designed to help students reflect on ministry callings through study, reflection, and internships. “I had questions and no clear answers about my vocation. I thought I might as well be part of listening and learning with others.” Nathan applied, and was accepted as a Jubilee Fellow during the second half of his sophomore year. During the Jubilee semester with learning and discussion over meals, all facilitated by Chaplain Dale Cooper, Nathan realized he had some unique insights as a pastor’s kid. “Having a close relationship with my father allowed me to see the best and worst of the pastoral vocation.” Throughout the semester Nathan also continued his philosophy studies and involvement with the Calvin Mosaic community. Although Nathan’s interests were varied, his Jubilee Fellowship kept service to the church in the forefront as a possible vocation.
Each summer, Jubilee Fellows spend ten weeks interning in a variety of ministry contexts. Nathan found himself working at New City Kids Church in Jersey City, New Jersey. Similar to Eva Beach, Jersey City has a large underprivileged population with high drug use, teen pregnancy, and at-risk youth. This situation provided the context to address Christian reconciliation and justice, challenges close to Nathan’s heart. “I learned again [that] the question is how to minister in each of these situations and cultural sets.” New City Kids Church responds to this context by allowing youth to plan and lead worship. Viewed by the broader Christian church community as non-traditional, Nathan learned “experimentation, openness and cultural relevance is important for the church and aren’t always organizing principles. I learned ministry can be dynamic and doesn’t have to be static or anxious.” The New City Kids experience further shaped Nathan’s passion for inter-cultural dialogue and reconciliation.
Again back at Calvin Nathan further resolved to live into this passion for reconciliation. Focusing on anti-racism via the Calvin Anti-Racism Team (CART) and the Multi-cultural Student Advisory Board, Nathan began looking at institutional racism. Both groups pushed peers to “consider what the body of Christ is to look like and live like.” Nathan took a risk to call out racism and live out the Gospel in a reconciling manner through his involvement in both organizations.
After graduating in May 2005, Nathan headed to Boston for marriage to fellow Calvin alum, Gihane Jeremie-Brink that following November. He was still passionate about serving the church in some capacity, but found a job in finance. “Doing something unrelated to philosophy and congregational ministry for a year encouraged me to have greater focus,” he noted. Although Nathan was not serving in full-time ministry, he found he was able to use his pastoral gifts, creativity, and passion for people in his job. But after several months, Nathan was ready to consider seminary. Dr. Randall Jelks, one of Nathan’s Calvin mentors, suggested he research McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois since the school fit Nathan’s focus on racism, justice and diversity.
Nathan and Gihane moved to Chicago in the fall of 2006 where McCormick proved to be a great fit for Nathan and his passions. “I don’t see myself serving in a church that is predominantly European American. McCormick is ecumenical, and I enjoy learning from the contributions of others who are shaped by a range of traditions.” While at McCormick, Nathan had the opportunity to see ministry in yet another context. During the 2007-2008 academic year he interned at an African American Presbyterian USA congregation. “This internship confirmed my love for the church, gifts for her service, and God’s blessing for use in that regard. However, I still think serving the church as a minister isn’t necessarily the only path to take.”
Nathan continues to explore vocational options within broader service to the church. His job as a teaching assistant at McCormick has been rewarding. Philosophy is still a passion. Nathan reflects, “I’m not in the business of closing doors, and a lot of them are still open. Anything I can do to serve the church, whether that’s further study, or serving in ordained ministry is an option.” For Nathan, there is not a single path, but rather a broad corridor with many roads on which to travel.
But Nathan has learned the value and necessity of thinking outside the box when it comes to vocation and the church. “Vocation is being faithful to what God has created us to be. Church is a matter of being, not doing. If we’re going to be a transformative and restorative community, the whole body needs to be engaged.” Nathan quotes Presbyterian pastor Jin Kim, “The church needs to be high risk, low anxiety.” That understanding frames Nathan’s exploration of ministry and vocation, a search that is not confined by a box, but is faithful to the Gospel, and fully aware of diverse communities within God’s one great tribe.