Calvin College

CALVIN - Minds in the Making

Strengthening Liberal Arts Education by Embracing Place and Particularity

Case Study

Intentional Student Communities: Project Neighborhood, Pamoja House, Our Place

Fast Forward: Intentional Christian Community at Calvin College

Calvin College developed as a liberal arts college with a national reach during the years following the most intense emphasis on the social gospel, 1890-1920.  Until the 1970s, it remained almost exclusively inhabited by and in existence for the children and grandchildren of the Dutch Reformed immigrants of the Christian Reformed Church.  The social upheaval of the 1960s combined with the theological shifts of the late 1960s toward a more explicit openness and engagement with culture conspired to begin a movement where the college began to see itself as a participant both in local issues as well as national scholarly conversations.  In addition, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the college itself moved from the confines of its small, urban location to a sprawling suburban campus to accommodate a burgeoning student body.  The move enabled the college to build several large residence halls, and eventually to purchase adjacent apartment complexes, all of which has led to its current housing configuration of approximately 2200 of 4000 (roughly 56%) students living on-campus.  While a worthy topic of discussion, the intentional community that is fostered in these on-campus residences is outside the boundaries of the current case study. 

Living-learning communities have been a popular pedagogical idea throughout the history of American liberal arts higher education.  Calvin College has been no exception to this tradition of creative pedagogy linking the college experience to the idea of various forms of community.  Several efforts to enable students to learn in community, and in a community, over the past few decades have coalesced in a current climate of learning that transcends, unsurprisingly, the borders of formal classrooms.  Rooted in the early 1970s with the establishment of a community of faculty, students and community members known as the Worden Street Community, three more recent efforts linking students, faculty or staff, and community in a residential learning environment.  These three are: Project Neighborhood, the Pamoja House, and Our Place.

Modeled after the Swiss Christian community founded by theologian and social critic Francis Schaefer, known as L’Abri (“shelter”), the Worden Street Community began in the fall of 1971 as an attempt to enable a few faculty members to develop a more “satisfying and valuable lifestyle.”  (see “An Experiment in Christian Living”  Calvin College Chimes, May 12, 1972).  Students were included in a living arrangement that included three faculty families and one local physician and his family.  The four families purchased homes on the same urban street together and rented an additional apartment in the lower half of a fifth house.  The student newspaper reporting on motives for including students noted that, “Besides giving the students an additional learning experience, the group hoped that they could get to know and understand the student psyche better.”  The community remained intact until the mid-1980s, when the faculty members and their families eventually left the area for academic commitments elsewhere.

The impulse for off-campus intentional Christian community seems to have lain dormant for several years after the closure of the Worden Street Community, but in the late 1990s, a resurgence of interest appeared.  In 1996 Calvin began its first semester program of off-campus, international study in Tegucigalpa, Honduras (3).  As the pool of students who had spent time in Honduras grew, a small community, known as Pamoja, (Kiswahili for “together”) was founded to accommodate these students’ interest in living in more intentional ways that were in line with some of the commitments made while in Honduras.  The group has moved several times, but has maintained its neighborhood focus, its faculty/staff mentor couple, and its commitments to simplicity, local food, and vegetarian leanings.  Meanwhile, in the fall of 1997 a conversation between the college Chaplain, the Service-Learning Director, and a local entrepreneur and his wife culminated in the purchase of a large, older home in the vicinity of the former urban campus.  The home was intended to serve as a place where students could live in intentional community, focusing on both the internal commitments of a community of Christians to each others’ well-being, but also on the external commitments of a neighborhood community, the need to know and serve one’s neighbors as a manifestation of one’s Christian convictions.  This house became known as the Koinonia House (Greek for “Fellowship”), and subsequent houses were opened on the same model by the college in ensuing years.  Currently the college operates the Koinonia House, and two additional houses in collaboration with local church communities.  The Peniel House (Greek for “Face of God”) is a collaboration with Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church, and the Harambee House (Kiswahili for “Pull Together”) is a collaboration with First Christian Reformed Church.   The houses continue to function on the model of a balance between building internal and external community, and students who are selected to live in them are required to form a mutual covenant with each other and an adult mentor hired by the college, and to spend ten hours per week in some form of community service, and to participate in a one-credit interdisciplinary course exploring the theoretical and practical elements of both internal and external community living.

More recently, since the spring of 2006, a student movement known as Our Place has arisen.  The roots of this movement are found in at least two areas.  First, a 2002 restructuring to student leadership opportunities created the Barnabas Team, a leadership opportunity designed to infuse the wisdom and maturity of third and fourth year students back into the residence halls environment where first and second year students typically live.  The position acknowledged the existence of two campuses, the on-campus campus, and the off-campus campus, and attempted to create more intentional bridges between the two.  A later result was the creation of an “off-campus intern” Barnabas position, designed to better understand where off-campus students were living and how to better connect the two campuses.  The other root is an interdisciplinary course taught in fall 2005 and spring 2006 on the history and sociology of student activism – several students from this course joined with others in the making of the Our Place movement.  Our Place has been an attempt to explicitly link college faculty and administrators with students, in student homes, to talk about ways to live in intentional Christian community.  Events ranging from regular Saturday morning pancake breakfasts, to gatherings at the homes of influential administrators like the Provost or the Vice-President for Student Life, have enabled a rich conversation to animate both students and staff.

Finally, as a result of Pamoja, Project Neighborhood, and Our Place, several other more organic housing communities have emerged, and the college is responding in multiple ways, through both curricular and co-curricular means, and through staff and faculty, to meet the needs of this movement toward the connection between living and learning commitments.


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