The current economic time has caused challenges unseen since the 1930s. It has left nearly 10 percent of our fellow citizens unemployed, wreaked havoc on homeownership and had a dramatic influence on recent elections. So a logical question would be: Who’s responsible for the Great Recession?
That was one of the inevitable questions that arose repeatedly over the past year, as Calvin alumni and faculty met to discuss this complex issue, which is often divisive and rarely examined from a Christian perspective. After a year together, members of the second Calvin alumni-faculty working group hope to share what they have learned with the broader Calvin community.
Soon after the financial crisis began, six Calvin alumni and six Calvin faculty members began meeting to discuss what has been learned from this economic crisis—and how our faith should inform a response.
"This was a great group to work with and it was an amazing experience to participate in our own transformation over the year,” said reading group co-chair Georgina Veldhorst ’90, an organization consultant who lives in Nairobi, Kenya. “This group brought together faculty and alumni from diverse disciplines, industries and regions.”
Veldhorst and Calvin economics professor John Tiemstra co-chaired the reading group. Over the last 18 months, the group met four times, studying and discussing a variety of issues related to the topic (see the group’s reading list).
"In our first meeting we came from pretty fixed positions on who was to blame and who were the victims,” Veldhorst said. “Early on we came to the realization that each of us contributed in our own way to the financial crisis, and at the same time, each of us suffered in some way and it will take each individual doing their own part to resolve it. We spent considerable time considering what each of us can to do to prevent another crisis in the future and resolve our current one.”
The group was a healthy mix of academics, business owners, people from the financial world, nonprofits and journalism. With a group like that, conflict was bound to arise. In the beginning, tension arose regarding who was to blame for the crisis—and who was suffering as a result.
So Veldhorst, who is trained in conflict resolution, had the group go through a process called an "argument,” where members were asked to take the position they opposed. The intent is to explore both sides more deeply in a fun and safe way (see www.deep-democracy.net for more information on this and other group facilitation tools).
"I thought it was remarkable that all of us came to this group understanding that all sectors of society—consumers, businesses, churches, governments—have responsibilities and obligations in the economy that go beyond looking out for their own interests. I think this is the heart of the common perspective we have from our experience at Calvin,” Tiemstra said.
The result of the “argument” was not just new understanding among group members, but a shared trust and a realization that all sides have at least a little responsibility in creating the crisis. Tiemstra added: “We could go on then to examine what those responsibilities are and how people can be held accountable for the effects their actions have on others.”
"As a journalist, this was a chance for me to step away from the day-to-day reporting and be in a trusting environment where we could all really talk and understand the issues,” said reading group member Niala Boodhoo ’96, a business reporter for Chicago Public Radio.
Boodhoo’s views were echoed across the group, from Mary Tuuk ’86, executive vice president and chief risk officer of Fifth Third Bancorp, to Milwaukee business owner Milt Kuyers ’56, to Bob Ottenhoff ’70, president and CEO of GuideStar, USA. GuideStar is the largest source of information on nonprofit organizations and private foundations.
"I was initially attracted to participating in this group because of the opportunity to interact with faculty and fellow alumni on some interesting and important issues,” said Ottenhoff. “As the meetings progressed, I found the discussions—and the subsequent papers—very helpful in giving me some new insights on the subjects of lifestyle values and philanthropic donations.”
As a result of their discussions, group members wanted to share their experience. To do so, each member wrote reflection papers that can be used to create similar discussions. The papers are designed for use in church settings or among other small groups that hope to reflect on faith and finance.
"I personally felt that it was a privilege to be in a setting where my thoughts were valued as part of the whole project—and it is a worthy project—to offer a Christian response to the economic crisis,” said Margaret Edgell, an associate professor of business. “Above and beyond this successful project, we forged enjoyable friendships. We expect that they will continue in fruitful new directions.”
The group developed 28 reflection pieces, organized under the headings of “Who Is My Neighbor,” "Understanding My Neighbor,” “Giving,” “Spending” and “Saving and Investing.” The collection is titled, "The Economic Crisis and Beyond: Christian Reflections for Turbulent Times.”
The effort was sponsored by funding from the Calvin Alumni Association and the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship.
"A Reformed Response to Economic Recession” was the second such activity sponsored by these two organizations, designed to foster communication and engagement between faculty and alumni. The emerging series is called “Developing Christian Perspectives,” which is intended to play off of the first-year student experience on Reformed thought, titled “Developing a Christian Mind.”
The alumni association is contemplating another alumni-faculty working group on the topic of political discourse.