It’s the story of five years, three houses, 90 students, 13 mentors, numberless neighborhood kids, plus: vegetarianism, toilet paper, truth, gardening, jazzercise and “the ministry of presence.” Since 1998, Calvin has established three experiments in “intentional community” in three inner-city neighborhoods. And this is how they evolved.
At the requisite Wednesday night dinner and business meeting at Harambee House, Calvin senior Andrew Ippel of Rehoboth, N.M., presides. “We are excited for a factoid,” he says to junior Aaron Iverson, of Radnor, Ohio, who is the community’s trivia dispenser. Iverson has something else on his mind: “What about the big white bowl that takes up half of the bottom rack of the dishwasher? We could fit 50 plates in there.” The group resolves to hand-wash the behemoth bowl.
Then it’s time for “jazzercise,” Harambee’s name for the house’s business. Every house member, or jazzerciser, administers some part of the community’s life: hospitality, maintenance, stewardship, community, social, church or spiritual matters.
“I love how we share prayer requests on Sunday morning,” senior Cicely Wiers, of Delaware, Ohio, comments during the discussion of house spirituality. “I think it would be good to share a scripture. From the Bible. Well, obviously, from the Bible,” she self-corrects, “or the Book of Mormon.” The group screams with laughter. Juggling the mundane, the sublime, and the ridiculous is a Harambee trait.
The ensuing conversation includes coupon storage, neighborliness, pumpkin carving, church attendance and a group foot soak — another Wiers scheme. Iverson even ponies up with a factoid: “Running a lawnmower for an hour is like driving a car for 300 miles.”
Harambee, which is Swahili for “join together,” lives in a commodious brick house at 656 Bates. Its sister houses in Project Neighborhood, two more roomy brick residences, are Koinonia, the Greek word for “fellowship,” at 1230 Lake Drive and Peniel, Hebrew for “face of God” (and the name of the site where Jacob wrestled with God) at 425 Eastern Avene.
In each Project Neighborhood house, a group of Calvin students commits to live in community for an academic year, mentored by an older adult or married couple. Currently, there are 17 students and four mentors in the program. Students who apply “are looking for a real, intentional place to live where they are going to grow and be challenged in their faith, but who also have a real interest and a heart for the city,” said dean of residence life John Witte, who has worked with Project Neighborhood since its beginning. The students share expenses and chores. They are also required to take a weekly class related to the project and to perform ten hours of community service a week.
The First House
“They always liked to have dinner with the students and share a little bit of their story and ask the students to share theirs,” Witte remembered.
“Bruce became a mentor to three young men that year,” Cooper said. “Out of that we began our mentoring program at Calvin.”
Before long, the Osterinks approached Cooper with a more ambitious idea, a plan for establishing a group of Calvin students in an inner-city house. It was a project with a two-fold goal, Cooper said: “To get them to live in intentional community and to get them to put their arms around the neighborhood.” A committee was launched, the sprawling Lake Drive manse (formerly the property of Wedgewood Christian Youth and Family Services) was purchased through donations, and a community was begun.
The original eight students moved into the house in the spring semester of 1998 with the Osterinks, who mentored them and successive Koinonia communities until June of 2000. “Those two-and-a half years were probably as life-changing as we’ve ever had. They were difficult, but also very rewarding. We went into it thinking we had something to offer. We’d been involved with college kids for over ten years. We also strongly felt that God wanted to teach us something in going there,” Bruce said.
The nascent community wrote a “covenant,” something all of the Project Neighborhood houses still do. The covenant is a values document that describes both the group’s moral standards and their practical means of expressing them. The concept of honest communication or “speaking the truth in love,” was and remains a chief goal of the communities.
And then there were the nuts and bolts of living: “We had to agree to how many times we were going to eat meals together, whether we were going to do devotions together. We had to agree on what ‘clean’ was. You can imagine that my wife and college students had a different idea of what clean was,” Osterink said.
"The difficult thing was laying down your own agenda to pick up God’s agenda."
For these issues — and those of grocery shopping, house business, romance, drinking and personality conflicts — the original Koinonians relied on the principle of “unity,” meaning unanimous agreement. “We did things when we all agreed. And sometimes agreement wasn’t easy. The difficult thing was laying down your own agenda to pick up God’s agenda,” said Osterink. Sometimes agendas conflicted over ply-count. “Our disagreements were over which toilet paper to buy. Should we buy the least expensive one or two-ply?” In another Koinonia incarnation, several vegetarian students persuaded their communities to adopt a meatless diet.
As tedious as some of these issues seem, Osterink believes they were beneficial. “There were a lot of times I offended the students, because I came from the business world where we don’t work that way. It was a real learning experience for me — humbling. And there were times when it took us two and three and four times coming back to the table to reach unity.”
The bonds the Osterinks forged with their student communities remain to this day. “We try to get together every month,” he said. Their bond to the neighborhood also remains strong. After completing their time as mentors, the couple, who sold their Ada residence during their time in community, moved across the street from Koinonia House.
Growth of Project Neighborhood
Andrea Heerspink ’99, the mentor at Peniel, lived in the original Koinonia House, and she reminisced about how different it was. “A lot more structure and a lot more expectations,” she says about the early years. “The college was in charge of it, where today, we do what we need to do and follow some loose guidelines. Students are comfortable with an atmosphere established by them instead of by the college.”
Nowadays, agreements are not necessarily unanimous. And the expectations aren’t as high that the houses will drastically influence their surrounding neighborhoods. “I have lived in my neighborhood four years, and I’m just starting to get to know the neighbors. These students live in these houses for nine months. I think we need to have realistic expectations of what these students can accomplish in the neighborhood,” said John Britton, the assistant dean of residence life and current Project Neighborhood director.
Harambee and Peniel also work in their sponsoring church’s youth programs. “That’s why the church ones are sort of ideal. They plug into existing programs that continue. We really like that model,” Witte said.
Unique to Peniel is a vegetable patch full of watermelons, tomatoes, beans, raspberries, strawberries, peppers and carrots, which is open to neighborhood picking. “We never have red tomatoes. Everyone picks our green tomatoes to make fried green tomatoes,” said senior Jennifer Schmitkons, of Baldwinsville, N.Y., who has lived at Peniel for two years.
The Koinonia House has to work a little harder to find areas of service in its Eastown neighborhood. Some of its residents tutor at Eastown Ministries or work in other neighborhood organizations. “At first we weren’t sure exactly how we were supposed to be involved in our community because there weren’t little kids around. We started to question what we were doing here. Those were some of the most powerful conversations we had,” said Curt Kuipers, a Calvin seminary student who mentors the house with his wife, Kristin. “Project Neighborhood is a bit of a misnomer. It isn’t neighborhood that’s the project. It’s community that’s the project.”
“Project Neighborhood is a bit of a misnomer. It isn’t neighborhood that’s the project. It’s community that’s the project.”
The project’s dual concept of community can be tricky for the people who try to live it, Britton said: “Within those houses, there’s a tension between those two aspects of living in the house…. There’s a fair amount of energy poured into the internal community of the house, wanting to be intentional about community, wanting to be open and honest about resolving conflicts…. There’s been an attempt to balance the internal community with the impact students want to have on the external community.”
And ultimately, no matter what impact the house has on the neighborhood, each group of students within it moves on. Yet even with their transient populations (mentors also rotate out), the houses remain influential — hospitable, safe and neighborly places — in their neighborhoods. “We like to talk about the ministry of presence,” said Witte of this phenomenon.
The students who live in the houses are social work, chemistry, education or special education, biotechnology and English majors. Yet they have similar reasons for living in community. They talk about depth in their relationships with God and with others. They feel the need to connect meaningfully with their neighborhoods. They love to serve. They embrace social justice and environmentalism.
And several of them share something else in common. They have spent a life-changing semester in Honduras, experiencing a third-world culture firsthand. (All but one member of Peniel House are Honduras alums.) Schmitkons could have been speaking for that group when she said, “I came back from Honduras, and I had a lot of ideas about how I wanted to live when I came back. And this was a good way to keep myself accountable.”
Even with the best of intentions, community life has its drawbacks. Most Project Neighborhood participants acknowledge that, due to community commitments, homework is a struggle. “It’s harder than it would be if I were living in a different living situation. But I make do,” said senior Brad Veldkamp, of Hudsonville, Mich., a Peniel resident.
And community can be addictive: “This is kind of positive-negative, but I find it hard to avoid spending too much time with people. It’s so tempting to hang out,” said junior Koinonian Sarah Page, of Glen Ellyn. Ill.
Community can also be overwhelming. “I get times where I need to escape a bit, and there are so many people here,” said senior Sarah Weeda, of Manhattan, Mont., another Koinonia resident.
“There is simply never enough time,” Ippel concluded. “There’s not enough time for us to be what we want to be in the neighborhood. There’s not enough time for us to be what we want to be in the house. There’s not enough time for me to be what I want to be as a mentor. It’s because everyone’s busy, and the students are way over-committed. I think there needs to be good conversation about it. There needs to be a balance between this realism and the ability to dream a little bit and hope for all the things that God can do.”
Though there are no current plans to grow the program, there is also no dearth of applicants for Project Neighborhood. “When I think about these houses, I think it’s a real gift that we’ve given these students …,” said Britton. “What an amazing opportunity to have — a unique and amazing opportunity to have — to experience Christian community. They’ve never had that experience before, probably never will again.... Students living in these houses are in a sense blessed because they’re going to be better members of their community, have better connection to their churches, be better friends and better spouses because of this experience.”
At the close of their Wednesday business meeting, Harambee House customarily gathers around the piano for singing. Tonight they sing, “In my life, Lord, be glorified.”
— Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s staff writer.
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