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Implications for Christian Higher Education

Community' engaged learning can have tremendous educational payoffs in institutions of higher learning (Nuhez-Mchiri & Gonzalez, 2018). Benefits include greater student interest, a deeper understanding of the subject matter, increased compassion and empathy, and increased activism and social commitment (Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Yee, 2000). Community' engaged learning provides opportunities for teachers and learners to extend learning well beyond the contours of the classroom (Sandy & Holland, 2006). Through collaborations with community partners, students are more directly confronted with real-world issues in all of their complexities.

But in what ways may community engagement benefit institutions of higher education that have a specifically Christian identity'? The answer to this cyuestion will inevitably vary from institution to institution and will be shaped by how an institution identifies what it understands as its “Christian” character (i.e., as evident in the chapters within this volume). This fact notwithstanding, we offer the reader a provisional typology of how institutions may approach their Christian identity, presented here as four “ideal types”:

  • (a) The institution is Christian by virtue of its historical ties to the Christian tradition, whether construed broadly or narrowly. Institutions that pursue this path may highlight the school’s historical continuity not only with the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, but also with particular sub-traditions within the larger matrix of Christianity. At DePaul, for instance, this happens when references are made to specific forms of Christianity that arc central to DePaul’s history, namely, Roman Catholicism and the Vincentian tradition.
  • (b) The institution is Christian by' virtue of its doctrinal adherence to a particular Christian tradition. Institutions that follow this path tend to understand assent to doctrine as pivotal to their Christian character, and they guard against practices and beliefs that run counter to what is perceived as “authentic teaching” within that particular church or tradition. Institutions that follow such an approach often require faculty, staff, and/or students to sign pledges of faith that consent to certain doctrinal commitments. Examples may be found in all types of Christian institutions, including Protestant, non-dcnominational Christian, and Catholic institutions.
  • (c) The institution is Christian by virtue of what it does for the community and the world. Unlike the doctrinal adherence approach, this pathway understands Christian faith as an active “doing,” or “faith-in-action.” Such institutions follow a more praxis-oriented approach to faith, wherein the mark of a true Christian rests in the fruits of one’s actions (Matthew 7:20). Such institutions often highlight the importance of service and social justice, and they tend to be religiously pluralistic and accepting of those who do not profess a particular religion.
  • (d) The institution is Christian insofar that this identity sets it apart in the marketplace of higher learning. This approach mobilizes the institution’s Christian identity as a usefill marketing tool, especially for parents who want to send their child to a religiously affiliated school or for students who identify strongly with a particular religious tradition.

As these are ideal types, many of them often inevitably overlap. At DePaul, the aspect of Christian identity that is most cherished is the idea that DePaul is Christian and Vincentian by virtue of what it does for the community and the world. However, certain circumstances may necessitate appeals to history and/or marketing. For example, the life stories of St. Vincent and St. Louise De Marillac serve as the mythic narratives of the institution, and the school often draws on the fact that it is the largest Catholic university in the country to appeal to religiously-minded parents and prospective students. In some limited cases, even doctrinal aspects may arise, as seen in the fact that employee benefits do not cover certain forms of family planning and birth control. Like any other Christian institution, DePaul appeals to its Christian identity in different ways, and the appeal will vary depending on the context.

Institutions arc well served when they can make explicit the path that is most central to their mission. As indicated, DePaul puts a premium on Christian “doing.” In fact, its most recent advertising campaign is “Here, we do,” a slogan that can be seen on billboards and public transportation posters all over the greater Chicago area. To be sure, this slogan represents a major institutional marketing campaign. But in a more substantive sense, the slogan also reflects how “doing” is connected to “learning,” given that DePaul is, after all, a comprehensive university. Furthermore, it invites those of us who are interested in community engagement (which itself is a synthesis of doing and learning) to consider how community engagement can be connected to the university’s mission. At DePaul, there seems to

Faith in Action and Community Engagement 157 be a growing awareness that community engaged learning can be a significant, if not central, site for realizing our Vincentian mission. Put another way, Vincentian pedagogy, which champions both doing and learning, can be effectively deployed through community engagement (see Nass & O’Donoghue, 2008; O’Donoghue & Nass, 2006).

Notably, “doing” can be both outward- and inward-facing. “Here, we do” may be construed as “Here we get stuff done,” or “Here, we apply our learning in real world situations,” or perhaps even “Here, through things like community engagement, we help to transform the communities around us.” These are all outward facing transformations that imply a discrete and concrete end.

“Doing,” however, can also be inwardly significant. Although “doing” may very well result in discrete ends or projects, it may also manifest itself as a “doing for the sake of doing.” In this sense, the natural corollary to the slogan “Here, we do ...” may very well be the additional insight, “... and here, we become.” Through practices like community engaged learning, participants become more attuned, more aware, more self-reflective, more empathic, more committed. Such changes are much harder to measure than traditional metrics of educational “success,” but they no doubt bring us closer to understanding how students make sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. At their best, these deep forms of learning invite students to explore questions of calling, vocation, and mission.

As facilitators of student learning, we find it highly gratifying to see students’ understanding of their own spiritual journey blossom through immersion experiences such as the ones we have described. While most students come into the class with a reductive view of religion as a set of rules, or an unbending commitment to a particular faith tradition, or as a rigid cultural practice that was imposed upon them by their parents, many leave the course with a newfound appreciation that religion—or, better yet, “religiosity” or “spirituality”—is first and foremost something that one does. It is the quality of one’s actions carried out in light of one’s larger sense of meaning, purpose, or ultimacy (Haight, 2016). This encompassing sense of spirituality may apply equally to those who are religious and nonreligious alike. Through immersion experiences like the Broadview Prayer Vigil and Courtwatch, students see volunteers from a variety of religious and non-rcligious backgrounds actively doing the work of faith-in-action. Furthermore, given their own involvement as participant-observers in these experiences, students begin to see themselves as active participants in the struggle for justice. Regardless of their own particular faith orientation, students learn that faith need not be confined to particular churches or doctrines, but rather that it may surface organically in committed acts of doing.

In our current era of widening social, economic, and racial disparities, we need now more than ever religiously affiliated institutions of higher learning with missions that are laser-focused on faith in action. Such a focus not only gives these institutions a clear identity and raison d’être,

but it also stands as a clear demonstration of why the institution is relevant to the wider world. No mission, however, can actualize itself. Educators, staff, and administrators must implement it in myriad ways and on myriad levels, including classroom instruction. By thinking more explicitly about how particular classes and learning assignments may embody faith in action (Hansen, Quiñones, & Margolis, 2015), concerned educators and community partners alike can help facilitate significant learning experiences for students that are not only intellectually interesting, but also socially and personally transformative.

Acknowled gments

The authors would like to thank Ellen Underwood for her help with data collection and analysis, as well as Mina Kalkatcchi, Mark Laboe, Karl Nass, Siobhan O’Donoghue, Sandra Quiñones, P. Jesse Rine, and Howard Rosing for their insightfill comments and suggestions.

 
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