“The Whispers of the Spirit”: Discerning Meaning in the Work of Justice

As a disenfranchised citizen who yearned for a change, as a child born on the dark side of the American dream, I heard the whispers of the spirit calling to me to wrestle with the soul of a nation. – John Lewis

What is necessary for those persons who seek to create and live a life of commitment that works to develop the common good? A transformed heart and an active response that faces structural injustices and works to affect change is required. Listening to “the whispers of the spirit calling,” to borrow a phrase from John Lewis, grounds the energies of transformation and fuels commitments to work for social change. Discerning a calling dwells in the dynamic integration of inner reflection and critical social analysis.

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What an Unjust World Also Needs: Connecting Vocation and Activism

Soon after the murder of Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and the rising prominence of Black Lives Matter in rallies and marches around the country, students from my institution planned their own protests. Dezi, a non-binary Black US American individual who graduated with Religion and Sociology majors five years ago, led the way. As they planned a “die in” to take place in Augustana’s campus coffee shop, Dezi wisely consulted with a number of faculty members. They conveyed their intention and their list of demands to Augustana, and asked us to help them refine their tactics and messaging. I was both honored and anxious to be among those informal consultants.

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Student Activism and Belonging

A conversation with Chris Arguedas, Director of the Intercultural Community Center at Occidental College.  

Chris Arguedas

I met Chris Arguedas at the NetVUE regional gathering hosted by Occidental College in January 2020, where we started a conversation about tending to the well-being of student activists. Chris generously agreed to share some of his thoughts about the particular challenges faced by student activists, especially students from minoritized communities, and his own sense of calling in the work that he does with students.

Describe the work you do at Occidental and the students you encounter and support. 

First, I am there to listen. I often meet with students on a one-on-one basis, and I take these opportunities to learn from them and to build trust. Relationships built on trust are what propel the work of an Intercultural Center forward. My work is also to make students feel seen, in particular students who are underrepresented and racially minoritized in higher education, who often move through the world without being treated with respect. And, more specifically, I conduct training to mitigate institutional barriers at the college; I act as a liaison (and translator sometimes) between faculty, staff and students as it relates to issues of equity and social justice; and I co-create programming with students that recognizes and honors their identities and helps them step into their greatness. 

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“Equity-mindedness” and the Vocation of Lutheran Colleges

The recent  Vocation of a Lutheran College conference energized participants over three days with robust conversation sparked by plenary speakers and concurrent sessions focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dr. Guy Nave, Professor of Religion at Luther College, Dr. Monica Smith, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Augustana College, and Rebecca Bergman, President of Gustavus Adolphus College, challenged listeners to consider things like “equity-mindedness” when it comes to institutional identity and collective goals. They asked questions about the ways we are and are not using structural privilege to the advantage of all students, faculty, and staff, and offered deeper reflective definitions of the very terms of the conversation itself. 

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Care for the Whole Person

St. Ignatius of Loyola
(Painting by Francisco Zurbaran)

Catholic institutions spin vocation and identity in unique ways for their students. Many with a cursory knowledge of Catholic higher education are aware of its general missionary zeal for social justice. Some also may be aware that Jesuit-Catholic colleges operate, by mission, according to the Ignatian principle of cura personalis. Translated as “care for the whole person,” the idea behind cura personalis is to move beyond pure intellectual concerns to notice, learn about, and attend to the whole of a person’s life—the head, the heart, body, and soul.

How might these things come together to inform relations between staff, faculty, and students? How do they help foster a vocation? By sharing my perspective and experience I hope to provide a partial answer to these questions. I will recap how I came to weave cura personalis into my work and recount how it has remained an important part of my philosophy of education and professional life in secular institutions, beyond a formative period. Cura personalis offers an old way of seeing problems and issues that feels timeless, and highly relevant in today’s environment.

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“When Hope and History Rhyme”: Some Thoughts on Imagination and Vocation

Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of the Republic of Ireland. Photo taken by the author.

“Whatever is given,” says Nobel prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, “can always be reimagined.” For the past six years I’ve taken students to Northern Ireland (as well as the Republic of Ireland), and each time I have two thoughts. First, nothing seems less able to help than the imagination. Bombs, shootings, riots, marches. Violent murals, omnipresent flags, banners, and painted curbs (red, white, and blue in Loyalist areas, green, orange, and white in Republican areas) all of which serve as warnings to the zone of loyalties one is entering. Then there are the peace walls, the ironically named concrete and barbed wire monstrosities erected by the British army to keep neighbors from murdering each other. “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”

My second thought is that nothing is more urgently needed than imaginative push back. In his essay “Frontiers of Writing,” collected in The Redress of Poetry, Heaney (with a little help from American poet Wallace Stevens) voices an astounding call to exercise the civic imagination on behalf of the common good. Heaney says of the Loyalist majority in Northern Ireland that “everything and everybody would be helped were they to make their imagination press back against the pressure of reality and re-enter the whole country of Ireland imaginatively, if not constitutionally” (202). Because Northern Ireland and the work of Seamus Heaney have taught me so much about the power and limits of the imagination, my mind drifted to them during Dr. Robert Franklin’s closing plenary at the NetVUE gathering in Louisville last month, in which he argued for the imagination as a virtue to be practiced in leadership and institutions in the face of the challenges confronting America (challenges enumerated by Dr. Rebecca Chopp in her opening plenary). As I listened, I found myself wondering: Could America be helped if we began to believe that meaningful change could at least begin with the imagination? Could I persuade students that imaginative resistance and push back is itself a vocation? What happens when we think about the imagination as a confrontation with possibility?

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The Cartography of Vocation

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Commercial map of the British Empire.

Cartographers try to render clear a patchwork of people and place, land and history.  As the poet Ciaran Carson suggests, “With so many foldings and unfoldings, whole segments of the/ map have fallen off” (“Queen’s Gambit”).   Maps embody, in pieces, cultural thought and human experience.

The map is an oft invoked image for discussing life’s purpose—indeed, upon my arrival at NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration summer seminar we spent time both drawing our own vocational maps and explaining them.  This exercise proved disorienting (I prefer to think in words, not images) and also expanding, in that I started to think of my vocational journey as a sort of constellation map.  On it, I noted bright spots in my past—my undergraduate mentor, reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time, studying abroad, professional achievements—and I also saw how the darkness of other aspects of experience offered direction. Continue reading

A heresy worth considering…

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Geek Heresy

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Kentaro Toyama back in February 2018 when he visited our campus for an engaging seminar on the role of technology in addressing social problems. Dr. Toyama is the W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan, and his 2015 book, Geek Heresy, articulates what I consider “hard won” insight into the role of technology in society and, more specifically, how technology impacts social change.

Toyama began his career as a computer scientist working for Microsoft in their research division.  If you have ever enjoyed the Kinect accessory in Microsoft’s XBox—the stereo imaging system that converts a player’s motion into real-time video game inputs—you are at least tangentially familiar with some of Toyama’s early research that led to the development of Kinect.  Ultimately, though, Toyama found this work unfulfilling and a far cry from the idealism of his youth that had drawn him to the sciences in the first place.  His original goal was to help solve the energy crisis. Continue reading

Vocation, Art, and Activism: Parker Palmer and Carrie Newcomer

Do you have students who agonize over how they can justify living-college-life-as-usual when so much is so wrong in the world? Likewise, do you find yourself conflicted about how to teach when your heart is troubled by hatred and violence directed at vulnerable groups, by the state of division in our country, and the degradation of our planet?

If so, the concert of song and spoken word by Parker J. Palmer and Carrie Newcomer at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College would have inspired and strengthened you. If you weren’t there, here are some reflections from someone who was. Continue reading

Stories that inspire courage and hope

At first glance, the two women may seem to have little in common. Elise Boulding was born in 1920 and died in 2010. Emma González, until two weeks ago, was a high school student studying for her AP exams. Right now she’s more famous than Elise Boulding. These two women, especially, have had deep impact on my vocation as professor and leader: Boulding gave me courage and hope when I was a struggling young professor. González gives me hope now. Continue reading