Dear Patterson Students
All Calvin tenured faculty members are required to submit a statement of faith and learning to the board of trustees. Professor of political science Amy Patterson chose to do so in the form of a letter to her former, current and future students.
In my nine years at Calvin College, you have asked me many difficult questions. But the most challenging queries have not been about politics. Instead, they get to the core of who I am: “Dr. Patterson, how does your Christian faith affect your teaching and research?” Wow! And I thought I asked hard questions! While I (like some of you) might want to avoid such questions, I know that my vocation as a Calvin professor requires me to answer you. It is for this reason that I write you this letter.
To begin, I echo the Heidelberg Catechism: My only comfort is that I am not my own. I believe in a sovereign and loving God who does wonderful and mysterious things, and who has plans for me. I recognize that I will not always know God’s plan for my life. I am sometimes challenged to trust God in all situations, a fact that may surprise some of you. (Remember that we professors are sinful, impatient people, too; we like for life to be organized and God’s plans to be clear.) However, when I trust God, He brings joy beyond my imagination. My semester in Ghana in 2008 provides an illustration.
As some of you know, I went to Ghana with 17 students; my husband, Neil; my 3-year-old, Isabel; and my 6-year-old, Sophia. While my husband and I had served in the Peace Corps in rural Senegal, some friends and family reacted negatively to our plans to take our children to Africa. By society’s standards, it did not seem very rational to rent one’s house, take one’s children from school and go to Africa! But I believed that God wanted me to help my students and children learn about the richness of His world, by eating fufu, seeing the bright kente cloth, studying about the continent and worshiping with Africans. I believed God wanted me to guide others as they lived and worked in a different culture. However, I had to trust that God would bring such outcomes. And to be honest, on some days—when some of you students were ill, travel plans fell apart, and no one wanted to eat fufu yet again—it was hard to see God’s plan for the Ghana semester.
As we sang “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” in a packed church on our last Sunday in Ghana, I was reminded that God is faithful. He gives us more than we could imagine. I “ponder anew what the Almighty can do” as I thought of my rich conversations with students and Ghanaians about politics, African literature or the challenges of development. I remembered the laughter my family and students had shared on hot and sweaty tro-tro rides; I chuckled over your excitement at my daughter’s last-minute birthday party; I smiled that God had used our time in Ghana to His glory.
I am convinced that because God loves His people so much, we must love one another. One way we show this love is through patience, kindness and humility (Romans 12:9-21). In Ghana, you demonstrated these aspects of Christian community repeatedly: Many of you patiently played Go Fish with Isabel, kindly read Little House on the Prairie with Sophia and laughed at Neil’s silly jokes. I believe our world, and particularly the realm of politics, needs us to model such virtues. We must respect different opinions, listen to each other and be willing to ask for forgiveness. I have been humbled when those of you who have helped in my research challenge me to see issues in new ways. In my courses, I have tried to encourage you to listen and build consensus in classroom debates, simulations and the Model United Nations program. Christian humility means that I must remember that just because I am the professor, I am not always right.
I believe that God’s goodness, faithfulness and love resonate throughout His creation. I see these qualities in the indescribable colors of a sunrise during my morning run, and the beauty and order of God’s world fills me with awe. As your professor, I want you to continuously marvel about God’s diverse and beautiful creation, including the created realm of politics. This is why I expose you to different election systems, various theories of democratization, and competing definitions of development. Through the Model United Nations program, I urge you to learn about another country’s history, society and policies and then to humbly see international issues from that country’s perspective.
My scholarship also reflects my wonder at God’s complex creation. My publications explore the political questions that surround AIDS in Africa. While I ask questions about power, representation and decision-making, I have increasingly realized that to understand AIDS in Africa, I must go beyond the discipline of political science. As a result, I have read works in the fields of theology, anthropology, epidemiology, sociology, public health, religious studies and economics. I have participated in the International Research Network on AIDS and Religion in Africa, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from Africa, the United States and Europe, in order to better understand the complexity of health and development in Africa. I believe that such collaboration across disciplinary lines helps us to come closer to understanding God’s world.
I also know that sin taints all things. Sin manifests itself in the corrupt politician or the promiscuous spouse who brings HIV into a marriage. But it is also evident in political systems that exclude religious minorities or economic structures that give women few means beyond sex work to support their children. In my classes and scholarship, I cannot avoid an analysis of the ways individual and structural sin affects the world. As a result, some of you have lamented that my courses are depressing. We learn about poverty, gender-based violence, corruption, religious intolerance, civil war and violations of children’s rights. And some of you have asked how I can study and write about AIDS, a disease that killed 1.4 million Africans in 2008.
Yes, I respond, sin has corrupted God’s good creation, but I believe that sin and grace are intertwined. I want you to see God’s redemptive power in the midst of pain. Yes, we can (and should) grieve the world’s brokenness, but we also must be hopeful. Do not forget that we learned how Malawi’s Catholic bishops courageously spoke against authoritarian rule in 1992. Do not forget our readings on faith-based organizations that teach illiterate Latin American peasants about their rights. To help you appreciate the complex knot of God’s love and sin’s despair, I ask you to listen to the voices of people in the regions we study.
My most recent research project—a book on the ambiguity of African church responses to AIDS—reflects this tangle of sin and grace in the world. For the research, four Calvin student researchers and I conducted interviews with pastors, church AIDS workers, ecumenical organization leaders and theologians in Ghana, Zambia, Uganda and the United States. Through the three years of fieldwork, I learned of churches that shunned people living with AIDS and others that publicly embraced individuals with the disease.
As God’s people, we are called to be His agents of redemption in this broken world. Yet, sometimes I fear that when we talk about kingdom work at Calvin, we overwhelm you. It helps to remember that God has various jobs for us at different points in our lives. Right now you are part of a Christian academic endeavor to learn more about God’s world. God has created us with intellectual abilities to offer to His redemptive project, but these must be fine-tuned. As we participate in the joint enterprise of developing our intellectual gifts, we come closer to God’s truth. Because I take seriously the vocation of learning, I want you to reach the intellectual potential God has given you. This means understanding dependent and independent variables as well as you can; revising papers to be as clear as possible; and yes, even challenging yourself to comprehend dense political science theories.
My sense of Christian calling crosses over into my scholarship. I have chosen to study topics such as AIDS in Africa, the role of women in African politics, and the challenges of foreign aid programs. I have chosen to publish most of my work with secular journals and presses so that my ideas will have broad circulation. I feel called to share my ideas with scholars, policymakers and NGO (non-governmental organization) officials in order to raise questions about how power and justice affect political and economic development.
Being an agent of God’s redemption does not always mean we are able to solve the world’s problems. In the end, it is Christ who will make all things complete. You who have lived in environments of extreme poverty know, however, that it can be hard to be patient with God’s plan to redeem the world. We long for Isaiah’s vision of a world without hunger, disease or injustice (Isaiah 65: 17-25). At such times, God calls us to imagine and hope. It is somewhat ironic that when we see our limitations—when we recognize that God is ultimately in charge—we are then empowered to act. As the late Oscar Romero said, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”
As I end my letter, I return to my belief that our sovereign, loving God is faithful and kind. He surprises us with His mercy, and He uses big and small events to prod us along His path. I am convinced of this fact when I observe the ways the Ghana semester affected us all. I applied for a Fulbright to Zambia; my children read African stories and periodically demand fufu; some of you moved to Africa and Asia; others volunteered with AmeriCorps, Peace Corps and Mennonite Central Committee; a few of you chose to fight injustice by studying law; one of you even donated a kidney to a friend.
But my daily interactions with you students convince me that God acts not just in our big decisions, but more importantly, in the small details of our lives. The difficult questions you ask in class, the insightful papers you write, our informal mentoring sessions, your clever speeches at Model UN conferences, and your willingness to travel and conduct research with me in Africa have reinvigorated my interest in politics and caused me to rejoice daily at the power and mercy of our loving God. While you may be surprised to know it, you are agents of God’s redemption in my life. Medasi, zikomo, weebale, thank you.