July 17, 2009 | Allison Graff

When six students from Calvin’s Center for Social Research (CSR) hit the streets of Kent County, they’re mistaken for everything from tax collectors to door-to-door salespeople.

When six students from Calvin’s Center for Social Research (CSR) hit the streets of Kent County armed with clipboards and cameras, they’re mistaken for everything from tax collectors to door-to-door salespeople.

Kristin Booy and Michael Evans-Totoe work together canvassing in a Kentwood neighborhood."It’s a good thing we wear our gold Calvin nametags—that helps people know we’re legit,” said senior Kristin Booy, a psychology major from Brampton, Ontario. 

The students form a team of research assistants that are canvassing Kent County this summer to update the Kent County Congregations Study (KCCS), a comprehensive survey of faith congregations in the area begun in 2006 by the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation. CSR assistant director Neil Carlson has led the research center’s involvement in the study of Kent County congregations since the spring of 2006. Carlson said the study is unique in its breadth and depth.

"There just aren’t any studies [of congregations] that are geographically intensive and over time,” he said. “We’re not aware of anyone doing this like we are.”

The study is just the beginning of a project whose long-term goal is to see faith congregations in Kent County participate effectively in community efforts to prepare children and youth for college, the workforce and life. The students at the CSR are contributing to this goal by gathering information about congregations, the programs they provide and the partnerships they have with other congregations. Eventually, the study will be a resource for congregations to see where service overlaps and gaps exist.

This summer the CSR’s student research assistants are cleaning up and adding to data collected in 2006 and 2007 about the congregations in Kent County. In 2006, canvassers from the CSR and Grand Valley State University’s Community Research Institute identified 900 possible houses of worship in Kent County. In 2007, a team of 13 Calvin students and eight community liaisons narrowed the list down to 720 congregations and conducted in-depth interviews with leaders from 583 of them, recording data that resulted in the 2008 publication Gatherings of Hope: How Religious Congregations Contribute to the Quality of Life in Kent County

A little detective work

In addition to updating census information from area congregations, the students are doing investigative work to track the role faith groups play in providing social services to their communities.

"This is the first part of something greater than just counting the churches in the area,” said CSR research associate Christina Vanden Bosch ’08, who supervises the students research assistants working on the KCCS. 

Research assistant Booy, along with Brian Odegaard ’09, Nathan Mosurinjohn ‘09 and juniors Tyler Greenway, Leia Vos and Michael Evans-Totoe, spend most days driving or walking down each street in a fixed geographical area, or census track. They look for the presence of congregations and things like land use, street conditions, presence of greenery and even whether people are loitering in an area. In some cases, congregations have closed or moved; in other cases, new congregations have opened their doors. The research assistants are accustomed to knocking on church doors and talking to people in neighborhoods to get the information they seek.
"In canvassing, we’re able to talk to people and get them to help us out,” said Odegaard, a recent graduate with a degree in psychology.

Occasionally, the students can return the favor, like when they found a publicly-advertised phone number for a congregation that was actually a woman’s personal cell phone number.

"Sometimes we’re helping the churches update their own contact information!” said Odegaard.

Most days canvassing runs smoothly, something that is due in part to the familiarity many area congregational leaders have with KCCS.
"We are really appreciative of the warm welcome the congregations provide to the students. It was true in 2007 and it’s true in 2009,” said Carlson.

An opportunity for undergraduate research

For the students, the long hours canvassing streets in areas urban, suburban and rural are hours well spent. Booy, who plans to pursue graduate studies in clinical psychology, appreciates the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate student.

"It’s really opened my eyes to see how a large-scale research project is done … I have learned how to use lots of useful software,” she said.

Greenway, a psychology major from Middleville, Mich., is enjoying gaining a more intimate knowledge of the area: “I was downtown last weekend, and it was neat to recognize a church that we’d been to the week before.”

Discovering congregations in non-traditional settings, like the one he found in an office building, has been eye-opening for Odegaard: “You forget that faith can flourish in any setting—you don’t have to have a lot of people, it could just be a group meeting in a storefront.”

Vanden Bosch has seen the students take responsibility for the survey project as they go out to congregations and meet people: “They’re learning on their own terms and learning to be effective researchers,” she said.

The technology factor

When the research assistants head out canvassing, they don’t have to worry about how to navigate from one place to the next within their study area.  Though they’re often traveling on unfamiliar streets, sophisticated maps printed on 11x17 cardstock help them with way-finding. CSR research assistant Nathan Mosurinjohn ‘09 uses Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a technology that shows relationships between map systems and specialized data, to produce the maps. 

This map of downtown Grand Rapids was generated using Geographic Information Systems, something taught in a new advanced-level course taught by Calvin's geology, geography and environmental studies department. Carlson says that technology like GIS is key in making KCCS project efficient and successful.

"The big story is how does a little college with a little research center pull off a big study like this, and the answer is technology,” he said. 

In addition to the GIS technology, the CSR uses a custom-built database to keep track of the census data recorded by the research assistants on the field. A quick search for all congregations with the word “Reformed” in their title or description yields 110 results for Kent County. Each result may contain multiple pages of data as congregations change or move.

"We never throw any data away here,” said Carlson. 

Eventually, a database containing information gathered in the Kent County Congregations Study will be made available to the public as a Web resource. 

Keeping the big picture in mind

As Odegaard looks at the future of KCCS, especially as it connects to an in-depth study of youth services in Kent County congregations, he is excited to see the transition from information gathering to application.

"Now we can get the information out to the community, and they can see what’s being done well and what still needs to get done,” he said. 

As the student research assistants walk each street of Kent County, circling church buildings and recording information from office staff and pastors, they don’t lose sight of the big picture.

"When you’re out on foot, you see what a vital role these congregations play,” said Odegaard. 

Carlson sees the role the research assistants play in the big picture too.

"We have really good students,” he said. “The combination of students who are smart, congenial self-starters with the technology enables us to cover a lot of ground that we couldn’t have otherwise.” 

Recent stories