The combination of a turbulent political season and an increasing national distrust in media has led many Americans to a state of questioning, including the Calvin community. What news sources can be trusted? How should one talk about these issues with others? What does it look like to be a just citizen in practical ways?
In fall 2016, Matthew Walhout ’88 and Jenna Hunt ’07 noticed people from different campus departments expressing a need and desire for a programmatic way to discuss these emerging issues.
Walhout—physics professor of 20 years and dean for research and scholarship at Calvin for nine years—collaborated with Hunt, program coordinator for academic seminars, to create a space for the Calvin community to sort through these issues as a unified body.
CREATING THE FORUM
After composing a list of pressing social and political issues, Walhout and Hunt reached out to those they thought would address the issues well. They found a variety of panelists and speakers, devised a program schedule and launched the Just Citizenship forum in February 2017.
We also wanted to help participants leave with a vision for how they might actually act in society, take civil action or get involved in an organization...Matthew Walhout
Walhout and Hunt generated four specific outcome goals for the forum: an appreciation of respectful dialogue; an understanding of each issue in its context; ideas for how to get involved; and gaining tools for discernment. They accomplished this by having dialogue among forum attendees, as well as providing practical tools and examples for how to be active citizens.
“We very intentionally asked people to turn to someone they didn’t come with. It’s really cool to see older folks talking to students and vice versa,” Hunt said. “These are conversations that might not happen anywhere else.”
Walhout added: “We also wanted to help participants leave with a vision for how they might actually act in society, take civil action or get involved in an organization, rather than just learning passively.”
Some of the tools they hoped to provide included principles for identifying fake news, instructions for how to contact legislators, and training for how to deal with issues one could encounter in public.
During one of the weekly sessions, four Calvin alumni addressed the topic “Elected to Serve: What Does a Faithful Public Servant Look Like?”
Ken Bergwerff ’78, Jamestown (Michigan) township supervisor; Emily Post Brieve ’05, Kent County (Michigan) commissioner; Winnie Brinks ’90, Michigan state representative; and Wendy VerHage Falb ’87, Grand Rapids Public Schools board president, comprised the panel, drawing on their experiences to inform those in attendance.
They began by reflecting on their journeys into politics and how even with fellow Christians and Calvin alumni they can land on very different sides of issues.
“While we all graduated from Calvin, we don’t all look at things from the same perspective,” said Bergwerff. “Our core principles are the same: take, for example, stewardship. I think we would agree as Calvin graduates that we need to be stewards of God’s creation. While we all have that same objective, we might have a different perspective on what that means.”
Added Brinks: “Sometimes people wonder how if we all graduated from Calvin can we have such different views? I think it speaks to Calvin’s credit that we are able to land in such different places. It’s a testimony to the ways Calvin helps people learn how to think critically and evaluate for themselves.”
The panelists agreed that the ability to see other perspectives is a key function in their roles.
“I have an assessment of what constitutes a good education,” said Falb, “but am I right? I believe I’m right, but is my belief on this also aligning with the betterment of people? We are often engaging in this complexity with belief issues.”
They said adeptness at the art of compromising remains a central component to being successful at their positions.
“Frequently, things are seen as it’s either right or wrong,” said Bergwerff. “Often, we need to say, ‘Do we have any other options? Can we look at this a different way?’ Compromising today is seen as a dirty word, but if you are going to present choices as it’s this or nothing, you’re going to get nothing far too often.”
The lessons these alumni shared are what Walhout and Hunt envisioned for the series. “There are important values shared by people on all sides. As Christians we can hope to transcend the divisions and knit the opposing sides together with something more cohesive,” Walhout said. “That’s not going to happen in an abstract way with a document; it’s going to happen when groups of people get together and talk through the issues, face to face.”
Senior Isaac LaGrand, a history and philosophy double major, enjoyed the forums’ presence of diverse thought and discussion. “The panels generally had a really good mix of perspectives,” LaGrand said. “It’s encouraging to see the institution try to cultivate regular discussion outside of the classroom. If Calvin really wants to be an instrument of the kingdom, it has to acknowledge the times and equip people to deal with them, not just proceed with business as usual.”
In addition, sophomore Lauren Moose, a political science major, believes the forum was timely and necessary for Calvin students, whether they consider themselves “political” or not. “I think it’s important for Calvin to hold talks like these in our present political climate so that we don’t lose sight of different perspectives on issues that can define our nation,” Moose said. “Even if someone isn’t necessarily interested in learning more about politics, that shouldn’t stop them from trying to be a better-informed citizen. Everyone can benefit from conversation because it helps us formulate our own thoughts and opinions.”
The forum aligns directly with Calvin’s mission of equipping students to think deeply, act justly and live wholeheartedly as Christ’s agents of renewal in the world, Walhout said.
“Calvin College is about equipping students, but ‘equip’ means more than just giving tools for doing your career or job well; it’s being equipped to be a whole person in society, which requires you having people around you in community,” Walhout explained. “We want to give [students] civic know-how so they understand issues and know how to respond to them. This isn’t part of preparing for a career, it’s part of becoming a citizen.”
It’s encouraging to see the institution try to cultivate regular discussion outside of the classroom.Isaac LaGrand
Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark. Jacquelyn Hubbard is a student writer in communications and marketing.