Some decisions are easily forgotten—what did you eat for breakfast last Tuesday?—and some stick with you. As people of faith, we ask God for help in guiding our choices and sometimes have a hard time trusting that he is leading us in the right direction. We asked some people in the Calvin community to share about decisions they have made that have changed their lives.
Nick Nichols ’20
We made a decision to get to work.
Sometimes a person’s destiny rests upon a single decision. Similarly, sometimes a program’s destiny rests upon a single decision as well. I was a member of the first cohort of the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI). This program provides a Calvin education to inmates at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan.
Within weeks of arriving at Handlon, CPI’s incarcerated students learned that an important visitor was on the way, an agent of an accrediting body. This person’s decision determined whether CPI was fully accredited.
CPI’s director, Todd Cioffi, explained what was at stake and told us that we need only sit there while the person looked around. As Todd left for home that day, we gathered in a gameday huddle. Someone asked, “Are we really going to do nothing?” The reply started with a word I cannot write in this article and ended with “no!” With that, CPI students made a decision to get to work.
Creative students designed pamphlets. Bold speakers prepared speeches. Administratively skilled students coordinated the unfolding of events. Someone even practiced a song on an acoustic guitar!
The next day, the prison’s warden, Director Cioffi, and the accreditor strode into the school building and abruptly stopped in wide-eyed shock. CPI students with informational pamphlets waited on them. With pamphlets in hand, the group was ushered into the classroom and seated. Impassioned speakers moved forward to present the case for accreditation. Next, the musician played guitar and sang. Afterwards, CPI students took turns expressing their gratitude to the accreditor, director, and warden.
As they left the classroom that day, Todd turned to us and gave the thumbs up. The program was accredited.
Richard Hopper ’70
I decided to change careers.
During my high school and college days I developed a passion for both the law and the theater. I grew up in the New York City area and had the opportunity to see many Broadway shows. I attended Calvin and was a member of the theater group which was then known as The Thespians.
After college I decided to pursue the law, and in particular trial law, which, in a way, is theater where the stakes are for real. I clerked for the Chief Justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court after law school for a year and then served three years as a criminal prosecutor, trying serious felonies, including multiple murder cases. I went on to join a private law firm as a partner, where I tried numerous civil and criminal cases. Twelve years later I was appointed to the bench by the governor of Minnesota and served as a trial judge for 20 years.
In addition to performing my normal trial duties, I created two specialty courts that were nationally recognized. The first was a special criminal court that processed cases in which the persons charged were afflicted with a mental illness. The court was staffed with both correctional officers and social workers that saw to it that these individuals received the services and medications that would help them stay out of the criminal justice system. The second was a special criminal court that processed cases in which the persons charged were armed services veterans, many of whom had PTSD and related substance abuse problems. This court worked closely with the VA to provide the necessary services that these individuals needed.
During my legal career, my personal life was just as busy. My wife, Gwen and I adopted six children. In addition to raising a large family, both my wife and I became strong advocates for adoption and had an active hand in establishing an adoption agency that specializes in hard to place children. Having a child with autism made us acutely aware of the number of children with special needs in need of an adoptive family.
My wife and I met at Calvin and one of the many interests that we shared was our love for the theater. We shared this interest with our children as they were growing up by attending local productions in Minnesota and traveling to New York City several times a year to visit family and see Broadway shows.
After retiring from the bench and my legal career, with our children grown-up, my wife and I spent a great deal more time in New York City seeing Broadway and Off Broadway shows. It was through one of my daughters that I was introduced to a young Broadway producer who was producing the Fortieth Anniversary Revival of Godspell. My wife and I first saw Godspell in Boston in the 70’s and loved the show. It was then that I decided to “dip my toe” into the business of creating Broadway shows by signing on as a co-producer, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Looking back on my legal career and personal life, I thrived on being creative, solving problems and building new ways to meet people’s needs. These attributes, combined with my passion for the theater have taken me on an amazing adventure in Broadway producing these past 10 years, including two Tony nominations and one Tony award. To set the record straight, however, there have been failures, including a show that the critics absolutely hated, and we had to close after a couple of months. I loved that show just as much, if not more, than the winners.
Although the pandemic has Broadway shut down, the work goes on getting shows ready for Broadway. In 2022 we will be bringing a musical based upon the life and music of Neil Diamond to the Great White Way. It just so happens that my wife and I went on our first date to a Neil Diamond concert in the Calvin Fieldhouse. Who would have thought? God’s plan has brought us full circle.
Fernando Virgil ’19
I decided to move more than 3,000 miles from home.
When I was in high school in El Salvador, I decided to move more than 3,000 miles from home to study in a place I had never been—Calvin University.
I wanted to attend college in the States, but I imagined a secular school in New England or the West Coast. I had never heard of Grand Rapids. The vice principal of my school encouraged me to apply to Calvin because he knew I was a Christian and had a strong academic record.
At the time, I was pretty hesitant. I was accepted to many U.S. colleges, but the financial aid packages weren’t enough to make it work for my family. College felt like a lost cause for me. And then, Calvin came through. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to make the decision on my own, but it was clear that God’s hand was directing me to Calvin.
The first few hours of International Orientation were an affirmation that I was at the right place. I met other students from all over the world and got acclimated to the new culture. As a student, I had an amazing experience—serving as an RA, leading student organizations, and learning from professors. I truly fell in love with the community at Calvin and in West Michigan. I even stayed a fifth year to complete the master’s in accounting program.
Now, I’m still here in Michigan working in finance, a career field that I love.
Lindsey Gutbrod ’92
I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.
The decision that changed everything for me happened my freshman year at Calvin when I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I’d grown up with the Bible but had misunderstood the gospel. I’d spent my life attempting to atone for my sin with good behavior instead of putting my faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross.
I transferred to Calvin to be at a Christian college where I assumed I’d meet friends who were legalists (like me!). Instead I found peers who were joyfully assured of their salvation. They lived moral lives under the authority of scripture, but were doing so peacefully. This joy-filled, obedient living came as a refreshing surprise to someone who was stressed out every day, trying to “get” saved.
After years of trying to earn God’s favor, I submitted my life to him, praying alone in my dorm room to receive the Lord. My life became an outpouring of thankfulness. My spirit could rest, serving him as my Lord and knowing my eternal future is secure.
I also realized that I had a responsibility to share the gospel with others who might be as confused as I had been. This has led to a lifetime of vocational opportunities: a summer service project with Cru, five years in Hungary working with Protestant churches, and here in Michigan alongside our local church and as a homeschooling mom to our two children.
I believe that every day is an opportunity to get out of bed and be of service to the Lord, even in the most mundane things. By staying in his word and connected to a local church, he gives me the direction and opportunities to be a part of his Great Commission.
Ciarra Adkins ’11
I decided to open a solo practice.
I always knew I wanted to be an attorney; as a child I lined up stuffed animals and held court sessions. My family relocated from Detroit, Michigan, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I met the late Hon. Benjamin H. Logan. He took me under his wing, and my dream of becoming an attorney felt attainable. I had to care for siblings and work fulltime during both college and law school. These were extremely difficult years, but I ultimately graduated in the top third of my legal class.
The decision to open a solo practice was never a part of my plan. I wanted to join a large firm with a community of attorneys, but I never landed another clerkship. As a result, Logan offered me a clerkship upon graduation, but he died before that opportunity came to pass, and I lost my greatest mentor and support system.
I passed the bar exam and continued working my day job. I distinctly remember attending an attorney gathering years ago; everyone was so kind and welcoming and offered to help make connections. The following year, the same gathering, people, and words, yet this time they rang hollow as I still hadn’t landed a single interview despite my best efforts. I remember crying the entire drive home, as I was desperate to find legal work. Another year passed without a single interview.
I prayed and asked God for guidance. It became clear that the only way I would practice law in west Michigan was by establishing a solo practice. It was a demoralizing decision, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do—but I somehow knew this was what God wanted me to do.
Now, three years later I am doing God’s work. AQUME Law has filled a much needed gap for accessible business and intellectual property legal services for several local small businesses of color. Plus, I recently hired a paralegal and I wouldn’t have made the same equitable impacts that my firm has achieved if I followed my own plan. And although it is difficult at times, I am glad I finally listened to God.
Kezia Tjahjanto ’22
I made the decision to slow down.
I love to do everything fast, and I can be ambitious. I can plan out my life ahead to the smallest detail. For me, these personality traits lead to over-worrying and anxiety. That anxiety increased throughout 2020, as I studied at Calvin remotely with a 12-hour time difference.
I couldn’t focus on my classes, and I was worried I might fail—or that I might have an emotional breakdown whenever something bothered me. I learned a lot from my advisor, Julie Yonker, and from the support of my parents. I made a decision to slow down and enjoy the blessings that God has provided me with. I learned to relax my mind, as our emotions are controlled from our brain. I started to shift my anxiety to my hobbies that requires me to do physical work such as baking.
Once I started to learn to control my emotions, I started to feel calmer and could focus on what’s important. I am grateful for my support system and that I have a God I can rely on to help me.
I decided to go vegan for interim.
In 2003, I started teaching at Calvin, invigorated by our mission of “educating for shalom.” My job is helping students to discern their gifts and inviting them to commit wholeheartedly to the work of renewing God’s world—a fallen but ultimately good place in which ostriches and oceans, cultures and climate patterns, science and spirituality, food systems and the bodies they nourish are woven through divine love into a marvelous cosmic adventure where human creatures made in the divine image seek the flourishing of all creatures.
One great reward of teaching at Calvin is that students whose imaginations catch fire for this vision tend to hold their professors’ feet to it. Such students wondered how a shalom-minded, climate-concerned, dog-loving professor could be so unreflectively committed to eating animals.
Already by 2005, I was under pressure from students to explore these issues in class. I decided to withdraw a proposal for an interim course on boredom (!) and teach one on creation care instead. “Peaceable Kingdom” is a course that invites students to consider the theological, moral, and environmental consequences of our current attitudes and actions toward animals. Given the unbecoming irony of preaching (without practicing) the importance of practicing what one preaches, I decided to err on the side of caution and go vegan for interim.
Aspiring to be vegan began as a three-week experiment. No dramatic lifelong commitments. No self-flagellation for cheating.
That decision was 15 years ago now, and, as you might have guessed, that simple practice of opening a window to shalom has stuck with me. I have no illusions that I live a perfect or pure or “cruelty-free” life. Aspiring to be vegan, to me, means striving to live a life animated by compassion for all God’s creatures.
Like aspiring to be a follower of Jesus, aspiring to live compassionately toward animals is more about striving toward a goal than arriving at one. But there is progress on the journey. A reluctant experiment became a joyful way of life. A moment of curiosity matured into a scholarly calling. I now see smart, social pigs where once I saw only bacon and an all-creatures kinship where once I could imagine only human domination over things.