by Christy Hallenbeck, M.Div. Middler
Classroom dwellers at Luther Seminary may introduce themselves as students.
But true to the Lutheran confession of vocation—of service to God and neighbor in and through people's unique gifts and places in society—those classroom dwellers are also called to be servants and engaged community members, voices and hands of justice both on and off campus.
Students are called to connect their theological studies to the needs and circumstances of their community and world.
It is this intersection of classroom and community that the Community Engagement Fellows (CEF) initiative seeks to articulate and encourage, acknowledging that the future of the church calls for a constant interaction between theology and society.
"At the heart of the CEF program is commitment to the development of effective, forward-thinking leaders for the church," said Lindsey Bulger, a Master of Divinity middler and student fellow. "We hope to accomplish this goal by listening carefully to the Spirit as well as to our context of the church and world."
In February 2011, Bulger and three other Luther students joined 16 students from other seminaries and divinity schools to begin conversations and dreams for "a movement to blend our theological studies with contextual work in our various communities."
After the gathering's conclusion, those students, along with two faculty advisers, wrote a grant proposal and were awarded funds to bring the conversation to the Luther community.
"Students come to Luther with incredible experience and insights and a desire to accompany others in intentional engagement in the community," said Carrie Carroll, vice president for enrollment and dean of students, who is a CEF faculty adviser along with Jessicah Krey Duckworth, assistant professor of congregational and community care leadership. "This grant is focused on taking these experiences and connecting them with the curriculum and the education that our students receive at Luther."
Those connections will come through listening sessions for student conversations about service and justice, development of a database for local service and part-time work opportunities and engagement of a justice-related ministries blog as an ongoing resource.
This fall the fellows hosted a round of student conversations.
"The listening sessions have affirmed that students are hungry for a safe space for their voices to be heard around these topics," said Bulger, who facilitated conversations along with fellow student leaders Kristen Wilcox, M.Div. middler; Jason Clifton, M.Div. middler; and Jessica Schenk, M.Div. junior. "We are thrilled to be able to provide such a space and we are looking forward to our next sessions."
Such conversational space is needed for the church, whose future relies on authentic community engagement in a world of increased relational yearnings but decreased faith-filled language.
"People want to be in relationship with their neighbors in real ways—think AmeriCorps, Teach for America, Lutheran Volunteer Corps," Carroll said. "But they are not connecting these experiences to faith. We need to speak to the deep yearning that people are experiencing and to show them that these relationships are encounters with the Holy Spirit."
Indeed, such encounters change the church and change the world.
"By opening our hearts and hands to the various ways that God is calling us to tend to the needs of the world," Bulger said, "we risk having our lives changed through the encounter of the 'other.'"
For more information about Luther's CEF program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.