Bursting the Christian Bubble

In the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, 25 miles northeast of Los Angeles, Azusa Pacific University's East campus sits at the corner of a busy intersection in the predominantly Latino community of Azusa, California. A prominent fortress-like building announces the school's Christian presence with a bright red modern cross emblem. The majority of the university's students are from white upper-middle class backgrounds, in sharp contrast to the not-quite-middle-class, multiethnic neighborhood surrounding the campus. In many respects, this evangelical institution speaks of privilege and resources—something that is obvious to the community. These demarcations of race, religion, and class have hurt APU's reputation in the past, when "Christian university" did not necessarily translate to service and relationship with the neighbors down the street.

Remarkably, a small number of faculty, staff, and students have pushed the boundaries of administrative comfort and traditional academics to reach out as learners—not self-sufficient Christian problem-solvers—to their neighbors. As they pursue alternative models of faith and justice, students and communities are being radically transformed, healed, and renewed by the experience. In particular, the Office of Ministry and Service and the Department of Global Studies and Sociology are making headway with fresh approaches to education and service.

Students who major in global studies learn about both local and world issues through on-campus classes and two semester-long immersion programs: First in Los Angeles (the L.A. Term) and then abroad through the Global Learning Term. According to Richard Slimbach, professor of global studies and sociology, the L.A. Term "is one of [students'] first experiences being a minority 24/7 in communities, organizations, families. That begins to change their consciousness about the power dynamics and distribution in society. Personal identity, faith, power distribution, politics—it is deeply transforming." Confronted with the complexity of the globalized world, students sort out their urban experiences in light of scripture and faith with a supportive community of faculty and peers.

Both the L.A. and Global Learning terms require students to live with local families in order to learn firsthand through friendship with people affected by the issues studied in their courses. L.A. Term covers topics such as community organizing, environmental health, social change, urban cultures, and issues such as immigration, poverty, affordable health care, and race relations.

Stephanie Sieveke, a senior business administration major, enrolled in L.A. Term fall of her junior year. She stayed with a Filipino host family in Echo Park and interned with a nonprofit hip-hop organization that helps local youth through graffiti art and freestyling. "From day one of the program, you have to use public transportation, and it opens up this whole new world. I was exposed to issues and movements—immigration, affordable housing, intergroup relations, healthcare. It gave me a deeper level of consciousness and awakened a desire for continued learning. It revolutionized the way I thought." Sieveke discovered a knack for community organizing, attended marches for immigration reform, and worked with a community organizing agency to research and create a vocational training program for low-wage workers.

"I'm determined now to work in L.A. and live in L.A.," said Sieveke. "I could see myself working for a nonprofit community-owned corporation, teaching people business skills." Sieveke, a young woman from Orange County who once self-identified as "white upper-middle class with no intention of changing," now hosts homeless neighbors in her off-campus apartment when she's not in Bolivia learning Spanish and studying indigenous movements.

As students leave familiar suburban Christian contexts and see the injustice facing their marginalized neighbors, they often go through a range of emotions and a period of questioning their faith. Students are disturbed by their own ignorance and privilege and the deafening silence of their churches that often fail to connect the implications of injustice with active faith. Young Lee Hertig, a global studies lecturer, teaches courses on immigration and mentors students through their process of transformation. "The gospel is seen through the eyes of the homeless, AIDS patients, undocumented migrants—realities that have been hidden. The Bible all of a sudden is full of welcoming the stranger and hospitality not just to family members and friends. When students find out about urban realities, they say, 'I'm not a Christian anymore,' but what they are really saying is 'I can't go back to insulated materialistic Christianity.' It doesn't work for them anymore."

When students find their old ways of knowing deconstructed, faculty and staff help students reconstruct an authentic faith through class dialogues and creative outlets. Paul Hertig, L.A. Term program director (and spouse of Young Lee Hertig), has discovered that many students are writing songs and poetry for the first time because of their need to voice their experience. For his community organization and social change class, Paul Hertig sets up canvases around Pershing Square, a park in downtown L.A., and has students paint what they have experienced. He also assigns creative projects to students reentering APU campus life from the L.A. Term to help them process the cultural gap they feel with peers. He said, "I have them present paintings, poems, and songs and they express things that they would have never expressed, their struggles, joys, and pains." Young Lee Hertig created Global Artfest, a once-a-semester campus event where returning Global Learning and L.A. Term students present artwork and performances about their semesters away. It provides a platform for students to voice their experience and reconnect with the campus.

IN 2001, THE OFFICE of Ministry and Service (MAS) replaced an outdated structure that had overseen APU students' ministry requirements. Before the change, ministries were designed to help students meet a 15-hour ministry requirement—with little consideration to long-term impact or actual needs. Gina Donnelly, director of chapel services and on APU's staff since 1995, witnessed the dramatic changes that led to what MAS is today. Describing the old system, she said, "Once students put in their 15 hours, they were done. They would tutor a child for a few weeks and then—gone! The child would be left wondering when their tutor was coming back." Under the leadership of Tim Hooten, the director of MAS from 2001 to 2006, the ministry requirement was changed from hours to credits, introducing a philosophy of lifestyle, not a stodgy school requirement. Participation grew from 25 students to more than 2,000 in three years as a result of building ministry opportunities through partnerships with politicians, local churches, and agencies in the city of Azusa and surrounding communities. The emphasis now has changed from APU-originated ministry ideas to connecting students with existing healthy agencies so that they can learn from sustainable models.

MAS's ministries have shifted from a "one way, them and us" approach to a philosophy based on John Perkin's model of community development, which emphasizes living among the people one would serve, pursuing reconciliation, and sharing of resources. Cerritos Kidz, an after-school program in a local Azusa apartment complex, is a prime example of a successful ministry created through relationship with the surrounding community. In 2002, the administration acquired the Cerritos apartments and asked MAS to provide a "Christian presence" among the working-class residents, who some on campus considered to be immoral and unruly. Hooten thought it best to listen to the residents before bringing in any predetermined solutions. He and a few students threw a BBQ party for them and asked what their best hopes were for apartment life. It became clear that they wanted an after-school tutoring program for children and a safe place to play. APU joined in, helping with kids' homework, and adding a book club and library a few years later in response to new requests. The ongoing ministry has had success, with results ranging from children doing better academically and socially to improved relationships between residents and apartment management and a dramatic decrease in late rental payments.

Another MAS-coordinated project is the Matheteis Forum, a monthly dinner and discussion series that brings to campus a diverse panel of speakers to discuss controversial topics with students. In 2006-07, topics included immigration, Darfur, inequalities in education, and the Palestine-Israel conflict. The forum is designed to raise discovery and intellectual dialogue to a different level on campus, creating space for students to wrestle with issues and voice their opinions outside the classroom. One guest panelist who identified himself as a secular Jew and Israeli peace activist contacted Matt Visser, current director of MAS, after his forum. "His view of evangelical Christians changed when he saw students' concern for the conflict," said Visser, remembering with excitement. "He called it a 'reciprocating and healing experience.'" This is exactly the kind of thing Visser and staff love to hear about MAS's work with students and the community.

Like the global studies department, MAS is inspiring students to follow Jesus in the world. Forging a new way of educating students and establishing relationship with neighbors has not been easy, as many staff and faculty can testify. It has been a road fraught with tension and obstacles, especially when the university's financial interests and sense of tradition clashed with proposed plans. Despite this, APU continues to seek innovation, showing what happens when a university steps back, looks at a situation that is not working, and imagines new models of ministry and education that respect the dignity of all involved.

Hanna Kang, a Los Angeles native, was a freelance writer with interests in social justice, contemplative traditions, and immigrant stories when this article appeared.

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