Christian Perspectives on Community Engagement and the Public Humanities

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What is the primary goal of community outreach programs at universities and colleges? This question is being asked by the coordinators of such programs across disciplines but is especially relevant to humanities scholars navigating the rise of the public humanities. As a humanities student at a Christian university, the author looks to the examples of other faith-based institutions’ approaches to community engagement to gain a deeper understanding of how religious beliefs may inform how humanities work is brought to the public.

A core value of Christianity is self-giving love. According to Dr. Cassie J. E. Trentaz, Professor of Theology, Ethics, and Church History at Warner Pacific University, “everything hinges upon this love. Each group that draws its identity from following Jesus has since had the responsibility to ask the questions of what it means to be faithful, responsible lovers in our time and place” (2020: 111). With love as their foundation, Christian universities and colleges tend to prioritize service in their community engagement programs. For schools affiliated with the largely evangelical Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), Mann notes that a “focus on and commitment to positive social change” is one of their defining characteristics (2020: 8). For these institutions, therefore, is not enough for community engagement programs to be immersive and experience-building for students; they must also provide valuable care to members of the community. For example, the Samford Traditions and Oral History Recording Initiative at Samford University provides both a service to the community and education to students. In processing the oral histories of the local community, Samford students are loving the community by ensuring its history is preserved.

At Warner Pacific University, an institution affiliated with the Church of God, Wesleyan Holiness theology informs efforts made to connect the university with the community. According to these teachings, love requires both holiness and unity. According to Trentaz, holiness involves understanding that “our behaviors impact ourselves and those around us” (2020: 111). Unity, on the other hand, is the idea that we need one another and “cannot love who we do not know, and we cannot know unless we make space to hear and learn” (Trentaz 2020: 111). To put these values into practice, Warner Pacific has committed to really getting to know its community of Portland, Oregon, recognizing specific areas of need, and designing collaborative programs enabling the university and community partners to address these needs. One example of this is the university’s revised service-learning program, through which all students spend time working “to meet specific tangible needs within our city in eight different categories: Compassion, Ecological Justice, Economic Equity, Gender Equity, Interfaith Relationship, Racial/Ethnic Equity, Support for the Elderly & Disabled, and Youth & Child Support” (Trentaz 2020: 113). This focus on truly getting to know the community and meeting its particular needs has allowed Warner Pacific to design programs that support collaboration between students and local partners to address concerns of their shared community of Portland.

Serving the common good of humanity is also a core value of Catholic institutions. According to Mann, “Catholic institutions are dedicated to a set of values—such as a caring environment, respect for all persons, human connection, and a responsibility for the care and keeping of the community” (2020: 11). These values are just some of the themes of Catholic Social Teaching, a Catholic doctrine focused on our shared responsibility to respect human dignity and work for a more just society. One Catholic institution demonstrating a commitment to this responsibility is the University of Dayton, whose Law Clinic “challenges [law students] to counsel and serve community-based clients through their defense processes” (Mann 2020: 17). Thus, law education at Dayton requires students to actively engage with their community and work to secure legal justice for its members.

Although some of the above discussed initiatives do not deal directly with the humanities, they have much to teach us about what a loving, self-giving approach to working with the public entails. If one of our core responsibilities as Christians is to love our neighbors, the public humanities projects we do must serve the needs of community members, rather than simply providing students valuable experience in the field. Moreover, if we are called to respect the dignity of every person and understand that unity means we need one another for support, our projects should not create a barrier between students and professors as the expert deliverers of knowledge and community partners as the beneficiaries. Rather, we should work together with community partners to construct meaningful knowledge. Finally, if we are called to work for a more just society, we should design humanities projects that seek out this justice and give a voice to those who have been silenced. Thus, from a Christian standpoint, public humanities work must be service-oriented, collaborative, and justice-seeking.

Works Cited

Mann, Jessica. “Mission Animation: Christian Higher Education, the Common Good, and Community Engagement.” Christian Higher Education, vol. 19, no. 1-2, 2020, pp 7-25. Taylor and Francis Online, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15363759.2019.1689200.

Trentaz, Cassie J. E. H. “What Does it Mean to be an Engaged Institutional Neighbor?: A Self-Study of Undergraduate Program in Ministry and Community Engagement.” Christian Higher Education, vol. 19, no. 1-2, 2020, pp. 109-128. Taylor and Francis Online, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15363759.2019.1687053.

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