Community as a Tangible Resource: Tragedy at Seattle Pacific

SPU LogoLike all Christian College faculty and administrators, I was stunned to hear Thursday’s reports of a shooting at Seattle Pacific University. Our general sentiment seemed to be “it’s not supposed to happen here”. Not that we expect mass shootings in any location, but we’ve long felt that what made Christian colleges different was that they were removed from the crises and conflicts of the broader world. It’s why so many of them are located in remote areas.

But Seattle Pacific was closer to home for a number of reasons. I spent over a decade at another Christian college in the northwest and feel an identification. SPU is a sister Free Methodist school to Spring Arbor. I have been on campus multiple times, most recently in the spring of 2013 for the Wesleyan Theological Society meetings. I’m pretty sure one of the last sessions I attended was in a lecture hall in the science building. Most importantly, SPU president Dan Martin is a personal friend who wrote the foreword for my book.

It’s been fascinating to watch the news media try to make sense of the ethos of SPU. The Seattle Times attempted to get at the dynamics in a number of ways. This story from yesterday does a good job of portraying both the external assumptions about Christian colleges and the internal realities. On the one hand, it relies on standard descriptors small, faith-based, restrictive, homogeneous:

The small evangelical Christian college, on the north slope of Queen Anne Hill, stands out in the Seattle area for the degree to which it works on developing students’ faith and for fostering a tight-knit community.

All undergraduates must take at least three courses in theology, and are encouraged to attend worship services, bible studies, bible retreats and other such activities to nurture their faith. They are expected to adhere to a code of conduct that prohibits premarital, extramarital or homosexual sex, as well as the use of alcohol or tobacco on campus, and marijuana on or off campus.

The some 4,000 students are predominantly Christian, although there are a few non-Christians at the school, which was founded in 1891 by the Free Methodist Church of North America.

At the same time, the essence of SPU seems to be carried not in these expectations but in the vibrant faith community that is present there. What outsiders don’t recognize is that the community dynamic is as important, maybe more important, than the faith component. Or, more accurately, the outgrowth of the faith is expressed in community.

All of that — and especially his theology classes and relationships with others at SPU — helped develop the faith of Alex Piasecki, a 21-year-old junior majoring in theology.

He is drawing from that faith now, even though “I don’t know if there’s any way of making sense of what happened,” Piasecki said. “I’m placing a lot of faith in God at this time. It’s a new thing for all of us. It’s very hard to go through. I truly believe that God is the ultimate healer and redeemer. We’re just going to have to be patient through this process.”

This is a similar sentiment to that expressed by President Martin in this press conference. He talks of the regular preparations that any institution must go through to prepare for the unthinkable. But he talks most passionately about the kind of institution that draws together in faith and in support of one another, trusting Christ to be present in the midst of tragedy.

Paul Lee, the young man from Portland who was killed in the shooting, was a part of that community. So the loss wasn’t just about a violent act but the violation of community. But that community also is what motivated Jon Meis, the building monitor who used pepper spray to disable the shooter when he stopped to reload. It wasn’t about stopping “the bad guy” but about protecting others from harm. His faith and his belief in community caused him to act in ways that clearly put him at risk.

Jon Meis acted for others because he learned about mutuality at SPU. We call him a “hero” because he put others first. But that’s not really unusual. What’s unusual is the circumstance through which his heroism got noticed. The outside world doesn’t know quite what to do with that, which is why they responded by buying material goods on his wedding registry or by using him as an example in ongoing gun control debates.

We don’t know a lot about the shooter. He appears to have picked SPU because of the presence of students and the hope to create bedlam before committing suicide. He could just as easily have gone to the University of Washington or Seattle City Community College. The sad reality is that there is little any of us can do to guarantee that some individual won’t come onto our campus looking for the same notoriety.

In spite of all of our best efforts, we can never be sure that tragedy won’t strike through a troubled individual, a tornado, an auto accident, or illness. But we can know that we are upholding one another. Not just in prayer but as tangible expressions of the Body of Christ acting in a hurting world.

I’ve been in Indianapolis this weekend for the wedding of two of our sociology graduates. It was wonderful to be present, to share in their joy, to see other students, friends, and family who have loved them over the years. Sitting at dinner last night, I was struck with how much we enter into each other’s lives.

The minister who performed the wedding talked of a golden chord that bound the couple together in their love for Christ. In a deeper sense, we’re all bound together by that chord of faith. I feel loss at SPU because in some ways I know students, faculty, and families there. We are part of each other’s world. And it is that sense of community that is the driving force of pedagogy at the Christian college. Not chapel requirements, or alcohol bans, or prayer before class.

As I wrote in my book, we are truly practicing being the Kingdom of God. And that has tangible power to “engage the culture” and in so doing, “changing the world”.

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