The Return of the Town Hall

by John Medendorp, co-editor-in-chief

Town Halls are back!

After a difficult start last year, the Student Senate Town Hall Committee realized the need to have a more regular schedule and more authority on the committee itself. The committee members last year did not realize how difficult of a process it would be. “Oh goodness,” says Joshua Smith, chair of the committee last year. “We had so many difficulties with coordinating different peoples’ schedules, last minute drop-outs, and attempts to do group panels. Nothing seemed to work.” As a member of the committee myself, I can attest to the incredible frustration that we experienced as every single thing that we tried ended up getting cancelled or radically changing only a day or two before the event. “When President Medenblik approached us and offered his support,” says Smith, “I was hopeful that someone with his wide-reaching connections could help bring variety to the town halls, and I was happy that there would be some continuity from year-to-year with faculty-staff involvement on the committee.”

And it certainly seems to have paid off.  Since the beginning of the year, there have been town halls almost every Thursday, with a wide variety of topics discussed and an impressive roster of participants. The Town Hall Committee is still classified as a Senate Standing Committee, under the new student body constitution that was adopted last May, but it’s mandate is now to collaborate “with the CTS Administration for planning and implementing monthly Town Hall meetings on relevant issues for the CTS community.” The thinking, last year, was that having the administration involved would provide greater continuity from year-to-year, avoiding the uncertainty that we had last year, and the authority of the Office of the President would cause participants to take the invitation to a Town Hall more seriously.

Pastor Enrique Alvarez, President of the CRC in Cuba, visited CTS in October

President Medenblik has taken the opportunity of administrative involvement to build the Town Hall into a regular community event. In previous years, the hour that Town Halls currently fill was always kept open for community activities in the Student Center, but due to limitations in planning, the slot was not always able to be filled. Medenblik said in his opening welcome in Kerux issue 47.1, printed back in September, that he wanted to make “consistent use of the ‘open time’ known as ‘Town Hall time’ in the schedule” to “continue to enhance community and communication” in the seminary community. This has been accomplished through regular Town Halls, as well as the availability of pizza in the Student Center for $1/slice, also President Medenblik’s idea.

The Town Hall Committee has been getting pizza from Marco’s Pizza, newly opened on the East Beltline near Centerpointe Mall (down by Culvers and Biggby’s coffee). According to Student Senate President Ashley Stam, who is a member of the Town Hall Committee this year, they have been taking a slight loss on the cost of the pizza, which President Medenblik’s office has graciously been covering. The plan is to continue to offer pizza for $1/slice throughout the rest of the year.

Town Halls Thus Far

The Town Halls started out quite local, featuring introductions to newly filled positions at CTS. The first Town Hall of the semester was an introduction to Rev. Jeff Sajdak, our new Dean of Students, and was an interview format moderated by Ashley Stam. The next week we met the new Student Senate Exec Team, also an interview format, this time moderated by Dean Sajdak (a nice opportunity for him to exact his revenge on President Stam). The third Town Hall of the semester offered us an introduction to Dr. Michael Goheen, recently hired as the Professor of Missions here at CTS. This was also conducted as an interview, this time moderated by CTS student Adrian de Lange, and also served as an opportunity to introduce the Church Planting Club, who hosted the event. The week after that gave the leaders of Student Clubs an opportunity to introduce themselves to the seminary community, offering details about the clubs’ meeting times, activities, and goals for the semester. It was delightful to see the variety of interests among students at CTS, ranging from social justice to music to getting a better handle on the Greek language.

In October, students were introduced to the international presence of the CRC, as Pastor Enrique Manuel Alvarez Cesparo, the President of the CRC in Cuba, visited the Student Center. His powerful testimony of conversion and the work that the CRC is now doing in Cuba was translated by Rev. Dr. Derk Oostendorp, the former Director for Christian Reformed World Missions—Latin America. It was an interesting discussion, in which he explored not only his own testimony of coming to faith, but also the changing situation that religious institutions face in Cuba as they adjust to leadership under Raul Castro, who took over from his brother, Fidel Castro, last year.

SJC hosted a panel on Creation Care and Faith

After reading break and the Bavinck conference, students were invited to hear about the exciting options for courses this January. The Town Hall was hosted by Joan Beelen, the seminary registrar, and students were able to hear from professors about learning opportunities both here at home and abroad, from CTS to California, Louisiana, and Mexico.

The following week saw a panel discussion on the topic of “Faith and Creation Care,” hosted by the seminary Social Justice Club. The panel was composed of Dr. Dave Warners, Biology professor at Calvin College; Dr. Gail Heffner, Director of Community Engagement at Calvin College; and Jessica Driesenga, a student here at the seminary who also has a background in biology. The discussion was moderated by Brandon Haan, also a seminary student, who asked important questions about creation care and how it relates to our faith as Reformed Christians living in a fallen world. The discussion focused prominently on the Plaster Creek watershed, which covers most of the eastern half of Grand Rapids, including half of the Calvin campus, and is considered to be well below acceptable standards of pollution. Dr. Warners shared a compelling story about Asian immigrants fishing for salmon in the creek, which caused him to realize the connection between creation care and social justice. Dr. Heffner spoke about the Plaster Creek Stewards, an organization started by the CRC and Calvin College to mobilize partners to help clean up the watershed. The panel’s discussion about the watershed, the environmental and justice issues related to the care of watersheds, and the work that the Plaster Creek Stewards have done to increase awareness and promote healthy and sustainable practices, raised interesting and important issues about how we live as Christians in a world  in which everything is so very inter-connected and co-dependent. “The fall is comprehensive, affecting all of creation, and so, likewise, our faith should be comprehensive,” said Dr. Warners. For more information about the Plaster Creek Stewards and care of the watershed, visit www.calvin.edu/go/plastercreekstewards.

Ken Sande, of Peacemaker Ministries, talks about biblical conflict resolution

This past Thursday we had the privilege of hearing from Ken Sande, author of the bestselling book The Peacemaker and the founder of Peacemaker Ministries (www.peacemaker.org), an organization that assists Christians in conflict resolution, with the goal of responding to conflict biblically. Sande explained the importance of dealing with conflict in ministry, and introduces students to the resources that Peacemaker Ministries provides. His new ministry, Relational Wisdom 360 (www.rw360.org), focuses on building committed, enduring relationships that foster an environment where conflict can be dealt with in a healthy way.

The Future of Town Halls 

Coming up this Thursday is our Book of the Semester Town Hall. It will include a lunch and a panel discussion on the book Silence, by the Japanese Christian author Shusaku Endo. The panel will be composed of Rev. Richard Sytsma, Dean Emeritus and former missionary to Japan; Reita Yazawa, a Japanese PhD student here at CTS; and Rev. Albert Strydhorst, Lee Huizenga Missionary in Residence. The book is a striking and disturbing account of Christian persecution in 17th century Japan. Free copies are available in the President’s Office.

Lift Up Your Hearts Hymnal

After Thanksgiving break we will be invited to learn about Lift Up Your Hearts, the new hymnal being produced by Faith Alive Christian Resources. Although the hymnal will not be published until later this year, representatives from the denominational building and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship (CICW) will come to CTS for a panel discussion about the new hymnal, the first in over twenty years, and the the first hymnal developed jointly by both the CRC and the RCA. Rev. Joyce Borger, who served as primary editor for the new hymnal, says on the hymnal’s website: “The aim of this collection is to provide a resource for congregational song in the CRC and RCA which can give a common voice to our worship in the twenty-first century. This collection seeks to be broad enough to include music ranging from the traditional hymn repertoire to contemporary worship music and from Western music to the music of the global church. Our desire is also that this collection be deep enough to give voice to our praises and laments, be both sung prayer and proclamation, and play a significant role in the faith formation of Reformed Christians old and young alike.” More information can be found at www.liftupyourheartshymnal.org.

As course registration begins, and our busy minds begin to think about the spring semester, President Stam remains excited about the prospects of continuing to develop the Town Hall time. “I’m thrilled with how Town Halls have gone this semester. I’m especially excited to see that as the year progresses they seem to be better and better attended,” says Stam. “We have a lot of talks in motion for the Spring. We have the Chaplaincy and Care Ministry coming, that is for sure. Nothing else has been nailed down yet, but we’re talking with a lot of people. We’d like to get Michael Le Roy (the new President of Calvin College) to come at some point, but nothing is set in stone yet.” As Town Halls become a more consistent part of the seminary’s weekly rhythm, they will certainly become something in which students continue to be interested and invested, and continue to provide a communal time for fellowship, dialogue, and learning.