Community and shalom
By President Shirley H. Showalter
Benedict, like many Christian thinkers before and after, discovered
how hard it is to live in community. He knew that the freedom to
be inclusive in love was a precious gift and not an automatic one.
To help retain his own learning and to help novices, he wrote a
“little rule for beginners” that is today called The
Rule of Saint Benedict. Among the many wise exhortations and admonitions
in The Rule is this one intended for abbots: “arrange everything
so that the strong have something to yearn for and weak nothing
to run from.”
As I envision the future of Goshen College, I see a place which
continues to arrange a liberal arts education so as to connect community
and peace. We equate the Hebrew word shalom with peace, a deep kind
of peace beyond the absence of conflict. Shalom is God’s original
design for the world, which so often lies in ruins.
The Bible contains vivid images of shalom. In Psalms 85:10, mercy
and truth are joined, and justice and peace kiss each other. In
Isaiah the righteous will “beat their swords into plowshares”
and the “lion will lie down with the lamb.” In Revelation,
the righteous from “every tribe and nation” will stream
to the throne and be united with the lamb.
These biblical visions are not intended only for a millennial future
or for heaven. They are intended to guide our actions now. To rephrase
Benedict, we need to yearn for peace and justice – and we
need to go from yearning to action. That action must focus on the
safety from fear we want everyone to experience. Our students develop
a thirst for peace out of their experience of living in community
and learning about it in classes. They expect us to walk our talk.
I am writing these words somewhere over the Rocky Mountains –
flying from Seattle to Chicago. A team of five has spent more than
two days thinking hard about diversity and community. The dream
we share is of a community that serves its students and its church
best by serving the world. The dream of shalom created the theological
base for many of our strongest and most distinctive programs –
most notably the Study-Service Term. The same dream gave birth to
our three newest majors – peace, justice and conflict studies,
environmental science, and American Sign Language Interpretation.
I find a connection between the current conference and the ancient
admonition to abbots in St. Benedict’s Rule. The abbot’s
task in the monastery was to arrange everything for the benefit
of the whole. Everyone needs to feel safe before they can yearn
for a vision as large as shalom. Only when our community is as diverse
inside as the world around us can all our members feel safe.
It is tempting to mythologize community. Many of my generation of
faculty have heard stories, for example, about the good old days
of community when all of the faculty and their families looked forward
to annual retreats at Little Eden in Michigan. The conditions were
rugged, but, at least in the legends, the flies in the kitchen only
made the job of washing dishes more fun. Such community is a wonderful
legacy to honor and to learn from –- even we who were not
there treasure it.
The Little Eden experiences of the past cannot be repeated, but
instead of focusing on what is lost from the 1950s and ’60s
versions of community, we must look at what can be. The team we
sent to Seattle was composed of two white women, two African-American
men and one Hispanic man. Four were from Goshen College, and one
was a retired executive from Elkhart. The conference as a whole
consisted of 60 percent whites and 40 percent people of color. We
ate, worked and worshipped together. We caught a glimpse of what
inclusive community will be like as we continue on the journey toward
shalom. The vision is glorious. The work is now.