At the heart of the L.A. Term is the quest to re-envision the ministry of the Church within multicultural urban centers. We consider this undertaking our personal response to the divine mission to “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5)—that is, to renew all of God’s beloved creation (including the earth’s cities) to a state of relational wholeness, ecological harmony, and multicultural unity.
The Gospel-Culture-Church Relationship
The process of building up a distinctively Christian understanding of the contexts and issues of urban life becomes intensely practical during the L.A. Term. In studying the issue of environmental health, for instance, learners reflect upon God’s passion for the full liberation of all creation described in biblical texts. They then consider how God’s intentions and perspectives apply to the realities of air and water pollution, toxic waste, and urban sprawl. They do this through focused reading and discussion, followed by group visits to community sites where locals interpret the situation out of their firsthand experience. With sensitivity to both biblical texts and the local context, learners then step back and ponder how they, as Christ-followers, might offer a radically new vision for the caring of God’s creation within the earth’s cities.
When Jesus sent out His disciples for learning and service, He instructed them to enter a local home, greet the family, and accept their invitation to stay and eat with them (Luke 10:5-7). Our temptation in setting out to do good is to do it in a way that distances us from “the other” and leaves us above the fray. But right action, as Parker Palmer has reminded us, “can be only an immersion of ourselves in reality, an immersion that involves us in relationship...to gain intimate understanding of what the other requires.”
This is why students live and learn in direct relationship to the immediate community during the L.A. Term. Enjoying hospitality (food and lodging) from residents gives them an insider’s look at a way of life that is so like their own in some ways, but very different in others. The moment they accept the invitation to a home, they also accept the responsibility to participate in the family’s relationships and routines, and to depend on them for their learning and living. It marks the beginning of a complex interaction, a challenge to their cultural habits, and an unparalleled opportunity for friendship.
A key component of the L.A. Term is a semester-long community internship through partner organizations working to address critical local issues. Within the course Community Transformation, each student devotes 12 hours each week to serving with and learning from groups of people and grappling with issues of poverty, welfare reform, affordable health care, immigration, public education, urban transportation, economic development, and race relations. These partnerships represent our attempt to reverse the pattern of some Christian institutions to either ignore such problems or to use them to create hit-and-miss ministry opportunities. Through their internships, students are placed in conversation with the community at the points of their pain. In so doing, they affirm that the problems of our world are often human in nature, that the gifts and resources of every community—particularly its associations and institutions—can be mobilized for the common good, and that partnerships and exchanges between inner-city and suburban communities can enhance both.
Successful learning experiences require faculty, students, and others to interrelate easily. The L.A. Term uses a flexible structure supporting the process of making connections, building relationships, constructing knowledge, and solving problems. The limited number of students allows us to optimize student-community interactions; students learn to relate to local families, service providers, faculty mentors, textual materials, community members, and each other as resources for their own learning. This encourages students to embrace a more collaborative and active learning style, one in which they function as “learning colleagues” in direct relationship with one another and the community in which they learn.
Operating the program within the intensely public realm of the inner city unsettles the tendency to keep our spiritual lives private and predictable. The community in which students live, serve, and learn becomes an arena of spiritual experience, a setting in which God speaks to the students and forms their hearts through new and radically different relationships, activities, and perspectives. Working through the anxiety and fear associated with living and serving on the edge and at the margins, students learn to encounter the God of faith. The fruit of this encounter is a clearer vision of certain crucial truths about our lives in relation to the world truths that can break the heart open to compassion and deepen our understanding of the Gospel. Students study the Word and pray together, and they are also encouraged to participate in a local congregation. A midsemester retreat provides space for reflection and spiritual growth.