Elmhurst College In Depth

No Easy Answers

Elmhurst is a college of the United Church of Christ. What does that mean in practice?

This article first appeared in Prospect, the Elmhurst College magazine, in 2000.

Debbie Wilson was startled when her professor announced the "service-learning requirement" of her new course in theology. As the mother of four boys, however, Debbie learned long ago to take surprises in stride. A senior from Elmhurst majoring in English, she signed up for three of the four service-learning options.

In the coming weeks, alongside other students, Debbie prepared meals for the parents of hospitalized children at the Ronald McDonald House near Loyola University Medical Center. She taught computing skills to a formerly homeless man who had just started a job through CARA, a Chicago organization that helps homeless people navigate the transition into the world of home and work. Finally, as a teacher's aide in a course on English as a second language, she helped a group of Polish-born factory workers learn a useful new way of expressing themselves. For Debbie, it was a flexible but demanding part of her term. "We could choose one or more of four options, or we could bring our own ideas to the professor," she recalls. "The service had to add up to at least eight hours. Then we had to write a paper about our experiences."

Debbie Wilson had encountered an aspect of education at Elmhurst that distinguishes the College from all public, and most other private, institutions of higher learning. As part of her course work, she addressed, discussed, and contemplated social problems, explicitly in terms of their ethical and spiritual dimensions.

From its beginnings, Elmhurst has found ways to weave service, values, and faith into its curriculum and larger life. In 1871, when the Reverend Carl F. Kranz stepped off the train in downtown Elmhurst with fourteen students in tow, he was sponsored by the German Evangelical Synod of North America. A largely immigrant church with large congregations in Missouri and Illinois, the Synod was a product of the moderating influence of the Enlightenment on the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

Inspector Kranz founded a "proseminary" to provide preprofessional training for the Synod's ministers and teachers. In an alumni survey in 1921, the College's fiftieth year, "minister" still ranked first among the listed occupations ("teacher" ranked second). In 1999, of course, Elmhurst's mission is much broader, but church connections and traditions remain. So does an abiding acknowledgment that to be fully human is to have not only a material existence but also a life of faith.

Elmhurst is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the modern successor of the Evangelical Synod. A commitment to scholarship has long been a hallmark of the UCC and its sundry spiritual forbears. In 1636, New England Congregationalists, another set of forbears, founded Harvard, the first college in colonial America; they went on to establish Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, and Bowdoin, before the end of the 18th century. Eventually, the Congregationalists came together with three other traditions with strong commitments to higher learning: the Christian Churches, the Reformed Church, and the Evangelical Synod. In 1957, a complicated series of mergers culminated in the creation of the United Church of Christ.

Since 1957, parents and prospective students have often asked Elmhurst admission counselors questions along these lines: "What is the United Church of Christ and what does it mean that the College is affiliated with it?" In formulating their answers, the counselors draw on various resources, including the baptismal vows from the church's Book of Worship. In general terms, the responses go something like this: The United Church of Christ is part of the Protestant expression of Christianity. It seeks to be a thoughtful, socially responsible church that sees life as both a gift and a responsibility. It affirms a spirit of religious unity that expresses itself in ecumenical partnerships. The UCC holds that the search for God's truth is ongoing, that all of God's light has yet to be disclosed. As a College affiliated with the church, Elmhurst's commitment is to encourage its students to be thoughtful and responsible for themselves, and to be clear about their grounding in all things, including religion.

Elmhurst’s administrative and academic leadership describes the relationship of college and church in straightforward terms. "Elmhurst sees itself as an institution that stands squarely and proudly in the life of the evangelical reform United Church of Christ," says the Reverend H. Scott Matheney, chaplain of the College.

Michael J. Bell, who was born into the Roman Catholic tradition and converted as an adult to Judaism, came to this Protestant College in 1997 as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. AOne of the things that attracted me was the fact that the College was consciously working out the relationship between its spiritual values — which are central and explicitly articulated — and its educational mission," says Dr. Bell. Think about the history of the great institutions that are part of the Protestant tradition. It doesn't matter if you're talking about Harvard or Yale or Carleton or Grinnell — this history reflects to some degree the drift of American Protestantism toward secularism.

"In contrast, here was Elmhurst — a liberal Protestant institution working to retain the capacity to articulate moral values and to nurture its spiritual heritage. At the same time, the College was participating in the great Protestant movement of the 20th century, the transformation of spiritual values into social action. After two years here, I still think it is one of the things that make Elmhurst an exciting place."

As the dean implies, it also makes Elmhurst distinctive. To the extent that the College succeeds at maintaining a lively spiritual tradition, it differs markedly from the majority of American colleges and universities, great and small.

In his recent book, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches, James Tunstead Burtchaell, a Roman Catholic theologian and former provost at the University of Notre Dame, notes that most colleges in the United States were founded under some sort of Christian patronage," and that most subsequently relinquished their Christian links. Even on most of the campuses which are still listed by churches as their affiliates," Father Burtchaell writes, there is usually some concern expressed today about how authentic or how enduring that tie really is. Often wistful concern is all that remains."

Today, the UCC claims twenty-nine colleges and universities as church-related. Significantly, it does not claim Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, or Bowdoin. It does claim Carleton and Grinnell, but those relationships can be described as lacking clarity and definiteness. "Except in the earliest years," Father Burtchaell writes, the relationship of most Congregational colleges to Congregationalism and its successors has been ambiguous and unstable...the Congregational establishment began with a strength of conviction and a great sweep of foundations, yet today it leaves only a handful of institutions willing to be associated with the United Church of Christ...the great majority [of historically associated institutions] are now independent of any relationship."

Elmhurst has worked to sidestep that fate, but how well has it succeeded? The answer depends on one's perspective.

Dean Bell sees the challenge of maintaining a church-related identity as a difficult and ongoing one, especially as it relates to academic courses. "You have a moral and spiritual vision and it is articulated in your general education requirements, but how do you pull that off in practice?" he asks. "It's a tough question. We require a course in Judeo-Christian thought; any one of several courses fulfills the requirement. The courses do not cover the other religions of the world; they stay within the Judeo-Christian context. At the same time, the courses never have a proselytizing thrust, like they might at Wheaton College. So the question remains: how do we confront students in class with the fact that they must come to terms with their need for a personal moral code, when these students live in a world that says, 'It's nice to have such a code, but by all means, keep it private’?

"At the very least," the dean adds, "we can say, at Elmhurst, you as a student will participate in discussions of moral, social, and political issues. No one will preach to you. You will get no easy answers. You will, however, be confronted with very basic and difficult questions. You will not graduate from here without confronting your values and learning to be articulate about them."

Ronald G. Goetz, chair of the Department of Theology and Religion, regards the academic offerings of his department as central, not only to Elmhurst's religious identity but also to liberal learning at any college. Educated at Northwestern University and Harvard Divinity School, Dr. Goetz believes that theology courses teach students about "one of the absolutely critical elements in the formation of Western civilization. If you don't know anything about Christianity, you are ignorant of the liberal arts tradition. To consider yourself liberally educated in such circumstances is an absolute absurdity." He adds, "I believe that if students attend a church-related school and leave as ignorant about who Jesus was as they were when they came, the school's church relatedness is almost meaningless.

"The approach I take is to tell the kids where I stand. I am a professed Christian. Then I point out that I am not on this campus to indoctrinate them. An ignorant love of God is an F in my courses. A well-informed atheism is an A."

Scott Matheney, an ordained Presbyterian minister, arrived as chaplain two years ago, from Columbia University in New York City. The Elmhurst campus "is deeply committed to an ethos of individual responsibility and engagement," he says. "That plays itself out in courses, because the faculty are free to bring in questions of values and ethics. Students clearly hear the message: 'All of you have a faith. How do you define it? Can it stand the test of time? Can it challenge the norms of society when it needs to?'"

Those colleges and universities that have cut all ties with the faith traditions of their founders did not do so suddenly or by design. It happened gradually and, in some measure, as the result of a noble desire to be inclusive.

George M. Marsden describes the process in his book, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. "The American Protestant leadership was determined to have a standardized education system [based on] a universal academic ideal," says Professor Marsden, who writes out of the Dutch Reformed tradition. "Ironically, Protestant universalism was one of the forces that eventually contributed to the virtual exclusion of religious perspectives from the most influential centers of American life."

Many members of the Elmhurst family would concede that part of that process has been at work at the College, for many complicated reasons. Dramatic changes in societal norms played a role in changing the landscape at Elmhurst, as elsewhere. Some observers see such factors as underrated by some critics of the direction of church-related colleges. Mark U. Edwards Jr., the president of St. Olaf College, thinks that both Professors Burtchaell and Marsden underestimate the impact on schools of the larger culture. Such critics "have simply not indicated realistically how, in the face of massive changes in society, church, and human knowledge, church-related colleges and universities could have maintained their traditional church-relatedness in all its 19th-century glory."

Michael Bell says today's students, "by and large, come to college with a faith life that is typical among young people in contemporary America: 'If it's Sunday and my mother's looking, I'd better go to church.' That is part of the challenge for us." The consumer culture is another, he adds. "Everything is a commodity nowadays. Our students are products of the most successful secular cultural machine in history. As a consequence, you don't see a great deal of manifest spirituality, in our cities and towns or on this campus."

Ron Goetz will retire in December after thirty-six years at Elmhurst. He witnessed important changes not only in society but also at the College, and contrasts the Elmhurst of today with the institution he came to in 1963. "We still had a lot of preachers' kids in class and they provided the student leadership," he says. Even then, the College was in transition, he adds. "We also had an awful lot of kids who were here essentially because it was a good College close to their homes." Any religious identity was distinctly secondary. By the early seventies, enrollment and income were dropping and the focus of the College leadership was on "the brute survival of the institution," says Dr. Goetz. He maintains that the institutional response was somewhat exaggerated, and contributed to a short-term decline in the College's academic quality and religious character. "We did have a moment of real fiscal crisis, but in very short order our ship was righted. Nevertheless, we continued with a draconian approach to everything we did. We were virtually alone in the country, for example, in rejecting the whole notion of merit scholarships; we would give a student with a 25 on the ACT no more money than we would give a student with a 16. Our quality diminished radically. In such a context, any kind of meaningful, concrete working out of church relationships was impossible. Through all those years, the College sort of continued as a church-related institution. Nobody much challenged that, but nobody thought through what that means."

That changed, emphatically, under Elmhurst's twelfth president, Bryant L. Cureton. Dr. Cureton "reflects on the College's spiritual heritage in almost every speech he makes," says Dean Bell. "He doesn't preach. But he speaks to the heart of these connections." The son of a Presbyterian minister, President Cureton believes that the College's historic and continuing affiliation with the UCC is an unalloyed asset. "It is one of the things that makes us unique," he says. "We are the only College to come out of the evangelical part of the UCC's evangelical and reformed tradition. That heritage enables us to pay attention to issues of values and ethics, in an open intellectual climate that welcomes students from all backgrounds and traditions.

"I am sometimes asked if Elmhurst is a Christian college," he notes. "We are — not in the way Wheaton is, but in our own way."

In 1999, Elmhurst maintains a theology requirement for graduation, but mandatory chapel is a thing of the distant past. In the old days, all students attended morning and evening services. The practice faded in stages; the process accelerated when the influx of World War II veterans prompted a relaxation of many traditional regulations. It accelerated again in the era of student activism two decades later, when colleges and universities everywhere abandoned old rules.

Scott Matheney says that a life of worship remains important on the campus, although it is exhibited in "episodic fashion." Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel fills for the Thanksgiving Service, the Festival of Lessons and Carols before Christmas, and for "those ritualistic moments that are common to colleges and universities — Founder's Day, baccalaureates, services to begin and end the academic year." On Ash Wednesday, the College offers Protestant services at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. and a Catholic Mass at noon; together, the services draw hundreds of worshipers.

Elmhurst's worship and faith traditions are determinedly ecumenical. A curiosity is the fact that about half the students at this Protestant institution are Roman Catholic. Jews, Muslims, Orthodox, and many Protestant denominations make up part of the other half. A third of the student body does not acknowledge any religious affiliation in their student records.

About five percent of Elmhurst's students identify themselves with the United Church of Christ. Each year the College awards scholarships covering one-third tuition to academically qualified students who are recommended by the pastors of UCC congregations. In the current academic year, Elmhurst admitted thirty-four UCC students and granted twenty-seven of them UCC scholarships; the rest were eligible for other awards. The number of UCC scholarships is rising; it was less than twenty just a few years ago.

"I think the strength of the United Church of Christ is that it maintains a very deep dedication to ecumenism, education, and social transformation, while at the same time maintaining a commitment to the categories of Christian faith," says Scott Matheney. In the chaplain's office at Elmhurst, "our commitment is broadly defined to encourage the Roman [Catholic] community, the Jewish community, the Muslim community. I believe that the vibrancy of faith found in each tradition helps all traditions. Our students are encouraged to understand other faith traditions. I would like to see them each argue it as if it were their own. That way, they better understand their own experiences and traditions."

An annual series of religious lectures at the College reflects the institution's ecumenical outlook. The oldest of the events, the Niebuhr Lecture, honors two of the century's preeminent Protestant theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr and H. Richard Niebuhr. Both Niebuhrs were alumni of the College; Richard was its president from 1924 to 1927. Newer lectures honor great Catholic and Jewish leaders, Joseph Bernardin and Abraham Heschel. Cardinal Bernardin, the late archbishop of Chicago, was the second recipient of the College's Niebuhr Medal. Rabbi Heschel was the most significant Jewish philosopher and theologian of the century. The College is planning a Muslim Lecture. The annual Holocaust Guestship also has brought notable speakers to the campus, including Elie Wiesel, the first recipient of the Niebuhr Medal.

A recent addition to the landscape is a nine-foot bronze monument to Reinhold Niebuhr, by the sculptor Robert Berks, famous for his busts of U.S. Presidents. A member of the Class of 1910, Niebuhr wrote 22 books and the "Serenity Prayer." The statue stands in Kranz Forum, east of the Frick Center. At its dedication on May 19, 1997, President Cureton spoke of "the millions of people who have been influenced by Niebuhr over the years," adding, "I have my own memories of the day when, as a young graduate student struggling to integrate what I was learning about world politics with the values and faith that were my heritage, a favorite professor pointed me toward Niebuhr's The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Devouring that book in one long day and evening was the highlight of my years of education.

"Robert Berks's magnificent sculpture depicts Niebuhr at the moment of saying something very important," the president concluded. "What a fitting symbol for a college of character, but what a challenge as well. For us at Elmhurst, the rest of the story will emerge as we live each day with this new presence, challenging us to seek what is important, to teach it with conviction, and to live each day with serenity, courage, and wisdom."

Voluntary service to others is another key aspect of student and spiritual life at Elmhurst. One function of the chaplain's office is to work with the Student Government Association to put student volunteers in touch with community agencies, and to call attention to the social problems that students might address in their time and place.

Many Elmhurst students contribute "sweat equity" to such organizations as Habitat for Humanity, the Bensenville Home Society, and CARA. The campus's fraternities and sororities are designed to be service oriented. A large clothing drive is a highlight of February, Women's History Month. The practice of service in various ways often serves to change or at least open student minds. "Last year, for example, a number of students undertook an 'immersion experience' at public housing projects in Chicago," Scott Matheney notes. "The experience compelled the students to ask, 'Why must these people live like this? What brought them to this place?'

"Our vision statement says, 'The Elmhurst College we are building will be a community where spirituality, humane values, mutual respect, service to others, and responsible citizenship are nurtured and practiced,’" the chaplain says. "Those are goals around here. They are not just words."

Elmhurst's Service-Learning Program is a significant new point where academic learning and societal service come together. Started in 1997, the program provides students with experiences both in the classroom and in the world. To borrow words from the College's mission statement, it develops "the capacity and desire to serve others" within a demanding academic context. For example, "as part of a class assignment, nursing students teach health education to ninth- and tenth-graders at Hancock Public School in Chicago," says Lynda Slimmer, professor of nursing and service-learning coordinator. "The students make a real difference in the community while refining their teaching skills and reflecting on their experiences in academic papers." Typically, more than 200 students participate in service-learning each term through the Center for Professional Excellence.

Desiree Maurer is the volunteer coordinator at CARA, the agency where Debbie Wilson and other Elmhurst students have provided support services to homeless people. Ms. Maurer is a big fan of Elmhurst's service-learning program. "The students gain a new understanding by establishing a dialogue with people whose lives are vastly unlike their own," she says. "The homeless people are inspired by their contact with committed young people who are interested in them. Speaking more practically, the Elmhurst students helped us to run a computer lab and teach our participants basic computer skills."

Such community service is enjoying widespread popularity on college and university campuses these days, even at secular institutions. What is different at Elmhurst is not the quantity of the service but its quality, and its curricular links to spiritual self-discovery. The service-learning program is profoundly connected to the College's spiritual heritage, Dr. Slimmer says. When designing the program, "we began with the question, 'Why are we doing this at Elmhurst?' The idea really goes back to when H. Richard Niebuhr was president of the College. He and his brother talked a lot about melding intellectual activity with social responsibility. They believed that the true professional was a socially responsible person. Our goal was to make this notion more part and parcel of the institution, by setting up a program to help students accept their responsibility to society and find opportunities to fulfill it."

Debbie Wilson was so impressed by the service-learning component of her theology course that she sought ways to volunteer more regularly. "I met a girl with cerebral palsy and began going to her house once a week, to give her a bath, take care of her other needs, and just spend some time together." Altogether, Debbie's experiences made a big difference in her understanding of the problems of individuals and society. "It's better than just reading a book," she notes.

Since April of last year, Steven Johnson has held the job with the mouthful title, Minister for United Church of Christ Related Colleges, Academies, and Theological Seminaries. He spent part of the last eight months of 1998 visiting four seminaries and seven colleges, including Elmhurst. During his visits, among the "common topics of conversation" was "the very nature of being related to a church like the United Church of Christ."

"I can't claim to have found the perfect answer," Dr. Johnson acknowledges. But his conversations at the seven colleges led him to some definite thoughts. Colleges related to the UCC, he says, "share in the ecumenical commitments of our church." For these colleges, "being ecumenical and nonsectarian — open to all faiths or no faith at all — is not a rejection of the United Church of Christ, but an expression of it."

Colleges related to the UCC "place social concerns at the center of the intellectual enterprise. Concern for others, for issues of justice and peace, are not peripheral issues. They are central to our church and to the educational ministry of our related schools."

Colleges related to the UCC "are committed to freedom of academic inquiry." They occupy an indispensable center, Dr. Johnson believes, between plainly secular institutions and sectarian Christian colleges on the Wheaton model. As such, colleges related to the UCC are more open and inclusive than either their secular or sectarian counterparts. They allow academic perspectives based on secular norms, faith traditions, or both. They put questions on the table that elsewhere are excluded or ignored.

"These thoughts," Dr. Johnson concedes, "are part description and part prescription." They represent both what he found in his travels among the colleges and what he hopes to find in the future. "I hope to clarify these ideas in the years to come," he writes, "as we think together about what it means to be related to the United Church of Christ.

By Walton R. Collins
Photography by Tom Lindfors

Photo by Roark Johnson

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