Junior Arly Quillin sees a problem at Seattle Pacific University.
Although she says SPU emphasizes reconciliation, Quillim notes a common disconnect among students that leaves some feeling like outsiders. She calls it the SPU bubble.
“I’m wondering how we can connect our own students in a way to try and create reconciliation among our campus,” Quillin said. “I feel like that’s really important before we also go out and try to do [reconciliation] in the larger context of the world.”
Quillin was one of roughly 60 students, faculty, staff and community members participating in the plenary panel titled, “Empowering Youth for Healing and Reconciliation,” on April 24 in First Free Methodist Church.
The panel featured eight speakers who responded to the audience’s questions as part of the “For Such a Time as This” conference, presented by the John Perkins Center at SPU.
According to panelist Brenda Salter McNeil, associate professor of reconciliation studies, the bubble phenomenon suggests the SPU community can keep itself safe and insular by choice.
“The problem is that people get to choose,” Salter McNeil said. “We’ve created such a system in our education that people can opt in if they’re interested and opt out if they’re not.”
As a result, Salter McNeil said, people seek out only the usual suspects—those with only the most interesting perspectives—to gain cross-cultural competency rather than a multitude of worldviews. Salter McNeil suggested the need for issues of reconciliation and cross-cultural competency to be embedded in the education process for all students.
“So that if our tag line is engaging the culture, there’s not one person who comes through this school that doesn’t have to have the opportunity to grapple with what that means for them,” Salter McNeil said. “Until it becomes mandatory…I think we’ll still have people who choose the bubble because we do what is safe and familiar to us.”
Lena Thompson, pastor at Lake Burien Presbyterian Church, agreed with Salter McNeil’s call for an education process that highlights reconciliation and cultural competency.
“Unless [the university’s] structure supports the mission, it will not happen,” Thompson said. “There are those of us in the community that are waiting for…people to live into this grand vision of engaging the culture and changing the world.”
David Kasali, founder of Congo Initiative, believes universities will outlive their usefulness if educators are not crazy enough to rethink education.
“We have disconnected the education setting from the community, from the issues,” Kasali said. “Our usefulness as Christian universities…is diminishing if we don’t have the gut to rethink education and rethink connection, integration.”
Gladys Mwiti, clinical psychologist and founder of Oasis Africa, recognized the need for reconciliation among students on campus before they can engage the larger community.
“Before SPU does mission-out, maybe SPU needs to do mission-in.” Mwiti said.
In addressing an additional question, Mwiti stressed the need for social support systems and self-care for reconciliation workers. Mwiti likened these support systems to trees.
“Sometimes when you go to a village in Africa and you find one single huge tree in the village…what happens under that tree in the village is everything—that tree is a safe place in the village,” Mwiti said. “I have some people in my life who are my tree and with them I sit when the going is tough.”
Mwiti advised using these support systems to talk about stresses experienced in reconciliation work.
“So you water your tree. You take care of your tree because you will need your tree to be there,” Mwiti said. “Plant these trees in your life if you are a caregiver.”
Salter McNeil cited Bishop Desmond Tutu’s analogy of reconciliation workers as vacuum cleaners.
“He says there is something that happens when you hear pain, take in horror and listen to people’s stories and injustice all day,” Salter McNeil said. “You try to hold it.”
Salter McNeil stressed that spiritual disciplines and the work of reconciliation must be coupled.
“All of that filth of the world, the injustice, the pain goes inside us…people who do reconciliation must have spiritual disciplines that connect them to God,” Salter McNeil said. “Ways that we take the burden but don’t keep it inside ourselves, some practices that allow us to take it back to the cross that is alone able to hold it.”