Features | Winter 2012
Miroslav Volf, Advising, and the Act of Embrace
By Owen Sallee, Coordinator for Global and Urban Involvement
As coordinator for global and urban involvement in the John Perkins Center at Seattle Pacific University, I advise, coach, and mentor student leaders engaged in community service around Seattle and across the globe.
This role balances my work between several Perkins Center distinctives. I not only assist in the Center’s work in reconciliation and community development, but I also guide students in their leadership development.
Within this balance lies significant tension: The community work in which our students engage must promote reconciliation, nurture community transformation, and wholeness for all involved. But “student-led missional work” cannot be an excuse for sloppy engagement, blindness to privilege, or “learning” at the others’ expense.
Successful Student-led Opportunities
On the other hand, the student-led model offers great opportunities. College students are often deeply committed to the holistic, reconciling, and transforming power of the gospel. They are also well-suited to extend the work of indigenous community leaders through their short- and longer-term engagement. In SPU’s John Perkins Center, we’ve seen the student-staff partnership and community engagement model brings exciting and meaningful results.
That said, our process can be a difficult thing to explain. I’m an advisor to college volunteers; I’m not their boss. I don’t tell them what to do, and they don’t work for me. But neither do I simply sit at my desk to sign paperwork. I’m deeply invested in the conversations, engagements, and missional work of our students. This intertwined, multifaceted dynamic may be best described using Miroslav Volf’s image of “Embrace,” used in Exclusion and Embrace (1996).
Opening One’s Arms
Volf’s “embrace” begins with the opening of one’s arms. “They are a sign of discontent with my own self-enclosed identity, a code of desire for the other. I do not want to be myself only,” he writes, “I want the other to be part of who I am and I want to be part of the other” (141).
Student advising fails when advisors do not open themselves to the transformative impact of students. In my commitment to this work, I have made a choice to be deeply connected with students. We share life’s joys and struggles together — and we are each impacted by the other as we move arm-in-arm toward a common goal.
“More than just a code for desire, open arms are a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in,” Volf writes (141). In a related manner, Volf’s second step in embrace is waiting — allowing the other to reciprocate embrace instead of forcing oneself on the other. I have been at this work for nearly a decade and have an understanding of what works. I can teach the ideas of Christian community development, and I can rally students toward effective engagement. But true mission delivery as their advisor requires me to engage students in the process. And I’ve found that this act of waiting for reciprocal partnership always produces outcomes better than that what I could have forced on my own accord.
As parties embrace, Volf writes, both are transformed in their connection with the other. Students learn significant lessons about reconciliation, community development, and the missional lifestyle of incarnational ministry. In turn, our community partners are shaped through this engagement as students’ fresh eyes, eager hands, and willing hearts bring new excitement to long-standing work. Additionally, I’m impacted. My commitment to students requires openness to new ways of doing and connecting, and the ever-present opportunity to innovate, reconsider, and refine.
Contributions and New Ideas
In practical terms, the transformation of embrace means that I bring to the table a model, history, and a long-range vision. But must I remember that how it has been done in the past isn’t always how it must be done today. Over the years, students have made significant contributions to our work based on their personal experiences, the places they’re engaging, and the ways they understand their peers.
This autumn, the student leadership team of SPRINT (Seattle Pacific Reachout International) worked on a new approach to post-trip debriefing and reflection involving a series of new gatherings designed to reunite summer mission teams and extend the time over which students could ponder the “What did God say?” and “What next?” questions. The development of these gatherings required give-and-take between planning committee members — and the end result was more meaningful than any of us could have generated without the conversation.
A Final, Important Step
Finally, parties must release after their embrace; partners in embrace maintain their individual identities. Reconciliation, not sameness, is the product of true partnership and embrace. “If you don’t believe that they can eventually lead themselves then you must believe that they are somehow inferior to you,” John Perkins writes in Beyond Charity (pg. 73). As students graduate and leave SPU and the Perkins Center, I’ve been encouraged to see the ways that their transformation continues and the mission to engage the culture continues.
This week I learned that a recent graduate is preparing for seminary after discovering his heart for urban ministry through the Urban Involvement program. In several of our Seattle-area partner programs, SPU and Perkins Center graduates fill key staff roles. As these individuals transition from student roles to post-graduate professionals, their role as partner remains constant. Reconciliation ministry is an embrace between equals who need each other’s perspective and shaping influence in order to best understand the fullness of God’s world.
In short, my work with students is like giving and receiving a hug. It’s exciting and rewarding work as we engage students and community leaders, reciprocal partners in the community-transforming work of reconciliation, leadership training, and community development.
Owen Sallee trained under World Vision's Vision Youth Initiative, and he was a youth director for Choose Life Youth Ministries in White Center for 12 years, during and following his time as an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University. He graduated from SPU in 1999, and in 2006, he completed his master’s degree in school counseling at SPU.
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