Grace Note Reflections on the Christian Life
Taking up a Towel
Why we’re honoring SPU’s milestone with 125,000 hours of service
By John Glancy | Illustration by Mikey Burton
It was June 1977, when Seattle Pacific transitioned from college to university, that President David McKenna delivered a commencement address to Seattle Pacific graduates assembled in the Seattle Center Opera House. The title of his address was “He Took a Towel.”
The speech drew from the John 13 account where Jesus, alone with the disciples in the Upper Room, removed his outer robe, took a towel, and knelt down to wash the disciples’ feet. McKenna explained that by this action, Jesus showed his followers, then and now, what it means to truly serve others. McKenna concluded his charge to the graduates with these words: “According to the example of Jesus Christ, I hereby give you the towel of a servant with all of the risks and the joys that pertain thereto.”
The practice of service as a response to God’s call and Jesus’ example is a thread that runs throughout SPU’s 125-year history. For example, take the Peterson sisters, Lily and Mattie, who were among the first to attend what was then called Seattle Seminary, the precursor to SPU. Daughters of founder Nils Peterson, these courageous women undertook significant risks to serve as career missionaries to China in the early 1900s. That same spirit of missionary service was still alive when I was a student at SPU in the late 1960s. Operation Outreach, the forerunner of today’s SPRINT (Seattle Pacific Reachout International), was sending teams of students to serve around the globe.
I got my own dose of service-learning in 1972, when I joined a Christian track team of about 40 athletes, headed for Africa. We competed in nearly a dozen countries against Olympic athletes who were preparing for the summer games in Munich. On one leg of our journey, we loaded all our gear, including luggage and pole-vault and high-jump landing pits, on top of two windowless school buses, for the supposedly nine-hour trip from Accra, Ghana, to Lagos, Nigeria.
After multihour delays, we arrived at the Nigerian border at 12:30 a.m. It had closed at midnight and wouldn’t open again until 8 a.m. With no hotel in sight, and the temperature and humidity sweltering in the high 80s, we sighed (OK, there was some grumbling) and looked for space to lie down. Some climbed on top of the buses, using the high jump pits as pillows; some spread out on nearby loading docks. I hunkered down on one of the vehicle’s cushionless seats. When the border finally opened in the morning, we stretched and reboarded the buses, which lumbered away to Lagos. Arriving late that morning, we were told to get into our gear and go to the track — the Nigerian team wanted some friendly competition prior to the evening’s scheduled meet. I was bone tired. The last thing I wanted to do was run. But we were there to compete — and sleep would have to wait.
Training with the Nigerians that day, tired legs and all, taught me a lesson: Serving isn’t always easy. And, like Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, it often comes with a personal cost.
At Seattle Pacific today, service is still a call to follow Christ’s example, and its scope has expanded beyond missions to include a broad range of disciplines and opportunities. Student Urban Involvement teams support local organizations through serving community dinners, tutoring projects, and building friendships with recently arrived refugees. Social Venture Plan Competition teams draw SPU students from across academic disciplines to develop sustainable projects that address felt social needs. This year one team, Launch BTC, designed a partnership with Urban Impact, a faith-based non-profit in Seattle’s Rainier Valley neighborhood, to equip the area’s unemployed and underemployed young adults with professional skills and training. And the list goes on.
In this same spirit, I’m inviting all SPU alumni to take part in our 125,000-hour service challenge as part of the University’s year-long 125th celebration.
Whether you volunteer at a homeless shelter, organize a collection drive for your neighborhood food bank, or teach pre-school children at your church, we want to recognize your service to the community as SPU alumni. Please share your stories of service with us.
It’s all part of “taking up the towel.” And, I believe it’s what will sustain Seattle Pacific University for the next 125 years.
John Glancy ’70, EdD ’05 is the director of SPU’ 125th Anniversary celebration.