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Essay

The Sandwich-Making Function of Faith

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A couple of weeks ago, a non-Christian friend put an item on Facebook that made me pause.  The post was from a comedian, riffing on “I’ll pray for you”:

I don’t like it when people say I’ll pray for you. “I’ll pray for you, I’ll pray for you.” You’re gonna pray for me? So basically you’re gonna sit at home and do nothing? Because that’s what your prayers are. You’re doing nothing while I’m struggling with a situation.  So don’t pray for me: make me a sandwich or something. ‘Cause I’m very upset right now and I can’t make my own sandwiches, so that would be cool if you made me a sandwich instead of praying,  That’s very lazy.

My friend entitled her posting: Sometimes I Just Need a Sandwich.

Which struck me as about as clear an articulation as one can get for the absolute necessity for us to be, as Barbara Brown Taylor has it, “God’s sign language.”  Or as Gerard Manley Hopkins (who I’ve been teaching of late) tells us: “the just man justices.”  Instead, how often we easily lapse into God-talk, how often a pious platitude comes to our lips.  And how often that is accompanied by a failure to embody our faith, by a failure to live out the words of Matthew 25:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

It can’t be all sandwich-making, naturally, and I am certainly all for a robust theologically informed praxis, but I appreciated the reminder that daily kindnesses are powerful witnesses.  We know that, of course: you will know them by their fruit and all that.  But I wondered how often my friend had received what sounded to her like empty words when an apple—literally—might have been as welcome. 

This was all on my mind last week when I had the opportunity to talk to one of my current students, Lauren Farris, at a strategic planning event.  We were discussing the necessity of Christian colleges like ours striving to find ways to serve poor students.  And she shared with me a bit of her own story.  I asked if she might allow me to share it with you, and this is what she wrote:

Growing up surrounded by the humble cornfields and rolling acres of pumpkins in Chillicothe, IL, the words “Calvin College” “Dutch,” and “CRC” were all foreign to my vocabulary. Not until Hope College recruited a dear friend of mine did Western Michigan begin to weave itself intricately into the narrative of my life. After a day of visiting him, I decided to check out Calvin College, since I was in the neighborhood already. Turns out, this impromptu visit to Grand Rapids would change my life. Immediately, I felt at home at Calvin.

This sense of belonging prompted me to partake in a more formal visit in the fall, where I quickly learned to love the vibrant community, bold faith, and excellent academics—more or less confirming that Calvin was where I belonged. I continued to look at other schools, but with much prayer, I kept returning to Calvin as my college of choice with an overwhelming sense of peace.

There was one glitch to my grand scheme—money. I know if you ask the majority of students, they would complain at the expense of attendance, but my situation was slightly different. After receiving financial aid and an abundance of scholarships as well as calculating out the amount of loans I could take out, I still needed around $40,000 to complete my education.

That enormous sum juxtaposed itself to the economic conditions and demographics of my sweet Chillicothe, a town where it is a privilege to attend college, where most of my neighbors collect welfare to make ends meet, and where the upper-middle class world of Calvin College is extremely foreign. Yet, through much pray and petition, I remained convinced that Calvin was where I was supposed to go.

So for the next five months, I told people I was going to attend Calvin.   Yet I knew full well that there was no possible way I would show up in Michigan in the fall if I didn’t acquire the money to make it through.

Tears and rejoicing intermingled during this period of waiting—sometimes I couldn’t help surrendering such an enormous mountain to the Lord to move.  But sometimes I just cried, feeling totally defeated by the task of attending college.

Around March, I learned of a group in my community who raised money for high achieving students who couldn’t afford college.  They invited me to apply for a series of scholarships that members of my community had raised over the past year, unbeknownst to me. After a month of rigorous essay writing and recommendation gathering, I submitted my heart to the people of Chillicothe. And I waited.

On May 17th, 2011—the night of our high school award ceremony—my neighbors surprised me by announcing that they were awarding me $40,000 in scholarship money that they had accumulated throughout the year, tangibly giving me the very gift of college. Never before have I felt as deeply loved and cared for as I did in that moment.

To this day, the people of Chillicothe continue to write me at Calvin, are always checking in on me as I come home, and continue to celebrate my journey through higher education. Thus, my attending Calvin College is a collective experience, derived from the gracious sacrifice and generosity of my neighbors.

 May the same be said of us: that we are sandwich-makers and scholarship raisers and true neighbors indeed.  

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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