Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    people sitting in a circle in a room

    Loving the University

    At Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, an uncommon community is growing.

    By John Inazu

    June 4, 2024

    One of the central motivations of my academic career has been to ask how Christians can flourish in nonreligious colleges and universities. I would like to think that Christians can actually model some of what the university purports to be. Five years ago, I founded The Carver Project, a faculty-based ministry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. In our efforts to serve and connect university, church, and society, we have also furthered the university’s goals of interdisciplinarity, student engagement, and town-gown relations.

    Consider first interdisciplinarity. It’s not easy to incentivize work across disciplinary boundaries – schools and departments are often geographically isolated, teaching schedules and departmental norms vary, and faculty are busy enough trying to maintain relationships with their own colleagues. The Carver Project’s interdisciplinarity is rooted in friendship. We learn about each other’s gifts and passions over shared meals and conversations. And collaborations grow out of these relationships, like the course on “Law, Race, and Design” I teach with graphic designer Penina Laker, or the class on “Markets and Morality” taught by Peter Boumgarden in our business school and Abram Van Engen in our English department. Other collaborations such as our panel discussions or public events bring together unusual groups of faculty from across different disciplines.

    We further student engagement through reading groups that often meet in faculty homes. Every month, a group of law students gathers at my house for food, drink, and a book discussion related to Christianity and law. In the classroom, I teach students about the law. At my house, I teach them why it matters. It’s not just me – Carver Project faculty host similar groups in art, medicine, business, English, and other subjects. My colleagues and I seek to model a kind of uncommon community that engages students more holistically than is possible in a secular classroom.

    people sitting in a circle in a room

    Carver Project law students’ reading group. Photograph courtesy of The Carver Project.

    Finally, The Carver Project helps lower the proverbial wall between the campus and its surrounding communities. Our faculty fellows are fully immersed in both the university and their local church. We care deeply about both institutions, and we sense the ways they can partner more effectively to further the flourishing of the surrounding community. We lower relational barriers to partnership every time our faculty speak at local churches or welcome our church friends to campus events.

    The Carver Project is not on a secret mission to take over Washington University. Rather, we seek to be a faithful presence in the university that partners with it to advance common efforts. Through this work, my faculty colleagues and I have gleaned three key insights in establishing a community of Christian faculty within a non-Christian university: 1) we began by learning the university’s language and culture, 2) we built things together, and 3) we took risks, knowing that our academic identities are anchored in a far greater story than that of the university.

    Learning language and culture: Years ago, I volunteered with the Christian ministry Young Life. One of Young Life’s mantras is “earn the right to be heard.” Our faculty have spent their academic careers earning the right to be heard. They are some of the nation’s leading experts in their fields, they are caring and effective teachers, and they serve the university in seen and unseen ways. We have flourished in these ways because we took the time to learn the university’s language and culture – its spoken and unspoken norms, its peculiarities, its demands, and its weaknesses. Rather than respond with fear or anxiety to unfamiliar or even off-putting rules and cultures, we have learned how to thrive within them. That doesn’t make our experiences free of pain or disappointment. But it does mean we can thrive within an environment that does not always align with our values or comfort levels.

    Building together: From the beginning of The Carver Project, I told my colleagues that I was only willing to lead the organization if others would join with me to help steward it. Two years ago, my friend and colleague Abram Van Engen succeeded me as The Carver Project’s executive director. He’s not leading how I led, and he sometimes makes decisions that I would not make. But that’s the point. The best way to avoid a vanity project is to disperse the leadership, vision, and control. I am excited to be part of an organization that Abram leads, and I am excited to keep doing great work together.

    Taking greater risks: University faculty have many different roles and responsibilities, but many of us benefit from an abundance of resources and the protections of tenure. In building The Carver Project, we endeavored to take greater risks with our time, money, and reputations. The past five years have been much harder than I anticipated – for me, risks have turned into costs, particularly when it comes to time. Nor am I the only one who has sacrificed. I think of Allie and Kelly, the two law students who built the organization with me from the ground up. I think of the students who followed them, our faculty fellows who built programs, and my colleague Abram who stepped into the leadership role. I think of our managing director, Shelley, and a long line of other staff, board members, and donors. Every one of them took risks and made sacrifices.

    There is a chance that we have collectively built something that will far outlast us. It’s still just a chance – fraught with the messiness of people, personalities, and contingencies. Part of taking risks is not always knowing how your work will be received or even if you will be around to know. But even in these fits and starts that have marked our first five years together, we have glimpsed the possibility of something far greater than we could have asked or imagined.

    I hope that more Christians will come to see the good in non-Christian higher education instead of fixating on its dangers and imperfections. These institutions will never feel like home: the days of Christian mottos centering the nation’s most elite colleges are over; the baccalaureate ceremony is a dying relic at most institutions; and in most cases, the most elite schools can no longer name their purpose at all. They are rich, powerful, and for the most part, listless. But when Christians show up to be part of them – by learning the language and culture, by partnering together in the work at hand, and by taking risks – the Lord can do amazing things.

    Contributed By JohnInazu John Inazu

    John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now