LUTHERAN HIGHER EDUCATION
There’s a vibe you get from Pacific Lutheran University.
Those who have experienced it describe it as a “know-it-when-you-feel-it,” contagious energy that lingers long after you leave campus.
But as the Rev. Jen Rude, university pastor, says, that feeling doesn’t materialize out of nowhere. It isn’t what everyone gets from their experience at another university—it’s at PLU, by design.
“Lutheran higher education is the foundation for all the other values that we live,” says Pastor Rude. “Lutheran higher education is the wisdom and the nourishment that supports those values and those ways of living together.”
Understanding the framework of Lutheran higher education helps us understand the tradition that guides the heart of the institution. It’s about service, not individual gain. It’s about how to serve at home, in the broader community and in the world.
How do you live side-by-side with others of varying perspectives and beliefs, and learn and serve together? It’s complex, it’s messy and it’s the essence of our PLU learning community.
This is a deeper look at how Lutheran higher education fuels critical questioning and learning in community, the purposeful work of inclusion, and of discerning one’s vocation and service in the world.
“Lutheran higher education is the foundation for all the other values that we live. Lutheran higher education is the wisdom and the nourishment that supports those values and those ways of living together.”
Rooted in Questioning
“In order to understand the present, and ultimately the future, we must understand the tradition we’re rooted in,” says Marit Trelstad, endowed chair of Lutheran Studies and director of vocational reflection in the PLU Wild Hope Center for Vocation.
That tradition started with Martin Luther and his Reformation—his spirit of challenging the status quo and structures of power, to provide greater access to education and “free inquiry beyond prescribed limits,” as Trelstad puts it. In the 1500s, Luther built upon his education in history, religion and critical questioning and began to imagine new models for challenging the way things were.
The same tradition continues at PLU. “We’re looking at education holistically,” Trelstad says.
To do that, stewards at the university must understand the need to hear, heed and honor all voices in the community. An instance of this, Trelstad says, is the way that Lutheran higher education helps people think about religion.
+ Critical questioning
+ Freedom of expression
+ Commitment to the liberal arts
+ Learning in community
+ Care for creation
+ Discernment of one’s vocation
+ Service in the world
Lutheran higher education encourages students to examine their own religious views and try to understand other perspectives in an academically rigorous setting. “We’re going to give you tools to actually think about it, engage it, so that we can ask deeper questions rather than have knee-jerk reactions,” she says.
“In a world that can’t think about religion and spirituality without polarizations, black-and-whites and different kinds of sides, Lutheran higher education asks students to bring their whole self—including their spiritual self, their social and family situations, their entire being—to their education,” Trelstad says.
And, she adds, “we’re not afraid of any of it.”
“In order to understand the present, and ultimately the future, we must understand the tradition we’re rooted in.”
Julian Franco, assistant director of admissions for equity and access, says diversity and inclusion underpin the framework through which Lutes practice the tenets of their tradition. In the spirit of Lutheran higher education, Franco often tells the students he works with, “the more perspectives you know, the closer you are to the truth.”
Franco says that this mindset—which lies at the core of everything PLU does—both helps students affirm their previously held beliefs, and challenges them to change their minds. No matter the outcome, PLU values students’ journeys.
But those journeys only accelerate when the institution encourages a broad spectrum of ideas and access to learning for all—a hallmark of the Protestant Reformation.
“You want a diverse array of perspectives and upbringings and opinions that challenge one another, that bring you closer to the truth,” Franco says.
He stresses that this isn’t just about bringing many voices together; it’s making sure those voices talk to each other.
“Diversity is the mix,” he says. “Inclusion means the mix works.”
“The more perspectives you know, the closer you are to the truth.”
As an institution of Lutheran higher education, we welcome everyone and we question everything. These two things cannot be mutually exclusive. It does no good to question everything if there is no diversity of people, experience and thought.
For Dawn Cuthbertson, who works in the university’s Center for Gender Equity, diversity means “including diverse backgrounds and experiences, and uplifting other voices.”
“Diversity means you are able to be the whole of who you are, while inclusion is more active,” she adds. “When I was a kid growing up in the LGBTQ community, what I needed was a mentor. As I start working with students, I want to be that mentor for someone who is potentially in a world where they don’t see themselves or their identity.”
Cuthbertson was initially skeptical of finding a home at PLU, partially because of her assumptions about its religious tradition. But what she found was far different. “This is the place I that I belong the most,” Cuthbertson says. “I can be who I am—the whole of who I am.”
“I think once we (the community) start understanding better what Lutheran higher education is, that is then what we offer,” says Eva Frey, dean of students. “That crosses all lines and compartmentalizations.”
As a university of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, PLU affirms the ELCA’s social statements embracing the intrinsic value of the whole creation, inclusion and life within community. The church actively speaks out against hatred and prejudice—including direct statements disavowing racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination in law or policy related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
For its part, the university community works to create an environment in which every student, faculty, and staff member feels heard, seen and valued. That includes community members of all races, all faiths or no faith, all sexual and gender identities, political perspectives, all physical and mental abilities, all socioeconomic and
citizenship statuses, all ages and backgrounds, education and titles.
PLU Acting President Allan Belton stated at University Conference this past fall, “the list is infinite, and every way in which we identify as individuals is essential to our success.”
“I want to be that mentor for someone who is potentially in a world where they don’t see themselves or their identity.”
Angie Hambrick, assistant vice president of diversity, justice and sustainability, echoes the call for inclusion. She says that once diverse voices are invited to the table, a healthy institution of Lutheran higher education must guarantee they have a seat that fits them.
“I have the right to write my own narrative,” she says, underscoring that the university’s commitment to belonging—beyond just welcoming—ensures that PLU continues the Lutheran tradition of access to education.
“That work is hard. It’s really difficult,” she admits. “But it’s so fulfilling, and so ingrained in the mission of this place.”
Hambrick wears that mission proudly—and literally. On her arm is a tattoo: “Humanization is Vocation.” The ink serves as a permanent reminder to her of the need to invest in diversity and inclusion work.
That means “looking at ways to make sure that all folks are humanized, that someone’s humanity is at the center of everything we do,” she says. “If I’m not living a full human life, neither are you, because our humanity is so tied up in each other.”
“I have the right to write my own narrative.”
Discernment of One's Vocation
Laree Winer, associate director for student engagement and the Wild Hope Center for Vocation at PLU, says that vocation is “who you are, what you bring, and what you do with it. It’s a process of becoming more fully who you are, and finding your way in the world.”
A distinctive element of Lutheran higher education is the insistence that human beings are not called upon to escape this world, but rather to engage this world.
The Wild Hope Center for Vocation at PLU takes its name from a poem called “The Summer Day” by the late Mary Oliver. In the piece, she poses the profound invocation: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
In the Lutheran tradition, a life worth living is one that’s lived in service to others. To Sergia Hay, associate professor of philosophy and Fall 2018 interim director of the Wild Hope Center for Vocation, service, in part, means “blurring the line between yourself and the neighbor.”
“I find that I thrive in a community that is nurturing and inclusive,” says Simone Smith, coordinator for student rights and responsibilities and disabilities support services. “My vocation is being able to build that network of support for others.”
Lidia Ruyle, a 25-year PLU veteran who works in facilities management, says that she found a sense of family in the students, faculty and staff on campus. “Vocation for me is what I do every day in my life, especially for others,” she says. “For me, that’s service.”
Aviance Taylor Kamau, director of career, learning and engagement, believes that one person can have several vocations.
“Vocation is this pulling or this yearning,” she says. “For some folks, this calling or pulling or responsibility may be connected to faith or spirituality. For others, it may be connected to community.”
Regardless of the direction in which you’re pulled, she adds, “vocation is about being in a relationship with and understanding the needs of the community, through the mouths of the community.”
Aviance Taylor Kamau
“For some folks, this calling or pulling or responsibility may be connected to faith or spirituality. For others, it may be connected to community.”
Service in the World
Senior Web Designer Logan Seelye launched a foundation to raise money for people like himself who live with spinal-cord injuries, or for those who have lost a limb.
“My vocation dawned on me out of an injury I suffered in high school,” he says, explaining how a tackle gone wrong at football camp changed his life. “Now I want to help as many people as I possibly can—whether or not they’re in a similar situation to mine, or are just going through struggles.”
The Wild Hope Center for Vocation defines vocation as being called into relationship with others to promote human and ecological flourishing. Samuel Torvend, professor of religion and Spring 2019 interim director of the center, affirms, saying that “anyone who has been called into a community that is serving the common good, serving the well-being of others, is being drawn into a vocation.”
“That means asking difficult questions of the world in which we live, calling into question dominant social values, wondering if there’s a different way in which we can live together. That kind of hard, intellectual work is the backbone. It’s the foundation that leads to all those other dimensions of our ethical commitments.”
“I want to help as many people as I possibly can—whether or not they’re in a similar situation to mine.”
Yes, Your Whole Self
In turbulent times, Lutheran higher education supplies lifelong learners with the tools to embrace uncertainty, critically and fearlessly questioning the world around them.
The PLU vibe operates comfortably in gray areas. It’s inherent in the spirit of critical questioning that’s a vital piece of Lutheran higher education.
“I bring to this work an ability to sit in the tension and the messiness,” Pastor Rude says. “Really sitting with people in that gray and messy spot, which is where life is. For me, I think that’s where faith is, and where God is.”
The values of Lutheran higher education aren’t locked in the past—they’re the lifeblood of the future. These values provide us with a framework in which to live, learn and serve together. PLU pushes people out of their comfort zones, to engage them in tough conversations with each other. Students can come here and be who they are, unapologetically—and they leave more fully who they are, and equipped to apply what they’ve learned.
And so, in 2019, the Reformation tradition lives on—thanks to that “know-it-when-you-feel-it,” contagious energy that Lutheran higher education fuels. It is a fuel that burns red-hot at PLU.