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Aminah Al-Attas Bradford on Bodily Christian Life for College Students

Aminah talks about presenting the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship as a gift to Barnabas Team volunteers.

Aminah Al-Attas Bradford  and her husband, Nate Al-Attas Bradford, are associate chaplains for residence life at Calvin College. They supervise the Barnabas Team, student leaders who work to nurture prayer, worship, and Bible study in their dorms so residents grow in the areas of loving God and loving others. Here Aminah talks about presenting the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship as a gift to Barnabas Team volunteers.

Who is this college student symposium track intended for?

It’s more than a track. This (January 26-28, 2012) will be only the second year we’ve offered guidance for the Barnabas Team at the symposium. It started when John Witvliet asked who we thought college students might be interested in hearing from. I mentioned Christopher A. Hall, who is now chancellor of Eastern University, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. John said, “Great! If you can get him, you can have your students go hear him.”

So we had him spend five hours giving a student leadership retreat on the first day. We required it of all Barnabas Team leaders who were on campus. We opened it up to all Community Life Council student leaders, including resident assistants, Cultural Discerners, multicultural activities coordinators, and community partner coordinators. About 75 students met with Chris Hall, and symposium organizers generously said they could attend the rest of symposium for free as well.

How was the worship symposium experience for those college students?

It was pretty successful, but not as many of our students attended the rest of the symposium. That’s partly because symposium happens on their break between interim and second semester. We offered it as a gift, because they work four to eight hours a week and don’t get paid. We wanted to bless them, not burden them, with the offer.

Also, students felt overwhelmed  choosing sectionals. Some said, “I heard amazing speakers.” Others said, “I ended up in something way off track for where I’m at in life.”  So this year we are providing Christopher Hall again, who is specifically prepared to speak with students. We’ll make suggestions of other speakers whose expertise will help our students live as Christian leaders on a worshiping campus. For now our suggestions are a way to love and serve our students who give so much. My hunch is that in a few years, we can publicize a college track to help students from other colleges.

Given that Christopher Hall is an expert in early church worship, why did you ask him to speak to students who live in 2011 and 2012?

I took a patristics class from him during seminary, at Regent College in Vancouver, and was pretty transformed by what he taught. He’s an expert on early church worship, which makes him an expert on the early church fathers. They tended to be hard on their bodies, partly because they understood that a person is not just a spiritual being trying to connect to God but a physical creature that needs to submit all of life to God. Rightly understood, they can help us live whole lives, day in and day out in the body.

Christopher Hall is a good fit for students trying to figure out, “What do I do with my body? What do I do with my days? How do we make our lives worship?” He made gentle encouragements and challenges and invited them to think about what kinds of fasts—maybe from technology or food—that they might take to create a desert space, or learning space, for growing in faith.

What results did you see in students who took part in his symposium leadership retreat?

All the students there were leaders in their dorms, attending with their peers, hearing Christopher in community. We held them accountable to keep talking about what they learned as they met weekly in their dorms. They talked a lot about what it means to be Christians in our bodies and daily lives, not just in our spirits.

At their year-end leadership survey, when they talked about what had impacted their faith, a surprising number talked about how that lecture helped them make a turn in the way they live faith.

Did they say anything they’d begun to do differently?

It was more a theme of how they were learning to stop and ask hard questions in a gentle way, because that’s what Christopher had showed. Because the Christian life is kind of hard, right? But we need to be gentle with ourselves in facing ourselves. I saw students asking hard questions of faith but doing it without fear, because they had been taught to be gentle with themselves. And that’s what the early church fathers did too.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the Barnabas Team?

Yes. For these students, their work is to  make space for Bible study, worship, and prayer to happen in the residence halls. But that’s not because these student leaders are the spiritual gurus or saintly ones. Sometimes leaders—whether professional leaders “of the cloth” or Barnabas leaders on the floor—get pegged as the ones who have it all together. That can make them feel like hypocrites.

This symposium experience is an opportunity for them, as human creatures who are fallen, to take a few days to focus on their own faith and spirituality. It’s a chance for them to say, “I haven’t gotten my act all together, but I want to make sure we are creating a culture in the dorms so faith can flourish. And that happens when you read the Bible, when you pray, when you worship—and also when you serve and sleep.”

Note that the Calvin Symposium on Worship rate for students (and accompanying teachers and professors) is greatly discounted.