Recently, we (Michelle Bombe and Jack Mulder) had a conversation about our experiences with the culture of Hope College and we want to share it with you. We invite you to read these stories and consider our own invitation to you, which we offer below.
From Jack Mulder:
Before being on the Culture Action Team, I didn’t know a lot about Michelle, but I knew that she often chimed in on issues where I knew I disagreed with her. We’ve both been at Hope for a long time, and have seen, and have each taken part in, events and moments in the life of the college when our opinions were put on display. Many of those times were times when it would have been clear we disagreed. At a Christian college that prides itself on taking the difficult “middle way” between sectarianism and secularism, we often need to speak up about the direction in which we hope the college will go. We’ve both been invested in Hope College and its culture for a long time, and that means our emotions can run high when we’re talking about this institution. Yet our emotions only run high because we both care so deeply about Hope College and its culture. So at the very moment when we’re most divided, we can also recognize a deep unity in our love of and commitment to Hope.
When I first was appointed to the Culture Action Team, we had only been in pandemic mode for a few weeks. The Steering Committee and Covid-19 Response Team had just recommended that we send a few notes to some folks to encourage them. I tried to do that with some people on the Culture Action Team, to which I’d recently been appointed. I picked some people I knew I agreed with on some things and some people with whom I knew I didn’t agree. So I figured I’d carry that attitude forward when we got into our subcommittees.
After our first subcommittee meeting, I thought that Michelle and I were coming at things in a somewhat different way and so I thought it’d be good to check in with her since our work would be on culture, and we hadn’t established much rapport to that point. While we knew of each other, I don’t think we’d ever really talked one-on-one before and certainly not at any length. So I asked her to have a virtual cup of coffee.
We’re all in an odd boat together right now because of the pandemic, and that can help us sympathize with one another. After talking briefly about just what the previous month or so had been like, Michelle and I started talking about what the last few years had been like. I can’t speak for Michelle, but I’m a major weeper. Things have been hard over the last few years at Hope. The fact that they have been hard is an objective reality, but they have been hard in different ways for different people. We didn’t dwell much on the reasons for the difficulties and for who took which side on any number of matters. We just started by recognizing the pain that each of us felt over the last few years.
This brought us to more cultural and ideological rifts that are somewhat more stable in the way that they divide us. Michelle noted how she has worked for years in defense of the rights of LGBTQ folks. We spent some time recognizing that there are real harms there and that we need to find ways to reach across the aisle in understanding the dignity each person has in her own right, especially as someone created in God’s image. At the same time, I was able to discuss how, as a Catholic Christian following the sexual and reproductive teachings of my Church on a largely Protestant campus, the language of safe zones carries the implication that, as a Catholic, I am unsafe, and how I long for a better discourse in which people can thoughtfully disagree while not being perceived as a threat to another person.
I think we both understood that we have some way to go, individually, as an institution, and even as a culture, before such a better discourse presents itself. But I think it’s fair to say that our time together really humanized each of us for the other. We cried together and, I felt, understood a fair amount about what the other cares about. I hope we’re able to talk more with each other. I feel much more optimistic about the prospects of doing so and of talking with colleagues with whom I disagree. Not because we’ll agree, but because we might be able to understand the person with whom we disagree. Once that comes first, then maybe we can have better dialogue, more fruitful academic exchange, and a more lively and enjoyable culture.
From Michelle Bombe:
This year will mark my 30th year of teaching at Hope College. When I moved to Michigan 30 years ago, I had a small base of friends mostly consisting of theatre faculty and staff that I had gotten to know in my previous work with Hope Summer Repertory Theatre. But in a short time, my friend base widened from the theatre department into other areas of campus as I served on committees, worked on grants, and team-taught with colleagues in other departments. I didn’t have local family and quickly my faculty and staff friend group became family. We welcomed new babies, raised those children together, celebrated artistic work and professional development, and worked together to support our LGBTQIA community. We also grieved over many losses together. Indeed, those losses, some of which included attacks on the LGBTQIA community, but also divorces, tragic accidents, job losses, and ultimately deaths of dear colleagues, most of which brought me to my knees in despair but my faith and the bond of my faculty and staff friends helped me cope with the pain and loss.
However, I also recognize that while my friendship base has continued to expand as new faculty and staff have joined Hope, that I do not have a personal connection with an increasing amount of folks at Hope. The divisive issues on campus and the way they have previously played out have contributed to a rift that feels like protective walls built against pain and hurt.
When I joined the Culture Action Team, I did so out of a real desire to be part of changing the narrative at Hope. I appreciated the conversation and the action steps organized by the group. After a few months of large group meetings, the team divided up into subgroups. I was delighted to find that my subgroup were people outside of my friend group at Hope. Our sub-team was charged with public events and our group started meeting in the spring to consider what those events could look like during Covid-19 and what would be some steps to improving the culture at Hope.
After a few of our group meetings, in mid May I received an email from a fellow team member, Jack Mulder, to have a virtual cup of coffee together to discuss our committee work or any other Hope issues. I admit that the request stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t have a previous connection to Jack, other than knowing that we were often on opposite sides of several divisive issues at Hope. How should I respond? Should I ask for another team member to be present? I sat on that late afternoon invitation overnight. I wrestled with those questions, but in the morning light, I decided that I needed to walk the talk and respond to his gracious offer by assuming good intent and be willing to meet him with my full self.
What happened on that zoom virtual cup of coffee was really beautiful. Jack and I spent some time getting to know each other, our family life, and the stress and concern we both shared of life and teaching during the pandemic. I felt my shoulders start to drop. I felt compassion and empathy for Jack and I felt he mutually held that space for me. We moved on to the pain and hurt we have both experienced during our time at Hope. My friends often poke fun at me because tears are usually pretty close to the surface for me. I cry when I am happy and when I am sad, but honestly, I was discovering that they don’t come as easily when I am anxious as I had been feeling all spring. Well, catharsis happened for me in that zoom meeting as Jack and I cried together, each recognizing the pain of the other. Jack and I found common ground, it turns out we are both criers! But what was really happening is that we were creating a personal connection. We will likely continue to disagree about some issues, but now I feel like I can come directly to my friend Jack and have an honest conversation with him about an issue because we have a basis of respect and caring that is the base that can hold our differences.
“I see you. I hear you.”
I take this as the foundation of any friendship. I know that is what our world is craving and I believe in the power of seeing and hearing each other’s stories to heal.
I asked Jack if I could call him brother at the end of our call. I know that sounds cheesy, but that is what I felt on my heart that day and what I carry into my ongoing work with Jack. When I was a youth, a popular song by The Osmond Family (don’t judge!) played over and over on my record player.
“He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”
We would like to invite you to do something similar. Sometime in the next six weeks, invite someone at Hope you don’t know very well to talk. You don’t need to choose this person because you disagree, but don’t choose this person because you agree, either. We hope to include as many faculty and staff as possible, but also don’t want to put the load on only a few people, so we suggest only accepting one invitation. Not to worry if your first invitation was declined, that’s a good sign! Try again with another colleague. We even suggest zoom to minimize any worries up front. However, don’t be paralyzed by the fear that you need to get something done for “the culture” of Hope. Don’t feel bad if you only talk for 35 minutes. We suggest you reserve an hour, but you needn’t fastidiously fill an hour. Just be kind, be interested, and learn about the other person. Start by asking about any highlights of the person’s time at Hope. Perhaps gradually you might learn about some of the person’s unique challenges at Hope. But don’t force it.
Ask this person to talk because you know that it will require something of you. What might it require? It should require you to be vulnerable in at least some way (even if it’s a way you can build on later). It should require you to decide in advance not to try to win. But it should also require you to choose not to shut down, either. Offer something of yourself to the other person not because it’s your hobby horse, but because it really matters to you, and learn about what matters to the other person. Don’t try to move mountains, either. This is just a first foray into a better relationship with someone at Hope.
If you receive an invitation like this, take your own risk and assume good intent behind the invitation. If all that comes from this is a little awkward laughter about how this is difficult to do, then just recognize that that is itself a little further than you were before talking. Our experience has been that, ever since our conversation in May we already listen to each other differently at meetings. We’re a little more willing to root for the other person. We’re a little more willing to believe that there’s something deeply good about which the other person cares. We have a groundwork now that, we think, will allow us to talk with each other if and when disagreements arise in the future.
We think that this is a small, though for some of us, difficult step that may help us each move Hope in a better direction. For our part, now we long for community not in an abstract way, but for our community; the one we both inhabit, and we want the culture of Hope to be one that recognizes itself in each of us and each of us in it. Will you join us?