Choosing Less to Experience More

For as long as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to use my life’s work in the service of others. As an incoming freshman to Hope College late in the last millennium, with a fairly strong academic record and an interest in the natural sciences, that seemed to add up to a career in medicine. In fact, not until halfway through Hope did I take my first psychology course (thank you Kristen Gray!) As a core curriculum requirement, this course sparked a fresh level of interest in the social sciences and opened new possibilities for a career in the helping professions.  

In many ways this shift was freeing because it aligned more closely with my passion, personality and calling. It also, however, represented the first of many difficult decisions that required me to evaluate the tension between impact and income. Coming from a middle-class family of four children and as the first in my family tree to complete a bachelor’s degree, I received support in many ways. But I also bore a significant portion of the financial burden of college myself. As I finished at Hope and looked to enter the workforce, my options in the field were somewhat limited and none of them offered a significant income. In fact, as many of my friends and classmates landed lucrative first jobs with attractive perks like company cars and cell phones (a relatively new novelty at that time), my best offer within my field was working direct care at a children’s home making $8.88 per hour!  

While I was excited to make a difference in the world and am grateful to this day for the many experiences, opportunities and relationships that followed, the reality was that our early years were challenging. My wife, Tina, and I attempted to navigate the milestones of getting married, buying our first home and starting a family, while accepting modest incomes and being weighed down by student debt. In time, I was able to obtain some invaluable experience and the graduate degree requisite for opening additional doors in my field. Eventually, I made my way into private practice counseling.

Then, just as we began settling into this next phase of life, we were again confronted with the nagging sense that more was available to us by choosing less. We prayed that God would draw us further into His will and allow us an opportunity to continue serving Him with our lives, depending on Him and teaching our children what it means to live for Him. God answered our prayer by providing an incredible, unexpected opportunity to serve Him on the foreign mission field. In an even more beautiful plot twist, we had the opportunity to serve alongside our best friends and respective roommates from Hope. Sharing this experience forever cemented our families. During that time, we all had to learn to rely on God and His people for our provision, which he graciously offered in abundance.

Ironically, I made my last student loan payment while living in Zambia, nearly 15 years after graduating from Hope. I couldn’t be more grateful to God for my Hope experience and the many blessings and opportunities that followed. Hope College is woven into so much of our story. After service in Zambia, I returned to private practice and am focused on building a team of professionals who can address the growing mental health needs in West Michigan. I am especially concerned about the skyrocketing rates of anxiety and depression among our young people.

This past year, we took two new major steps forward as our oldest son enrolled as a freshman at Hope, and Tina returned to our beloved alma mater in the next phase of her career. As she invests her talents to support the Hope Forward initiative and we re-engage in the life of Hope, I wonder what doors will be opened for so many current and future students who will be blessed with the chance to be a blessing in our world. Free to choose a career based on calling, passion and vision rather than burdened by the increasing weight of education costs. Free to make a difference.

Kevin DeKam ’99
Lead Therapist, West Michigan Wellness Group

The Life-Changing Impact of Grace

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the scene where Jesus forgives the adulterous woman and saves her from being stoned. There she stood, trembling – her secret, shameful sin having been discovered – hanging on the precipice of death at the hands of religious leaders intent on stoning her for her transgressions. Under the law of Moses wielded by the self-righteous religious leaders, she knew she would receive no mercy.

Although the Bible doesn’t include any details about how the woman responded, it isn’t hard to imagine the distress she might have felt. She probably felt exposed and ashamed, as her sin had been found out and revealed in front of the assembly. But beyond that, she must have had a deep sense of hopelessness. The end seemed inevitable. She had made her choices, and she would no longer be able to run from the consequences.

However, that is not the end of the story. Jesus entered the picture and challenged the religious leaders, saying, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b). One by one, the religious leaders dropped their stones and walked away, leaving the woman standing alone. Jesus looked up and asked her if anyone had remained to condemn her, to which she replied that no one had. Then, Jesus responded with a simple phrase that had power to radically alter the woman’s life, a phrase that continues to reverberate grace in our context thousands of years later: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11b).

This story has always resonated powerfully with me because of the way that it demonstrates the overwhelming grace of Jesus that defies our expectations and extends to all people.

At that point in time, adultery was considered to be one of the most shameful sins and, therefore, was punishable by death under the law of Moses. No one would have expected Jesus to pardon a woman who had committed such a grievous sin. Instead, because of our human orientation towards merit and punishment, they would have expected Jesus to “give her what she deserved” and execute punishment to the full force of the law. But Jesus defied their expectations by extending grace, even to this unworthy adulteress. Jesus’ forgiveness brought new hope for the woman, washing away her hopelessness in a downpour of unmerited, life-restoring grace.

This radical, life-changing idea of grace is what serves as the foundation for the Hope Forward program. This opportunity covers us, as students, with grace. In an economy where the majority of students go into deep debt to pay for college, which can lead to powerful feelings of hopelessness as students face years of debt repayments, we are covered with the grace of receiving a fully-funded education. God’s grace and forgiveness of our sins are gifts that we could never earn through our own effort but which are freely given to us. All that is required of us is that we love God, put our faith in Him, and have a heart posture of acceptance for the gifts He has given us. Similarly, Hope Forward tuition funding is not given on the basis of merit, but is instead extended to students with heart postures that are committed to giving back to their communities and bringing hope to the world. Eventually, Hope Forward funding will be given to all students who attend Hope, again reflecting the truth that God’s grace is available and accessible to all.

Not only does this program reflect the grace of God, but it also demonstrates the impact that grace has in the lives of its recipients. President Matt Scogin describes it in this way: “You are covered, so go and live differently.” When our sins are covered by the grace of God, we are freed from our slavery to sin and are free to instead live lives of love and righteousness that bring glory to God. In the same way, when our tuition is covered by the generous grace of donors, we are released from the burden of debt and are free to instead live lives that will make an impact to improve the lives of those around us. Part of this mission involves the freedom to give back to the Hope community out of gratitude for what we have received so that other students can have the same opportunity. Personally, this opportunity has freed me to pursue a career in social work, even though I know that my salary will be low relative to other college-educated positions. Because I do not have to worry about having as much student debt, I was able to choose this major as I believe that social work will allow me to truly serve others in the love of Christ throughout my career.

Ultimately, the Hope Forward program is a practical representation of the beautiful, profound grace of God that frees us from our debt of sin and allows us to live for His kingdom. I believe that the power of this grace will be transformational in the lives of the students, for the college as a whole, and possibly even into the broader context at other universities. Personally, I can’t wait to watch the perfect plan of God at work to bring hope through this program!

Student Stories

I love stories. I believe that stories hold the power to shape minds, change hearts and shift landscapes.

In my three years as an employee of Hope College, students have served as the primary cultivators of my continued appreciation for stories. Their lived experiences, current manners of existing in the world and future ambitions perpetually point to narratives beyond themselves – narratives of resilience, hope, gratitude and generosity. This reality sank in afresh for me in October when I sat across from an incredible Hope Forward student from Ghana who was gracious enough to share her story with me. I was only nine weeks into my interim role as Hope Forward’s program coordinator, and she was only eight weeks into her student experience across the globe from home.

Sushi sat between us – something she’d never tried, but couldn’t get enough of – as she recounted the journey that brought her to Hope. It started with a simple drawing. Two years earlier, she explained, she found herself drawing the word “Hope” in blue and orange. Here’s the catch: She’d never even heard of Hope College. It wasn’t until a year later, after a visa refusal for the University of Dayton, that her mother encouraged her to check out this small liberal arts college in Holland, Michigan. After the heartbreak of one visa refusal, she tentatively approached learning about Hope.

The more she learned, the more she fell in love with the mission and vision of Hope. Whenever she read about Hope, she would get a brief flash of the image she’d drawn two years previously. She didn’t think too deeply about it until two pastors visited her church. When one pastor shared his testimony and said that his visa had been denied nine times, something clicked for the student. Upon hearing that, she felt as though God was telling her, “I brought him here because of you.” She asked both pastors to pray over her, and she asked God to reveal what He needed to. Immediately, she more clearly recalled the word “hope” she had drawn months earlier and went home to look for the drawing. When she found it, she compared it to the Hope branding that was on her phone. Upon realizing the similarities, she deeply sensed she was meant for Hope College, and it was meant for her.

There are so many additional pieces of the story I could tell: like her miraculous right-at-go-time visa approval; her acceptance into Hope Forward that made coming here possible; or that Phil Wickham’s apropos song Living Hope served as her anthem through it all. She said that the year leading up to her arrival in Michigan felt like encountering the Holy Spirit over and over again. Her journey to Hope is powerful. But knowing the pieces of her story before any of the aforementioned transpired, confirmed for me that the Spirit actively prepared her for Hope – and more specifically prepared her for Hope Forward – long before Hope College existed on her radar.

My jaw dropped when this student shared with me that her mother and father (a teacher and a pastor) would select individuals from large families in their Ghanaian community to help fund their education. In turn, these individuals would use their education to empower others in their families or communities to seek an education. Of the nine individuals her parents funded, she said, all have gone on to use their education to lead lives of impact. Even better, five have returned to contribute to a “pay-it-forward” model for other students. Basically, before this young woman could conceive of Hope Forward, her family was living Hope Forward.

When I asked her about how she thinks that will translate to our context, she simply said, “Hope Forward does work. I’ve seen it work, and it’s going to work [at Hope].”

“It’s the biggest act of generosity you could ever think about – to give to someone else because you were given that opportunity. It makes dreams come true,” she added. “God aside, I am not sure how I would have gotten here, but He used Hope Forward to bring me here.”

So why do I share this?

Stories matter. Even before learning this student’s story, I didn’t doubt that God had a purpose for her being here. I don’t doubt the purposeful presence of all 58 current Hope Forward students. Yet there is something powerful in learning their stories, like reading a book backwards to make sense of the beginning.

Maybe you love Hope Forward. Maybe you’re curious or even skeptical about it. While I believe wholeheartedly in what God is doing through Hope Forward, if I’m honest, I might feel all three of these things on a given day. I am one of two people in the world who have “Hope Forward” in my job title. But I also am one of two people in the world who have the utmost privilege of walking with these students in this sacred way while this is still so new. I have the distinct honor of learning their stories. In doing so, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I believe in these students. And I echo the statement of this particular student: “Hope Forward does work.”

This blog will be a space to share pieces of their stories with you, a space to share perspectives on what Hope Forward means to each of them. It will also be a space for the stories of those who support Hope Forward: alumni, donors, staff, faculty, board members and more. Our Hope Forward Senior Program Director Nicole Dunteman tells the students this: You are here on purpose, for a purpose. “I need to hear that a lot,” the student said as we wrapped up our meeting together. And it’s true. We all are here on purpose, for a purpose. All of this matters…each person involved matters. Even you, the reader, matters in the grand scope of this God-sized vision. So we invite you into these stories that are enfolded into a grander story outside of ourselves – stories of people here on purpose, for a purpose.