“A Swell of Grace”: New Music from Hope for Advent and Christmas

Remember when the unofficial start to the Christmas season waited until after Thanksgiving? No more. Now retail stores have Santa displays on the endcaps and “Frosty the Snowman” over the loudspeaker before kids can finish saying, “Trick or Treat!”

Into this fast-paced frenzy of commercial Christmas chaos, a group of Hope students, helmed by Bruce Benedict, the college’s chaplain of worship and arts, inserted something different: an album of new and re-tuned sacred music meant to help the church see the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in fresh new ways.

Hope College Worship released “A Swell of Grace” in November 2019.

Released on November 21, 2019, A Swell of Grace is something of a rarity, even during a season that, more than any other holiday, is marked by the soundscape of familiar music — sacred hymns and popular jingles alike. While popular artists are mostly releasing albums that put their own spin on well-known Christmas tunes, Benedict wanted to give the students the experience of writing music from scratch.

The result is an EP of what Benedict describes as “original advent and Christmas songs that explore the narrative and emotional depths of the coming of Christ.” It aims to deal honestly, interestingly and deeply with the biblical account of Jesus’ birth.

Take, for example, the first of the album’s eight tracks, “The Holy of Holies” by senior Anna Kate Peterson.

“She’s one of my strongest songwriters,” Benedict said. “Her song was a text we had to wrestle with, because she was making some theological connections, talking about Mary’s womb as the Holy of Holies.”

Here are lyrics from verses two and three of Peterson’s song:

The Lord our God, entered our mess,
In the purity of this girl, took on flesh,
Virgin’s womb, the Spirit’s room,
The Holy of Holies

The brightest star, burned the way
To the cross where blood was love on display,
The old has passed, the new has come
The veil has torn

In another song, “Dispossessed and Peaceful,” Michael Stone ’18 writes:

Persecuted in the dark
The Christmas child on earth abides
Incarnated word of God
Carried town to town to hide
Joseph and the road again
Mary clutching child’s weak head
Holy God, where were we then?
Immigrants in search of rest

The lyrics that portray the Holy Family as immigrants touch a contemporary political nerve, and they pick up on a theme that Benedict explored in “Refugee King,” which he cowrote with Liz Vice and others at a 2018 songwriting retreat. (Vice released “Refugee King” as a single earlier this year.) Benedict’s experience at the retreat inspired him to work on this Christmas EP with his students.

In “Every Knee Shall Bow,” juniors Olivia Abdou and Cecilia O’Brien write:

The one on the throne was born without a home
Despised and rejected and forced to roam
In a stable filled with hay, our Savior born that day
Mary and Joseph in awe at his name

And in the album’s title track, “Swell of Grace,” Sarah Sims ’19 delivers a meaningful spoken word meditation both on Mary’s pregnancy and on our Advent anticipation that opens:

This quiet carrying
This gestation of grace
This swelling of a song
We are waiting
For the barren to bear fruit
For the bleak to reap hope

Benedict isn’t surprised that these students delivered songs of theological depth, biblical insight and creativity.

“What’s surprising to me is that I’ve not found more colleges creating interesting sacred music, because this is such a generative time in people’s lives,” he said. “It seems like there’d be a lot of college students — whether at Christian schools or not —being generative and creating interesting worship music, but I’ve just not found that. So part of this is trying to put examples out there for other colleges.”

It’s also an education and hands-on experience for students, a way for Benedict to pull back the curtain on the process of writing and recording music. “I wanted students to have the experience of creating something themselves from scratch. I think it’s an important skill to cultivate in this world of largely contemporary worship music,” he said.

This Christmas album isn’t the first time Benedict has worked with students to record original works. “The first one we did was in Lent, and that was mostly retuned hymns,” Benedict said. “Every year I try to do one. Typically it’s based on the sermon series in Chapel.”

In addition to the Lent album (Thy Love Unfailing), Hope students have also recorded albums inspired by Philippians 2:5–11 (The Christ Hymn) the Beatitudes (The Beatitudes), the Lord’s Prayer (Songs of Prayer) and the Psalms (Psalms).

“I’m really just trying to steward and shepherd the resources Hope has to do these kinds of creative projects,” he said.

Additionally, “Campus Ministries has been doing a live worship record for 20 years,” Benedict said. “Over Christmas break we’ll actually release on Bandcamp every record we’ve ever done. You’ll be able to listen to every live worship record we’ve done back to the early Dwight Beale days.” (Beale was Hope’s chaplain of worship from 1998 to 2005.) You can find the albums here as soon as they’re available.

Making music is just one part of what Benedict does in his role as worship chaplain. His primary task is to, in his words, “curate, cultivate, lead and empower” the worship services at Chapel and The Gathering. He oversees the worship and tech teams, works with chaplains and guest preachers and musicians, coordinates about 30 volunteer students for each service, and partners with the Gospel Choir, Sacred Dance and other groups with gifts to offer the Hope community.

Bruce Benedict, Chaplain of Worship and Arts

“I coordinate how the liturgical arts can support worship at Hope,” he summarized. “Most people think about what I do purely in terms of music, but I try to broaden that out for students. Music is part of it, but there’s text and visuals and movement. You have a space you occupy, so how does your worship interact with that space?”

Outside the college, Benedict directs Cardiphonia, a liturgical arts collective of dozens of musical and visual artists, mostly connected to local churches. “We release church music compilations around various biblical and spiritual themes. We did one this summer on Psalm 119, and we invited 22 artists from all over the world to write music for that.”

He’s also part of Bellwether Arts, a project from Cardiphonia that focuses on the church calendar. In partnership with Hope’s Campus Ministries, Bellwether just released a devotional for the final week of Advent based on the “O” Antiphons, an ancient set of prayers that explore images of Christ in the Old Testament. The “O” Antiphons form the basis of the familiar Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” (Download the devotional here.)

Finding the Christian Church in China

When Dr. Gloria Tseng arrived at Hope College in 2003 as a Europeanist with an emphasis on France, her first course in French history was attended by one student. “On one hand, it was a good student-faculty ratio,” she says now, with a lilting laugh.

The following semester, history repeated itself: just one student, albeit a different one. “I realized, ‘You know, there’s not a whole lot of interest in French history in Holland,’” Tseng recalls, “so I needed to think more broadly. Hope has been very transformative for me.”

In time, she underwent what could be described as a religious conversion. Tseng, born in Taiwan but a longtime U.S. citizen, wrote her dissertation on the experiences of Chinese expatriates living in France during the interwar years. During that research she came across the work of Father Frédéric-Vincent Lebbe, the late Catholic missionary to China whose advocacy in the early 20th century led Pope Pius XI to appoint the first native Chinese bishops.

Shortly after Tseng began teaching at Hope, the campus began receiving an influx of international students from China. “At first these were not degree-seeking students,” Tseng recalls. “They were graduate students funded by the John Templeton Foundation at Calvin College that funneled some of their students to the Hope philosophy department. That’s when I started having connections with people from China, and because I lived across the street from Centennial Park close to campus they would come to my house for meals and company.”

Those dinnertime conversations apparently made an impact. “When I moved into a tenure-track position there was a fund to support summer research,” Tseng says, “and for some reason I didn’t go back to Paris. I went to Shanghai. And you know, to this day I still wonder why. It must have been the Lord, putting desires in our hearts.”

The student interaction, remembering Father Lebbe — it all seemed to coalesce when she  came across a book that was a directory of the holdings of the Shanghai Municipal Archives. “It specifically focused on their Christian Chinese language publications from the interwar years,” she recalls. “It was Chinese Christians who published these materials, and the municipal archives had tons of such journals. That just made me curious.”

So much so that Tseng developed a course at Hope called “Christianity in China: Negotiating Faith and Culture” and is conducting research for a book with the working title The Search for a Chinese Church: Protestantism in Twentieth-century China.

“I come from a Chinese Christian family, so I had heard of some of the Chinese preachers who were instrumental in the shaping of the Chinese church. . . For me, this has been sort of a spiritual journey, because I have been studying on an academic level my own spiritual heritage that my family is a part of.”

“When I went to China for the first time, I spoke Chinese, I looked Chinese, but it still was very foreign to me,” she says. “And the Shanghai Municipal Archives are state-of-the-art, but the archivists were very rude! But what I knew was, this was a treasure trove. There is so much there — volumes and volumes of different journals and archives of Christian colleges founded by missionaries — that I thought, ‘I could spend my whole life doing this, seriously.’”

Tseng’s academic transformation has resulted in new directions on multiple levels. “As I pursued this, my advisor from my college days, who was a great mentor, kept encouraging me,” she says. “He said, ‘A lot of what’s written about the church is hagiographical. You can do something scholarly on this, and it will have value.’ So that’s how I’ve taught on this topic.

“Even the project itself has undergone a big evolution. Initially I was going to make it a monograph on the modernist and fundamentalist controversy in the Chinese church in the 1920s and ’30s, because at that time the China mission field was influenced by what was going on in the Western church. But then I realized that what I’m actually more interested in is the evolution of the Chinese church and how the faith became Chinese, how it became indigenized.”

And on a personal level, “I think I was just drawn to it,” says Tseng. “I come from a Chinese Christian family, so I had heard of some of the Chinese preachers who were instrumental in the shaping of the Chinese church, men like Wang Ming-Dao — but we never studied them, never read any biographies or sermons. For me, this has been sort of a spiritual journey, because I have been studying on an academic level my own spiritual heritage that my family is a part of.”

The present-day state of Christianity in China “is very complex,” Tseng observes. “For much of the 20th century Christianity was associated with Western military power. All Western denominations were absorbed into the Three-Self Church (self-governance, self-support, self-propagation), which began as a patriotic movement among Chinese after the Communist takeover of China. To this day, the government-sanctioned church is called the Three-Self Church. If you go into a Three-Self Church today they are filled to the brim. Once I witnessed more than 100 baptisms in one service, so the spiritual hunger is quite palpable. There’s no official persecution, because the Chinese government does not say churches cannot exist. Yet a couple of years ago, the government was tearing down crosses on church buildings because the government said the buildings were not up to code. There are Chinese pastors in jail, but usually they are pastors who are also involved with advocating for a civil society or a rights defense.

“So, is there persecution for Christianity in China?” Tseng asks, and then answers. “Yes, but it comes in very subtle forms. There is reason to be cautious.”

The Good that Grows from Gratitude

Over 20 centuries ago, the great Roman statesman Cicero uttered a now-popular maxim:

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others.”

It is a saying that is still relevant today.

Dr. Charlotte VanOyen-Witvliet

Dr. Charlotte VanOyen-Witvliet, professor of psychology, chair of the department, and a researcher of embodied virtue (e.g., forgiveness, gratitude, hope, accountability) believes so anyway. Her volume of work, as well as a recently completed study on gratitude, happiness and hope (see end note), confirms that “many good things grow when with gratitude we identify givers, gifts, and our identity as recipients. Gratitude is a space of abundance when it comes to happiness and hope,” she says.

What are some of those “many good things” to which Witvliet refers? In this week of thanksgiving, here are five insights that Witvliet offers about gratitude.

1. Gratitude is honest.

“We’re merely telling the truth when we express gratitude,” says Witvliet. “When we recognize that we are recipients of good and gracious gifts from givers and from the Giver, we are simply being honest about the blessings in our lives.”

2. Gratitude fits in good times and bad times.

“While gratitude allows us to tell the truth about uniformly good situations, it also helps us tell more of the truth, not less, in times of suffering and struggle. With a benefit-focused approach, we can identify lessons learned in hardship, strengths shown in facing difficulty, and relational supports that were present in those times. So even though we aren’t grateful for all things, we can aspire to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18)”

3. Gratitude is contented.

“In our consumerist culture that seeks to develop lists of what we want, gratitude cultivates the ability to want the good we already have. It facilitates a fullness and a flourishing for individuals in relationship to other people and to God.”

4. Gratitude is healthful.

“Research ties appreciation to cardiovascular regulation. Similarly, when people acknowledge benefits even in a negative situation, their heart rate variability increases, indicating a healthier heart response, emotion regulation, and cognitive flexibility.”

5. Gratitude can connect us to givers across time and space.

“When we think about who we’re grateful to, we can usually find givers behind the immediate giver…givers behind givers behind givers. So, there’s a way in which our awareness of givers connects us over generations and across space. And for believers, we see that behind every giver is the ultimate Giver, the God of grace with the ultimate gift — Jesus Christ. In the end, it is all about hope after all.”

As the lead investigator in a two-study assessment of states and traits, Witvliet — along with Hope’s Dr. Lindsey Root Luna, Dr. Daryl VanTongeren and alum Fallon Richie ’18 (now a P.hD. student in clinical psychology at UNC-Charlotte) — asked “Does gratitude outperform other virtues in predicting hope and happiness? Answer: Yes! Also, are there particular exercises that people can engage in that are gratitude-oriented that specifically fuel present states of happiness and hopes? Answer: Yes! Their findings that engaging in gratitude led to increased hope and happiness were published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

It All Started Over Lunch

The usual “who-are-you-and-what-do-you-do” chatter of an introductory lunch conversation, those words of nicety that more often than not just scratch surfaces, transformed into a vision of deeper collaboration for four new Hope arts faculty members this fall.

Now, just a few weeks into their first semester at Hope, Dr. Jordan VanHemert of the music department, Greg Lookerse of the art department, Jasmine Domfort of the dance department and Eric Van Tassell of the theatre department will put their varied talents on stage, together for the first time, in “Toward Convergence: An Arts Collaboration,” a concert framed by the music of the college’s Jazz Arts Collective, Hope’s premier jazz ensemble.

Dr. Jordan VanHemert

“With this concert, we’re saying, ‘This is who we are, this is what we do,’” said VanHemert, the director of the Jazz Arts Collective and instigator of the collaboration. “That’s a really powerful way to introduce yourself, I think.”

While talking at a lunch break for Initium — the workshop for new Hope faculty — the four new professors began to share “the things that we are really passionate about and really enjoy about our respective art,” said VanHemert. In no time, that conversation took a turn away from personal generalities toward professional specificities.

“I didn’t expect it to happen this fast,” VanHemert admits, “but I think that’s really a testament to Hope College and the place that it is and is actively becoming. I don’t think that at many other institutions you would have people who are as willing to take time out of their busy lives and schedules for something like this. That takes a special kind of colleague. I’m finding that Hope is really the perfect place for a project like this to come to fruition.”

Jazz is a music that is beautifully collaborative in and of itself, VanHemert says. Add in other art forms, and a mix of creative juices not only has performance power but has pedagogical purposes, too. “This music was never, ever conceived in a vacuum,” VanHemert says. “What good does it do for my students having them learn it in one? So, I want them to collaborate not just with other musicians but with other artists.”

Cheese-cloth forest imagery in the works by Lookerse

With the Jazz Arts Collective’s performance as the centerpiece of the concert, playing a total of five works — two of which were composed by VanHemert — the worlds of dance and visual art and lighting design and poetry will converge in this way:

  • Domfort will perform improvised dance;
  • Lookerse has created temporarily installed artwork of forestry images, painted on semi-transparent cheese cloth that will hang at various depths and spacing from the ceiling;
  • Van Tassel has designed stage lighting that could be considered unconventional when compared to a “normal” concert and will give poetry readings.
  • Erik Alberg, director of design and production for the performing arts, will run the lighting board.

VanHemert says the element that brought the concert altogether was discovered when, after giving a guest lecture at the Hope Academy of Senior Professional (HASP), a HASP member introduced himself to the new prof and asked if he could share his poetry and songs. Sure, VanHemert said, unaware of its impact. Herbert Tews’ poems spoke to the music professor who then wanted to include them “Toward Convergence.”

“Creativity and creating are such personal things,” VanHemert explained. “I didn’t necessarily know if everyone (else in the concert) was going to be moved by the poetry in the same way that I was. And that kind of experience was a little nerve-wracking, but it really throws you back to the concept that art is about vulnerability and putting yourself out there. And that was one way in which I put myself out there because I thought, I don’t even know if they are going to like this. I was moved by what this gentleman was writing but I had no idea it was going to speak to anybody else.”

It did. The entire artistic result will take stage on Monday, October 21 at 7:30 p.m. in the John and Dede Howard Recital Hall of the Jack H. Miller Center for the Musical Arts.

“People experience art and are moved by the arts in different ways,” says VanHemert. “So, through this concert, I’m hoping that everybody finds a way to be moved whether it’s through the poetry readings, or through the music, or through the beautiful landscape and lighting, or the dance. There are just so many different ways someone in the audience will be able to appreciate all of the arts in one place.”

Hope Faculty Study Abroad, Too

Since the summer of 2018, 42 Hope faculty members have ventured away from the college to do what they encourage many of their students to do — study abroad. Each professor took part in a unique, faculty-only Hope College program that instills the same benefits as students who study abroad receive: empathy, education, personal development, and cultural introductions, interactions and understanding.

The Hope Portal to the World program was created by Dr. Deirdre Johnston, Hope’s interim associate dean for global education and professor of communication, as was the GLCA Global Crossroads Innovations Grant she wrote to secure funding from the Mellon Foundation. Dr. Annie Dandavati served as co-director to help implement the grant in 2018.

Johnston says the program’s purpose is to increase cultural competencies and inform teaching and scholarship for Hope faculty members, and she believes it’s been working.

Through the Portal to the World program, faculty teams bring back compelling stories that connect Hope College’s mission with people and institutions in 10 different countries, on three continents.” — Dr. Dede Johnston

“I see Hope College’s global strategy as cultivating compassionate action, grounded in ethical, community-based relationships, and authentic understanding,” explains Johnston. “Our mission is tied to our realization that our ‘neighborhood,’ that Christ commands us to love, extends well beyond our family, our community, or our nation.  For students and faculty alike to live into that mission, it helps to have a compelling story to share – a story promoting dignity, justice, equity, and compassion for all God’s people. Through the Portal to the World program, faculty teams bring back compelling stories that connect Hope College’s mission with people and institutions in 10 different countries, on three continents.”

As for some of the faculty members, they say their two-to-three week Hope Portal to the World experience has helped them. Here’s how:

Dr. Stephen Scogin’s view from Shanghai Tower, currently the second tallest building in the world.

“Chinese hospitality and their attention to detail were impressive. Most of us were strangers to our hosts, yet they showed us the utmost kindness and received us as friends. In addition, every detail was coordinated, and this helped us focus on developing relationships with our counterparts at the various universities and finding common interests for scholarship. I am hopeful that these relationships will lead to future student exchanges between Hope College and Chinese colleges/universities as well as educational research that compares learning and affective outcomes between countries.” – Dr. Stephen Scogin, on the “Hope Faculty in China” study tour

Left to right, Aaron Franzen, Stephen Bouma-Prediger, Virginia Beard, Hope alums Rowland and Jan Van Es, and Jack Mulder

“I appreciated hearing from a variety of different people about their experience with Christian faith and Kenyan and African culture.  Several students told of how sometimes too rigid a Christianity can interfere with African culture, and a faculty colleague who was a Catholic nun related how often a too-relaxed attitude toward African traditions on the part of some African and Church authorities can interfere with development efforts inspired by the Gospel that protect human rights. Overall, I was just impressed with how vibrant the experience of the Christian faith was there.” – Dr. Jack Mulder, on the “Engaging History, Politics, Health, Religion and Ecumenical Higher Education in the Kenyan Context” study tour

Daina Robins at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens

“Focusing on the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome while traveling with a classicist — what could be better?  And that classicist, (Hope professor) Stephen Maiullo, is a wonderful teacher.  On top of that, at every meal all of us on the trip had engaging and stimulating conversations — about the day’s events, pedagogy, politics, religion, you name it. It was a great way to get to better know my colleagues away from Hope. – Daina Robins, on “The Body through Sport, Art and Theatre in Ancient Greece and Rome” study tour

“Food provided one foundation for my learning on this trip. Kimchi on fried rice plus miso soup for breakfast. Three courses of fresh fish at the fish market for lunch, including squid that squirted its ink as the skilled vendor prepared it for the table. Rice crackled and vegetables steamed as the bibimbap arrived, still sizzling, at our table for dinner. Shared meals provided opportunities for cultural immersion and deep conversation with my colleagues.” — Dr. Marla Lunderberg, on “Demystifying Complexities: Exploration into South Korean History, Culture and Sociopolitics study tour

Marla Lunderberg with Chonghee Han and Charles Green in Seoul, South Korea

“Originally being from India and having spent a great deal of time there, it was interesting seeing India through the eyes of colleagues. And the more I see India through the eyes of my colleagues, the more questions I have myself. They raised so many good questions that I sometimes just did not have the answers. So, through this, I’ve learned that maybe we live in this stage of adaptability and flexibility. Not knowing with conviction what we know yet being convinced about it requires both flexibility and adaptability. I mean, I’m not a pushover but at the same time, giving room for intellectual expansion and enrichment is very important. It was lovely just to be able to take this trip and learn even more about myself and India in this way.” — Dr. Annie Dandavati, on leading the “Hope College/Flame University Liberal Arts Collaborative” in Delhi, India

Roger Nemeth, Alyssa Cheadle, Brian Bodenbender, Marcus Fila, Richard Perez and Annie Dandavati in Delhi, India

In the Garden of Research and Learning

It all started because a giant praying mantis crawled up the side of a parked car. That small creature helped spark a big idea because now a new wildflower garden is in full bloom in its first summer in the “backyard” of the Schaap Science Center.

While the garden beautifies another corner of an already-beautiful Hope campus, and while it attracts and supports wildlife in a 13-meter by 5-meter space, it is also producing a primary unique crop. This garden is the foundation for research on curriculum about nature-based learning.

Dr. Vanessa Muilenburg, left, and Hope student Cameryn Veine, right, in Hope’s new wildflower garden

“My colleague Ginny McDonough knows I love insects, and she saw this giant praying mantis on her car one day last year in the Schaap parking lot,” says Dr. Vanessa Muilenburg, entomologist and assistant professor of biology. “We started  talking about the mantis and about where it came from and about that area in back of Schaap. We were observing that it was a kind of desert out there (because of the monoculture of plants formerly there). There’s no habitat for native animals, including insects and pollinators.”

So, Muilenburg decided to do something about it. First, she enlisted the help of members of the Hope’s grounds crew last summer to rip out Schaap’s current backyard groundcover – Liriope spicata, or lily flower — a non-native, invasive plant which is used in steep areas to control erosion. “We had to bring in a sod cutter because it’s so thick,” she said. “Our grounds crew did a great job to take it out including the whole root system. Occasionally now, a few new liriope plants have popped up over time so we have to watch and pull them out. They can grow just from a little bit of root. That’s why it’s invasive.”

The long process of cultivating, planting, waiting, tending and then watching a garden grow has birthed more than colorful blooms this summer; it bore a habitat for pollinators, insects and other small animals that nourish the area. It also is now bearing elementary-school science curriculum.

By last July, Muilenburg had the ground prepared for future purple and yellow coneflowers, butterfly weed, common milkweed, prairie coreopsis, wild columbine, and golden alexanders. By this spring, 1000 small plants from the Schaap Center greenhouse, as well as from seeds, had taken root and the new plants have been carefully nurtured by sophomore biology major Cameryn Veine. The long process of cultivating, planting, waiting, tending and then watching a garden grow has birthed more than colorful blooms this summer; it bore a habitat for pollinators, insects and other small animals that nourish the area. It also is now bearing elementary-school science curriculum.

“Nature-based learning has shown that it has many, many benefits for children,” said Veine of outcomes such as increased ability for children to attend to task, increased motor skill development, and more varied social and nature interactions. “And there are these new science standards that really encourage young students to act like scientists. That really pairs well with our wildflower garden. So basically, we’re using what we find and observe in this wildflower garden to write kindergarten through fifth grade curriculum.”

Veine and Muilenburg have worked closely with Dr. Stephen Scogin, Hope’s expert on biology education, in creating their nature-based learning curriculum. InnoAcademy in Zeeland is the first to field-test it. Other local schools are welcome to use it, too. Since many schools don’t have the resources to go on field trips to experience nature-based learning, Muilenburg and Veine want to bring it to them in an easy-to-maintain system.

“Native plants have evolved to live here and thrive with no maintenance,” Muilenburg explained. “So, our hope is to establish native plant gardens on schools’ grounds and to provide a curriculum that they can use to investigate scientific questions that they see in their own gardens.”

Metamorphosis in Hope’s garden: Monarch chrysalis to caterpillar to butterfly.

As Veine has conducted most of the observational transects of the garden this summer, she has seen an overwhelming amount of new, thrilling life. Honeybees. Flies. Chrysalis. Caterpillars. Butterflies. The sheer number of monarchs alone has dramatically increased with 89 observed over six-week period, a drastic increase considering they probably weren’t there before. “I have seen the garden grow over time because I started with Dr. Muilenburg in early May,” said Veine, “and it’s so much thicker now. We are even having trouble navigating through it.  So, just being able to see it grow up is pretty cool. I’m pretty proud.”

Pollinators on butterflyweed and prairie coreopsis (left and middle). A baby praying mantis struts its stuff (right).

For Muilenburg, there is great satisfaction in watching wild things grow and live and thrive. That includes the young children who will now come in contact with the curriculum she and her garden colleagues created. It also includes praying mantises that started this whole thing in the first place.

“We’ve observed lots and lots of baby praying mantis out there,” Muilenberg says, grinning with genuine gladness. “That’s been really cool and fun to see this come full circle.”

Photo credits: Vanessa Muilenburg, Cameryn Veine, Greg Olgers, Eva Dean Folkert

Mathematic and Aesthetic Artistry in Lego Form

Dr. Chuck Cusack, associate professor of mathematics and computer science, turns playthings into works of art embedded with his academic expertise. His Lego art show is now on display in the 602 Gallery at Holland Community Hospital through Tuesday, July 30.

“Mondriacci” by Dr. Chuck Cusack

Cusack’s works are unique and approachable — combining his love for combinatorics, the study of finite discrete structures, with algorithms and Legos, into creative abstract pieces of art that draw the viewer in with vivid colors and interesting patterns. He has been constructing Lego art for five years, and three of his works have appeared in ArtPrize — the international art competition held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His current exhibit at the 602 Gallery, organized by the Holland Friends of Art, reveals an artist who has evolved from a very rigid application of mathematics in his work, requiring everything he made to be a direct representation of a mathematical object, to one that has been inspired by Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers. The results have “loosened up” Cusack’s creativity as he now sometimes chooses the aesthetic over the mathematical, even using the underside of Legos to show off their unique artistic lines and order.

“Under” by Dr. Chuck Cusack

 “When I began, it was all about math and representing math using Lego. In a lot of my work people may not ever actually realize that there’s some structure to it other than the overall rectangles and colors,” Cusack says. “As people saw my art, particularly several people at ArtPrize a couple years ago, they would mention other artists’ names. I would look up those artists to see why people were mentioning these then. Mondrian is one that stuck out to me. I liked his work, but it was not very mathematical. But I thought, let’s just try something new and so I did a Mondrian-like Lego art and really liked it. I started doing ones that were more like Mondrian’s work but included some math in them.”

The works that Cusack creates do not come from a Lego kit found at your local retailer. Instead, his materials are methodically tracked down on the internet to meet his exact requirements. Between conceiving his idea, working out the math, ordering the Legos, sorting the Legos and finally creating the Lego art, Cusack says he can work up to 20 hours on a more complicated 13”x13” creation. For this second work in ArtPrize three years ago — a 6’x10’ Lego monstrosity that cost him “as much as a small new car” in materials — he cannot even begin to estimate its time value. What he can say though is that over the years, Cusack has purchased, handled and placed hundreds of thousands of Lego pieces. And he never uses glue.

“My works are vulnerable without glue but I prefer it that way,” he explains. “I’ve got to know exactly what I want to do and a lot of times I don’t and I want to pull them off. But more than anything, it seems wrong to use glue. It’s Lego. It’s meant to be removable.”

“Yes It Is” by Dr. Chuck Cusack

While there are 35 of Cusack’s works on display at Holland Community Hospital, several of his pieces are also hanging on Hope’s campus. His first ArtPrize piece called “Latin Square Squared” can be found outside the office of the dean for the natural and applied sciences in the Schaap Science Center. It is a 38”x38” grid constructed from many squares, each of different sizes and each of which is what is called a Latin square: every cell is a certain color (or shape or number) and every row and every column contains each color exactly once (like Sudoku). In VanderWerf Hall’s first floor computer science lab, Cusack takes a turn at participation art. “Yes It Is” is an orange-and-blue puzzle. To Hope fans, the colors alone may draw the viewer in. To computer science students, the work could pique their academic interest and, with a lot of work, increase their art collection, too. 

“If someone can decode the message in ‘Yes It Is,’ they get it,” Cusack says. “Decoding it requires a Vigenere cipher, shift cipher, understanding a magic square, debugging code, some sort of binary representation, and maybe a rotation here or there, not necessarily in that order.”

I hope the viewer will see that there is the beauty inherent in mathematics, and that serious art can be created using mathematical concepts and a very simple medium.”

In the 602 Gallery, those who see his art do not need any understanding of math or computer science to appreciate Cusack’s colorful and creative work, though knowing that a deeper level of artistic intention exists in them makes their creation that much more impressive. “I hope the viewer will see that there is the beauty inherent in mathematics, and that serious art can be created using mathematical concepts and a very simple medium,” he says. “And I hope that viewers will come away from the show inspired to create their own art using whatever medium they find the most interesting and taking inspiration from whatever they are passionate about.”

An artist reception will be held on Friday, July 12 from 6-8 p.m. in the lower level lobby of Holland Community Hospital (green entrance). Cusack’s exhibit will be on display until Tuesday, July 30. Gallery hours are 24/7.

Dance + Civil Engineering = Senior Andrew Niedbala

From his hometown of Sterling Heights, Michigan, to Hope, to Australia, to France, and then back to Holland, Michigan, Andrew Niedbala has been dancing his way around the world for a few years now as a dance major. But dance is not the only thing this senior does. He also majors in civil engineering.

It’s an academic combination rarely put together. One an art form, the other an applied science. But Niedbala couldn’t see doing one without the other. As a double major in each, he pursues two creative passions and taps into each side of his brain. And as he does, in many ways, his two seemingly-opposite pursuits become more similar than different.

“They are both creative fields and force you to deal with the physical reality of the things around you and within you.”

“Both fields ask you to solve problems and there is a lot of gray area,” Niedbala says. “However, they feed off of each other very nicely, allowing creativity from dance’s freedom into engineering and the more concrete problem-solving of engineering into dance. They are both creative fields and force you to deal with the physical reality of the things around you and within you.”

Niedbala landed at Hope College in the fall of 2015 planning to major only in engineering while continuing to feed his love for dance through co-curricular opportunities. “That’s the nice thing about Hope,” he says. “Even if you don’t major or minor in something, you can still take those classes.”

In Strike Time

The switch from a single major to a double major happened about halfway through his college career. Being involved in Strike Time Dance Co. — Hope’s interactive performance group for children — and H-2 Dance Co. — Hope’s pre-professional repertory group — Niedbala began to face a reality he didn’t initially see coming. He wanted more from dance than he was getting solely as an engineering major. Performing for children created a new passion that hadn’t existed to him before.

“There is something so genuine about performing for a young audience,” Niedbala says. “With an audience familiar with dance, there are expectations of what the art is supposed to look like, but with children, you can just move for movement’s sake and witness the wonder in their eyes.”

In Dance 45

Niedbala’s favorite dance performance, though, came while performing in Dance 45 this past spring. In “Chair Study Two,” choreographed by Hope dance professor Linda Graham, he was challenged and inspired. The piece is performed while moving on or around two chairs in complete unison and interaction with a partner.  The nuanced and stimulating artistry in this piece captivated Niedbala as he worked to perfect connected movement, making two bodies seem unified and cohesive in opposite chairs.

As a result of all his dance world exposure and dedication (he also performed with Strike Time in Australia), Niedbala has proved himself in the dance department to be immensely gifted to his craft.

This Coldwater home where Niedbala worked on his senior engineering project.

Andrew celebrates the opportunity to take in knowledge and ways of knowing,” says dance professor Nicki Flinn. “His openness and inquiry is evident in all he does. Andrew’s work ethic and drive to make connections among subject areas, while sharing different perspectives, makes teaching and learning with him fun.”

Aside from his dance companies and dance classes, Niedbala has another major project on the other side of campus in the engineering department. As a civil engineering major, he has been working on his senior project which involves creating systems of energy optimization in a 1940s house in Coldwater, Michigan.

Civil engineers conceive, design, build, supervise, operate, construct, and maintain infrastructure projects and systems in the public and private sector. The goal then of Niedbala’s project was to make the Coldwater house more energy efficient without changing the structure of the home so as to keep its historical build and character. From working with solar panels to geothermal energy, Niedbala and his group have offered solutions to make this house more efficient and sustainable as possible.

Niedbala, right, and his civil engineering team in Coldwater

Andrew is very easy-going but at the same time a very hard worker,” says Dr. Courtney Peckens, assistant professor of engineering. “It is a lot of work to balance two majors, especially with one of them being engineering, but he makes it look relatively easy.”

And Peckens was often reminded that Niedbala was fully engaged in both. How?

“One of the things that I will remember most about Andrew is that he always carries around a rather large container of water which probably holds at least 30 ounces,” she recalls. “Maybe this is a typical thing for dancers, but it is a fairly unique accessory for engineers. I taught him every day for two years and don’t think that I ever saw him without the same container.”

After graduation on May 5, Niedbala is excited to start studying for the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam in the fall as well as gearing up for summer dance performances in France as part of the Paris May term with Hope College. More auditions of the dancing kind will follow in the near future. As for the engineering kind, Niedbala says he’ll wait and see. Right now, he is eager to set out into the “real” world and engineer a career in dance.

Speaking Spanish for the Community

“Me llamo Kelly. ¿Cuál es su nombre?”

“Soy Juan.”

“¿Juan, cómo está usted?”

“No tan bien.”

“Oh, lo siento, ¿qué pasó?

Junior Spanish and international studies double major Kelly Fuhs is not shy, but she is not forcefully bold either. Rather, she is calmly outgoing, and that trait has helped her use a second language in a meaningful way for a relatively new class. Complete strangers have become new friends to Fuhs as she has served others with Spanish outside of Hope’s campus.

Junior Kelly Fuhs at the Community Kitchen

Enrolled in “Spanish for the Community” and serving at the Community Kitchen Free Lunch program hosted by Community Action House at Hope-neighbor Western Theological Seminary, Fuhs recently introduced herself to a middle-aged gentleman named Juan and asked about his day. It was not going well, Juan said. Fuhs’ eyes and voice conveyed concern, and she gently asked Juan why, sliding easily into a chair next to him to begin a Spanish conversation with the Holland resident who was preparing to eat his lunch.  

Juan did most of the talking so Fuhs listened and listened. Often she would nod; occasionally she would interject. When the conversation began to wane, she asked Juan if she could pray for him.

,” he said.

Oh Dios, ayuda a Juan….” Fuhs started.

“Spanish for the Community” is a 300-level course created and offered by Dr. Berta Carrasco, assistant professor of Spanish, for its second time ever.  It gives students the opportunity to apply their Spanish skills in various interpersonal and organizational ways with Holland-area charitable organizations like the Community Kitchen, Community Action House, the Holland Free Health Clinic, and Holland Community Health Clinic. In doing so, students gain enhanced language ability, confidence and a sense of purpose.

“Basically, I came in thinking I was going to be serving food,” Fuhs explains. “But since there was a lot of volunteers to do that already, I help with translating menus and the code of conduct policies in Spanish. But most of the time, I just come in and talk to people and hear about their days and their lives and just kind of go from table to table listening to people.”

So, why is that meaningful for Fuhs?

“Every time I walk into this place, I’m welcomed,” says Fuhs, who hopes to work for a non-profit organization someday. “Everyone treats me like family and they’re like family as well. They all want to talk. Getting to sit down and hear about their lives and about their struggles and joys and just getting to pray with them and really have that small time to experience life with them, it’s an honor honestly. People just want to be heard. I didn’t come in here thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to save people.’ I have a lot to learn from them.”

Dr. Berta Carrasco

Carrasco created the class for students like Fuhs because she wanted to fill a gap. While there are plenty of Spanish offerings in literature and culture in the Hope curriculum, there was not a practical offering that engaged Hope students in the Holland community, which is 38% Latino. “Our courses are dynamic, but we needed a class that goes into the community,” the professor says.

Students spend the first five weeks of the semester in the classroom discussing (always in Spanish) what it means to serve, why they want to serve, how complicated and difficult it can be. They also learn about interpersonal communication styles in the Latino culture, how to be cognizant of direct vs indirect communication, such as how to “read” body language and vocal tones. Then, for the rest of the semester, for six hours a week, they speak Spanish in the community.

“Our students have worked for years on their Spanish,” the professor says, “and with this class, they can use it immediately outside the classroom. They have ways to use a tool they’ve worked really hard on right now for good use.”

“Their job is not writing a lot of academic papers but that doesn’t mean this class is not rigorous,” Carrasco says. “It’s rigorous in a different sense. This requires students to go outside of the box and be okay with being uncomfortable, be okay with mistakes and be okay with someone who is feeling great, and someone who is not.”

“I love taking literature classes and learning more about the technique of the language, but there’s something really special about being able to take a class to learn skills about how to communicate with people within the culture and then interact and actually do it,” Fuhs confirms.

Rebekah Rainwater, right, and a client of the Holland Free Clinic.

Senior classmate Rebekah Rainwater concurs. She is a Spanish major on a pre-physical therapy track and as such, she is grateful for learning how to succeed in intercultural communication, especially since she hopes to work in health-care settings with a wide range cultures, races and socioeconomic statuses.

“Working at the Holland Free Health Clinic for this class has showed me how to accommodate for those patients who do not speak English, who cannot read, and who have had little to no formal education,” Rainwater says.  “As a future health care provider, I will need to continue to practice the skills which I am developing now in order to successfully serve my patients.”

With those words, Carrasco knows her teaching objectives are being met. She wants her students to know that their language skills are useful now, not just some nebulous time out in the future and not just away from campus on a study abroad trip.

“Our students have worked for years on their Spanish,” the professor says, “and with this class, they can use it immediately outside the classroom. They have ways to use a tool they’ve worked really hard on right now for good use.”

Memory and Music: Andrew Le’s Sabbatical Story

When Dr. Andrew Le says he spent his fall 2018 sabbatical “learning” a series of piano pieces, what he really means is that he memorized them.

“It’s tradition in not just classical music but especially in solo piano playing that one presents the music from memory,” said Le, associate professor of music. “Ultimately memorization helps me to communicate my music without a barrier — that barrier being the score, the music score in front of me. There’s nothing between me and the piano, and there’s nothing between the piano and the audience.”

So, what music did he learn (read: memorize), exactly? Well, there’s Book 1 of Claude Debussy’s Préludes, which he learned — from the opening notes to the end of the score some 50 minutes later — and performed in Madrid. And then slightly embarrassed that he had played only French music while in Spain and wanting to remedy the faux pas, he learned a piano suite, Goyescas, by Spanish composer Enrique Granados. Plus, he learned works by Eddie Mora and the Piano Concerto in G major by Maurice Ravel.

All told, Le memorized more than 80 minutes of music, some of which he says are among the most technically difficult pieces for the piano. Two in particular — the pieces by Granados and Ravel — he called “disorienting” for a pianist.

Granados’ Goyescas, Le said, “turned out to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever played in my life. It’s really thick — the textures are thick, and it almost sounds at times that it’s meant to be played with three or four hands, not just two. To transcend the technical difficulties to make it sound easy was quite the challenge.

“It was almost as if Granados didn’t care about how the pianist would feel,” he continued. “It was just all about the music and what it would take to write music that rapturous, even if it meant sounding like it had to be played with four hands.”

And Ravel? “His imagination and soundscape stretched the limits of what people at the time thought instruments could do,” Le said. “This concerto has a lot of interesting textures and technical challenges that are not just hard to play but also make it an exciting visual performance. ”

Plus, at 22 minutes long, the piece stretches the performer’s focus and endurance.

“Ultimately memorization helps me to communicate my music without a barrier — that barrier being the score, the music score in front of me. There’s nothing between me and the piano, and there’s nothing between the piano and the audience.”

In addition to his chamber and solo performances in Madrid, Le also performed in Arlington, Texas, and Grand Rapids, Michigan. But he says the most nerve-wracking of his performances was one he gave after his sabbatical, right here at Hope College, on January 12, 2019.

Listen to Dr. Le’s January 12 recital:

Performing in front of his students, colleagues and administrators — the people who look up to him and rely on him — makes him more nervous than other performances. They’re also the most special: “I get to play in a place I love for people I love, and in a place where I’m comfortable being myself and being one with Christ by way of performing on stage,” he said.

One element of the January 12 performance made it particularly impactful. While introducing his pieces, Le felt spontaneously compelled to dedicate his performance of Ravel in memory of Jonathan Hagood. Hagood died on September 18, 2018; at the time, he was serving as chair of the music department.

“The day I learned that Jonathan passed away, I was deeply lost,” Le said. “The only thing that gave me remote comfort was to go to the piano and play the second movement of this concerto. It has always been to me the most beautiful thing ever written, so I just played it over and over that day. I think of Dr. Hagood every time I play this piece, so I dedicated the performance in memory of him, and that gave me the strength to get through it, the focus and the purpose.”

In the end, Le says the entire sabbatical is “a gift that I don’t take for granted.”

In addition to his performances, Le also recorded and released an album of Debussy’s complete Etudes for solo piano, timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.

In the end, Le says the entire sabbatical is “a gift that I don’t take for granted.” Not only does he have the chance to learn and perform at an unusually productive level, but it refreshes and rejuvenates him for the daily work that he loves so much.

“Teaching is incredibly important to me,” he said. “Being able to share my talents and proffer what I can to the next generation of Christians and students and piano students and Christian piano students — such gifts are to be shared. I can’t keep them to myself.”