This weekend I went to Houghton College to participate in the Homecoming Weekend festivities. It was a much-needed escape from the hectic and hustled life of Washington, DC, particularly in the midst of the government shutdown conflict and the impending debt ceiling crisis. The drive up consisted of a small stretch of Maryland, then the entire length of central Pennsylvania, which is especially beautiful in early October. The trip concluded with a drive through the Southern Tier of western New York, which is a rural and oft-forgotten portion of the state. I miss the rural beauty of western New York. I have not been to Houghton since Homecoming 2010, which was also the year I graduated. While having loads of fun talking to old professors and classmates, watching athletic events, enjoying good food (seriously!), and exploring old sites, several things in particular stood out to me:
(1) I’m a very different person from the one who was there in 2010.
Following graduation in May 2010, I had nothing lined up and had to move back in with my parents in PA, and work various menial blue collar jobs. Specifically, when I visited Houghton in October 2010, I was delivering pizza and working the graveyard shift in a metal fabrication plant, with no immediate way out. Those were some of the most miserable days of my life in recent memory. Fast forward to now, I’ve been living in DC since January 2011, and I have a job that very much fits my temperament, which I’ve been working at for nearly 2 1/2 years. Back then I was miserable, angry, and sometimes downright hopeless. Now I’m fairly confident, generally happy, and yet still nostalgic about my days there.
(2) A lot has changed at Houghton since I was last there.
Numerous professors and staff members have left; some have been replaced, some have not. One of the ones who is no longer there is Dr. Benedict, my international relations professor and my academic adviser. Several buildings have been remodeled, most notably the science building, and the basement of the campus center, which was almost unrecognizable. And the student body was completely new. There may be a few remaining 5th-year seniors who were freshmen during my senior year, but otherwise, all new. I felt extremely, shall we say, mature this time around.
(3) Not much has changed at Houghton since I was last there.
Considering all that I mentioned above, it’s remarkable how much life there appears to go on exactly the way it did when I was there. The soccer games are lively as ever, complete with Shen Block (the guys from the dorm Shenawana Hall dress in outrageous costumes and scream and play drums and other instruments). In chapel, people continue to scan in, sit down, then stand up when the organ starts playing. President Mullen gives announcements and orations in her extremely unique style. People congregate in the campus center and on the quad, and leave their backpacks and laptops at the bottom of the steps to go up to the cafeteria.
(4) The place has an “innocence” that I took for granted while there, and certainly do not experience where I live now.
Walking around campus for the first time in three years, it all came back to me what a friendly environment it was. At all hours of the day, you walk past a total stranger on the sidewalk and you can expect to get a hearty smile and enthusiastic “Hi!”. While that’s certainly true of most of small town America, I particularly remember it as a staple of life at Houghton. And it used to be exactly what I did as well. Living in DC has made that, well, not so much the case anymore. Here, when you pass a stranger in the street, you keep a vigilant eye out, give a slight smile, and, at best, mumble a quick hi. Of course, a major part of the friendliness at Houghton was that most people knew most everyone else. While that certainly can have its own problems, I nonetheless miss it.
Houghton is also a very “innocent” place as evidenced by the level of collective trust. In the campus center, when people get ready to go up the stairs to the cafeteria, they will leave their coats, backpacks, laptops, and even sometimes wallets just lying there in the open. People leave dorm rooms unlocked, and cars are left unlocked. And it’s done largely without fear. Thefts are rather rare there. I remember a couple of isolated incidents when I was there, and when it happened, it was considered a BIG DEAL. This weekend there, I even had one time where I came back to the car and realized I had left it unlocked, with my laptop and GPS out in the open. A mistake like that can be very costly where I live. Yet it’s largely the norm where I went to school.
(5) I miss the close-knit environment.
Houghton has a definite everybody-knows-everybody feel to it. Members of the faculty, staff, and student body are often friends outside work, and can be seen interacting very amicably at athletic events, dinners, church, and even on weekends. I’m fortunate enough in DC to have a workplace where this is also the case, as my coworkers and I go out to happy hours, exchange funny texts and Facebook posts, and gab sports and other entertaining topics. However, this is in many ways outside the DC norm. Many friends of mine work in jobs that are stimulating, yet with somewhat stifling professional barriers between people. I’m glad I work for an employer that hasn’t taken that aspect away.
(6) I feel there is room for improvement in the way they present one’s relation to “the real world”.
When I went to chapel on Friday, the speaker said some things that sounded great to me when I was a student there but now sound unrealistic to me, having a couple years experience in the real world. The message was what I call a “liberal arts pep talk” in which, although I can’t quite remember the specifics, he basically gave a message of how everyone must find their personal calling, and must find something that truly fits them, and seemed to imply that a career choice should essentially be one’s gameplan for personal growth. This is reflective of a wider trend I observed while a student there, in that there is a bit of an anti-“the system” mentality, where altruism is stressed and it is drilled into students that they should not strictly think about making money. While this is certainly important, I did not feel it reflects 2013 economic realities. I love the job I work at, for instance, but it was never the kind of thing I ever expected to do, and it is not “altruistic” at the surface level, though I’m sure you could figure out ways that it does help people. It seems like a combination of “choose-your-own-career-path” and “save-the-world” mentalities. While not entirely bad things, I don’t consider that paradigm completely beneficial in today’s world.
(7) I remember Houghton fondly because of its importance in broadening my view of the world and in my journey of faith.
Houghton fosters an environment where questioning is encouraged, as is exposure to new ideas. Although overwhelmingly Protestant and majority white, it really does allow exposure to new ideas. I went there as a freshman in fall 2006 as a typical middle class American far-right evangelical. But it’s because of my time there that I no longer view Catholics as hellbound rosary rattlers. Because of my time there I don’t recoil in fear when I pass a black person on the street. Because of my time there I don’t get nauseous when I meet a gay person. Because of my time there I don’t blindly dismiss everything my liberal friends say. My time there helped me discover a longstanding and vibrant evangelical tradition of justice for the downtrodden and care for God’s creation. The emphasis on world cultures helped foster my interest And the semi-liturgical worship of the Wesleyan Church planted the seeds of interest that led me in my journey of faith to Anglicanism.
(8) I think the most notable thing that stood out was this simple truth: Life is fleeting.
Just a few short years ago I was in the middle of Houghton’s campus life: Laughing and eating in the cafeteria, joking with the guys in the dorm, pulling all-nighters writing papers, walking around the quad, intensely taking notes in classes in the Chamberlain Center, and playing flag football on the practice field. Yet I walked through there again this weekend, seeing completely new faces doing all the same things, and I was completely irrelevant to the action, unknown to probably three quarters of the campus, faculty and staff included. It very much brings to mind Ecclesiastes 1: 4-11:
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.
This is a sobering truth. Most things I did while there now have little to no significance to pretty much anyone. It was, in a sense, vanity. However, the author of Ecclesiastes concludes, in 12: 13-14:
13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Everything I do, including while I was at Houghton, must be weighed against the values of the Kingdom of God. And I hope that I will, to the best of my ability, continue to live in a way that reflects this. I believe much of what Houghton instilled in me has enriched that, though far from perfectly. While Ecclesiastes is often interpreted as nihilistic, I believe only insofar as it extends to the context of life on earth; it makes it clear that God has provided us with a sense of eternity (3:11).
It is thus my goal to, by the grace of God, proclaim the news of the Lord Jesus Christ in word and deed, constantly contemplating the values learned both from Houghton and all other stations of life.