WALLS, DOORS, TABLES 

What makes a house a house? Mark VanderWerf MEd ’17 leads with this question in Christian Worldview, a class he teaches to seniors at Grand Rapids Christian High School, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 

In the lesson, students brainstorm about the metaphor of a house as it relates to civic engagement, an idea from the work of theologian Matthew Kaemingk. Walls give a house stability and security, while doors open it to the neighborhood, community, and world beyond. Yet, if a house has only walls, then no one can leave or enter. And if a house leaves all its doors ajar, then it functions without order. The two essential structural elements are rendered useless without one another. 

The lesson is part of The Civic Hospitality Project, an initiative begun by app professors Kevin den Dulk and David Smith in 2018, with the support of the Issachar Fund. The project’s development also included Matthew Kaemingk, app professor Micah Watson, and a team of four educators who wrote and piloted lessons in Christian school classrooms. The goal of the project is to help “students grow in love of neighbor as they participate in civic spaces and processes” (civichospitality.com/about). 

In VanderWerf’s class, students read Kaemingk’s article “The Refugee Crisis and the Politics of Holy Week” (2018) and learn that, politically speaking, conservatives tend to emphasize walls—structure, order, boundary-setting, while liberals tend to emphasize doors—openness, welcome. An either-or approach to civic life, however, is ineffective. A functioning house needs both structure and welcome. 

The lesson leads to a new question: What makes a house a home? The answer: a table. 

CHRISTIAN HOSPITALITY 

The Civic Hospitality Project’s approach to civic engagement rests on this image of a table, a space where people gather to have their basic needs for nourishment and fellowship met. Scripture, says VanderWerf, who is also the chaplain of Grand Rapids Christian High School, paints a picture of hospitality that is more than “just being inviting or kind.” Biblical hospitality, he says, “is modeled on the nature of God, who makes room for us, often at his own expense.” 

In Romans 12, Paul warns the church not to conform to the patterns of this world. “The patterns we’re living in right now are ones of polarization, arguing against one another, separating into our different camps, dehumanizing those with whom we disagree. Perhaps the message here is don’t conform to that,” VanderWerf says. 

Later in Romans 12, Paul urges his audience to “practice hospitality.” VanderWerf says before he joined The Civic Hospitality Project as one of its curriculum designers, he never thought about the way Paul’s two commands in Romans 12 pair together, but he does now. “Perhaps this is one of the ways in which we are being transformed by the renewing of our minds,” he says, “by living out a costly, God-mirroring way of making room for others.” 

MELDING THE PRIVATE AND PUBLIC

Kelli Kortman Boender ’14, MEd ’17, a teacher and instructional coach at app Christian High School in Grandville, Michigan, says people often think of civic engagement as how they live in public spaces, while hospitality is something practiced in private settings. But the term civic hospitality high- lights the ways the outside world collides with individual lives and beliefs. 

“I want my students to see how the public and private sphere cannot be separate. Jesus models this in the gospels over and over, where he invites people to a meal, so into a private space, and they’re talking and getting to know each other, being vulnerable. And the people on the outside are looking in and saying, ‘Who would dine with these sinners?’ I think that’s the kind of adversity we often shy away from.” 

VanderWerf, too, speaks of healthy communities that effectively live out their Christian faith in the public sphere. He says, “It’s what world-transformative Christianity ought to look like. And not in a power-play move where Christianity gets the upper hand, but instead, where Christianity offers an open hand of hospitality.” 

THE SECRET THIRD OPTION 

That open hand of hospitality is something Boender’s students have come to call “the secret third option,” or “the Jesus option.” The Civic Hospitality Project’s lessons, she says, are designed to facilitate what she calls “aha moments,” times when students pause to con- sider an issue from more than one viewpoint. 

“Jesus gives us examples in the gospels where he’s asked an either-or question, and he responds with another question or a story that completely upends the dualistic view of the world the questioner means to enforce.” 

Last year, Boender who, like VanderWerf, helped develop and pilot the project’s content, interspersed lessons into her interdisciplinary course that covers topics in social studies, religion, and literature. “My students saw how the spiritual side and the civic side of them really need to come together for them to be whole. To have them wonder what could be if we were a little more like Jesus, a little more hospitable, was just beautiful,” she says. 

BETTER CITIZENS OF A BETTER WORLD

Both Boender and VanderWerf believe living whole means recognizing God’s design for human interdependence. “If God is a relational God, then we image him in community. We cannot do this in isolation from one another,” VanderWerf says. 

As culture wars continue to play out in schools, however, it is increasingly common for teachers and students to experience burnout, anxiety, and depression. According to a study conducted by the National Education Association (NEA) in 2022, 55% of educators were considering leaving the profession early, citing, among other stressors, the rise of political polarization and its impacts on community relationships and teaching. 

Boender herself admits feeling discouraged by politics the last few years. “I feel like if I have an idea, it’s not welcome, or I’m just being trained to look at a whole group of people as my enemies.” As a teacher, she says, “I could feel bitterness emerging in me.” Joining the team of educators writing and testing The Civic Hospitality Project’s lesson modules changed that. 

“Personally, I’ve seen a lot of fruit in my own heart. I think that matters in the classroom. Students see a teacher who isn’t burned out or caustic, who sees injustice and is energized to do something about it, who helps them to see the world more completely—more as Jesus would want us to view one another.” 

Boender and VanderWerf both emphasize The Civic Hospitality Project isn’t a “plug and play” curriculum. It’s a way to approach any secondary classroom. More than that, it’s a way to approach civic life, generally, a healthy model guiding young Christians toward richer, more meaningful engagement in the public sphere, regardless of differences. 

HOLY CURIOSITY 

That doesn’t mean setting aside strong, personal convictions, especially the ones rooted in Christian worldviews. Instead, it’s a reminder that “the person with whom I most strongly disagree is fearfully and wonderfully made, which ought to bring out in me this profound wonder and awe to want to learn and understand them,” VanderWerf says, quoting Psalm 139. 

When a student makes a heated comment, VanderWerf follows up with a simple phrase: “Tell me more.” He wonders if that question could help reduce tensions during the upcoming U.S. presidential election. “A neighbor puts a sign in their yard: ‘Tell me more. Tell me why you think that.’” 

Maintaining curiosity is itself a way of practicing hospitality, reminding Christians to prioritize the innate dignity of image bearing others, even those they may consider their political enemies. Boender says, “When I’m hospitable, I’m inviting someone in—making space in my heart, in my mind, in my home for who they are and what they think and how I can see God’s image reflected in the way they’re viewing the world. It’s vulnerable and costly to do that.” 

Tension and disagreement are natural products of civic discourse. Extending Christian hospitality to one another, says the project’s co-founder David Smith, “can make space for practicing love even where unity is elusive.” Around a shared table, proximity, curiosity, and seeking to understand can help engaged citizens navigate across deep political differences. VanderWerf and Boender see it in their classrooms: “the Jesus way” bears fruit.