(This article was published in the Spring 2014 issue of Micah Mandate - written by Isaiah Fish.)
When President Dan Boone first came to Trevecca in 2005, he walked onto a campus that was seemingly hesitant about the local neighborhoods of Chestnut Hill and Napier-Sudekum.
Now, eight years after Boone’s arrival on campus and five years after the establishment of the J.V. Morsch Center for Social Justice, living and working in these neighborhoods is part of the mission of the university.
For Boone, a major first step was a change in how the school viewed its neighborhood. He quickly recognized that opportunities for education and field placement were found in the immediate vicinity of the school.
“We are no longer going to apologize for our neighborhood. We’re going to turn it into our classroom,” Boone says as he looks off into the neighborhood from the patio of the Hardy Alumni Center.
Trevecca is located half of a mile down Murfreesboro Pike from the J.C. Napier Homes and Tony Sudekum Apartments, consistently rated two of the poorest of Nashville’s public housing communities.
The 16,040 people who live in these homes have a median income of $9,000 a year. Ninety-nine percent of the children at nearby Napier Elementary School qualify for free or reduced lunches.
The neighborhood also is located in Council District 19 of Nashville. According to a police summary of crimes for the district for the year 2012 published by the Metro Nashville Police Department, approximately 11.6 percent of all violent crimes in the city occurred in this district. To put this into perspective, of the 7,709 violent crimes committed during the year, 895 were from District 19.
It’s in these conditions that Boone and fellow leaders at Trevecca are seeking to embrace the communities while trying to understand what true Kingdom living looks like for the school.
“We need to move our education as much into the center of the world as we can. The more hands on we can make it, the more un-cloistered we can make the educational experience, the more like the church that we are in that sense,” Boone said.
It is not just about community service for Boone. Putting students in the real world while they are still in college can help shape their education and vocational training in powerful ways, he said.
“How can our footprint in Chestnut Hill and Napier-Sudekum homes improve the education that we give to our students?”
That’s the question that Boone wants all majors and departments to ask themselves.
During the last 10 years, the school has increasingly become more participatory in engaging its community. The graduate physician’s assistant program is involved at a walk-in clinic at nearby Mercury Courts. Social justice majors are tending neighborhood gardens that dot the community. Students in both graduate and undergraduate education programs are active in the local schools.
Students are exposed to dozens of local community organizations that seek to build relationships with the school’s neighbors such as KidPOWER, an after school program for students who attend Napier Elementary. Trevecca students also served in the immediate aftermath of the historic 2010 floods in Nashville which devastated parts of Napier.
Furthermore, the beginning of every year is marked by a freshmen service day during which new students are dispatched into the neighborhood to clean Browns Creek, work in the community gardens and pick up trash in the neighborhood’s public spaces, ensuring that freshmen are exposed to the reality of the area around them.
The main anchor of Trevecca’s community involvement is the Center for Social Justice.
The center was established five years ago, and administrators initially faced scrutiny for using the term “social justice,” which can be a political buzzword.
Nevertheless, Boone stands by the name of the center.
“The church had the term ‘social injustices’ a long time before Rush Limbaugh got a hold of it, so I refuse to give up on that term,” he said. “When a college generation wants to change their world, they often Google ‘social justice.’ I want them to find us in that mix, because if there are not Christian understandings of social justice available for a younger generation, then they may well choose some of the forms of social justice that I don’t believe are fully redemptive, that stop short of empowering the neighbor.”
Christian organizations often have a reputation of filling a temporal need such as an empty stomach or patching a roof, but there is a failure in addressing the systematic issues that plague those in need.
“The goal of Christians is not to escape this bad world but the goal of God is to redeem this world. These neighborhoods are the eventual site of the new heaven and the new earth,” Boone said.
All of this service and activity isn’t just for self-gratification or media coverage, Boone says. Instead, participation in the local neighborhoods is irrevocably tied to a proper understanding of God, and thus is qualitatively redemptive.
“We view God more through the lens of love that suffers in the middle of humanity than a God of an iron fist who overpowers evil,” Boone said. “The way of Jesus in the world was the way of suffering love...he laid down his life in service and it was utterly redemptive.”