Davidson senior, Jonathan Koch, shares the wisdom of Dr. Sam Wells, dean of Duke University Chapel and research professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School. Dr. Wells gave the annual Staley Lecture on “Places of Encounter: Hanging Out Where God Shows Up,” exploring how we can live in a college setting in ways that are at once faithful and critically engaged.
It was 7:20 PM and the 900 room was already abuzz. White-haired residents of the Pines, local clergymen and campus ministers, and surprisingly some Davidson students—you know that we rarely arrive at lectures and events on time, much less early. By 7:30 PM all the chairs were filled, and students swarmed the second-level floor, poking their heads and legs out from between the railings. Then a man with a bald spot, dressed in an unassuming, brown corduroy suit took the podium.
Dr. Wells was at Davidson for just over twenty-four hours, but by the time of his 2011 Staley Lecture, word had spread about him. Throughout his day full of lectures, forums, and meals with students, he had been unafraid to challenge Davidson about how we think of service, leadership, and relationships.
A few moments from his day exemplify the man and his message:
- At lunch with students, he challenged Davidson’s concept of service. Service, he said, is not about working for some cause, it is about working with somebody. We can learn about ourselves, form lasting relationships, and most importantly encounter God by spending time with the so-called “poor of the world.” Dr. Wells loved Davidson’s idyllic campus, but questioned our commitment to welcoming the marginalized—socially, economically, racially, religiously—people of the world. It is with these people that Jesus spent his time, and it is in these people that we most vividly see God.
- In his lecture, Dr. Wells outlined how a typical pastoral visit works. While only a sliver of Davidson students will become pastors, the depth of listening, understanding, and loving that characterizes the pastoral visit can be translated into all professions and every interaction. As the title of the lecture (Places of Encounter: Hanging out Where God Shows up) suggests, it is in such encounters that God shows up.
- Perhaps the most applicable message for Davidson was one that Dr. Wells repeated throughout the day: the need to turn experiences into wisdom. For our whole lives we’ve been taught to quantify experiences: how many service trips you take, how many clubs you are in, how many books you read, how many leadership roles you are in, the list goes on. It’s the resume packing with which we are so familiar at Davidson. Dr. Wells challenged us to process these experiences: to stop and grapple with what the experience has taught us, to write the 15-20 page reflection on our service trip to Haiti, to meditate on the reading you did for class or the conversation you had with a professor, to allow all the things we do to percolate in our minds and turn into wisdom. Are we paying Davidson $40,000 a year for a really great list of experiences? Or are we seeking after wisdom in all that we do?