Every spring, my wife, Sarah, and I take part in a strange process called Selection Sunday. We, the mentors of six Project Neighborhood houses, gather to choose which students will live with us for the next school year. Project Neighborhood is an intentional Christian community program for Calvin College students. Emily Colledge, a 2nd year M.Div. student like me, mentors one of the other houses. The students who live with us commit to developing community through weekly meals, devotions, a house meeting, chores, and community service. Every year, I am amazed at how little we know about those who come to live with us, and how much we depend on the Holy Spirit to gather people together and form them into a community.
We know so little about the students, even though the application process asks them many questions. Earlier in the year, we had read through their applications, scrutinized the video of their interviews, and accepted students to the overall program. After that, we gathered them together to observe how they interacted with one another and we mentors told them about our lifestyles and passions. The students filled out a form that asked about their housing preferences, personal rhythms, and roommate requests. Then we met for Selection Sunday, the day we place them in houses.
This would never work if we didn’t bathe the whole process in prayer. The Holy Spirit feels present as we put their photos on the wall with a few brief details to remind us of their application. We pray for wisdom, knowledge, and discernment. We try to account for their preferences for houses and neighborhoods and our own gut feelings about which students might fit well with us. We know so little, and yet we hope so much for how living in community might shape them.
The stakes are high. These students will live with us for nine months, getting to know each other’s silly quirks and character flaws. I will be annoyed at their crumbs left on the counter. They will be annoyed when I bring it up. We may have conflict over how to engage our neighbors. Sarah and I may be frustrated at their frequent absences and lack of interest in their housemates.
The potential payoff is high, too. After a long day of work, I may come home to a meal of soup and fresh bread made by a student. We may comfort a student whose grandparent dies, visit another in the hospital, and listen to the heartbreak of a relationship lost. Over dishes, the student tells me about their classes and dreams for work after graduation, and I listen with a prayerful heart. When we were burdened with grief, they listened and we prayed for each other. They took care of chores and other work when we were gone for my brother-in-law’s funeral.
On Selection Sunday, we mentors listen to each other and to ourselves as we give witness to what we feel deep down. When all the students are placed in our houses, we pause and pray for a few days. I know also to hold these students lightly, as things change quickly—a student drops out of the program in the summer, or a mentor suggests moving some students around.
When fall comes, the new students move in and the process of community formation starts. We love the surprises that emerge, like finding out that two students grew up on farms. Another student—the one we were unsure about—draws people together with interesting questions, both silly and deep. We remember how much and how little we knew about these students. God affirms my pastoral calling in relationship with other people, as we listen to each other and share our lives together. The Holy Spirit has been working to bring these students here, long before our applications and meetings, and will continue long after they’re gone.
James is an M.Div. student at Calvin Seminary and Project Neighborhood Mentor for Calvin College.