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Opinion: Prospering Through Living Off-Campus

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I regularly have the opportunity to speak at nearby neighborhood association meetings. Each November, I also am part of the annual “Housing Expo” sessions in the basement of each residence hall where I talk about living off-campus.

In each of these, I highlight what we hope for Calvin students as they live in nearby neighborhoods, namely that they would be a blessing. To be sure, this happens. I hear of some wonderful things about Calvin students from neighbors; for instance, a woman last fall said she loved having Calvin students live beside her.

She said they were respectful and helped her out from time to time with some of her household chores (e.g., raking leaves, shoveling the sidewalk). Just last week, I had a most glorious phone call from a landlord who, so impressed with his Calvin-student tenants, now wants to donate money to the college because of them!

His promise to the students when they moved in last fall was that he would write them each a letter of recommendation at the end of the year and make a financial contribution to the college if they were good tenants. Impressed by them and eager to fulfill his word, he called me asking how to go about making a donation. Wow.

To be sure, the opposite happens as well. Sometimes neighbors contact me to complain about our students’ disrespect in the neighborhood. Perhaps it is loud noises late at night associated with a party, disregard for the appearance of the house and lawn (e.g., not raking leaves, not shoveling the sidewalk) or too many cars parked around the house.

This winter has been particularly troublesome in neighborhoods due to too many cars and too little space (due to encroaching snow piles … which also contributed to an unusually high number of damaged driver’s side mirrors!).

I know there is yet a third group, too — those students who live in such a way as to not draw negative attention, put forth energy to get involved or contribute to the neighborhood. These, I would say, are “transients,” content to only see their living off-campus as temporary, such that they choose not to invest. They may not be doing harm, but they are also not doing good to the neighborhood.

Whenever I have a chance to speak to students about living off-campus, I highlight the foundational document that gives vision for what we long for as our students live off-campus. Titled “Shalom in the Neighborhood,” it was developed by the Student Life Committee a few years ago to lay the underpinning for what we want for Calvin students who live off-campus.

“Shalom” is not an unfamiliar word to us here. It is a word of beauty, not just in the way it sounds audibly, but for what it means — fundamental flourishing, justice, right relationships. It isn’t just existing; it is causing things to thrive.

The “Shalom in the Neighborhood” document references a fitting passage from Jeremiah 29 with these words, “seek the welfare of the city.” These are weighty words from God to his people. Note that they are not written as a suggestion as in, “if you have time to,” or “if you wouldn’t mind trying to,” but as a directive.“Seek the welfare of the city.”

Seek: this is an active word. It means to look for opportunities. It implies paying attention to the life of the neighborhood, the city. It means being alert, attentive and paying attention.

Welfare: the implication here is that we should bring blessings, not curses, to the city. We should add rather than subtract. Like a summer camp cabin, it should be left in better shape than when we arrived. This takes work. This takes time. This takes energy. And there is an important focus to this welfare: the city.

City: interestingly, the attention here isn’t on the individual and certain rights, but on the city. Sure, it is the right of off-campus residents to have a party at their house to celebrate with their friends, but what happens when there is a collision between one’s rights and neighborhood responsibilities?

Sadly, we often focus less on the welfare of the city than our own welfare, less on others’ rights and more on our own.

It is interesting what God says next in Jeremiah 29 (v.7b), “Pray to the Lord for [the city], because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

For those currently living off-campus and for those considering it for next year, let’s live into these words so as to be a blessing to our neighbors. Our prospering depends on it.

Perhaps, because of Calvin College students living in neighborhoods, we move little by little to this hope-filled vision from Zechariah 8, where “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”

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