Ten years ago, we published a newsletter article about a new, unique community that was just getting started at Western Theological Seminary. Did you ever wonder whether it “worked?” Keep reading to find out!
by Matt Floding, Director of Ministerial Formation, Duke Divinity School and board member of Friendship House Partners
On May 7, 2018, Friendship House in Holland, MI, at Western Theological Seminary will see its first group of friend residents walk across the commencement stage. They will be taking their first steps into their next experience of independent and interdependent living. For ten years they and their parents have been planning for this day and the whole seminary community will celebrate their growth and accomplishments. As a group they have many.
Each of the six friend residents have been engaged in meaningful employment in Holland businesses and important volunteer commitments throughout the community including churches, the seminary and Hope College. It’s easy to celebrate these. But, as important, maybe more so has been the gift of friendship each has offered their successive groups of roommates. The grace of belonging in a community that is built around the pillars of “Eat together, Pray together and Celebrate together!” has proven to be transformative.
“My child has just blossomed”—a parent
“My child is proud of himself. He is proud of who he is and what he can achieve and accomplish”—a parent
“I have experienced unconditional love and acceptance from my roommate. I now understand God’s love in a whole new way.”—a student
“Living in Friendship House will break down any prejudices, any preconceived notions that you have about persons with disabilities.”—a student
The transformation has included transformation of the seminary. Western Theological Seminary now offers a Certificate in Disabilities Studies, led by Dr. Benjamin Conner. Friend residents participate in many parts of the seminary’s life, including the classroom. Dr. Thomas Boogaart writes of Amanda’s participation in a Hebrew class.
“I thought we could accommodate her [in the interactive Hebrew class]. What I did not realize at the time was how much she would contribute to everyone’s learning, how the classroom would become a place where societal barriers between people of various abilities would temporarily break down…Amanda’s presence and that of the Friendship House are challenging all of us to reflect more deeply on what it means to be the community Jesus desires us to be.”
All community takes work to experience growth. A live-in Residence Director communicates with all six of the apartments to check in with each resident and to coordinate schedules so that eating together, praying together and celebrating together happens.
“It was difficult at first because I had never associated with someone with a disability before”—a student
“I learned it was OK to ask questions. We have much more in common than I ever would have known.”—a student
But the risk and the work have been worth it. As one friend resident put it, “It’s a great place to live. There should be more in the world!”
There should be more Friendship Houses in the world. The good news is that it has begun to happen during the last ten years. A non-profit, Friendship House Partners, was formed to help groups imagine a Friendship House in their community and to encourage and coach them through the process.
The second Friendship House launched five years ago when I transitioned from Western Theological Seminary to Duke Divinity School. Shortly after that, Dr. Jaco Hamman, who had moved to Vanderbilt Divinity School, led a non-profit to create two Friendship Houses with numbers three and four on the way. Mark 2 Ministries in Newberg, OR has partnered with George Fox University to open its first (of 6!) Friendship House.
Next summer, Scott Cameron, M.D. and a Duke Divinity school graduate who lived in Friendship House, will open a Friendship House in Fayetteville, NC, that has partnered with a Presbyterian church and three Universities to offer Friendship House to its medical students and nurses as a residential option.
Several other groups around the U.S. and Canada are in conversation with Friendship House Partners. We hope that the experience of God’s love that transforms in community through Friendship House will continue to expand to many more communities. That’s something to celebrate!
You can learn more about Friendship Houses at friendshiphousepartners.com.