Carrying it forward
Alvin Lingenfelter, Assistant Professor of Religion, says his introduction to the concept of service came early.
"My journey as a servant-leader honestly started with my parents," he says. "My dad was a hard-working, blue-collar kind of guy who would get me off the couch and out from in front of the television."
Lingenfelter and his parents worked in their neighborhood and community, often doing hands-on projects. Although he's sure he complained about it a lot as a teenager, he's grateful for those sessions with his mother and father.
"Those are skills and qualities that I want my children to learn and participate in," he says.
But it was his time at Duke University when all the pieces started coming together.
"When I was in graduate school, I was fortunate to have a professor who taught me the importance of the gestures of faith," he says. "These are not just words that we speak, but these are actions that have to take place in our lives. His example and his teaching put me on the road to this concept of praxis, where we don't just talk about a theory but we interact with it and with the process itself."
Teaching servant-leadership is much easier than talking about it, he says.
"You're not just talking about a theory but you are teaching the students a practice – something that they have to learn to do, something they must engage in, an action to perform, a skill to learn. From a religion department perspective, that's easy in that we have students who are in the pulpit or in the classroom or in church areas or in service-related areas. Teaching students to serve is really simply showing them how to serve by working with them."
One of the most important parts of the concept is nurturing people, he says.
"It's kind of an obvious answer in one sense because if you intend to lead a group of people, you have to recognize their needs, you have to be a good listener, you have to participate in the important qualities of their work and recognize them on an individual basis."
He calls the opposite type of leader a "top-down" chief.
"This is someone who is separated from the people, someone who sends information, shoots down orders or makes decrees without any concern about how all the people work – what their needs are and how well they work together," he says. "If we begin with people on the ground level, we know that we're starting at the right place."
Lingenfelter says one of the things integral to what the college does is connect students with opportunities to serve.
"We do that in a number of great ways," he says. "From the very first moment they set foot on campus during First Week, they are involved in service-related projects. From Service Saturdays to service requirements for various clubs and organizations, there are many ways to work."
The college offers opportunities such as the Alternative Spring Break. This year, students traveled to El Salvador for a week to work with a church there.
"Then there are the chances on campus, such as the garden, where they can work with their hands and have an impact on local agencies that need food," he says. "But more than that, our students are learning skills to help them become better servant-leaders, and that is ultimately what we're hoping for."
Lingenfelter plans to head back to El Salvador in January 2013 to take 12 students and faculty to Ahuachapán and San Salvador. The El Salvador Immersion course will involve a three-week full cultural and educational engagement that involves working with and for the El Salvadoran people through a partnership with the United Methodist Church of El Salvador and a number of other local service, educational and medical agencies.
LaGrange College students will volunteer in local medical clinics and public health agencies, spend time mentoring children from community support organizations, and serve the mission and work of the local churches in the country.
Students will spend a portion of the time fine-tuning language skills with the majority of their time in direct service work.
"The opportunity to work so deeply with a community and move beyond simply talking about a group of people can build genuine relationships and a truly transformative experience," Lingenfelter says. "It's our hope that this extended Jan Term course is another positive step toward long-term, global engagement for our students."