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Prayer and presence in difficult times

Wheaton students, staff and faculty are no strangers to times of difficulty. While publicized events bring to light imperfections on campus, those around us struggle daily through hardships, addictions and hurt. This week, the Record set out to interview student leaders, faculty and staff to seek advice on how the Wheaton community can work together through times of trouble.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Wheaton Record: As a group of men and women on a Christian college campus, how would you recommend seeking a way to better respect one another?

“I think that being very intentional about the language that we use in relationships is the best way to start caring for those around us. One of the worst things that we can do is to use certain language, no matter the intent or heart behind it, that may offend or hurt someone. Be on guard about the language and the humor that you use, and always think of the potential consequences of a statement before you say it.” — Aly Vukelich, EVP for Student Care

“From my perspective, there are two key ways that we can better respect on another as a community. First, I think relationships are key. If all of your friends look and think exactly like you, it’s going to be much more difficult to understand the experiences of minorities on this campus. We have a tendency to want to debate topics and argue our own opinion before listening to the other person. Being quick to listen and slow to speak is a basic principle of good communication, but something we still struggle to do well.
Second, education and awareness as a campus are key to respecting and understanding one another. There are many professors and students that have expertise on things like systemic racism, violence against women and gender issues, and marginalization of minorities. However, it requires intentionality and effort to seek out knowledge of these things, and students in the majority have often failed to understand the experiences of minorities. But I think that this is something Jesus requires us to do. If we don’t care for those that are suffering in our community — even if we are not personally suffering — then how are we living in a way that is any different from communities that are not centered around the gospel?” — Grace Pyo, student body president

WR: For students on campus who are experiencing feelings of distance from God in a season of life that may contain tension, struggles or hurt, what is some advice that you would give them?

“I would invite them to share with me whatever it is with which they are struggling. I would ask them if they would like me to pray with them and I would invite the Holy Spirit to come and comfort and give clarity to my friend. If the person does not want me to pray with them, I would ask them if I could pray for them on my own time. Then I would ask permission to ask them some questions, so I could really understand where they are. Only then would I ask whether they would like advice or whether we could get together again just to talk and pray. James says, be quick to hear and slow to speak. (James 1:19) We reverse these so easily. Don’t try to fix them spiritually.” — Chaplain David McDowell

“Continue to read Scripture and be in community. Do not isolate yourself from the word of truth or from the body. Be obedient because he is worthy. President Ryken does a wonderful job of talking about this.” – Abby Coster, student chaplain

WR: As Christians, what are a few things that men and women on campus can do to help those who are going through difficult times (struggling with addiction, depression/anxiety, victims of crime, victims of bullying, etc.)?

“Don’t ignore them nor try to fix them. Come alongside and just be with them, like Job’s friends did at first. They lamented with him. Maybe you won’t know what to say, so don’t say anything stupid or trite — again, like Job’s friends did when they opened their mouths. It is okay not to know what to say. Maybe you can ask your struggling friend what they would like from you. If they don’t know, tell them it’s okay and just be with them. Speak to others on their behalf — with their permission — if you think they are being treated unjustly or disrespectfully.” — Chaplain David McDowell

“The most important thing is humility. Come alongside others in prayer, naming your need as well as theirs. For close friends, be sensitive to triggers which might make some days harder for them and be present to encourage them in those times. We should remember that all suffering is particular to the individual and ultimately beyond our full comprehension — past experiences, personality differences and contextual factors dictate this. Seek to listen, and not to answer. Open space to mourn alongside others.” — Katie Robinson, female coordinator, Strongholds/LFL

“Don’t try to save people. Be a safe person.” — Drew Boa, male coordinator, Strongholds/LFL

“Listen. Take the time to ask the hard questions and then listen. Do not underestimate the power of being engaged through listening. It’s humbling.” — Abby Coster, student chaplain

“I would encourage students to be lovingly courageous and ask their roommates or friends how they are doing on a heart level and just listen to them.” — Justin Heth, associate dean of Residence Life

WR: For students who want to help their peers, but do not know how, is there anything you would advise them to do or consider?

“Love them by attending to their simple needs — friendship, prayer, kindness — and then maybe they will come to trust you enough to let you help them sort out some of their deeper needs, or maybe recommend someone who can. I remember a student who brought another troubled student to see me. He came not because I’m such a great guy, but because he trusted his friend who trusted me. It reminds me of the four friends who brought their buddy to Jesus. He went because he trusted them and they trusted Jesus. Don’t try to fix people, but bring them to Jesus. He knows how to do it from the inside out.” — Chaplain David McDowell

“Prayer and presence. Be together, be available to them, be patient. Lean into prayer and wait in obedient expectation.” — Abby Coster, student chaplain

WR: For students who are struggling to find trust among those that they live with and around, what advice would you give them?

“Trust is a very difficult topic, especially for people who have had their trust broken by others. To trust others is choosing to risk oneself and be vulnerable. If individuals struggle with trusting others, it is important to start off by taking baby steps. I am not encouraging people to share their innermost hidden secrets during the first conversation, but would encourage people to share a little bit of their story with someone who you think appears or seems trustworthy. There are many trustworthy people in this community who are waiting for a friend and who would love nothing more than to journey with others. I encourage people to take those calculated risks with the hope that a trusted friendship can be formed.” — Justin Heth, associate dean of Residence Life

WR: As a leader on campus, do you have any advice for students who may be struggling with something (thoughts, actions, addictions) but do not know who to contact/do not trust anyone enough to speak up?

“First, seek a wise counselor. I don’t mean a professional counselor — it may end up being that, but seek someone out who, as a person of faith, shows the fruit of the Spirit, someone who seems to have all of the evidence of a mature adult, emotionally and spiritually; seek them out, and disclose (your) questions or (your) concerns about where (you’re) at to that person. That person should, if they’re really, truly wise, be able to step in and say, no, that’s not really addiction. I find I have to do that a lot with many men who come to me and tell me about their pornography viewing. They share with me, and I say, ‘no, that’s not an addiction, this is not over the top. If you’re being completely honest and there’s not more that you’re not telling me, you’re not really an addict. What you really just have is a self-control problem. You’ve confessed that, and now here is the path of repentance.’ On our campus, there’s been a lot of talk about confession, and there’s been very little talk about what repentance looks like. You need to be guided in the path of repentance by someone who is usually older and wiser, sometimes someone who has walked that journey themselves, but other times it may be someone who has a specific skill set or gifting to help you know what does that path of repentance look like.
We need the wise counselors. Frankly, your peers won’t know what the answer is. If you’re just going to your roommate, they’re not going to know what to do. What should they do? They should probably refer you to someone else. If you don’t know any wise counselors, find someone who knows a wise counselor and then send them to that person. Then, that person will be able to sit with you, listen to where you’re at, and give you an assessment of what’s going on, and then help you begin to chart what the next steps are.
I keep an open door policy. I assume that some students know that I’m available for this. I am perfectly comfortable letting the student body know that if they’ve got a question about substance abuse problems or these behavioral problems of gambling or addiction or video games … I don’t want to claim the identity of the wise counselor, but I’m available for students if they do want to have conversations about this, to come and sit in my office — there will be no judgment given, but I’ll try to help bring clarity to the situation and help them know what’s next in their journey.” — William Struthers, professor of psychology

WR: In times of conflict either between groups or within a group, what are some ways that we can respect our peers while still disagreeing with them?

“I guess I would ask them whether they want to be right or to understand the other person’s position. In marriage, for example, I have experienced the phenomenon that if one of us is the winner, the relationship is the loser. Our culture does not engage in dialogue, it only knows debate. In the body of Christ, however, we are called into relationship with one another and told to be like-minded. I don’t believe it means thinking the same way about an issue, but thinking the same way about the gospel and then talking about the issues related to our commonality. Don’t try to fix them theologically.” — Chaplain McDowell

‘“Principled negotiation’ is the name of a cooperative strategy developed by Fisher and Ury in their widely used text, “Getting to Yes.” In a conflict situation, it relies on your ability to separate the person from the problem. Conflicts that are focused on the problem are said to be constructive because they look for ways to find areas of agreement rather than attack the person. And principled negotiators can use objective standards to weigh the benefits and costs of a solution so that both parties in a conflict achieve what they want without compromising what they need. To approach conflict in this way takes away the idea of “winning” or saving face at the other’s expense. It also assumes that the relationship — as well as the issues — are important enough to work through well. Not surprisingly, a large part of principled negotiation is actually listening to what the other person is trying to say.” — Lynn Cooper, professor of communication

“I would say to sit back and take the time to listen to both sides of the situation. In reality, we are never going to find people that we fully agree with, so I would say to see past some of the conflict to see the person behind the opinion. Getting to know people personally can really help you to understand where they are coming from in that opinion and allow you each to have mutual respect for one another, even through the dissonance.” — Aly Vukelich, EVP for Student Care

“Jesus said the most important commandments are to love God and to love one another. If a disagreement is preventing you from loving another person then the disagreement is not worth it. It is not our job as Christians to convict people of their sins, this is the work of the Holy Spirit. We as a community have done a poor job of loving people we disagree with and I think it is because we think it is our job to correct someone’s “wrong” theology.” — Wyatt Harms, student body vice president

WR: If a student feels the need to confront another student (due to differing opinions, bullying, addictions, violation of boundaries, etc.), but does not know how, do you have any advice on some of the first steps one can take in reaching a healthy way to work through the conflict?

“Conflict is neither good nor bad in itself; it’s an inevitable part of interacting with others. In fact, conflict quickly becomes destructive and sinful when we don’t acknowledge it, when we let hurts or resentment fester, or when we respond poorly. Generally speaking, conflicts are easier to deal with while they are still small, so unless there’s a lot of emotion involved, work out an agreement that it’s okay to bring up conflict. Limit the conflict to one ‘beef.’ Give time to fully talk through it and keep your language neutral. Clarifying messages that ask for specific information — ‘Help me understand your reasoning on that…’ — followed by paraphrasing what you’ve heard — ‘So the way you see it…’ — are considered neutral communication practices that focus on listening to the other’s point of view.
If you care about relationships, you will have to confront conflict. Sometimes this involves giving the other person information that they do not have — ‘Are you aware of how insensitive that sounds?’. On an individual level, asserting yourself takes a latent or felt conflict into the open, communicates how it makes you feel and suggests what you’d like to see happen to change things. My students do this well when they use a clear statement of the offending behavior — ‘Yesterday when you corrected me in class…’ — a statement of the feeling this behavior evoked — ‘I felt embarrassed’ — and preferred result or intention — ‘In the future, please tell me in private when I make a mistake.’ — The other person may not respond in the way you’d like — we can only be responsible for our own actions — but at least you have asserted yourself in a healthy and helpful way.
Obviously, there are some times when you should avoid a conflict — if the issue isn’t important, when the costs of engaging in the conflict outweigh the benefits, when others can resolve it more effectively. Sometimes, conflicts should be avoided in order to give others time to regain perspective. There are also conflicts that cannot be resolved, and we learn to manage them over time. These are areas where we can come before the Lord for forgiveness and grace. I often think forgiveness is for the forgiver because as we let go of even legitimate anger and hurt, we can alleviate stress, redirect our energies, and reaffirm relationships. The grace is that God can then use our humble and open hearts to influence change within even the most resilient conflicts.” — Lynn Cooper, professor of communication

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