Church Hopping: Calvin College Chapel with Fellow Burnside WritersArts, Books, Church Hopping, Visual Arts — By Stephanie Nikolopoulos on June 7, 2010 at 9:00 am
Every other year, Calvin College hosts a Festival of Faith & Writing that brings together some of the brightest writers of our generation whose works
illuminate “spiritual understanding, grace, or transcendence.” In addition to speakers like Eugene Peterson, Richard Rodriguez, Mary Karr, Ed Dobson, and Stephanie Kallos, Christian publishers attend the festival to exhibit their new releases and recruit new talent. Once again, Burnside Writers Collective attended as an exhibitor. While I was in complete bibliophile-heaven–ohmygoodness I’m standing in line for the bathroom with Sara Miles!!–the biggest thrill for me was to finally meet some of the Burnsiders I’ve been working with for the past four years. I had already met Jordan Green and John Pattison when I road-tripped through Portland a few years ago, I met Chad Gibbs when he and his lovely wife were exploring New York City, and I even went church hopping with Susan Isaacs and Donald Miller when they stopped by St. George’s on their book tour. Now, at FFW I got to meet Penny Carothers, Amy Deal, Kim Gottschild, Diane Nienhuis, Dylan Peterson, and Betsy Zabel, in addition to their friends like Cary Campbell Umhau. We sampled the local brew, picknicked, brainstormed, and, yes, church hopped together. Some of the readings and interviews were held at the Calvin College Chapel, which had unique architecture, so I asked my fellow Burnsiders to help me out on this article.
Church: Calvin College Chapel
Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Architects: GMB Architects
Built: late 1980s
History: This is going to sound crazy for a Christian college, but although Calvin College was founded in 1876 by the Christian Reformed Church in North America to train ministers, the chapel wasn’t built for about another hundred years.
Exterior design: Set within the the Prairie School style of architecture of the 390-acre campus, the chapel stands out for its circular shape. In fact, the
chapel is an octagon, which is actually a common shape for churches as it is suggestive of a star and is therefore meant to promote the idea that the church is bringing light to the world. Ironically, the upside-down-funnel-shaped roof dominates the structure, allowing for only small slits of windows.
Interior design: Within the octagon shape of the chapel, the chairs are set up in a circle around the chancel, where the pulpit would be. The nave projects openness, intimacy, and inclusiveness, as congregants can make eye-contact with those sitting across from them, unlike in other churches where you typically stare past the back of someone’s head and focus all of your attention on the pastor.
Above the chancel are eight cut-out sections forming a flower-like shape on the ceiling. Hanging within these openings on the ceiling are a flurry of streamers. Designed by Shirley deJonge, a former art teacher, they are an artistic expression of worship: “The motion or movement of the streamers refers to the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst.”
Kim Gottschild: “I liked the chapel’s architecture. What I found particularly interesting was the pergola type structure that lined the inside of the sanctuary like an overhang. Together with the beautiful view of the budding trees, it made me feel like I was sitting in a garden setting, the outside having been brought in. I also loved the light feel of the wooden interior. Overall, the interior atmosphere felt natural, light and airy, and I felt like I could breathe. And Mary Karr’s interview only enhanced that, as listening to her always gives me permission to be human.”
Penny Carothers: “I liked the chapel, too. I liked the inclusive feel, the feeling of being surrounded by others, not just staring at the dais. I also appreciated how the dais was almost in the center of the room. I liked how light it was.”
Cary Campbell Umhau: “Well, I hate to be a naysayer but I found it cold. I wanted a cozy corner, not an exposed openness. I’m sure that says something antisocial and awful about me, but I wanted to flee! I have to say I was swayed a little by Diane saying that it’s sometimes referred to as the Pizza Hut Chapel (Diane, am I misquoting you?). Is it bizarre that I preferred the ‘Undercroft’ of cinderblock (and the bathrooms were nearby too; handy with all the coffee I was downing), and I loved hearing Lisa Samson down there.”
Diane Nienhuis: “Cary, you quoted correctly!”
Church culture: Chapel is held daily at 10am, and if you’re too lazy to crawl out of your bunk bed you can watch it on your computer. According to
user-mediated Wikipedia, “While on average, only 500 or so students attend chapel the first four days of the week, Fridays invariably fill the chapel to its 1,000 seat capacity.” Only 500, huh? I’m sure all of you, dear Burnsiders, attend church every single day of the week. When not catching indie acts at the Ladies Literary Club, a Romanesque work of architecture in town that was once part of the women’s club movement and now holds rock concerts, Calvin students attend the chapel’s Songfest on Fridays. Each day of the week is devoted to a different theme, with Monday being Sing a New Song, Tuesday being Proclamation, Wednesday being Community Voices, and Thursday being Catch Your Breath.
Campus culture: After reading Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple, which tells the story of a Brown College student who “studies abroad” undercover at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, one can’t help but one what other Christian colleges are like. Calvin College is generally considered to be one of the more liberal Christian colleges.
Classes: The academics at Calvin are intended to “challenge your mind, renew your spirit,” and there are more than 100 majors and minors. Among the classes that students must take is one called Developing a Christian Mind. Within its art history department is a class that sounds perfect for Church Hopping.
Commencement speaker: Graduation doesn’t actually occur in the chapel, but since the chapel is more or less an extension of Calvin College, it’s interesting to note that President George W. Bush was the Class of 2005’s commencement speaker. Some students showed up wearing stickers that read: “God is not a Republican… or a Democrat.”
Seminary Chapel: In addition to the main chapel, there is also a more traditional seminary chapel across the commons.
Amy Deal: “The seminary chapel that felt like a garden…. That was my first session and oh my word, did I need it to be there. I just came from a really stressful week in a really stressful time in life to a beautiful wooden room with a view of trees and flowers and a pond. Then Christian Wiman, the presenter, would say things like, ‘To truly live is to feel one’s spiritual existence in daily experience.’ I could sense perspective on life slowly creep back in as I sat in that beautiful room listening to those beautiful words.”
You can read Dylan Peterson’s review of the band Welcome Wagon, who played at FFW, here.
You can read more about my trip to Michigan here.