As director of Elmhurst College’s Niebuhr Center for Faith and Action, the Rev. Dr. Ronald K. Beauchamp has watched the center grow over the last decade from a startup with a few dozen students on its rolls to a campus mainstay serving 300.
But as the center celebrates its 10th anniversary, Beauchamp said, one thing has remained constant: its mission to help students identify their life’s calling.
“That’s what we do. It’s our niche,” he said. “We work with students to discern what they have been called to do and what they’re passionate about.”
At the Niebuhr Center, the process of self-discovery has always begun with service to others. In its 10 years, the center has made it possible for hundreds of Elmhurst students to serve people in need around the world and close to home. They have helped build homes for the poor in South Africa, cared for orphans in Bolivia, and fed the hungry on Chicago’s West Side. No one has benefited more from those efforts, Beauchamp said, than the students themselves.
“Service is one of the ways students learn about themselves and find a calling in life,” he said. “It’s an important part of the process of forming themselves as individuals.”
Launched in 2002 under the guidance of founding director Professor Nancy Lee, the Niebuhr Center was supported initially by a grant from the Lilly Foundation. The grant was part of a national program designed to encourage college students “to reflect on how their faith commitments are related to their career choices and what it means to be ‘called’ to lives of service.” Today, the Niebuhr Center’s programs attract not just religion majors, but students from nearly every field of study on campus. At the center they find a wide range of academic and field experiences, including classes, internships and international study.
Those experiences, Beauchamp said, become the basis for each student’s discernment process, the ongoing reflection and discussion about how best to serve the common good.
“We want students to ask, ‘What have I been called to do?’” Beauchamp said.
For some Niebuhr Center students, that question leads to a life in ministry. Niebuhr students have gone on to study at some of the nation’s top divinity schools and seminaries, including Princeton Theological Seminary, Duke Divinity School, Chicago Theological Seminary and Eden Theological Seminary.
But ministry is just one of the options. Many other Niebuhr Center students have gone on to work in a variety of corporate and not-for-profit settings. The center has helped students find internships at Clear Channel Communications, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and the national office of the United Church of Christ, among many others. Beauchamp said the center also offers students career guidance, including instruction on professional etiquette and effective job searches.
“We’re about more than ministry,” Beauchamp said. “We’re here to help with professional discernment and internships, too.”
Service projects have been a cornerstone of the Niebuhr Center experience throughout its history. At its annual Partners for Peace projects, for example, students make the short trip from Elmhurst’s campus to troubled Chicago neighborhoods to work alongside residents. In recent years, students have distributed fresh produce to people in need, beautified neighborhood churches, and rallied against gun violence.
The Niebuhr Center has also become a locus of interfaith activity at Elmhurst. The center welcomes students of diverse religious backgrounds and beliefs. Students and staff from the Niebuhr Center were part of a delegation that traveled to Washington, D.C., this year when the White House honored Elmhurst for its efforts to promote interfaith understanding. The Niebuhr Center had hosted a series of Interfaith Forums on campus covering the Abrahamic faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
“We’ve created an atmosphere and an environment where diverse students are welcome,” Beauchamp said. “By getting to know others, our students get to know themselves.”
That’s an approach that continues to appeal to Elmhurst students as the Niebuhr Center enters its second decade.
“We meet a real need with this generation of students,” Beauchamp said. “They want to serve others and explore the world.”