In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell begins with the tale of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a small, immigrant community nestled near the community of Bangor. The story of Roseto falls into a familiar pattern–one repeated again and again in American history. Gladwell chronicles how the earliest settlers of the community travelled from their native Italy in search of employment, found work in a slate quarry outside of Bangor, and began purchasing land to establish a new community for their families. As family members immigrated to the Americas, they began replicating their life together in the old world. They replicated the community structures and the religious and family life. They continued to foster values of multi-generational family care, work, visiting one another, egalitarianism and an aversion to flaunting wealth, church, and the sharing of meals. The community itself was unique, and was a key factor in what became known as the “Roseto Effect,” or what Gladwell calls, “The Roseto Mystery.”
Roseto became known to the wider world thanks to the work of a man named Stewart Wolf. In the late 1950′s Wolf spent his summers on a farm in Pennsylvania not far from Roseto. Wolf was a physician who had studied digestion and taught in the medical school at The University of Oklahoma. Wolf’s discovery of Roseto was a surprise. While having a beer with a physician who had practiced medicine in Pennsylvania for seventeen years, he was confronted with the remark that this doctor rarely found anyone from Roseto who was under sixty-five and suffering from heart disease. Wolf was floored. This was before the widespread usage of cholesterol-lowering medication and, at the time, heart disease was the leading cause of death for men under sixty-five. Gladwell states, “It was impossible to be a doctor, common sense said, and not see heart disease.”
This propelled Wolf on a quest. He was determined to discover what made Roseto unique. What was it about this community that had led to so few cases of heart disease? After assembling a team of medical students the research began. They scoured the records of physicians. They conducted interviews. They reconstructed the history of the community. They examined dietary habits. They formulated theories. Wolf hired a sociologist named John Bruhn to help him. He was shocked by the findings, saying, “There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn’t have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn’t have any of those either. These were people dying of old age. That’s it.”
Wolf determined Roseto was an outlier, “(1) something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body; or (2) a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others in the sample.” In seeking to determine the reason for the long life of those living in Roseto, Wolf ruled out diet, genes, exercise, and location. There was not anything special about what they ate (some residents struggled with obesity), their genetics (Rosetans living in other parts of the U.S.A. were not as healthy), exercise (no yoga fanatics), or geography (other nearby towns had death rates three times as high as Roseto for men under sixty-five). As Wolf reviewed his data, he could make no other conclusion than that the reason for longevity in Roseto was none other than “Roseto itself.”
For Wolf and Bruhn, this began a revolution for how the medical community would have to think about heart disease. They began emphasizing the importance of community living, or looking beyond the individual for indicators of health. They emphasized culture and values, recognizing, “the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.”
This story provides a perfect segue into my life this past week.
Institute 2009 :: Faith Under Construction
For the past four summers I have been part of a 98 year tradition at Baker University: Leadership Institute–a ministry to students sponsored and coordinated by the Conference Council on Youth Ministries of the Kansas East Conference of The United Methodist Church (I think I gave shout outs to all appropriate parties). Institute is a Christian camping experience that is led and coordinated by a team of student and adult leaders within the conference. The students play a unique role in executing the camp, as there is a designated “Youth Coordinating Team” that directs morning gatherings, elements of worship, and community wide events (crazy olympics, Bible skit night, Talent/No Talent Show, Community Dance) in partnership with an “Adult Coordinating Team” (one female, one male). While that team is surrounded by a “Community Life Coordinator,” “Spiritual Life Coordinator,” “Facilities Coordinator,” and “Care Group Staff Coordinator” (care groups are small groups of students and leaders (8 to 12) who meet together throughout the week), the students bear a significant burden of leadership for making the week of camp a success. They are critical for the community.
I fell into Institute four years ago thanks to the invitation of Mike Hibit, a dear friend who is a school teacher in Kansas City, Kansas and worship leader at FirstLight in Gardner. Mike invited me to come along as a care group leader and as a teacher during an elective session called a “Lifesaver,” which consists of four sessions on a particular topic related to the life of faith, such as “Bible Study Methods,” “Prayer,” “Relationships,” or “How to Be a Christian in College.” Each summer I have returned to Baldwin City during the month of July to lead a Care Group and teach a Lifesaver. Each summer I have chosen to teach some aspect of the Bible, whether it be the grand narrative of Scripture, the life and teachings of Jesus, or, as I did this year, I focused on the New Testament writings of Paul and the sayings of Jesus and how they form the spiritual life.
During the four years I have been part of Institute, the camp has changed. Leadership has changed. We have re-designated “Free Time” as “Sabbath Time” to better teach students the Jewish and Christian practice of rest and play. We have re-designated “Hug Groups” as “Reflection” to focus the conversations students have with adult leaders at the conclusion of the day by directing their thoughts toward what they have seen and heard. We have also done a better job at theme development, raising the level of intensity at camp, directing students more fully to the person and work of Jesus, creating space for students to explore a calling toward the ministry of deacon or elder, encouraging Care Group leaders to open the Bible with their students during the week, and directly inviting the students into a personal, dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior. We have carved out space where students can receive prayer from other adult leaders, either for the purpose of dedicating their lives to Christ, recommitting themselves in their walk, or to receive words of encouragement and healing that are needed due to the burdens they bring with them into our week together.
My assessment of our camping experience is not meant as a knock on past leaders, nor is it meant to indicate that we have created a camping experience that has attained the greatest measure of excellence that Institute could possess. But it is meant to indicate that I believe that Institute is a healthier environment today than it may have been four years ago. It has only been strengthened. Members of the Vision Team (the body responsible for forming the plan for camp each year) have done a good job recommending changes for how the camp is executed, and have derived ideas for camp themes that have been intelligible and encouraging for our students. The decision to empower the Spiritual Life Coordinator to give consistent voice at evening worship has been a positive change, not only in my opinion, but in the opinion of many students whom I know have experienced evening gatherings with a diversity of voices. When I came to Institute the strength was found in the environment of love that permeated the camp. That has now been coupled with an environment of intensity and intentional, purposive discipleship to Jesus Christ.
This year we should celebrate the simplicity of words that welled up from deep places during the messages and testimonies of people like Tami Clark, Eduardo Bousson, Jacob Cloud, Alayna Humphrey, Drew Bauerle, Beth Bowman, Jordan Cardone, and Seth Snavely. Each one of these leaders directed us toward the great love of God and gave us a glimpse of their heart as it has been formed in the way of Jesus. We have great reason to thank Steven Blair for his leadership as the Spiritual Life Coordinator, guiding us from Plotting the Path, to Clearing the Path, to Laying the Path, to the Fork in the Road, Driving on the Road, and then to our Final Destination. Skylar Gotte should also be thanked for her leadership as the Student Spiritual Life Coordinator. We should give great thanks to Nolan Frank, Kayli Holloway, Beth Bowman, Drew Bauerle, and Michael Rice (all teenagers) for leading us during worship in music and song. Their lives are great witnesses to God’s goodness. And we should thank Kagen Fell for providing us with the Time Machine Dance.
This week I was most encouraged to hear of three students who are deeply impressed that God is calling them toward ordained ministry within United Methodism. This is phenomenal, as these types of stories are a positive development in the life of the Institute community. I was also encouraged to hear leaders pronouncing God’s forgiveness to students who were convicted of sin, and who were seeking a fresh start in their walk with Jesus as they went forth from camp. I rejoiced on hearing of students making firm commitments to Jesus for the first time and hearing personally from students who desired renewal or to move beyond stasis towards an active discipleship. These students expressed their desire to advance in the Kingdom life.
Institute, in a sense, is an environment like Roseto. It is an environment where the Kingdom of God manifests itself, and where life can thrive. Stanley Hauerwas, quoting Walter Kasper, reminds us that “the Kingdom is ‘totally and exclusively God’s doing. It cannot be earned by religious or moral effort, imposed by political struggle, or projected in calculations. We cannot plan for it, organize it, make it, or build it, we cannot invent or imagine it. It is given (Matt. 21:43; Lk 12:32), ‘appointed’ (Lk 22:29). We can only inherit it (Mt. 25:34).’” Therefore, Institute, and the work God was conducting through those willing servants called YCT, ACT, and other members of the Coordinating Team, as well as Care Group Leaders and other members of the community, is purely God’s good gift.
It is only fitting that I conclude with a story that illustrates how the environment at this camp called Institute displays that which Christian people call Kingdom. In doing so I hope to avoid a reductionistic account, as though this one story “sums up” our experience together last week. There are more stories to tell that would provide a richer and fuller account of God’s work. But, alas, I must choose one.
During the week one of my students shared with me her perceptions of her community. She lives in a suburb of Kansas City located in south Johnson County, a very affluent area. She chronicled that the power of the week for her was found in that the people she encountered at Institute were “so alive here,” and, thus, her encounter with God through the life of the community was made all the more profound by the power of what is called witness. Describing the plastic environment from which she had come, she could not help but note that the eternal kind of life embodied by the saints in Baldwin City for one week was like a wellspring of hope for what it might mean to follow Jesus Christ. After having a taste from that “stream of living water,” she desired deeply to share in that type of life. And from Monday to Saturday, I saw a life transformed.
As I go forth from camp, the joy that welled up in my heart remains from stories like these and from the encounters I had with young people who possessed a deep desire to fall in love with the God Jesus knows. I am encouraged by friendships, inspired by the saints, and emboldened to continue the work of the ministry that God has given me. May my new friends continue to experience God’s blessing, and may they, in turn, be a blessing to God’s good world.