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Listening for Purpose

I wrote this article for the Calling and Spiritual Life Newsletter, at Valparaiso University, October 11, 2023.

My friend Julio is a rapper in Costa Rica - he comes from a Nicaraguan immigrant family that lives in a precario (what we call in the English translation a “shantytown”). He raps about social issues that he sees in his community, an active place filled with the noise of life - music, conversations, construction, cooking, playing, vehicles, and more. In order to hear himself think and without having regular access to a recording studio, he regularly records in his car, where he can have some quiet. In both literal and artistic ways he’s trying to cut through the noise to help us listen to his message.

As a staff here at the Institute for Leadership and Service we have been talking a lot about listening this semester. ILAS thinks about leadership and service on campus as flowing from a sense of purpose and calling. As part of the Division of Calling and Spiritual Life, we recognize that our purpose and calling are genuine expressions of being in alignment with the work that is already going on in the world, work being done by God.

In his 1980 speech at Spelman College, Howard Thurman called this alignment with ongoing, true work the “sound of the genuine”. Thurman pointed out that we are all listening for the sound of the genuine in ourselves, and in other people.

What does it take to hear the sound of the genuine in ourselves in others, and to hear it well enough to come into alignment with it as we explore our purpose in life? It takes real listening, which requires attentiveness, quiet, and a willingness to engage with difference, something Sharon Daloz Parks calls “the power of constructive encounters with otherness.”

Valparaiso University Black Student Organization (BSO) President, Tékeidra Masters, expressed this idea in a recent interview with the Torch for We Matter Week: “We have to realize that in order to be a servant leader, you have to be willing to serve those in need… and 9 times out of 10… they’re going to have some kind of difference, because we’re human and we’re diverse… [We Matter Week] isn’t just a BSO thing. This is a community effort to uplift voices that are unheard, a community effort to listen, a community effort to learn, a community effort to celebrate, a community effort to pass on this information…”

As we listen, we are open to the reality that the stories people tell will be different from our own narratives, and each of our “narratives are shaped by the context in which we are embedded,” as Susan L. Maros points out in her book Calling in Context: Social Location and Vocational Formation, which we as an ILAS staff are working through this year. These contextual differences make careful listening, accompanied by thoughtful reflection, so important.

Maros argues that “storytelling is an essential part of how we articulate our understanding of the unique nature of our individual and communal responses to God’s calling” (p. 10). We discern the work that God is already doing and contemplate how we are being called to participate in that work, listening to spiritual stories, to our own inner voices, and to each other’s stories.

At ILAS we will soon be unveiling a new podcast called Listening For Purpose. Our student staff will be interviewing campus community members - students, faculty and staff - to listen to those stories and to come to a deeper understanding of our community, with all of the contexts and callings that make it up.

We invite you to listen.

About the Author:

Deaconess Kat Peters is the Assistant Director of the Institute for Leadership and Service at Valparaiso University. She has her Master’s in Education and Master’s in Rural Development from San José, Costa Rica, where she lived for nine years while working in study abroad and as a Deaconess in the Central American Lutheran Church. She lives in Valparaiso, Indiana, with her Costa Rican husband, Anthony, their two sons and their cat.

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