Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Monday, November 21, 2005

Where Are the leaders of Tomorrow?

By Paul Willis

Sometimes, when I think about my years as a student at Wheaton College, that evangelical Vatican of the Midwest, I remember Wordsworth’s thoughts in The Prelude about his days at Cambridge University. The poet who loved the mountains of the Lake District so long and so well could only look back on his time in the foreign fields of East Anglia and say, “I was not for that hour, / Nor for that place.” I wasn’t from the Lake District, I was from Oregon. But I loved the Cascade Range in much the way that Wordsworth loved his own green hills, and I couldn’t see much use in a satisfied suburb in a dull, flat country. There weren’t too many trails to hike, and people were always going shapping, as they say it so quaintly in Chicago.
Unlike Wordsworth, perhaps, I made my dissatisfactions known. I wasn’t some loser from Illinois, I told anyone who cared to listen—I was a climber guy from the Northwest. I rappelled out my fourth-story dorm window every decent chance I got, and climbed up and down the elevator shaft at night. I scaled a women’s dorm, the science building. Even the old cottonwood trees on front campus. Soon I had earned a name, and when Major Winslow demanded it the day I showed up for ROTC in red, white, and blue boxer shorts, I told him it was Cliff Hanger. That cost me several demerits for “giving false name to superior,” not to mention “disrespect to uniform,” but it was the name I wanted, the name I had.
Sometime during my first year, Mark Hatfield was disinvited to speak in chapel. I took this rather personally. Hatfield was a senator from the State of Oregon. When I was in the fifth grade, Mark Hatfield was our governor. Mark O. Hatfield, to be precise. I knew because my class had made a field trip to his office in the capitol, and we were each given a letter with his signature. The name was printed out for us at the very bottom, but the signature was a series of squiggles that flatlined like a fatality. Which he apparently was, as far as our college president, Hudson Armerding, was concerned. Armerding was the one who disinvited Hatfield, even though the entire faculty begged to differ. He would never say why, though most people thought it was because of Hatfield’s opposition to the war in Viet Nam. The president was very proud of his own time in the Navy, and I think it was because of him that we still had mandatory ROTC in 1973. I also knew that Armerding went on lots of trips to Texas to raise funds for the college. Our Texas supporters were not a very dovish lot.
A few of us thought to stage a protest, only to find that according to the revised rules in the student handbook, demonstrations could not be held inside of, in front of, or across the street from any college structure. Meaning: no protests on campus. These new rules were a legacy of the late sixties, when demonstrations evidently had occurred on campus. We, the students of the seventies, were very often complimented for our relative quiescence. We didn’t know whether to be proud or ashamed of this. Our older siblings rolled their eyes, but our chapel speakers praised us for being “Wheaton’s kind of students”—the kind shown in recruiting ads for the college, invariably pictured as a well-dressed young man sitting erect at a tidy desk.
So instead of staging a protest we held a little prayer meeting on the day that Hatfield did not speak. We offered our miserable, whiny prayers in the basement of the old chapel across the street from the new one. We were so pained, so sincere, so restrained in our efforts. It made me sick to pretend to be so longsuffering. “Dear Lord,” we said, “we just pray that your truth would shine in the hearts of those entrusted with the power to make decisions on our campus, and that they would see your light. We trust your sovereign guidance in this disappointing situation, and bublah, bublah, bublah.” If you have been in the evangelical subculture long enough, you can say these kinds of things in your sleep.
And then there were The Boys. The Boys were a group of senior jocks who lived in a house off-campus. They were not particularly nice, especially to the freshman jocks. So these freshmen raided their house one night and made off with some prized items. Then the next night they asked Cliff Hanger to help them to display these items in prominent places. The tropical helmet we stuck on top of the flagpole. The letterman’s jacket ended up on the cornice of the new chapel. And a yellow diamond highway sign was seen next morning dangling across from the library, eighty feet up in a cottonwood.
The Boys never figured out who had heisted their stuff. But thanks to my cherished reputation, they found out who had hoisted it. The Sunday afternoon before final exams, I was reading my Bible in my room when one of The Boys walked in. He sat in a chair uninvited and leveled me with a long stare.
“The Boys know what you done,” he said, and planted a very big pause. “You’re wanted at The Boys’ house at seven o’clock tonight.”
“Thanks for the invitation,” I said uncertainly. “Are you serving refreshments?”
“No funny business,” he said. “Be there at seven o’clock.”
“Can you tell me where it is, exactly?”
He looked at me with pained contempt. “Everyone knows where The Boys live,” he said with drama. Then he gave me another stare and walked out.
I knew what The Boys had been up to lately. Two weeks ago they had broken the arm of a campus cop. One week ago they had summoned a guy from a neighboring dorm, and when he showed up, they stripped him naked and spray-painted his body green. So I cleared out of my room that night, well before seven o’clock, and spent the rest of finals week with a friend in another dorm. That summer The Boys went on a road trip to Oregon and threatened my father with legal action. Years later, one of them had a short career as a head coach in the NBA. Everyone said what a swell guy he was, and what a shame that he got fired.
By the time I got to be a senior, I lived in an off-campus house myself. I sublet a room from a climber friend and his new wife, recent graduates of the college. In their basement they ran the U-Neek Food Co-op, which consisted of three usually broken refrigerators they kept stocked from their nightly rounds of dumpster-diving behind the local grocery stores. Once, in March, we found seven huge heart-shaped boxes of Valentine’s chocolates, still wrapped in cellophane. I sent three of them to some very deserving girls on campus, and saved the rest for a climbing trip to Colorado.
My roommate for that year in the house was an 18-year-old senior on the debate team—like many at Wheaton, a driven child prodigy. His parents had firm plans for him to attend law school, and threw a fit when he decided to go into the Peace Corps instead. Halfway through the year, they told him to move out of the house because of my bad influence. I was offended. “It’s not a Bill Gothard world,” I told him. “Your parents can’t make all the decisions. Especially these kind.” He listened intently and wrote a letter to his folks, telling them his determination to remain in the house, under my deplorable influence.
On graduation weekend, we hosted a party at the house for our friends and their families. They crowded in and chattered brightly about our prospects. It was a lovely spring afternoon. At some point I found myself on our back porch, looking out at the weedy lawn with the father of a brilliant young woman who did not much like to climb. He was the director of a Bible camp and conference center on the New Jersey shore, and just now he looked distressed. For a while he said nothing at all. Then he burst out, pounding his fist on the porch railing as if he were shouting from a pulpit, “Where are the leaders of tomorrow?”
I realized immediately the question was rhetorical, that I wasn’t being personally addressed at all. Only publicly accused. The answer to the question was that tomorrow’s evangelical leaders were not to be found inside this house. We had gone untrained. The ship was sinking, and the younger generation was lounging poolside with martinis.
During baccalaureate, the graduates sat on risers on the ample platform of the chapel and sang together, a cappella, “May the Mind of Christ My Savior.” It is for me a sweet and moving song to this day. President Armerding, seated in front of us, got up out of his chair and, while we were singing, looked each of us in the eye, one by one, nodding his head. He was commissioning us. I liked that. In that moment, I liked him.
I remembered a time the previous year when, desperate to transfer out, I had paced the streets feverishly, trying to decide what to do. After several weeks of turmoil, I sat in the bushes against the wall of the library and just cried. Real hard. When I finished crying, I knew I would stay. And I knew, in a strange way, that I didn’t have to work so hard to be Cliff Hanger anymore. That I could just be me. A somewhat new me. That I could be for this hour and for this place in some temporary sense, and that Oregon would be there when I got back. I felt very certain of this. It was as if God had spoken to me. And perhaps he did.
But I still have to come to terms with the strangeness of my college experience. We were supposedly the best and the brightest, the hope of the future for the subculture. Not for the gospel but for the subculture, a subculture in which war protestors do not speak in chapel, much less demonstrate in front of it. In which we all march in ROTC in full and spotless uniform. In which we go into law school but not into the Peace Corps. In which we make an impact on the larger culture by, say, serving as a coach in the NBA.
My guess now is that what we seldom reckon on is the mind of Christ, which may not want any leaders for tomorrow at all—at least not in the sense that we usually think of them. What I liked so much about that moment in which President Armerding nodded at me was the sense of release. “Go,” he said. “Do what the mind of Christ suggests. Whatever the mind of Christ suggests to you, do that.” That may not be what he intended, but that’s what I will keep on taking. I figure it is up to Jesus to transform our culturally bound gestures, and I’d like to think he transformed that one. On the spot. That the eyes of Hudson Armerding were the eyes of Jesus, looking into the mind of Jesus.
So this is the moment I most want to hold on to—this moment of leaving, this moment of blessing. And even now, if The Boys come knocking on my door—say, at seven o’clock some evening—I hope that I will welcome them home.


Reprinted with permission from Bright Shoots of Everlastingness (WordFarm, 2005), Copyright 2005 by Paul J. Willis.