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Redefining 'social justice'

Trevecca Nazarene program pursues neighborly compassion instead of political agenda

Redefining 'social justice'

(Photo by Luke Sharrett)

Tiny leaves push through rich, brown soil in a greenhouse on the campus of Trevecca Nazarene University. Buckets of compost and the waste from a tank of tilapia fish feed the sprouting plants, which will soon be transferred to a community vegetable garden. There, rows of lettuce flourish a block away from the convenience stores and fast-food restaurants of urban Nashville.

"We live in what we call a 'food desert,'" Jamie Casler, director of Trevecca's J.V. Morsch Center for Social Justice, said. "Local residents here do not have access to healthy, affordable foods like fresh fruits and vegetables because there is no grocery store here in our neighborhood."

Trevecca is trying to change that: Partnering with local organizations, the school's Social Justice program has created 50 neighborhood gardens. "We provide all of the materials, resources, and labor through our student body, our classes, and our environmental justice program to grow the produce," Casler said. "Then we give it away to people in need in our community, or we invite them to come garden with us and develop their own plots so they have access to healthy foods."

Founded in 2009, the program has expanded the common definition of social justice-sometimes associated with government-mandated redistribution-and focused instead on an approach to humanitarian ministries informed and motivated by the gospel. This means engaging with the high-crime, economically disadvantaged neighborhood around the university, while giving students practical experience and training in solving real-life social problems.

"We draw our definition of social justice from the Scripture, not so much from the secular terminology," Casler said. "We try to be very careful to say we're about biblical social justice, not about secular social justice. What we call today 'social justice' the church has commonly called 'compassion ministries'-showing compassion to your neighbor and helping those in need."

Trevecca Nazarene is unusual for having a social justice major that emphasizes neighborly compassion rather than either liberal macro-redistribution or merely the mechanics of running nonprofit organizations. The university has deliberately remained in a poor neighborhood, Casler said: "There have been many opportunities for the school to relocate out to the suburbs, and the administration has always said our mission is to serve our community."

That approach has helped both the neighborhood and Trevecca students. The area surrounding Trevecca in south Nashville struggles with poverty, drugs, and gang-related violence. Flooding that hit Nashville in May 2010 also damaged the neighborhood. John Munn of the Trimble Action Group, a south Nashville community association, says Trevecca students helped not only during the flood but won some credibility by working at cleaning up the neighborhood at other times. One of the social justice majors, Vera Pendergraft, came to Trevecca as a film major but now has a concentration in nonprofit and congregational leadership. She takes business classes as well as courses in theology and social work and appreciates being pushed to see how different subjects fit together.

The center's Neighborhood Empowerment Project connects students taking business classes with ministries trying to gain nonprofit status and access aid for their ministries. One of the center's success stories is New Life Café, a restaurant located in a church on Trevecca's campus that hires people with criminal records so they can learn job skills and earn good references to put on future job applications.

The Center for Social Justice also partners with community groups to help those in need. Munn works with one of the urban gardens and distributes excess produce to elderly people sitting on their porches. Mary Brown, one such resident, likes the opportunity to get fresh vegetables: "People are glad to have it, and I'm glad to have it too."

-Elizabeth Waibel is a Tennessee journalist

Service first

In 2009 Robin Jewett, an instructor in the Physician Assistant program at Trevecca Nazarene, challenged her students to help the poor residents of Mercury Courts apartments, a complex near the university. Within two weeks her students brought in more than 4,000 pounds of groceries for those particularly hard hit by that year's recession.

The contribution, Jewett noted, allowed Trevecca to say, "We care about who you are, and we care that you're hungry." Jewett then invited residents to attend weekly workshops on topics related to healthcare and healthy eating. Seven to 10 residents come every week: "We talk about smoking, we talk about diet, and we talk about lifestyle education, but they know why we're there. It's because we love them, and we want to be Christ to them."

Jewett only requires her class to lead the workshops during the fall semester, but she says almost all of them volunteer their time in the spring. The Physician Assistant program has continued to collect and donate groceries, and the workshops have now expanded to a second apartment complex operated by Urban Housing Solutions.

Jewett says she has noticed that those who come to the workshops have begun to change the health culture around them by sharing their knowledge with their neighbors. With their "service first" mentality, Trevecca students have also been able to form relationships with residents and discuss spiritual as well as physical problems.

As we walked through the complex recently, a man leaned over a second-floor railing. A cigarette dangled from one hand and a welcoming smile was on his face. "Good morning, ladies," he said. "When are you going to be doing another one of those workshops?" Jewett smiled and assured him that even though the healthcare workshops are over for the summer, she will be back.

Elizabeth Waibel

Elizabeth Waibel