In an interview with Cairn magazine, dean of the School of Social Work Dr. Lloyd Gestoso ’92 shares his vision for the church, the underlying purpose of the Social Work program, and the secret to educating students who love boldly.
When you attended Cairn in the ’90s, the church at that time was not really engaged in helping the poor. Since then, the church has stepped up in a lot of ways, in that social justice and community outreach and meeting the needs of the people in their congregations are on a lot of churches’ radars now. Are there any ways you feel like the church still needs to step up?
I want the evangelical church in America to be a place of safety and hope for real people who face real problems. You know, Christianity is one of the largest religions in the world. Evangelical Christians are very influential in this country. Our churches are very well- positioned all over the country. We have the infrastructure built.
But people who have real problems, people who have real challenges, people who need hope often are not turning to our churches. It’s partly because, since the New Deal and all the things that happened in the 1930s, all the people born after that think the government is the group that takes care of people’s needs, and the church takes care of just the spiritual.
But if you look at history before the Great Depression, the church was very, very active in caring for all needs, for all people, all children. They were educating the illiterate; they were caring for the orphans; they were really seeking to care for people who were addicted to alcohol. And I think we can be that place of refuge again for people when they see the shallow and empty solutions that are available and they want something more real, something of depth, something beyond what we can see. They want to connect with a real God, to the real Almighty God.
And I think sometimes our churches are caught up with what others think or with being afraid to speak out, and we’re often caught up, unfortunately, judging others. We’re caught up sometimes even in Darwinistic thinking, looking at each other as competitors, not as brothers and sisters, weighing whether they deserve our time or our love. And that’s really unfortunate. We really need to understand the grace of God that’s in our lives, set aside our preoccupation with deciding people’s worthiness, and really begin to see every human being with value, seeing every human being as a human soul that has crossed our paths for some purpose.
That’s really why God put us on Earth: to love profoundly. And I think we are still not known for loving profoundly.
So, I think there’s still much more we can do as Christians to demonstrate the authenticity of Christ in our faith, and that’s really why God put us on Earth: to love profoundly. And I think we still are not known for loving profoundly.
You’ve talked about populations that the church still fails to engage with and issues that the church has stepped away from. Can you share how social work students here enter into conversations about topics that they may not have been engaged in before they came here? How do you teach them to engage with topics that they might be uncomfortable with coming in?
I think because we’re grounded in the Bible, Scripture gives us this foundation that we can use as a launching pad to compare Scripture with what we’re seeing. There are students who come and maybe they’re not comfortable talking about a broad range of topics, but then you see the profound specificity and direction of Scripture. And you look at the world, and you begin to wrestle as a student with what you believe and how you respond to the challenges of everyday life in our world.
Our students begin to gain confidence. They develop leadership skills. They develop talking points. They wrestle and do research.
They think through what they believe, and they wrestle with what they were taught. They agree with some of it, and maybe change some of what they think because of what they read in Scripture and maybe because some biases they’ve inherited aren’t necessarily biblical.
And when we take a look at the continued divide between rich and poor, which is still not discussed openly by so many conservatives and believers, do we have a responsibility there? Should we be speaking out more?
I think our students then realize, “We need to say things. We’re the future. We’re the new leaders, and we can’t be silent. We have to start thinking more broadly. We need to start interacting and having more conversations.”
And I think our campus really gives us that freedom to start processing things — in class, in private. A lot of students, if they can’t talk about it in class, they’ll often interact with us in private advising sessions and after class and in their writing and in their journals. So we provide them many vehicles to be able to express what they’re thinking and what they believe and how it conflicts [with] or confirms what they’ve grown up learning.
Would you say, then, that a deep knowledge of the Bible makes social work students bolder?
Absolutely. You know, I think one of the challenges of life is knowing yourself. And studying the Word of God helps ground your identity in the divine, in an understanding that Almighty God has uniquely purposed you for things. So when you commit to do what we’ve obviously been commanded — to learn and study the Word — you gain a wisdom that you can’t gain doing anything else.
Being grounded in the Word of God gives our social workers a unique confidence in what they believe and how they live their life, gives them strong convictions that are beyond just changing feelings. These are grounding mandates that guide them as professional social workers for their whole career.
As Cairn’s social work program works to prepare students for this new context, what do you feel is your main challenge moving forward?
You know, there’s always work to be done, because human beings live in this cycle of generations. So when I look back at the 1890s, 1910s, I’m often jealous, because when I read what was happening then, it seems like there was a universal fervor to really care for people in need. And then in 2015, when I look around and we talk about caring for people’s needs, we talk about caring for the homeless in our neighborhood, we talk about helping people with addictions, we talk about children who need special interventions — it often sounds like it’s something new. Churches are like, “Wow, this is so innovative!”
But knowing a little bit about social welfare history, I’m like, “This isn’t new at all!” And so our jobs are never done. Every time you feel like you’ve made some ground in a church, that pastor retires and there are new people who haven’t really seen the hundreds of verses in the Bible that command us to serve and love our neighbor.
And so it’s a constant pursuit of fulfilling a vision, and it’s a constant rebirthing of ideas to new people, ideas where you balance the full gospel and the full commitment to care for people’s needs and you wed them together.
You know, that was Charles Furness’ mantra: He really believed in the Bible and the Gospel, and he believed in caring for people’s physical needs. And God, in giving us two hands, wanted us to do both, but then wed them together.
And in many ways, that’s such a radically new idea — and yet they were doing it pretty well generations ago. But those people are gone, and now we need to rebirth these ideas that have always been there to new generations, so they can live the Christian faith with that kind of authenticity. So I’m really grateful for the legacy of these leaders in the past, and I hope we can continue this legacy of rebirthing these commitments and mandates from God to a new generation of Christians.
Marissa A. Rumpf is the managing editor of Cairn magazine, as well as a blogger and communications specialist for Cairn University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.