When Christians think about the idea of ministry or missions, graduate school might be one of the last things they would think about. Why should a missional student ever consider gradschool?
From Dec 27 – Jan 1, volunteers with our network of early career Christian academics are liveblogging seminars at the Urbana conference, a mission-focused student gathering of 16,000 Christians from across North America and the world. This post was written by Vivian Chen and Angelo Blancaflor, and May Yuan.
Joshua Swamidass is currently a professor in the Laboratory and Genomic Medicine Division at Washington University in St Louis. His research focuses on solving problems at the interface of medicine, chemistry, and biology using computational methods.
Joshua opens by asking: “What do missions look like? What stories do we hear about missions, ministry, and evangelism?” There are so many amazing testimonies of building homes for families in need, praying in a hospital for the hurting, translating the Bible abroad, leading a small Bible study or God investigation group, feeding the hungry in war-torn countries. But, can missions and ministry occur in places of great intellect, wealth, and sheer abundance? Graduate school is a place where billions of dollars are spent on creating knowledge. Grduate school is also a place overflowing with free pizza, free beer, and free seminars by Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, CEOs and current and former presidents. Graduate school is also a place filled with young and smart individuals willing to sacrifice five years to do research and create knowledge. So…what does God’s Global Mission look like in graduate school?
Joshua argues that God has called him to the mission field of the University, but that being on staff with a student ministry organization is only one way of being missional at the University. God chose that Josh be at the University in a professional capacity as gradstudent and then as a professor.
Is Graduate School Just An Excuse for Indecision?
So, how did he actually discern that graduate school was God’s call? At Urbana 1996, Joshua struggles: “Urbana was hard, [it was filled with] images of going to full time vocational ministry. I felt a big dissonance between what I was good at which was school and the call to be a missionary.” Joshua recalls the conflict he had, he states, “God’s mission is URGENT. We should go on the mission field right now. There is always an excuse to not go on missions? Is graduate school just my excuse?”
To answer the question “why would a missional student ever consider graduate school?” Joshua tells a series of stories.
Ida Scudder, Medical Researcher in India
Joshua’s first story is about Ida Scudder. Scudder was born in India during the famine of 1870. She came from a family of missionary doctors. However, she decided not to become a missionary. On her return trip to India with her father in 1890, Ida met a fellow ship passenger who knocked on their cabin door. This desperate man was seeking help for his wife who was in labor. Ida’s father a doctor graciously offered to provide medical care. But, the man refused. The man who was Hindu explained that it was not acceptable for a man to provide medical care to his wife, the passenger instead asked Ida to go. However, Ida was not trained nor did she have any medical experience. Ida did not go. Unfortunately the passenger’s wife died. Three more times on this trip, Ida watched women died because there was no female doctor to treat them. During this same trip, several other people died because there was not female doctor, even though Ida’s father was ready and available. There was nothing Ida could do, but return to the US and go to medical school at Cornell. Ida was the first female graduate at Cornell and she then returned to India to serve as a medical missionary. In India, she opened the Christian Medical College and Hospital, Vellore specifically for women, in order to address this need for female doctors. And Swamidass’s mother attended this very school.
Joshua’s mother, Geeta Swamidass, became a missionary doctor and left comfortable middle class life to serve in a rural and poor area in India. After Geeta was married, the couple receives a strange call from God to go to America. Joshua jokes about his parents’ response, “They get a strange call to go to America. Maybe God wants us to be missionaries in the US. That’s crazy. We don’t want to America, they are total heathens. God cares about the poor. Why? Why the US? It didn’t make any sense, but it was a clear message from God. And they were obedient and moved to the US.”
Joshua tells the audience that while his mother was studying for her US medical license, several businessmen spoke to her about the increasing number of unplanned pregnancies and the only option for these women is abortion, but the men wanted to give them medical care and asked his mother to help. Swamidass cautions that this story is not about abortion. He asserts that his mother saw the women who needed God’s love. She created a medical clinic in 1985 and has been treating women for over 30 years. Swamidass describes his mother as “an anointed woman.” In that sense, Joshua sees his mother as a missionary in the US.
Graduate School Enabling Missions
Considering these two powerful stories, Joshua then asserts that his mother, “could not do what she does right now without going to school. Ida Scudder could not do what she did without going to graduate school.”
Joshua himself had a desire to be a missionary doctor. “It just seemed so compelling,” he admits. After graduation, Joshua went to serve on a medical mission in India. He spoke with many about his aspiration to be a missionary doctor. In thesae discussions, one mentor shared how much he loved camping and that God allowed him to pursue this passion through his missions in India. That led Joshua to wonder: “I hate camping. Why would I pay money to live out in the cold. It is not fun. I enjoy the roof over my head.” Jokingly, Swamidass attributes his dislike for camping as the cause leading to this very serious question: “Am I really made for this?” Swamidass acknowledges that, “yes, we should give up our lives to God, but it is also true He made us for something.”
For What Purpose Did God Design Me?
Joshua tells the audience his own story. He started at University of California Irvine (UCI) where he was a missional student and many suggested he enter full time ministry, which brought up much tension. Joshua knew that he was interested in medicine, software development, and math. He loved the university world, and he loved working in a research group and teaching. Joshua decided to stay at UCI to complete his MD and PhD in Computer Science before moving on to a post doctoral fellowship at the Broad Institute in Boston.
As a researcher, Joshua does research with computer software to predict whether specific molecules are toxic or not. He is a scientist and a Christian simultaneously, and one is not before the other. It’s important to acknowledge, Joshua says, that as a researcher, he is 100% a scientist and 100% a Christian.
As a researcher, Joshua’s work is with people. Science is not an idea, he says. It’s a group of people Jesus loves. It’s a group of people with a specific culture where Jesus is rarely declared. Many scientists see Christianity as anti evolution. What should freak us out, says Joshua, is that they don’t know Jesus! They don’t know that Jesus is good and that he rose again. And that’s why Joshua is a Christian in science.
Sharing Faith as a Researcher
Joshua mentions several organizations that support researchers sharing their faith, including the BioLogos Foundation (who work to harmonize Christian theology with scientific understandings of evolution) and the Veritas Forum (who convene public events about life’s hardest questions that include Christians). As an invited speaker with these organizations due to his research and reputation, hundreds of people come to listen to him, and there he can talk about Jesus and anout Joshua’s own story. Because of his time in grad school, says Joshua, atheists now listen to his story.
Cultivating a Long View of Ministry
Joshua argues that we need to have a long view of ministry in the context of our entire life. We need to live as if we will have our entire lives ahead of us because we don’t know when God will come. Our legacies can reshape and influence generations later and it’s the type of influence that God was to provide with our life.
In the meantime, Joshua encourage students to grow in character and ministry skills. He encourages students to make cross cultural connections with international students.
Joshua also points the audience to the Emerging Scholars Network, which has a strong Internet community who support a geographically mobile community in grad school. ESN has been with him through grad school and his career.
Questions and Answers
Q: Grad school is a great privilege. It can be hard to deal with that privilege while others are hurting.
A: When you look at jesus, be obedient. Urbana is hard because he feels this tension. This is a sign that you see the world directly. Its also first about following god obediently. He did not call me to do that, he did not make me that way, he is doing the best he can to obey and follow. God cares about the poor and the university is poor, spiritually poor. Christians avoid scientists because they are afraid in them. People doubt that God does not have reach in Science.
Q: Suggestions to reach out to grad students and all different areas grad and undergrad
A: Graduate and undergraduate ministry are very different, and different from church! Joshua encourages students to focus on their graduate education, work on skills, on character, and be faithful with small things. How do you treat people who are the least of these around you? The international students? What about colleagues? Undergrads are least of these because you are a graduate, they look up to graduate students.
Q: How do you respond to someone who says you are going the less risky path?
A: In academia, you are constantly confronted with influence or money. On the mission field you risk your body. As a professor, you risk your loyalty. Joshua says that he’s doing it because God is calling him, not because it’s less risky.
Q: How can we manage the self promotion of academia and not be prideful
A: This is a big challenge, says Joshua. You’re smart therefore you are arrogant. Academia fundamentally relies on self promotion. What does it mean to be Christian in this world? Joshua is still working this out. The message here, says Joshua, is that the call to grad school does not make us any less. And we need to be told that.
Q: How do you keep disagreements about research topics from becoming personal conflicts?
A: The natural human response is that we only talk with people we agree with. And that’s comfortable. But what is Jesus’s response here? Its obvious. He is willing to die for peace. We are peace makers. We shouldn’t give up our ideas. We love our enemies and invite them for food even when they are 100% intellectual opponents. That’s what Jesus would do. You have to talk to people who you disagree with. And that’s weird. And they will doubt your motives and we should do it just because we love them.
Q: I’m a master’s student but am called to go abroad. How far should we stay in academia?
A: If you are young and you’re good at it, you should do the PHD, says Joshua. People regret not going to grad school in the 20s compared to people who regret going to grad school (maybe going to a diff grad school), but that’s about it.
Vivian Chen is a PhD candidate focusing on molecular and cell biology in the Department of Biology at Stanford University. Her research is currently focused on unique dynamic protein interactions that enable efficient biomass production in algae and hopefully model protein states observed in human disease in the Jonikas Lab. When not in the lab, Vivian is an avid purveyor of cooking competition shows, amateur runner/yogi, and aspiring artist. She also is currently co-leading Stanford’s InterVarsity’s Graduate Women’s Fellowship.