I had the opportunity at our C.S. Lewis Retreat this year at Camp Allen to catch up with Justin Smith, a friend of the Foundation’s who I originally met almost ten years ago at our 2006 C.S. Lewis Summer Institute at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
It was my first event – I had started working at the C.S. Lewis Foundation just a few weeks before the event – and I have fond memories of all the wonderful people I met there. Justin was a graduate student at the time, pursuing his Ph.D., but was discouraged by some of his experiences in graduate studies.
Fast forward nine and a half years, when I recently spoke with Justin about the impact the C.S. Lewis Foundation had on his life and has continued to have (he has attended our Faculty Forum in 2006, Oxbridge 2008, and our 2015 CSL Retreat).
Steve Elmore: Tell me about your work with Christian Grads Fellowship and its mission.
Justin Smith: “We are convinced of the need for more redemptive voices in academia.” I wrote those words nearly a decade ago in our newsletter, describing how we felt called to minister within the world of higher education.
So when I was asked to join the ministry of Grad Resources for the purpose of bringing the heart and mind of Christ to graduate students, it became clear that this was the next step in pursuing God’s call of developing a Christian witness on and within universities around the world. We are so grateful for God’s faithfulness to us and see how His hand has prepared us over the past nine years for effective service to graduate students. The CSLF played a significant role in that preparation process.
Grad Resources is a faith-based nonprofit organization that offers practical support services to all graduate students, and spiritual resources to those students who express an interest. Since 1990, Grad Resources has recognized the significant role of graduate students in America. From our recent study on stress in graduate school, to the painful stories of student struggles we hear every day, we understand the pressures they face. We offer services that address their personal, emotional and spiritual needs, providing online materials, meaningful connections, engaging speakers, and supportive faith-based communities that enable graduate students to flourish personally and professionally.
My specific role is to coach ministry leaders in the Christian Grads Fellowship via phone, email. Skype, on seven campuses across the United States. Currently, I am responsible for developing and growing Christian Grads Fellowship on the following campuses: Colorado State University, Oregon State University, Southern Methodist University, University of California-Davis, University of Central Florida, University of Missouri, and the University of Wyoming. We are also expanding and seeking grad students who are interested in starting a Christian Grads Fellowship on their campus.
SE: Tell us about your first experience with one of the Foundation’s programs.
JS: My first experience with a CSLF program was the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute on the theme of “Love Among the Ruins – On the Renewal of Character & Culture” at Williams College. It was a magnificent feast for the mind, imagination and heart. I remember singing the Doxology together after lunch, a tradition we still carry out as a family around the table. I remember listening to the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. Most of all, I remember walking away with a profound sense of hope that Aslan was indeed “on the move” in so many areas of life.
SE: How has the C.S. Lewis Foundation made an impact on your life and work?
JS: Without the CSLF I would have given up on completing my Ph.D. As a Christian grad student, it’s difficult to find where you fit in. You feel caught between two worlds. At CSLF events, I knew I belonged, and was becoming something better by being in community with them. These unique times of fellowship demonstrated that the worlds of faith and learning were much better together than apart. Listening to, and interacting with, top notch speakers from diverse disciplines and ecumenical backgrounds demonstrated to me that the body of Christ could come together, even if for a week or two, to work together on the task of the renewal of Christian thought and creative expression in the world of learning. CSLF events are executed with such excellence and academic rigor that I had no problem asking my department for funds so I could attend Oxbridge, which they happily provided.
I remember when Stan Mattson accepted my invitation to be a keynote speaker at a Servant Leadership Symposium hosted by the University of Nebraska. He provided a lived out example of the mission of the organization, both in his presentations and rich interactions with the fellow conferees. I was inspired and instructed by Stan, and many other brothers and sisters I have met through the CSLF, to believe that a vibrant Christian witness in the Academy comes through both our excellence in scholarship and love.
Most recently, I was able to introduce a Christian graduate student from Southern Methodist University to the CSLF in the hope that he would be as deeply encouraged as I am to press on in redemptive work within the contemporary university.
SE: How would you characterize the C.S. Lewis Foundation and its programs? What makes the Foundation different? Unique?
The CSLF welcomes people into rich, transforming fellowship with others, inspired by C.S. Lewis and filled with the hope of Christ for the life of the mind. When you are at a CSLF event, you are caught up in the beauty and diversity of the body of Christ. You rub shoulders with people who persist in the hope that Jesus is making, and will make, all things new. I can think of no other organization that provides such a feast for both intellect and soul.
SE: The C.S. Lewis Foundation’s mission is “Inspired by the life and legacy of C.S. Lewis, the C.S. Lewis Foundation equips and encourages Christians to live their faith within the world of ideas and the arts.” How have you been served by that mission?
JS: The CSLF has equipped and encouraged me through the vibrant examples, testimonies, conversations with Christian academics and artists. You have provided a community where I could become more confident in living out my faith in the world of ideas. Without the CSLF, I would not have had the experience of becoming an academic, which has enabled me to better equip and encourage many more future Christian scholars for the glory of God. Thank You!