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Convergence: Exploring the Realm Between Faith and Science

Aug 09, 2017


convergence group photoRandolph-Macon College recently hosted Convergence, an 11-day program for high school youth who wanted to discover the realm where faith and science meet. Randolph-Macon College and Union Presbyterian Seminary faculty led participants in exploring topics such as The Origin of the Universe, Stewardship of the Earth, and Evolution.

Convergence participants explored the origins of the cosmos, the beginnings of life, and the natural environment, as well as food, nutrition, and sustainability—all from a variety of perspectives. R-MC Chaplain Rev. Kendra Grimes, along with Associate Professor Hal Breitenberg, chair of the Religious Studies department, co-directed Convergence. This high school youth theology institute is made possible by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc.

Introspection, Discovery, Fun
The students—from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Georgia—followed an itinerary that was jam-packed with introspection, discovery and fun. They studied the religious symbolism of water; did a river clean-up project with the James River Association; rafted along the James River; visited Union Presbyterian Seminary; attended a Richmond Flying Squirrels baseball game; harvested vegetables at Shalom Farms in Richmond; explored the DaVinci exhibit at the Science Museum of Virginia, and more.

The Intersection of Science and Religion
Don Polaski, assistant professor of religious studies, led a question-and-answer session about the Bible and science.

"I was highly impressed with the students," says Polaski. "It's difficult to start thinking through how the Bible, a set of ancient texts, can be read in our modern world. But they asked insightful questions with some passion behind them. I hope to see some of them us undergraduates here at R-MC."

R-MC Biology and Environmental Studies Professor Chas. Gowan met with the Convergence students on campus to discuss the intersection of science and religion.

"I asked the students what their faith says about stewardship of the Earth," says Gowan. "We discussed what science tells us about the history of the Earth, compared to what the Bible tells us." The following day, the group headed outdoors to Ashland's Mechumps Creek, where they spent the afternoon cleaning up trash. For many years, Gowan and his R-MC students have worked to restore the Creek.

Hands-on Workshop
R-MC Engineering Physics Professor James McLeskey Jr. presented a hands-on workshop on desalinization—the process of removing salt from sea water in order to produce fresh drinking water. Approximately one in nine people in the world do not have a safe source of drinking water, and each day 30,000 people (including 5,000 children) die from water-related diseases.

"Only three percent of the world's water is fresh—and most of that is ice and snow," explains McLeskey. "There is a tremendous need for clean drinking water. In addition, God calls on us to love and serve our neighbors and we do that in part by helping them meet their basic human needs. In Matthew 10:42, Jesus says, 'And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.' During the workshop, we discussed what God calls us to do (specifically, serving others) and what the Bible says about water—from creation to the flood to baptism."

The group also discussed many of the challenges around the world related to water, such as scarcity and disease; the current methods used to desalinate water; and the research being done at R-MC to lower the costs associated with desalination. During the workshop, the students did an experiment using small desalination devices they assembled that used solar energy to produce fresh water from salt water.

"This helped them understand how simple it can be to produce a small amount of fresh water, but how challenging it can be to produce large quantities," says McLeskey.

Thought-provoking Subjects
In addition, R-MC professors Rebecca Michelsen (chemistry), Melanie Gubbels Bupp (biology), Tim Brown (religious studies), Larry Enis (religious studies), Evie Terrono (art history), William Franz (physics), Hal Breitenberg (religious studies), Michael Fenster (geology and environmental studies), and George Spagna (physics) met with students to discuss various aspects of faith, science, and points of convergence between them.

Craig Anderson, director of R-MC's counseling services, talked about the social sciences and about his work with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Professors John Carroll and Karen-Marie Yust of Union Presbyterian Seminary also led informative and challenging workshops and reflections for the students, as did Ret. Rev. Susan Goff, bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

Rev. Pat Watkins and Rev. Dottie Yunger led special workshops on campus. Both are United Methodist Clergy with unique vocational paths.

"It's amazing how similar they are—and yet almost opposites," says Grimes. "Rev. Yunger started as a scientist. Then her work as a River Keeper led her to discover a call to ministry. Rev. Watkins began as a clergyperson and his missionary experience in Africa led him to immerse himself in science, studying and advocating for Creation Care. Both of the pastors presented eye-opening lectures. Rev. Yunger, for example, pointed out that the Clean River Act requires us to make sure our rivers are fishable and swimmable. She raised the question, 'Are they baptizable?' Our Convergence participants were enthralled by their thought-provoking workshops."

Mentorship, Guidance, Feedback
Seven R-MC students and alumni served as Convergence mentors: Jake Young '18, Courtney Taylor '18, Laura Haney '17, Jacob Stech '18, Derrion Bennett '19, and Olivia Latham '17, and Olivia Dillard '20.

"They were amazing leaders," says Grimes. "They made campers feel at home, shared their thoughts on college life, engaged in the content of the many workshops, and led fruitful small- group gatherings for the entire 11 days. Several of them have already asked about coming back to serve as mentors for next summer's Convergence camp."

Dillard, a religious studies and sociology major and member of the A. Purnell Bailey Pre-Ministerial Program, enjoyed serving as a student-mentor.

"I think the most exciting and interesting thing about the Convergence program is its inherent uniqueness," she says. "Far too often we are asked to choose either faith or science—as if the two are opposites. Convergence is special because it offered a space for discussion and growth in both faith and science."

Grimes received positive feedback from many of the Convergence participants' parents.

"One wrote, 'Attending Convergence has been the highlight of my son's summer,'" says Grimes. "She continued, 'Getting to stay in a dorm on campus, eat in a dining hall, and interact with
R-MC faculty and students had a profound impact on him.'"