A hillside in Cat Cat Village in Northwest Vietnam.
Photo courtesy of Robin Jensen
Since 1999, students and faculty from Vanderbilt Divinity School have embarked on a series of Global Perspectives trips, designed to enhance theological education through immersion in another culture. Each trip is followed by a semester-long seminar to reflect on the experience. Participating students receive academic credit for the trip and the seminar. The latest Global Perspectives trip took place in August to Vietnam and included 11 students along with Robin Jensen, the Luce Chancellor’s Professor of the History of Christian Art and Worship, and Trudy Stringer, dean of students and associate director of field education. Below, Stringer reflects on the trip.
by Trudy Stringer
“Why would you go to Vietnam?” you might ask.
To see what we did not know, to experience what we could not read.
To play chess with a child being treated for the effects of Agent Orange contamination, and to hear about Jim, an American veteran who “adopted” – and was adopted by – this “family” at Friendship Village, a place dedicated to healing the body-and-soul wounds of war.
To learn to risk in the intricate dance of the traffic – walking across a street with tens, sometimes hundreds, of brightly colored motor bikes weaving quickly and carefully around one’s body.
To smell the incense of another’s worship, to hear the words not ours, to see the rituals not ours, and to feel the spirit connection.
To feel the cool waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, and to ponder the place of war this once was.
To see the craters still visible 30 years after the end of the “American war” and to ask the inevitable questions that the aftermath of wars bring.
To ponder the enigma of this “Communist” country and “doi moi,” the economic “renovation” that is birthing thousands of sidewalk merchants and millions in foreign investments.
To see the brightly colored native dress of the Hmong girls, and to struggle with irritation mixed with guilt and questioning of globalization as they crowded around, held out silver rings and cloth friendship bracelets and implored us (in astonishingly good English), “You buy me!”
To escape a power outage one evening by sipping cold martinis in the cool of the Hilton (that would be the Hanoi Opera Hilton) powered by its own generator, and to experience the “gap” between worlds of under- and over- privilege all within one city block.
Before sunrise on a steamy Nashville August morning last summer, 11 Vanderbilt Divinity School students and two faculty met at the Delta Airline counter to begin a 25-hour journey into the past histories, present realities and future possibilities that connect the Vietnamese and American people in our rapidly globalizing world. We partnered with the Center for Global Education in Minneapolis, a group with a 25-year commitment to “provide cross-cultural educational opportunities in order to foster critical analysis of local and global conditions so that personal and systemic change takes place, leading to a more just and sustainable world.”
A mission trip? No, we are a divinity school, but this was not a mission trip.
Study abroad? No, we are an academic institution, but this was not study abroad either.
We embarked, the 13 of us, on a global immersion learning seminar in an attempt to understand the lives of our sisters and brothers in the “two-thirds” world, to ask how our lives, commitments, faith, vocations, public policies and economics intersect with their lives. We asked that the economist, the Maryknoll priest, the shrimp farmer, the aging professor, the Buddhist student working with AIDS patients, the translator, the matriarch preparing the feast for Wandering Souls Day, the Vanderbilt Ph.D. from Hanoi, the child living with the ravages of Agent Orange – we asked them to be our teachers.
“Experiential learning,” “contextual education,” “constructivist pedagogy,” “communal epistemology” – all these terms hint at the transformative possibilities of learning engaged in outside of one’s familiar context, in community, with a consciously shared commitment to bring theory and practice, text and life into reflective conversation that leads to a further plunge into the messy context of life-as-learning laboratory.
Why did we go to Vietnam? Because of the “two-thirds world,” those people and landscapes that are far different in language, terrain, food, dress and material resources than the United States and our European roots. The “two-thirds world” is where some of our best teachers reside, ready to help us learn the life lessons that can lead to transformation – our own and the world’s.