My Abundant Life Story: Robert Cunningham
May 08, 2019|Written By: Robert Cunningham
As a pastor and an aspiring theologian, I have an ever-accruing list of men and women whom I long to learn from and emulate. One such figure is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As evidenced by the vast spectrum of ways in which Bonhoeffer is championed, quoted and appropriated, he is a complex figure to say the least. Perhaps his resistance to being constrained into a particular camp – theological, political, or other – is what I find so compelling about him. Regardless, he’s someone who grew up amid affluence and privilege, who at times was sequestered in the academy, and who very well could have spent his life in a disengaged mode writing and arguing about abstractions – be they metaphysical, theological, ethical, or other. However, what draws me and countless others to Bonhoeffer is his life’s trajectory and his evident commitment to move from the “phraseological to the real” (to quote UVA professor and Bonhoeffer scholar, Charles Marsh).
Bonhoeffer’s commitment to the “concrete”
Bonhoeffer, even in his earliest days in the academy, felt the inescapability of the “concrete,” a theological vision that expressed itself in the everyday and was truly “this-worldly.” Whether it was as a youth worker in Germany or through worshiping in Harlem at Abyssinian Baptist Church, Bonhoeffer’s commitment to the “concrete” was nurtured early on in the context of sharing life with real and often overlooked people. And of course, all of this was anchored in his belief in a Trinitarian God who, via the incarnation, became flesh (or “concrete”) in Jesus Christ. Indeed, much of his life’s work was guided by questions like: What does it mean to belong to this God who became flesh in Jesus? And, who is Jesus Christ for us today?
Abundant Life is committed to real places and real people; for, in Eugene Peterson’s translation, “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”
In many ways, these are some of the same questions that are asked and lived into by Charlottesville Abundant Life. Abundant Life seeks to follow and live into the incarnational pattern of Jesus, though of course not ignorant of the uniqueness and unrepeatable nature of the incarnation. What this means practically is that Abundant Life is committed to real places and real people; for, in Eugene Peterson’s translation, “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” In this paradigm, Abundant Life seeks to partner with, listen to, and learn from its neighbors in order to share in their neighbors’ vision of flourishing and growth, as opposed to coming in as outsiders with all the assessments and answers.
Experiencing the “concrete” through tutoring
One small arm of Abundant Life is their after-school tutoring program. These programs foster friendship, mentorship, potential relationships with the student’s family, and are often entry points for UVA students and other citizens of Charlottesville to share life with younger students in Charlottesville’s city schools. What a volunteer does with this opportunity, how they approach the relationship and the student, is, of course, an unpredictable variable. However, Abundant Life regularly reinforces the reality that this truly is a mutually beneficial relationship in which each person is both a giver and a recipient.
For me personally, as someone who works primarily with UVA students and who can quite easily get lost in my own theological speculations and musings, I am, through tutoring, regularly brought back to the “concrete.” At tutoring, I sit face-to-face with a young first grader named Sha’Donte, who has stories from recess earlier that day, who regularly invites me into an imaginary world full of lava, dragons, and endless levels of challenges, and who, at present, is learning to read long vowels. In my encounters with Sha’Donte, as we oscillate between silence, silliness, laughter, fatigue and focus, I am invited to encounter Christ himself, to see the very image of God in this dear one. I am invited to be present to him, my neighbor, in the world, and in doing so, to be present in and with Christ Himself.
Tutoring is certainly not always, if ever, glamorous. Three o’clock in the afternoon can be a tough hour for anyone, especially with Blue Bucks on the line. Yet, the commitment to regularly be present with one another over time is inevitably formative. You begin to see the world from the perspective of another. You begin to hear their challenges and their hopes. And these encounters act upon and re-shape your own experiences and view of the world. For me, this has been a small step of hopefully many more in my life toward the end of knowing my neighbors that I might more fully love them, and that they might more fully know and love me. It’s been a small step in which the idea of “my neighbor” becomes a person – the word continues to become flesh.
Identifying with the “other”
Abundant Life has provided me with an avenue for, what I hope, are mutually beneficial relationships, and though I may serve as a tutor, I am even more so a student.
In many ways, the incarnation – the word becoming flesh – guided Bonhoeffer’s work and witness in the world. It led him from a place of privilege in which the plights of the masses could be ignored or treated as distant abstractions toward an ethic of responsibility that continually called for ever-deepening forms of identification with the “other,” those whose experiences in and of the world were significantly different than his own. And while I certainly am not so naïve or self-absorbed as to think of myself as a “21st century Bonhoeffer” or that my own historical cultural moment should ever be collapsed into his (or vice versa), I do see him as a fellow saint whose path invites deeper reflection and, at some level, contextualized imitation.
All of this to say, Abundant Life has provided me with an avenue for, what I hope, are mutually beneficial relationships, and though I may serve as a tutor, I am even more so a student. And as a pastor and someone who leads and directs a ministry to UVA students, my hope is to increasingly invite university students to share in the work of Abundant Life as well. It is my prayer that as we open ourselves up to these formative relationships, we will increasingly learn to be with, learn from and live alongside our neighbors – encountering Christ in the concrete reality of the “other.”
Robert Cunningham is the Reformed University Fellowship Campus Minister at UVA.