My Journey of Social Conscience

To begin my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class this semester, I explained to the students that this course addresses three fundamental questions:

1)    Who am I?

2)    Why am I here?

3)    What are my next steps?

As second-semester seniors, these three questions lie at the heart of this stage in their lives.

To begin their quest to answer these questions, I have given my students an assignment in which they need to choose key moments in their journey of social conscience and explain the role these have played in their personal growth.  We used as our starting point the definition that emerged from my research with HKIS students:  social conscience is “a personal consideration of one’s role and responsibility in society in the context of an emotionally-engaged understanding of the world.”

I decided to share my own personal story to model the kind of reflection that I hope students will engage in as we begin our semester’s study.

Key moments in my social conscience growth:

1)    Growing up in a Lutheran teacher’s household (1964-1987):

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland where my father was a Lutheran teacher and administrator, and my mother was a school secretary.  Our family life revolved around service to the school and church.  Most of our family friends were my parents’ teaching colleagues and families.  Words like “ministry”,  ”vocation”, and “calling” peppered many conversations.  Choosing a professional life that was personally fulfilling was an assumed part of one’s Christian vocation.  I never rebelled against this central concept of leading a life that was both purposeful to the self and beneficial to others.

Drawing upon the definition of social conscience, I can now say that my home community was strong on “considering one’s role and responsibility in society.”  However, in the context of my life now in Hong Kong, it wasn’t until I began teaching overseas that I began to develop an “emotionally-engaged understanding of the world.”

2)    Teaching in Beijing (Summer 1987)

In the summer of 1987 I had the opportunity to teach English at People’s University in Beijing.  This was the first time that I had traveled outside the U.S. – and I loved it!  After being in a relatively monocultural, all-white Lutheran community for most of my 22 years, teaching students that were Mongolian sheepherders or a survivor of the great Tangshan earthquake of 1976 opened a whole new world to me.

I don’t recall this breaking of my bubble of ignorance as somehow disorienting (as it is for many of my students in my classes now) and I wasn’t shocked by the poverty of 1987 China; I can’t say why I was not struck by the obvious disparity between my life and the lives of my students.  Instead, I was captivated by the joy of cross-cultural discovery.  Traversing cultural barriers seemed deeply fulfilling and I found this new understanding of the world to be invigorating.

I remember returning to the US and realizing that I now had friends that were waking up when I was eating dinner.  Although such a revelation seems shockingly simplistic to me today, at the time this newfound sense of relatedness to other parts of the world signaled a new level of personal awareness.

I returned to the U.S. to become trained as a Lutheran high school teacher.  While I was excited about teaching, I feared being “stuck” in the U.S. for years to come, which I reluctantly accepted since I perceived few other options.  However, through an unusual series of “coincidences” in the middle of my senior year in college, I received a phone call that would change my life.  I was offered the opportunity to serve as a Lutheran teacher in Hong Kong.  Putting the phone down and walking up the stairs of my parents’ home, I still remember the unsettled giddiness and simple incredulity that I had been offered the opportunity to teach in Hong Kong. I think at some level I knew that my life would never be the same.

3)    Visits to Pattaya Orphanage (March, 1992, 1993, 1994)

I came to HKIS as a history and religion teacher.  Growing up in a Lutheran family and being called to serve overseas as a missionary, I took my vocation seriously.  The Bible was “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalms 119:105).  An important passage for me was II Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new Christian; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”  I valued the spiritual dimension of life and believed that the Christian story offered a path of transformation.  Thus, my role as a teacher was to help foster this type of change within my students.

The reality once I reached Hong Kong, however, fell despairingly short of my idealistic expectations.  Trying to teach religion as a first-year teacher at a high-powered school in a foreign culture left me feeling, as I unintentionally blurted out at a gathering of Lutheran teachers in my second year, “alienated” and “shot at.”  Disappointed that my very hard work teaching religion seemed to bear such unimpressive fruit, I wondered: where was the power to change people’s lives?  Shouldn’t transformation be the goal of the educational journey, especially at a Christian school?

In the midst of my soul-searching, I was asked to co-lead week-long student trips to an orphanage in Pattaya, Thailand, founded and run by a colorful priest named Father Ray Brennan.  Although I was very new to this kind of activity, I was surprised following these trips how students talked in such glowing terms about their experiences.

Elements of this sought-after transformation began appearing in comments and essays in ways that never seemed to happen in my classes. Finally, as an overtaxed young teacher, I was keenly aware that taking kids to play with babies at an orphanage was so much easier than slaving over lesson plans!

In 1995, I found an orphanage in Foshan, China, only four hours by bus from Hong Kong, that our students could visit easily. Perhaps we could visit the Foshan orphanage on a regular basis from Hong Kong.

4)    Visit to Ateneo High School (1997)

As summer trips to the Foshan Orphanage began to occur, in the spring of 1997 my good friend and colleague George Coombs and I flew to Manila to visit Ateneo High School, at that time an all-male Jesuit school that was serious about living out its motto, “Men for others.” I was particularly interested in their interdisciplinary capstone course that combined sociology, theology, and a service component in the slums of Manila for all senior students.  I was immediately captured by the concept and decided that I needed to start some kind of similar course at HKIS.

5)    Summer Study with Dr. William Herzog, Dean of Colgate Divinity School (1998)

While I continued to develop more service opportunities at HKIS, I also spent a lot of time trying to make sense of my own worldview, a vital part of my social conscience journey.  One summer I took a course with New Testament scholar William Herzog that helped me to crystallize a lot of my reading and experiences.  In this course, entitled “Jesus and the Justice of the Reign of God,” I came to see Jesus as one whose deep personal relationship with his Father and his burning love for others propelled him into the social and political realities of his day. By studying the socio-political environment of 1st century Galilee, I could sense Jesus’ compassion for the farmers whose hand-to-mouth existence was caused by draconian Roman tax overseers and co-conspiratorial Jewish landowners.  Jesus’ prophetic messages came alive as I re-envisioned his Spirit-filled acts as bold announcements that there was a better way to live than the structured inequalities of 1st century Jewish society.  Seeing Jesus in his socio-historical context helped me understand that living in the world and living in the Spirit were not antithetical, but instead were complementary and even necessary dynamics of a true Christian life.

Jesus’ example, then, became analogous to my own life.  Now I had not only permission, but, better yet, a calling, to bring my own inner spiritual journey to bear not just in my religion classes, but into a holistic journey of discovery in which in-class study and out-of-class experiences were all part of making sense of the world.  Following Jesus meant understanding contemporary socio-political realities as he did.  While Jesus understood the invisible power structure governing his homeland, at the same time he also possessed a spiritual vision that seemed to transcend social injustice. In Matthew 25 Jesus said, “If you have done [service] to the least of my brothers, you have done it unto me.” Serving the poor, the sick, the hungry, the naked, and the victimized was serving God directly.   I considered the mystical possibility that perhaps through my service work I could most tangibly sense the presence of God.

6)    Hanoi, Vietnam Trip, Easter, 1999

My parents and I made our first visit to Vietnam in April, 1999.  While the immediate reason to go was for me to consider switching my March Interim trip from Foshan to Hanoi, the visit became far more significant than simply planning a future service opportunity.  As former HKIS teacher Ted Engelbrecht, missionary in Vietnam, and I talked that first evening about his social ministry in Hanoi, a realization hit me: I wanted to do what Ted was doing, but on a part-time basis in Hong Kong and southern China.  While I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of HKIS and working closely with international students, the relentless school activities seemed unbearably confining.  I saw the green hills ringing our semi-rural setting on the south side of Hong Kong island as barriers that had to be overcome.  If I could just be given some time to do social ministry like Ted, I felt confident both the school and the church would benefit.  I could hardly sleep that night as a new idea about my vocation emerged: perhaps I could combine teaching at HKIS with human care work for the church.

Not long after the trip, I proposed such a joint position to both HKIS and the LCMS, and the proposal was accepted. In 1999 I began an 80% / 20% ministry-share position, the basic arrangement of which continues to the present.

7)    Social Conscience Courses

Prompted by the visit to Ateneo, in January, 2000 George Coombs and I began to teach “Service, Society, and the Sacred” (SSS), a senior-level course that aimed to help students use their gifts and abilities to improve society. I remember in those first few classes in January that I stated with shameless idealism, “In the new millennium we will begin producing a new kind HKIS student who cares about society in a deeper way.  You are the first fruits of this new kind of HKIS student.”

The class became a laboratory to experiment with integrating contemporary events, sociology, service, and spirituality in new and creative ways.  Two years later, I took these ideas and proposed a new 9th grade core interdisciplinary course, “Humanities I in Action.”  Beginning in 2003, then, from the first day that students stepped onto the high school campus, they could begin considering their role in the world. This 9th grade course also had the great advantage of double periods – 80-minutes/day – plus the opportunity to take students off-campus for regular service experiences.  Six years later the Ateneo vision had finally become a reality in a form that made sense at HKIS.

Putting service into the curriculum marked a major step forward for HKIS.  Service and self-exploration were not something peripheral to the real work of school.  Rather, these values were now placed at the center of the curriculum.

8) Finding a Voice (2003)

Early in the fall of 2003 my Dad and I were getting off a plane and I asked him what he thought I should do for my professional goals that year.  He said quite simply, “I think you should begin writing your philosophy of service.”  This seemed at first preposterous – I was just beginning “Humanities I in Action” and I seemed to have only a vague notion of where I was going with service.  However, the more I thought about what we were learning, the more I warmed to the idea.  As I professional goal that year, I wrote:

“I hope to deepen my own perspective of what service learning is and its benefits in our particular context at HKIS and in Lutheran schools and churches in Asia through the writing of my own personal philosophy of service learning.”

In April, 2004 I gave my first PowerPoint presentation of our service programs at an Asian Lutheran Education Association (ALEA) conference in Hong Kong.  This began a regular series of presentations about service learning, including an address to the whole HKIS faculty in August, 2004, and keynote speeches at ALEA conferences in Shanghai in October, 2006 as well as an upcoming opportunity in Hong Kong in October, 2011.

9)    Doctoral Study (2005-2009)

Although I don’t really recall why I made the plunge to begin doctoral study in the fall of 2005, it certainly emerged out of this desire to share what I considered invaluable to students: a making sense of one’s self and purpose

in light of a socio-cultural understanding of the present moment.  The confidence I needed to share this vision could only come from serious doctoral study.

Now having completed this project, I am certain that the reading, thinking, researching, and writing I did during this period will be an invaluable resource for me in all of my work, and I expect I will draw upon on what I have learned for years to come.

10) The present moment (Spring, 2011)

All the threads that initiated my journey of social conscience remain important in my life and work today:

  • teaching for transformation
  • enjoying cross-cultural exploration
  • understanding the big picture
  • determining a life philosophy in terms of my Christian faith
  • meeting students’ intellectual and  spiritual needs
  • combining my desire to teach with service to the church
  • serving the needs of the less fortunate in Asia

Looking back, I believe I have stayed true to the values that were imparted to me in my upbringing.  Yet coming to Asia and working with students much different than my own Lutheran school culture required a new approach.  Service-learning has proved to be a useful strategy that bridges the values I learned in my formative years with the “emotionally-engaged understanding of the world” that I and my students experience quite readily in an international school setting.

I’d like to conclude with a summary statement:

My Spiritual Journey in Hong Kong

Through my teaching and ministry experience in Hong Kong I have come to appreciate the powerful dynamic that occurs within students when academic study, personal reflection, and service experiences are linked together as a means to discover personal meaning, contribute to the needs of others, and contemplate the spiritual dimension of life.  I am committed to meeting people at the intersection of mind, faith, and service as I continue this journey.

In the near future, I hope to continue to teach at HKIS, while at the same time sharing what we’ve learned about social conscience education with those in Hong Kong, Asia, and around the world.  I also hope to do additional research that will further illuminate this approach to education.


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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2 Responses to My Journey of Social Conscience

  1. Pingback: “Can I Teach a Whole Semester on Purpose?” | Social Conscience Education

  2. Pingback: “Opening of Self to the Divine Presence:” An Introduction of Centering Prayer for Students | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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