I was already committed to pursue a PhD in chemistry when I attended my first Urbana in 1996. I was an undergraduate student looking for wisdom and for ways to grow in my heart for missions as I entered graduate school. It was an eye-opening experience for me to worship God with such a large and diverse group (19,000+ from over 100 countries) and to catch a glimpse of God’s work around the world. I left with a conviction to intentionally seek out Christian community after college and still ruminating on the seminar on faith and science I went to led by Dr. Catherine Crouch (then a postdoc at Harvard, now a physics professor at Swarthmore College).
But it was Urbana 2000 that has provided me with my most powerful Urbana memory. I was a married, fourth-year graduate student considering post-doc applications. No longer having my college friends with me, I joined several other graduate students, post-docs, and faculty each morning for Bible study and fellowship. I found inspiration and encouragement from their stories of following God in academia. It was in this context, and through reading John Alexander’s booklet Faculty Salt, that I developed a strong sense God was calling me to be a Christian professor at a secular college. For the first time, I realized that this was a legitimate call to missions.
I was a married, fourth-year graduate student considering post-doc applications. No longer having my college friends with me, I joined several other graduate students, post-docs, and faculty each morning for Bible study and fellowship. I found inspiration and encouragement from their stories of following God in academia. I developed a strong sense God was calling me to be a Christian professor at a secular college. For the first time, I realized that this was a legitimate call to missions.
Ever since my undergraduate days, I had wanted to become a chemistry professor. Mostly I wanted it for my own selfish reasons, not exactly out of a desire to bring grace and justice to people and institutions in the academic world. At Urbana, I thought back to how one or two openly Christian professors at my very secular college had shown me that it was possible to have a robust faith in such a place. Then, looking back over the previous three and a half years, I realized how deeply I was missing that kind of positive influence from faculty in my experience in graduate school and as a post-doc.
Why is it so hard to be openly Christian and a professor? Why is it even harder to be a missional Christian and a professor? Is the university a place that is beyond hope? Or do I believe that God wants to reach the university, that Jesus wants its people—not just students, but faculty and administrators, too—to experience true flourishing and renewal? At Urbana 2000, God gave me a vision to bring the shalom, grace, and hope that I have experienced to other faculty on secular campuses.
At each Urbana since 2000, I have intentionally sought out faculty, post-docs, grad students and undergrads that are considering graduate school. I share stories with them of how I’ve seen God work in the university and encourage them to consider an academic vocation as a potential call to missions. There are always future academics at Urbana eager to talk with missional faculty for advice, inspiration, and a greater sense of hope that they can find Christian community when they become faculty themselves. At Urbana 15, the Emerging Scholars, Grad Students, and Faculty Lounge will be a gathering place for these kind of connections and conversations.
Recently InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries and Emerging Scholars Network have teamed up to more effectively reach current and future academics attending Urbana. There are seminars led or co-led by faculty and a great hang-out spot for faculty and prospective faculty to meet.
Certainly every time I come to Urbana I hear great teaching, participate in multicultural worship, pray with others, study Scripture with others, see old friends, make new friends, and learn about many ministry and missions opportunities around the world in which I can be involved. Urbana is not always a comfortable experience (after all, which of Jesus’ sermons was comfortable to those who heard it?), but it is always good.
My wife and I attended Urbana 06 a few months after our first son was born. To our surprise, God used the conference to incline our hearts towards adopting children. We felt the Holy Spirit speak to our hearts through passages like Ephesians 1:5 (“[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will…”) and 1 Peter 2:10 (“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”)
Less than two years later, we welcomed our adopted daughter into our home, and by the time we attended Urbana 12, we had finalized the adoption of our second son. How will God speak to me at Urbana 15? I have no idea. But I come with eagerness and hope!
Join me there!
David Vosburg is an associate professor of chemistry at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California and a Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar. His research focuses on synthetic organic chemistry, medicinal natural products, green chemistry, and the relationship of science and Christianity. He convenes the Claremont Christian Scholars, and his family of five loves visiting castles and cathedrals.