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City of God to help students grow personally, socially and spiritually

February 02, 2016
Merrimack is creating its own City of God, empowering new students to serve others while working on their academics and personal growth in a living-learning community scheduled to open in the fall of 2016.

The City of God is an evolution of the Austin Scholars Program, expanding it to integrate service learning for freshmen who want to serve the community using Catholic doctrine and social teaching.

“The goal will be to help students become better citizens, understand the relationship between religion and the common good of society, and explore their Catholic faith,” said professor Joseph T. Kelley, director of the Center for Jewish Christian Muslim Relations.

In the current Austin Scholars Program freshmen live in a cohort and take the introductory course Christianity in Context together but their formal service component is just a single day. In the City of God, students will spend their first academic year performing weekly community service.

“I like to think of it as a bulls-eye because on the outside you have Merrimack College and inside the college you have communities where students take classes and live together,” said Sister Jean Gribaudo, CSJ. “Now we’re strengthening that with a service-learning component.”

Austin Scholars will also take their Introduction to Philosophy course together.

“We’ve been wanting to expand this program and with the help of a $200,000 Flatley Foundation grant and a $10,000 grant from the Highland Street Foundation will be able to,” Kelley said.

In the City of God program, students will perform two hours of supervised community service weekly throughout their first year.

“That service component is called the City of God from Augustine’s book,” Kelley said. Augustine wrote a 22-book treatise called “The City of God.”

Every week the living-learning community will have a one-hour reflection seminar on their community service. The reflections will relate the Christianity in Context and Introduction to Philosophy courses to their community service, Kelley said.

Gribaudo will lead the community service and reflection portions of the program.

“It’s not just meditation, it’s more trying to pull together what they are learning in concrete lessons in the classroom (and) what they are experiencing in the service sites,” Gribaudo said. “So they begin to integrate that experience, so it’s not compartmentalized.”

Reflections will rely on the seven themes of Catholic social teaching, including life and dignity of the human person; call to family, community, and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God’s creation.

The City of God’s theology studies will rely on St. Augustine’s works on faith and reason, Gribaudo said. Students will study how faith and reason come together in building respect, the common good and peace.

“These will not become cliché terms for students but they will see them in action and what they are learning in the classroom will have a lot to do with how they live their lives,” Gribaudo said.

The introduction to the City of God comes as the Religious Studies Department is making strategic moves to strengthen the Catholic and Augustinian mission of the college and expose students to the principles of Catholic social teaching, Kelley said.

“This is a powerful living-learning community,” Kelley said. “It builds a sense of community, it strengthens their ties with the college. Studies show that students in cohort programs tend to do better in their grades and persist at the college. They give each other support and encouragement.”

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