(RNS) — My father died quite unexpectedly at age 53. He’d been remarkably healthy and just passed a stress test for a life insurance policy. And then, one Sunday afternoon in the middle of July, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
During the funeral, the choir stood up after the benediction and had a surprise for my mom, the former choir director. They started to sing the “Hallelujah” chorus. My first thought was: “This isn’t right. I don’t feel like singing hallelujah. I have other choice words in my head right now.”
But then something incredible started to happen, as my brother and sister noted. Almost involuntarily, we all started standing straight up. And then my brother told me he noticed that pretty soon, I was actually on my tiptoes as the choir gave praise to God. The beauty, brought forth by an institution I had no desire to be in at that moment, called me out of myself into the vision of the love and praise of God.
Battered dreams and shattered hopes
It seems like battered hopes and shattered dreams are all too common these days. Whether it’s news events, the death of loved ones or the ongoing pandemic, it’s easy to feel like we’re living in a world of broken dreams.
Seven in 10 Americans view inflation as “a very big problem for the country,” followed by the affordability of health care and a rise in violent crime, according to 2022 Pew research. Economic inequality in the U.S. has been rising steadily, and a full 30% of Americans show signs of clinical anxiety or depression. Concerns about racism and sexism persist. What’s more, experts say if trends continue, people who espouse the Christian faith will soon make up less than 50% of the U.S. population. However, amid all this darkness, there is still reason to hope.
Institutions such as churches, nonprofits and schools provide a space for people to come together and imagine a better future. They offer support and resources during difficult times. They also provide opportunities for innovation and social change. Majorities of the public say churches, public schools, colleges and nonprofits have a positive effect on the U.S., according to Pew Research.
In a world full of challenges, institutions that cultivate hope are essential. These institutions include for-profit businesses as well as those in the social sector. They help us to see past the darkness of the present.
Hope in the dark
Institutions are a remarkable ecosystem of hope in the world and help to counter the effects of adversity. No one individual embodies this more than my friend Marguerite (Maggie) Barankitse, who is based in Rwanda and currently undergoing breast cancer treatment. Maggie built and sustained a remarkable community and set of institutions in her home country of Burundi called Maison Shalom, a community that provided access to health care, education, job training and culture to over 20,000 orphan children in the wake of a brutal massacre during the Burundian civil war.
David Toole wrote an essay about Maggie called “Hope in the Dark.” He writes about how Maggie has never stopped innovating solutions despite all the suffering and horror she’s witnessed firsthand. This is because she knows that, no matter what happens, God’s love will always prevail.
Her community for orphans in Burundi grew into an entire village of more than 200 houses and included a bank, a crèche, a hospital, a hotel, a shop, a resource center for learning sewing and computer science, a mechanic training school and a movie theater. She even placed a swimming pool over the site of a massacre so children’s eyes might be cleansed, “like the waters of baptism.”
Now living in exile in Rwanda, Maggie has fought for education for children and university students in refugee camps, eventually starting the Community Center Oasis of Peace for schoolchildren, which offers psychological and social support to victims of torture and rape, and to implement activities of sustainable development in areas such as health. Her pattern is the same: Help children in need heal from trauma, improve their quality of life and give them opportunities to transcend their circumstances through sustainable development. These are the best uses of institutional power.
A glimpse of what’s possible
Whether it’s a school that provides an education and a path out of poverty, a hospital that offers lifesaving care or a sustainable business achieving social impact, institutions play a vital role in promoting hope. They offer a glimpse of what is possible.
So what are vibrant institutions, and why are they crucial for human flourishing, cultivating hope and reweaving the social fabric?
First, vibrant institutions provide a space for people to come together and build something bigger than themselves. They provide structures that enable us to pursue our common goals and cultivate our shared habits and expectations. Without them, we would be adrift, unable to cooperate effectively or build lasting relationships essential to human flourishing.
Second, vibrant institutions are a force for good in the world, helping to overcome future challenges. They serve as incubators of leadership. Their dynamic internal cultures attend to the diversity of people’s gifts, nurturing people to develop the virtues, skills and perspectives that make transformative leadership possible.
The Christian roots of creativity and innovation
In its early years, Christians were known for their groundbreaking congregations and institutions across a variety of sectors and their inventive approach to education and formation. This creativity and innovation led to significant numerical growth among Christians and deeper discipleship and social engagement. Christians created the first hospitals in the history of the West. Other innovative institutions include monastic communities that have lasted for decades and even centuries, and it is no less true of such institutions as colleges, congregations, businesses or L’Arche communities or hospices. Christianity’s dynamism also transformed the assumptions, convictions, practices and relationships of the broader cultures in which Christians lived.
In the centuries since its founding, Christianity has been responsible for establishing a number of institutions that have had a profound impact on the course of history. These include hospitals and schools and businesses, as well as institutions designed to care for the poor and needy. The Christian faith has also been a powerful force for social reform, spearheading movements to abolish slavery and promote equality.
These institutions have embodied hope for a life-giving future. That imagination has been transformative down through the centuries. Today, its influence can be seen in everything from our politics and laws to our literature and art, including music.
Create the beauty
On a Wednesday night during my first spring at Belmont, Garth Brooks came to campus. A few nights prior, Russia had invaded Ukraine, so tensions were high among the students. He came out and spent two and a half hours answering questions and singing favorite songs. Early on, a young woman asked him: “It feels like the world is falling apart, and it feels like it’s self-indulgent for me to want to be a songwriter. Can you help me?”
He paused, and then he said: “There will be times when it feels like the world, or your life, is falling apart. In all those times, the world and you will continue to need beauty. So rather than thinking of songwriting as a matter of self-indulgence, I want you to double down because you can help create that beauty. You can help inspire beauty and love in others, and that can be a powerful witness.”
As tears welled in my eyes, I was reminded again of the transcendent power of the “Hallelujah” chorus during my father’s funeral and the institution of church and community surrounding us in the darkest of times that made that moment possible.
We cannot afford to crumble under battered dreams and shattered hopes. We must pick up the pieces and make something beautiful from the rubble. Rebuilding and participating in vibrant institutions can help us do that — together.
(L. Gregory Jones is the president of Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to his appointment at Belmont, he served as the longtime dean of Duke Divinity School. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)