It’s a good thing Dr. Boyd Wilson did not take rejection personally when he first applied for a teaching position at Hope College over three decades ago. Because, you see, if he did, he may have never taught a single Hope student about world religions or the history of Christianity or conceptions of God.
He may have never trekked hundreds of Hope students through the streets of Calcutta or Delhi or Mumbai. Instead, his resiliency served him well to ultimately get to the place where he would spend 34 years doing the very thing for which he is known and beloved: teaching lessons on faith and empathy, about India and God.
In the spring of 1981, a Hope position had been posted for a religion professor to teach half of his classes in Christian theology and half in world religions, and Wilson, with all but his doctoral dissertation complete, felt the job was obviously, providentially perfect for him. After all, he had studied both fields extensively (for a master’s of theology from Wheaton Graduate School and for a Ph.D. on Indian philosophy/religions at the University of Iowa) and now here was a position – quite unique at this Christian institution – that appeared to have his name written all over it.
With one exception. The reality of that unfinished doctorate.
Even without it, Wilson still applied and landed an interview on campus. It seemed to go well until he received a thanks-but-no-thanks letter from Dr. Wayne Boulton, then a Hope religion professor and chair of the search committee. Even though the rejection letter was disheartening, Wilson caught a glimmer of hope scratched in blue ink at the bottom of the page. “Wayne had added a handwritten note – ‘You should know that you were very high on our list. Sorry you won’t be joining us. Godspeed.’ Now, I had been turned down from a number of jobs, but this was the first time I felt good about it,” laughs Wilson. “I learned then that when you don’t have your degree in hand, you probably shouldn’t be applying for college teaching jobs.”
When the spring of 1982 rolled around, lo and behold, the same Hope job posting reappeared. This time with his dissertation complete, Wilson reapplied, feeling a bit nervous but strongly encouraged by Boulton’s earlier personal comments. On attempt number two, his candidacy took, and with it came a professor to Hope whose “lectures” are like performance art, so animated and enthused is he in the classroom. Numerous teaching honors have been bestowed upon him by Hope students since, but perhaps the best telltale sign of any professor’s effectiveness and endearment is the word-of-mouth, student-to-student endorsements that travel quickly around campus at registration time and sound something like this: “You’ll have to work really hard, but you gotta take a class with that guy.” Those words have been spoken repeatedly about Wilson.
“Boyd's main attribute that makes him a wonderful professor is his commitment to students and their learning,” says Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger, associate dean of teaching and learning, professor of religion, and Wilson’s longtime colleague. “He is very thoughtful, even meticulous, about everything that goes into teaching his classes, from the location (of his classrooms), to readings and grading. He is always thinking about what promotes student learning.”
Such as the writing of his own textbook for his extremely popular World Religion course. It’s a tome he never planned to publish in hardback, nor does he see any royalties from its existence. Costing students just the price of its printed production fee ($10) at the Hope copy center, Introduction to Some of the Religions of the World is a customized text exclusively used by him and his students. Within the four-part volume (a course outline book, two subject volumes, and a supplementary primary reader), students are shown solid footnoted, internally outlined scholarship while delving into the tenets and theologies, beliefs and behaviors of Hinduism, Islam, Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism the Wilson way. But at 665 pages and representing decades of work, why not have it officially published by an academic publishing house to receive a return on his intellectual investment?
“Because no one else could use it,” admits Wilson. “It is geared to my idiosyncratic personality and teaching style.”
Wilson came upon a portion of that style when he served as a youth pastor for a time after his undergraduate days at Trinity College and during his master’s thesis writing days. He calls that one-and-a-half-year period his “career experiment” and admits it was not a good fit. One good thing came from it, though: the position showed him that he was a highly capable teacher after conducting a six-week series on Presbyterian doctrine for the church’s consistory. So he headed to Iowa with teaching in mind, and there became fascinated by India and its religions due mostly to his “brilliant, quirky advisor. I was hooked (on India) because of him,” he says. “I wanted to know what he knew. And I wanted to do what he did.”
Which is exactly what happened. Once at Hope, Wilson stayed true to that aspiration, and a culture-immersing, religion-exploring, history-revealing May Term in India became another Wilson trademark. Offered since the mid-1990s, the course was a popular summer offering as the religion prof took hundreds of students on an 11-cities-in-26-days Indian pilgrimage, the last of which was offered in 2015. Most students would define the trip as a venture in sensory and cultural overload descending with the speed and fury of an unswerving rickshaw driver.
In India, color is tasted; sounds are smelled; noise is seen. In India, jasmine scents overcome the sight of steaming cow dung; traffic bedlam is seen in the rapidity of honking horns; and, shrine art has flavor. It is a place of new wonder, and Wilson’s students see it “through the eyes of people often very different from them, particularly people whose religious traditions are different… In addition to informing students about how other people live, Boyd's courses have promoted empathy for others and prompted many students to question the assumptions implicit in their own culture,” says Bouma-Prediger of some of Wilson’s teaching objectives.
Because India is Wilson’s cultural and emotional second-home, his students – who purchase and can only wear traditional Indian garments while there, thus leaving their one-change of Western clothing packed inside their bags – are given a well-planned itinerary to put into practice what their professor teaches them in theory. That is, they begin to look and appreciate the humanity of Indian people. Not as objects to be studied but as humans to be treated with dignity and compassion.
“Some fondest moments happened when I saw my students playing with little beggar children,” recalls Wilson, whose wife, Sara Sebald ’86 Wilson, and step-daughter, Becky Schmidt ’99, also each accompanied him on an India trip. “These children did not choose begging. Many have been kidnapped or sold into it. But there is one response to that: to treat them as human beings. And Hope students do this time and time again.
“One year, I’ll never forget, a student pulled coloring books out of her backpack and there she was with a whole classroom of little beggar kids, coloring on the ground of a train platform. Normally, these children are intentionally sad because who gives to a happy beggar, right? But to see these children break into a smile and break their role because they had stopped being beggars and started being children for a time – these pictures in my mind melt my heart and will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Wilson will now pack up those memories – along with his 2,500 books and myriads of religious art and artifacts from his Lubbers Hall office – and take them into retirement, happily knowing he taught about more than religion and India at Hope. He taught about benevolence and grace.