The Regenerative School
What role does faith play in our environmental responsibilities and how we relate to the land?
Skip Bivens has a vision, a hands-on idea whose time has come.
“Around 2014, I created a consulting and research company called Empyrean Research,” says Bivens, who holds a Ph.D. in international development studies and a Masters in social policy and planning for developing countries.
“I really had this vision since I was in my 20s of starting a new university, which was built around applied learning and trying to engage with the problems of the world directly as the process of learning – not just thinking about what problems are and thinking about them from a theoretical perspective, but how could you actually learn by engaging with what’s going on.”
Bivens launched Empyrean with the idea of starting a school. Meanwhile, he worked on international research programs, kept his fingers on the pulse of emerging sustainable development goals, and consulted with universities.
“It was an opportunity for me to keep thinking about how we would build a program of our own while helping other institutions improve their programming,” Bivens says.
“Eventually, we wanted to end up with something that’s more like a university, loosely speaking, but we started with this idea of being a school because it gave us a lot of flexibility. In 2018, we created the Regenerative School.”
Located in Fayetteville, Tenn., the Regenerative School (aka the Rē School) is Bivens’ attempt to “operationalize some of these ideas” – “being a community resource, doing hands-on learning – that help the community.”
Bivens is familiar with the Tennessee Valley. He grew up and attended school in Fayetteville. He earned a B.A. at the University of the South in Sewanee before furthering his education at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“When I was at Sewanee in the ’90s, the programs that really gave college students the opportunities to travel and engage with other cultures were primarily within the church,” Bivens notes. “My ideas have obviously evolved and taken on other dimensions, but I really give them credit and other churches credit for being that bridge that often takes young people out of their cultural bubble and brings them out to another culture.
“I think that is a positive thing for everybody. I think that bridge-building those interconnections are really important for people, particularly young people. Particularly in the South, we tend to live in fairly homogenous communities. The diversity that’s here sometimes isn’t necessarily valued the way that it should be,” he says.
“For people to go into a community that they know is going to be different and learn to accept those differences and to try to value those differences and get excited about them – I think it is very educational, that then you can come back to your own community and have a greater appreciation of different cultures that exist.”
If you’re coming to help me, you can go back home.
If we’re coming to set each other free, then let’s walk together.
Learning from first-hand experiences of working with people in the developing world, Bivens believes it is “kind of our responsibility as people of faith to look at how do we atone for past mistakes and past sins.”
Bivens has local and international examples.
“As a person in the South, there’s a lot of history here around land, genocide of the indigenous people, and, obviously, the slavery period that followed,” he says.
“What is our responsibility to try to face those issues and move toward some sort of reconciliation? If they’re the descendants, they’re still paying the consequences of those events. … There need to be real, honest conversations.
“I look at places like South Africa, that have really done that hard work; Rwanda, places that I’ve been that have really tried to address some of these serious conflicts that happened in their countries,” Bivens says.
“They’re trying to become a better place where people can develop more authentic relationships with each other.”
For Bivens, mission work goes beyond showing up, lending a hand, and moving on. “The idea of how people can do mission work runs a little bit to being paternalistic … not really understanding how sophisticated people are at other places.
“If you’re doing mission work and traveling in the name of your church, do not overemphasize the work that you’re doing. Most of the time these communities aren’t necessarily short on labor or skills.
“It really is a chance for people to make connections and build relationships,” he says. “That’s really what the primary motivation is. Particularly when you’re bringing young people together, focus on giving them time to engage with each other and to learn from each other.
“Even when I take students for university program overseas, that idea of learning is central – nobody’s coming to help. That’s not what the point of this work is. It’s really trying to get out in the world and learn and engage with each other.”
Bivens says there is a bigger picture to his mission work. It is a Christian ideal, an eschatological sense of the ultimate vision: If you’re coming to help me, you can go back home. If we’re coming to set each other free, then let’s walk together.
“It is about the liberation of people,” he says. “It isn’t necessarily about material goods. It can be more about people having the freedom to live the lives that they want and not being oppressed by governments. Not being oppressed by other groups within their country. Being able to choose the life and freedoms that they want and live a life of whatever faith profession they want as well.”
For now, the environmental piece of that puzzle is Bivens’ focus. “What role does faith play in our environmental responsibilities and how we relate to the land,” he asks.
“Churches have the capacity, and Christians have the capacity to engage in that work because it’s part of what they’re asked to do as stewards of the earth,” Biven says. “I’m hopeful that these will be things that become more and more common in my community and in other parts of the U.S. as we go forward. Pulling from people’s responsibility and their Christian ethics to do these kinds of work.”
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