Two established Chinese scholars at the forefront of their fields never imagined that one conversation would lead them to study in West Michigan, creating new connections and bringing fresh approaches to research into Reformed thought. But in the summer of 2010, one conversation did just that.
Spouses Jin Li and Mary Ma came to Calvin Theological Seminary (CTS) from Shanghai, China. Li, an economic historian at a prestigious university, had served in campus fellowships and house churches for over a decade in Shanghai while Ma was a sociology faculty member at another esteemed university.
In 2010 Li and Ma were awarded a research grant to conduct a multicity study of urban churches, allowing them to travel to the U.S. for an academic conference. The pair met professor Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College. Smidt introduced them to the work of the seminary.
Ma recalls their first meeting: “[Smidt] boldly witnessed the Reformed faith to a group of Chinese scholars, most of whom were atheists.” Li and Ma, who are Christians, quickly recognized God’s hand in their meeting with the outspoken Smidt.
Li and Ma’s interest in the works of Abraham Kuyper and other Reformed theologians, as well as potential access to Reformed scholars in a wide range of academic disciplines through nearby Calvin College, further solidified their desire to attend the seminary. The couple was admitted for the 2012-13 academic year. After receiving an offer of scholarship support, it was clear that Calvin Seminary would be the next step for the faithful and academically curious duo.
The couple has thrived in the Calvin community. Despite having impressive résumés before starting their Calvin Seminary education, both Li and Ma wholeheartedly agree that their seminary studies have been rich and formative.
“As we expected, CTS proved to be a seminary with solid intellectual groundings,” Ma noted. “The required readings and instruction for each class we took were good quality to prepare us both academically and spiritually. Classics are valued here, but there is also room for theological dialogue about contemporary issues.”
While Li continues his PhD program in philosophical and systematic theology, Ma completed her Master of Theological Studies degree in 2016 and now serves as a senior research fellow at the Henry Institute.
“Although the seminary is always in a flux of change with people joining programs and graduating, there is always a community that cares,” Ma said. “In our experience, this sense of community is not in abstract terms. We have staff members who befriended us and have become our go-to persons when we are in need. Our hearts bonded with them, and we know they will continue to be our confidants and prayer support.”
Calvin Seminary’s international student body is diverse. Historically the seminary has attracted many students from South Korea, but in recent years the list of places students come from has grown. Students regularly come from China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, and Kenya. Overall, 30 countries are represented in the student body. The seminary’s international student population (those coming from outside of North America) has grown from 59 students in 2008 to 88 students in 2017. This growth is exciting for the seminary community, President Julius Medenblik says: “At Calvin Seminary, we have the privilege of meeting Christians from across the world, which helps all of us grow as witnesses of the gospel.”