A Hero's Journey: Dr. Linda Armstrong Chisholm

11 August 2019

A Hero's Journey

A Hero’s Journey


January 20, 1940 – July 24, 2019

Dr. Linda Armstrong Chisholm’s mastery of service-learning for collegians not only led to cofounding in 1982 with Howard Berry the International Partnership for Service-Learning, but to publication in 2000 of her seminal guide Charting A Hero’s Journey (International Partnership for Service Learning, 2000). 

Now with her death, it is appropriate to reflect on charting her life journey itself.  In the book’s introduction, she quotes Joseph Campbell:

The hero… is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations…Such a one’s vision, ideas and aspirations… are eloquent, not of the present disintegrating society and psyche, but of the unquenched source through which society is reborn.  His solemn task and deed… is to return… to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed. (from The Hero with a Thousand Faces.)

So let’s trace some of Linda’s footsteps in her own words from her baccalaureate sermon at Virginia Theological Seminary in 2015:

“My earliest church memory was being handed a pair of snubbed nose scissors, the kind all five-year old’s hate, believing as they do that they are quite old enough for the pointy kind. As I struggled to cut my green construction paper into a shamrock, the Sunday school teacher was explaining the Trinity. The Father, Son and especially the Holy Ghost were mystifying. But looking at my shamrock, I did understand the three in one idea.

“Later I was to learn there are four gospellers, each with his own “take” on the life of Jesus. And two stories of creation in the book of Genesis.  My church was teaching me that God shows himself in a variety of ways, that one person alone can never capture the entirety of God, that we benefit when we listen and learn about the vision of God held by others, that we understand God more fully when we are in communion and, it is best when we are not too sure of our beliefs about God’s properties. (This was remarkable teaching in the Bible Belt of the 1940s and 1950s.)  

“Simultaneously, I was learning about paradox. Now of course, I would not have been able to call it that as child, but when I was told that the baby in the feeding stall was a king, I accepted that contradiction of the usual order. As an eight-year-old I sang in the children’s choir of my parish church. Oh, how smug I felt as an Episcopalian for none of my Baptist or Catholic friends knew or got to sing my favorite Christmas hymn, In the Bleak Midwinter. My favorite verse was the second:

Angels and Archangels may have hovered there,

Seraphim and Cherubim thronged the air, 

But to his mother only, a stable place sufficed 

Our Lord God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. 

“And soon enough I was told about the cross that in the Roman Empire was the ultimate in pain and humiliation.  But, I learned that for Christians it is the symbol of victory. Power made perfect in weakness. The Great Paradox. 

“The message that was being taught is that we are well advised to look twice, for things are not always what they seem on the surface, that at any time there may be a deeper reality lurking. The creed reinforced this way of thinking as I learned and weekly repeated that I believe in things seen and unseen. 

“This idea was given another dimension when, as a fifth grader, I acted in a church play. It was based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, Where Love is, There is God.    It is about an old Russian shoemaker who in a dream is told that before Christmas Day dawns, the Christ Child will have visited him. 

“Oh, how I wanted to be the Christ Child, but that part went instead to a delicate, blue-eyed, curled-haired blond. I was a beggar at the shoemaker’s door. Although disappointed it was me, he nonetheless gave to me the food he had prepared for the Christ child. 

“You know the rest of the plot: ‘Whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren you have done to me.’ My church was teaching me that serving others is not just an act of kindness or justice or part of the liberal agenda though it may be and indeed should be all of those things. The church was saying that in service to those in need we encounter the holy. 

“Many years later I became president of the Association of Episcopal Colleges. We created and sponsored programs of service-learning in which first dozens, then hundreds, and finally thousands of college students of any college or university, any religion or none were engaged in serious, substantive and long term service, some in the United States, others in locations around the world. As they returned from the Holy Cross Mission at Bolahun in Liberia, Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta, the Pine Ridge Lakota Reservation in South Dakota, from inner city Glasgow or Guadalajara or another of the dozens of locations, they told stories that came to the same points: that they were the ones served, that they learned things that they could have learned no other way, that they understood truths hitherto not-perceived.


One student, the daughter of a priest, told of her fear as she anticipated her service at a hospital for people with severe physical disabilities. “But they, she reported, were focused on me and my needs, “Did I like the food? Was I lonely so far away from family?” Today she heads a residential treatment center in Pittsburgh. Another learned that the man who followed her each day from the bus stop to the school in Kingston, Jamaica where she was teaching was not the stalker she imagined, but had volunteered to see that she was safe. From then on they walked side by side. Both students encountered the holy.”

Linda’s path into global and Episcopal higher education unfolded naturally from her doctorate in education at Columbia University, to teaching, and then to administration at Rockland Community College outside New York City that included international and intercultural settings.  Seeing the power of international experience as a means of challenging students to define their lives, she co-founded the Partnership for Service Learning with Howard A. Berry, director of the International College at Rockland. When in 1985, Leon Botstein, president of the Association of Episcopal Colleges, called Linda as Executive Director, she continued with the Partnership as an avenue of engaging AEC students, with the premise that their global family ties were a unique asset of Episcopal Colleges.

Linda continued, “And then the work of the Association of Episcopal Colleges was extended at the founding and development of a new organization Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion (CUAC). Everywhere the British set their flag they also set their church and their academic institutions, making opportunities available to women, and for example, to the untouchables in India and to political refugees in the Philippines…the organization has grown to 131 institutions on six continents.

“College heads, chaplains, faculty and students from these institutions of higher education share in study and service. At their college or university, each with foundations and present ties to a branch of the Anglican Communion, they are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist or Jew.  Through CUAC, they share with each other how they see the face of God. More than once, they, gathered from the corners of the earth, have shown each other things previously unseen. In their service, they have encountered the holy.”

It was only a matter of time before she led the Episcopal Colleges to giving birth to the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion, stepping back themselves as the American Chapter in a broader global family. Between 1988 and 1993, through informal meetings and correspondence among Anglican and Episcopal colleges around the world, she gathered a constituency for an international organization of colleges and universities with ties to the Anglican communion that could be of enormous benefit to all.  International Task Force meetings at Kenyon College in Gambier Ohio, in March 1991 and Japan in December 1992 paved the way for the Inaugural International Conference at Christ Church College, Canterbury. There in March 1993, 141 Conference participants who represented forty-four institutions from ten nations unanimously affirmed CUAC’s inauguration, which was then celebrated with a Eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral led by Archbishop George Carey, who became CUAC’s first patron. 

After the service, as she left the nave, a canon in a flowing black cassock came roaring out and stopped her on the path, saying, “The Archbishop wants to talk to you!”  Soon George Carey appeared and taking her hand said, “Whenever something significant like this comes about, I know that there was a pivotal person who made it happen, and I always want to get to know them better.”  From vision, to building a constituency, from devising ways and means to bringing it to birth and then nurturing it thereafter, Linda Chisholm saw higher education enriched by her church’s colleges and universities, especially when they formed students maturing in the crucible of international community experience.

Returning to her introduction in Charting A Hero’s Journey: “We call the stage of our lives corresponding to the college years of traditional students the formative years, and for good reason.  At this time, childhood assumptions are questioned. The young person either appropriates the values and beliefs of his heritage or adopts new ones.  Basic life patterns are established. The ways in which the young adult comes to think of herself are determining her future.

“It is my response to what seems to be a poverty of spirit in too many colleges students today.  College and university professors around the world are deploring the loss of idealism in the current generation of students. defining themselves primarily as consumers who expect always to be thought ‘right’ and to have others solve the problems they encounter; many students have failed through their narrow vision to see and live up to their potential as agents of good in our time.  They have not taken up the challenges, whether to themselves or to their societies. As educators, we have the responsibility and privilege to place before students a nobler vision of themselves, one that calls them to a higher purpose. This, it seems to me, is one important meaning of the higher learning to which we as college and university teachers have dedicated our lives.”

While over the years, service-learning has become more locally embedded in higher education itself, the annual CUAC Asia Service Learning Conference continues at Trinity University of Asia.  Finally, this February she was the first American and woman to receive CUAC’s Distinguished Fellowship, signed by another Archbishop of Canterbury.

Always an avid gardener, Linda’s interests in social and intellectual history continued in her life after CUAC in a new career as a landscape historian and teacher at the New York Botanical Garden, which led to the publication last summer of her 500-page magnum opus, A History of Landscape Design in 100 Gardens (Timber Press, 2018). It’s her trademark global study, in which she interspersed cultures to put them in conversation with each other, as she had always done. For instance, Claude Monet’s lush garden at Giverny, with its meditative Japanese bridge, is juxtaposed with an exemplar, the Saihō-jiMoss Temple Garden in Kyoto Japan.

Over our thirty-five years, Linda was the most outspoken, intense listener I have known.  As General Secretary, it’s been a grace to follow in her footsteps, knowing that I could rely on her counsel and friendship.  She rose in the morning with a clear sense of purpose to learn and to contribute. She always set the bar high for herself and others, and leaves for all who knew her a mighty legacy to follow.  She knew adversity in her many heroic years surviving cancer, which this year changed to hospice and preparing for holy dying. It is said that it is enough for a teacher to be a few lessons ahead of her students.  Linda’s ability to be such an agile guide to others on The Hero’s Journey came naturally, because she was on it herself, teaching the lesson she learned of life renewed.

The Rev. Canon James G. Callaway, DDGENERAL SECRETARY

Contributions to the Linda A. Chisholm fund of the Colleges & Universities of the Anglican Communioncan be made to 815 Second Avenue, New York, NY  10017, U.S.Aor to www.cuac.org/donate