Bluffton conference draws 120
BLUFFTON, Ohio—Representatives from across the spectrum of Mennonite education gathered at Bluffton University Oct. 16-18 for a conference on the network’s past, present and future.
The weekend event attracted 120 attendees, from elementary schools to colleges and including presidents, scholars, teachers and graduates.
“The conference celebrated the past achievements and considered the future challenges facing Mennonite schools, including sustainability, church-relatedness, teaching peace, innovation, online learning, faith development, cultural diversity, and religion and science,” said Dr. Gerald Mast, a Bluffton professor of communication and organizer of the event.
“The discussions and knowledge generated were a fitting tribute to the life of Professor C. Henry Smith, the early 20th-century education pioneer whose newly released biography this conference celebrated,” he said.
Dr. Perry Bush, a professor of history at Bluffton, is the author of “Peace, Progress and the Professor: The Mennonite History of C. Henry Smith.” In his conference keynote following an Oct. 17 banquet, Bush said that Smith—also a Mennonite historian—lived during a time of national and international crises not unlike current conditions.
But in books and articles he wrote, Smith “continued to lay out a usable past for his church,” reminding fellow Mennonites “of their rich historical legacy; of their Anabaptist ancestors who prized the sanctity of individual conscience, who dared to insist to the states of their day that it was Christ—not you—who is Lord; and in a time of rampant violence, they witnessed faithfully to the ways of peace,” Bush told conferees.
Smith taught those same concepts to his students, first at Goshen College and then, for over 30 years, at Bluffton, “insisting that this kind of Mennonite education was critical to the very future of the church and exactly what their society needed,” said Bush.
Smith also took the Mennonite message into the public sphere, as a frequent speaker to a variety of audiences, both in person and on regional radio.
“He was a devoted educator. To the end of his life, he retained an absolute confidence in the power of ideas and in their capacity to change the world,” his biographer said.
“It’s not a bad model for us Mennonite educators today,” he added, saying he suspects Smith and his colleagues “would simply tell us to keep doing what we are doing,” including grounding young people “in the best teaching of our shared traditions.”
The previous night, Dr. Felipe Hinojosa, an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University, discussed “what it might mean to do Mennonite studies not in isolation (defined by Mennonite centers such as Goshen or Winnipeg), but in relation to other racial and ethnic groups.”
Hinojosa, author of the 2014 book “Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture,” said his research for the book made him realize that a narrative about Latinos being “mostly irrelevant” during the civil rights movement was a fabrication. “Truth is, Latinos were at the center,” he said, noting that they worked for better services for migrant farm workers, among other things.
Latinos in the United Farm Workers movement also engaged with Mennonites in California, where, 50 years ago, the UFW launched the most successful agricultural strike and boycott in U.S. history, Hinojosa noted.
“That moment, and the struggle that emerged from it in the 1960s and ‘70s, involved a small, but wealthy, segment of Mennonite growers, all of whom became entangled in a struggle and a movement that, frankly, they barely understood,” he said. “These tense and contested interactions with Filipinos and Mexicans positioned the once rural, ethnic and quiet Mennonites as part and parcel of a white and racist grower segment in the San Joaquin Valley.”
Understanding the complex story of engagement between the two groups is one way to expand Mennonite studies and, more broadly, ethnic studies, he contended, saying “Mennonite identity is a plurality.”
Dr. Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, based her Oct. 18 keynote message at Bluffton’s First Mennonite Church on Ezekiel 47:1-12. In the passage, she pointed out, life-giving water flows “not from the king’s palace but from the Lord’s temple.” As a result, the water nourishes trees that will bear fresh fruit every month, as well as leaves for healing, according to verse 12.
“What I want more than anything for our schools is that as communities of learners, we come alive to the wondrous love that vitalized this world into being,” she said.
“We need nothing less than another great awakening, a spiritual awakening to fortify the leaders of the new generation with the strongest brew of wondrous, strong, vitalizing love imaginable,” Wenger Shenk added. “May our Anabaptist Mennonite schools be in the vanguard of that spiritual awakening.”
“The leaves of the trees healing the nations. May it be so with our schools.”
The conference also featured about 50 workshops and panel and roundtable discussions on Mennonite education topics from early childhood through graduate school. Among them was “The Changing Landscape of Higher Education: What it Means for Mennonite Colleges and Universities,” presented by Dr. Merrill Ewert, president emeritus of Fresno Pacific University.
“These are challenging times for Mennonite colleges and universities,” said Ewert, who compiled data from the U.S. Center for Educational Statistics and other studies to document change in higher education.
“We are seeing a decline in the number of traditional-age college students in the U.S., which means that higher education institutions are competing for fewer students who are increasingly diverse, less prepared academically and have greater financial need,” he maintained. “This is forcing our schools to provide more financial aid even as our students are forced to take on more debt. These challenges are also creating an uneven playing field as families with fewer resources struggle to send their students to college.
“Going forward,” Ewert summarized, “our colleges will be forced to cut costs and compete in a more challenging social, economic and political environment. To thrive, we will have to engage in greater collaboration, use technology more effectively and address new markets. The core Mennonite values of community, collaboration and a commitment to growth and development can facilitate that process.”
Mast said “a remarkable thread” ran through many of the presentations and panels he attended.
“This thread established that the Mennonite educational heritage offers a great gift in the teaching and practice of peacemaking, and that this gift must increasingly be displayed not just in how we explain the divided and warring world around us but also in the way that we understand and live with the tensions and conflicts in our own settings, including the culture and practices of Mennonite educational communities,” he explained.
“The call in many presentations—including all of the keynote addresses—was to face and embrace the seemingly irreconcilable divisions and unavoidable catastrophes of our time, because in these experiences, we are able to discover the presence of the divine and the knowledge of peace.
“This has implications for the students and faculty that we recruit to our campuses, the way we deal with cultural and ideological differences on our campuses and the way we teach the Bible and theology as a ground for life and vocation, not to mention the way that we design our curriculum and relate to our students and one another.”
The event was sponsored by the C. Henry Smith Trustees and the Mennonite Historical Society, as well as the university.
Dr. James Harder (right), president of Bluffton University, talks with (left to right) Dr. Loren Swartzendruber, president of Eastern Mennonite University; Dr. Merrill Ewert, president emeritus of Fresno Pacific University; and Dr. Lee Snyder, Bluffton president emeritus, at the Mennonite education conference hosted by Bluffton Oct. 16-18.