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 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 conference organizer Gerald Mast, a Bluffton professor of communication.
“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.”
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 address, Bush said Smith — also a Mennonite historian — lived during a time of national and international crises not unlike today.
Smith “continued to lay out a usable past for his church,” reminding fellow Mennonites “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. In a time of rampant violence, they witnessed faithfully to the ways of peace,” Bush said.
Smith taught those concepts to his students, first at Goshen (Ind.) College and then for more than 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.”
Smith also took the Mennonite message into the public sphere as a frequent speaker both in person and on regional radio.
“He retained an absolute confidence in the power of ideas and in their capacity to change the world,” Bush said. “It’s not a bad model for us Mennonite educators today.”
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, Man.], 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 of Latinos being mostly irrelevant during the civil rights movement was a fabrication.
“Truth is, Latinos were at the center,” he said. They worked for better services for migrant farm workers, among other things.
Latinos in the United Farm Workers movement engaged with Mennonites in California, where 50 years ago the UFW launched the most successful agricultural strike and boycott in U.S. history.
“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.”
He said understanding the story of engagement between the two groups is one way to expand Mennonite studies and, more broadly, ethnic studies.
Sara Wenger Shenk, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., based her Oct. 18 keynote message at First Mennonite Church on Ezekiel 47:1-12. The prophet saw life-giving water flowing “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.
“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.
“May our Anabaptist Mennonite schools be in the vanguard of that spiritual awakening.”
The conference also featured about 50 workshops and 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” by Merrill Ewert, president emeritus of Fresno (Calif.) Pacific University.
Time to collaborate
“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 said. “This is forcing our schools to provide more financial aid even as our students are forced to take on more debt.”
Such challenges create an uneven playing field as families with fewer resources struggle to send students to college.
“Our colleges will be forced to cut costs and compete in a more challenging social, economic and political environment,” Ewert said. “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.
“This thread established that the Mennonite educational heritage offers a great gift in the teaching and practice of peacemaking,” he said. “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.
“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.”