Photo: Class of 2020 graduates from Eastern Mennonite School in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Photo by Andrew Gascho As schools begin the difficult work of preparing for a new school year with the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, hope can be found in how Mennonite schools responded through their emphasis on peace, reconciliation and service. Hope was found in positivity. Hesston (Kansas) College sophomore Rachel Miller acknowledged the painful loss of in-person community, noting that college is not just a place. “It’s the students, faculty and staff. I miss the feeling of being in a tight-knit group and always having someone there for me when I need them,” she said, “but we’re still finding ways to connect, and I appreciate that.” Hope was found in leadership.
While administrators at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, grappled with restructuring the institution, implementing safety plans and planning for an uncertain future, educators raced to adapt lesson plans, curricula and teaching methods. Faculty asked students to reflect on the pandemic from theological, peacebuilding and ministerial perspectives. Janna Hunter-Bowman, assistant professor of peace studies and Christian social ethics, changed her Religion and Peace Processes course to include examination of Christians’ differing theological approaches in response to the pandemic. Dan Schrock adapted his Spiritual Guidance Practicum so students could learn to offer spiritual direction by video call as well as in person. Educators at Mennonite schools worked hard to nurture students emotionally and spiritually, providing students and families with resources, online worship and chapel services, Zoom check-in times and ongoing encouragement. “I want students to come away with a feeling of warmth and closeness during this time, not a feeling of stress or anxiety,” said Heidi Byler, third-grade teacher at Eastern Mennonite School in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in a message to parents. “Our goal is to keep moving, not to keep up, and my biggest goal for your kids is a feeling of safety, comfort, and connection during this strange time. All else matters much less.” Hope was found in reimagined community and mutual aid. While COVID-19 made “social distancing” household words, Mennonite schools broke down walls of separation by imagining news ways to connect and lean into their value of community. An AMBS student initiative created a mutual aid fund to share stimulus funds with students in need. Virtual school choirs connected youth and adults around the world to sing with one voice. Teachers reached out to students in new ways, such as Jennifer Rhodes, a second-grade teacher at Quakertown (Pennsylvania) Christian School, who visited her students at their homes — from a safe distance. Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Mennonite School canceled two annual in-person events and replaced them with #LoveBeyondDistances Day, a day of service and giving. Students responded by delivering food to neighbors, writing cards to postal carriers and drawing messages of encouragement on windows and sidewalks. COVID-19 came on the heels of a devastating November earthquake for Lezha Academic Center in Albania. The region was left crippled with little or no medical care or sanitation. As missionaries left the region in spring, school founders Dini and Klementina Shahini of Virginia Mennonite Missions remained committed to serving in Lezha. “Dini and I decided to stay here, not only to supervise online classes but also to maintain an encouraging presence in the community,” Klementina Shahini said. Hope was found in God’s presence. At Kraybill Mennonite School in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, the school was grieving the loss of longtime community member Fred Garber, a former student, board member, patron and pastor, who passed away in March, as well as cancellation of the school’s annual Mother’s Day auction fundraiser. Trying to make the best of the situation, the faculty hosted a drive-through chicken barbecue. “As we were preparing, we checked the mail and there was a check from Everence with a donation in Fred’s memory,” said principal MJ Smith. “The fact that it came on our scheduled auction date was an affirmation of the providence of the Lord. We celebrated this gift as a sign from God that Fred was, indeed, with us. What a blessing!”