This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Seminars help teens think about identity, faith, future

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Among a variety of topics covered by more than 100 youth seminars, many of the most popular ones sought to help teens think about identity.

Two youth practice self-defense moves during “Mennonite Martial Arts: The Use of Assertive Force in Nonviolence,” a learning experience led by Steve Thomas, Tim Peebles and Marlene Kroeker. — Lowell Brown for MWR
Two youth practice self-defense moves during “Mennonite Martial Arts: The Use of Assertive Force in Nonviolence,” a learning experience led by Steve Thomas, Tim Peebles and Marlene Kroeker. — Lowell Brown for MWR

Brenda Yoder, an educator and counselor in northern Indiana, drew a crowd to her seminar, “Blurred Lines,” on finding personal strengths and letting go of weaknesses.

Yoder placed tips for maintaining identity and holding on to personal strengths in the context of teens today growing up with social media.

“You are increasingly connected to everyone in the world,” she said. “As a culture we’re trying to figure out what to do with that.”

She led self-reflection activities, discussed applicable Bible verses and had teens share pressures they feel with one another.

“You can accept yourself for your strengths and lesser strengths and say this is the way God made me,” she said.

Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach and Timothy Seidel, both members of Mennonite Palestine Israel Network, asked attendees to consider their identities as an introduction to their seminar, “Why Can’t Israelis and Palestinians Just Get Along?”

“[Identity] very much shapes Israelis and Palestinians as well,” Lyndaker Schlabach said.

They examined the words most frequently seen in headlines about Israel and Palestine.

“Which stories have we heard and why?” Lyndaker Schlabach asked.

Attendees said they often hear more from Israel’s perspective as a result of the strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

Lyndaker Schlabach said when talking or listening about the conflict, it’s important to keep in mind: “What is the side that we’re not hearing as much?”

Seidel told about Zochrot, an organization working for peace by raising awareness of Nakba, the 1948 dispossession of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. More awareness can help expand the dominant story of identity there.

Business and branding

Hans Weaver talked about his identity as an entrepreneur in a seminar, “How to be Entrepreneurs with a Social Mission.”

It led him to found MennoTea, a bottled tea company, with Niles Graber Alvarez while at Goshen (Ind.) College. They run the business in Lancaster, Pa., where they are focusing on making it more socially conscious.

“Next year in Lancaster we’re going to have a 3.5-acre plot for a mint field,” he said. They currently purchase mint from Washington and Ohio and hope to reduce the environmental impact of shipping.

They also plan to launch a seasonal mint fruit tea variety for the two months of each year the featured fruit is in season within 150 miles of Lancaster.

Rachel Swartzendruber Miller, vice president of admissions at Hesston (Kan.) College, talked about brand identity in “Whiz Kid, Jock, Golden Child or Slob: Building Your Personal Brand.”

She led youth through an exercise to consider how others perceived them and how they represent themselves in contexts like social media or their faith lives. Each student developed four words to describe their brand.

“How does your brand change over time and how does it stay uniquely you and also leave some room for change?” she asked attendees.

She also posed the question: “How does the Mennonite brand intersect with our brand?” and offered her own ideas of what the Mennonite brand is.

Esther and Stewart Nafziger, of Harrisonburg, Va., led a seminar, “Me First. Loving Yourself in Order to Love Your Neighbor.”

Taking “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a guiding rule, they pointed out how Mennonites tend to focus on the love of neighbor first or only, sometimes to the point of low self-esteem.

“This commandment has become a one-sided commandment for us,” Esther said. But love of neighbors should be an equal part of the commandment as love of self.

“[We] have a tendency to be more unkind toward ourselves than we would ever be toward others,” Stewart said.

They ended with a centering exercise as a tool to develop self-compassion.

Science and faith

Another popular seminar was “Can Science and Faith Be Friends?” by Stephen Harnish, Bluffton (Ohio) University math professor.

“Really, for the benefit of all, they must be,” he said, discussing his own journey allowing the two to intersect.

Attendees named some of the conflicts they see: evolution vs. creation, age of the universe, life on other planets, how to explain spirit and soul scientifically, Bible stories that are scientifically impossible and more.

“So often we get into this conflict, struggle and debate and don’t see the most important issues,” Harnish said.

He offered a variety of books and resources that would examine those issues with regard to both faith and science.

Other seminar topics included service, dating, identity, prayer, the Middle East, career considerations, spreading the gospel, humor, sports, family conflict, anger, worship planning, media, staying organized and more.

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