Back for graduation

May 12, 2014 by

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I’m a product of church schools. Every level of my formal education since age 12 has been within the boundaries of church-related institutions — from a broadly evangelical high school with Mennonite roots, to Mennonite undergraduate, Catholic graduate school and United Meth­odist seminary. My formal teaching experiences, except my first years at a community college, have been at church-related schools from Reformed to evangelical to Catholic, Baptist and Mennonite.

Kriss

Kriss

Last month, I attended the graduation ceremonies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. There was something special about returning to campus 20 years after my own graduation. I was struck by all of the possibility and the beauty again, the opening spring blossoms, the four-year investment in shaping heart, soul, mind, strength, relationships.

It’s a weekend of celebrating both potential and achievement, of taking stock and looking forward.

After 20 years, EMU is different than when I was there. I was in the last graduating class while it was still a college. A generation later, it’s filling out its potential as a multifaceted, multi-campused university. It’s a little less broadly Mennonite in student enrollment and a little more Virginian, but it’s also more cosmopolitan and international.

I listened as the deans, still mostly from Pennsylvania German background, carefully but sometimes imperfectly pronounced student names as they handed out degrees. Lots of graduates were still from Lancaster, Pa., but there were also a few from Afghanistan. During baccalaureate, I sat in between women with Mennonite prayer coverings and one in a Muslim hijab.

At my graduation, the speaker was esteemed Mennonite musician Mary Oyer. This year’s speaker was Leymah Gbowee, an EMU alumna and Nobel Peace Prize winner. I sat under the same bright Virginia sun 20 years later listening to stories of strong and creative women from Africa. Oyer talked about learning African music as a Mennonite mission worker. Gbowee talked about working to transform conflict in her native Liberia.

Her son was one of the graduates. EMU, she said, was a place where he could attend school with “limited partying, limited access to public transportation, a lot of churches and a lot of Jesus.”

Mennonite schools have different gifts and different struggles, as there are fewer traditional Mennonite students to populate their campuses from elementary to graduate level. Our schools have served as a way to “protect” Mennonite students from outside and worldly influences. Other times they have served as exemplars of how Anabaptist values might be lived out loud. In some ways they are both cloister and missional outpost.

Schools must pay attention to the challenges and the possibilities of their own geographies while recognizing the potential for global engagement with responsibility. In this pursuit, both our church and our schools continue to provoke one another with difficult questions and possibilities.

The schools are part of the turbulent flow of church change — sometimes leading, sometimes following. As change challenges the shape of church-rooted education, we’ll need to find ways to strengthen the ties that bind.

Then we can continue together to love the Lord with all of our heart, extending God’s dream for flourishing beyond our familiar ways.

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.


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