This past weekend, while students gathered outside on the lawn to enjoy warm temperatures, a group of 45 students gathered at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center for the Fourth Annual Sustainability Summit.
This year’s theme: justice. Environmental justice, social justice and the drive to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness as a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24). This is all to facilitate a conversation surrounding ways to create change in one’s own life and community.
The weekend began with the showing of the documentary “Eagle Gone” by film-maker Terry Doran, which explores the story of Native Americans in Indiana.
Tom Hartzell, the coordinator of the residential undergraduate programs and environmental educator at Merry Lea served as the primary planner for the weekend and invited speakers Gilberto Perez, senior director of intercultural development and educational partnerships, Laura Pontius, an immigration attorney, and Bekah Schrag, senior, to play a part in shaping the weekend’s events.
“I invited Gilberto to speak in the hopes that he could help students from other schools learn how to expand intercultural awareness on their own campuses,” said Hartzell. “Laura was invited to help students understand the legal system behind U.S. immigration, so that they can most effectively work on their campuses to resist deportation and trafficking. Bekah was invited because of her extensive background. She has completed SST in Peru, the Agroecology Summer Intensive at Merry Lea, and the Sustainability Leadership Semester at Merry Lea. Those experiences set her up perfectly to lead a compelling workshop on food justice and sustainability.”
Saturday evening featured a coffeehouse-type event with live music and open mic time. Goshen College alumni Jane Litwiller and Nayla Jimenez provided the music, playing an array of justice-themed songs.
The open mic time proved to be remarkably meaningful. Many students shared heart-felt words of poetry, most of which they had written themselves.
“I am so glad that the Creative Arts Series was included this year,” said Hartzell. “The need for people to express themselves creatively is often overlooked or brushed aside, but it is crucial for our well-being. These artful presentations were truly meaningful and brought tremendous healing and renewal to both the individuals and the group as a whole.”
The keynote speaker of the weekend was Katerina Friesen, who is currently working as a pastor in Elkhart. Her background includes an array of experiences that mirror the themes of the weekend: the intersections of faith, sustainability and justice.
As a student at Wheaton College, Friesen participated in the Human Needs and Global Resources (HUNGR) program. That experience deepened her intercultural understanding of the world.
More recently, she studied at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary where she was instrumental in the adoption of many sustainable practices on their campus. She has spent time protesting at Standing Rock and brought back moving stories of environmental injustice.
Besides engaging the speakers and listening to one another, on Saturday morning students participated in an environmental justice-themed hike led by Joel Pontius, assistant professor in the Sustainability and Environmental Education Department (SEED) at Goshen College.
“A highlight from the walk was shared silence around a very old red oak tree and later conversation considering what it means to conduct ourselves in ways that respect all of the diverse life that is part of the past, present, and future of a particular place,” said Pontius. “We also shared ideas in a place where Potawatomi and Miami people, mountain lions, elk and black bears have likely walked in the not-so-distant past. I was grateful for the students’ thoughtful and insightful reflections.”
Bridgette Webb, a sophomore environmental science major, was one of the Goshen College students that participated in the Summit.
“The highlight of my experience was getting to know other students who care about the environment just as much as I do,” she said. “There were students from various colleges, including Calvin, Hope and Taylor. There were also various disciplines represented including nursing, sustainability, biology and environmental science and people from freshman to senior classes which made it a unique opportunity to hear other people’s perspectives on sustainability. We learned a lot from one another.”
Hartzell said, “I hope students left feeling equipped to work for sustainability and justice on their own campus communities. I hope they left with strong relationships within a network of supportive, like-minded peers, and I hope those relationships serve them well long into the future. Finally, I hope they left with hope! The issues we tackled are daunting and will require resilience, and therefore must be met with a hopeful spirit of love.”
Hartzell’s hopes rang true for Webb.
“I left the conference with more hope for the future of the climate and the earth because I could see how passionate other people are for this issue,” she said. “I feel that this conference prepared us for more discussions and even actions in the future relating to sustainability.”