Recently, two groups of Goshen College history students and faculty attended Mennonite history conferences held at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas and Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The conferences provoked conversation about two important issues: Mennonite involvement in the Holocaust and the past and future of Mennonite higher education.Katie Yoder and Miguel Rodriguez, junior history majors, accompanied Dr. Jan Bender Shetler, professor of history to North Newton for the conference titled “Mennonites and the Holocaust.” This was the first conference ever to address the history of Mennonite complicity and participation in the violence of Nazi Germany in the 20th Century.
The conference, although formatted academically, was a forum for conversation about the emotionally-charged topics that come with reconciling these pieces of Mennonite history.
German Mennonite Joachim Wieler shared the story of his struggle to reconcile the images of his father’s faith with the reality of his military service in the Wehrmacht, the army of the Third Reich. Wieler discovered the reality of his father’s support for the Fuhrer and celebration of the Nazi cause through a box of letters that outlined these positions.
Another speaker, Doris Bergen, described Mennonites as “neighbors, killers, enablers, and witnesses” in the Holocaust.
Yoder reflected on her experience at the event, saying, “Mennonites, of whatever ethnic or religious variety, are struggling to come to terms with what this means for understanding their past and envisioning their future.”
Shetler noted the way in which this conference complemented classroom learning for the students involved. “The Bethel conference was a very sobering combination of academic learning and personal memory. It showed the important connections between these two genres that are not always evident in the classroom. This is when the relevance of history in coming to terms with things that many would like to forget becomes so obvious.”
The second conference, held at EMU, was focused on a lighter topic. The conference was aimed at a discussion of the shared histories of the five Mennonite higher learning institutions of the United States: Goshen, Eastern Mennonite, Bethel, Hesston, and Bluffton. The weekend event featured historians like GC board member Susan Fisher Miller, author of “Culture for Service,” the history of Goshen College, as well as the authors of centennial histories of the other schools.
From Goshen College, John Roth and Philipp Gollner, history professors were in attendance, joined by senior history major Jenae Longenecker and sophomore Elijah Lora, as well as former GC president Vic Stoltzfus.
The conference’s aim was to shape a “usable past” from the history of Mennonite colleges. The five Mennonite colleges were originally founded to offer education to young Mennonites while protecting them from the corrupting influences of the broader world. More than a century later, however, Goshen College and its sister schools are not populated primarily by Mennonite students but by learners from a diverse range of religious backgrounds. Goshen and the other schools have new goals, like helping students learn to be global citizens.
“It was fascinating to hear scholars wrestle with the challenge of serving diverse student bodies while retaining the Mennonite identities these schools were founded on,” said Longenecker. “I think we see that very conversation playing out at Goshen today.”
Three sessions took place on Saturday, March 24. In the first, historians presented on the purposes and distinctives of each of the Mennonite colleges. The second session was devoted to the challenges the Mennonite colleges have faced, including financial and enrollment-related challenges as well as competition between the schools. The final session was an opportunity for brainstorming about the future of Mennonite higher education, informed by present enrollment statistics.
Longenecker commented on the impressive role of faculty throughout the history of Mennonite colleges: “The colleges have survived periods financial instability by taking mandatory donations out of faculty salaries or even, in one case, paying them in chickens.”
Dr. Phillip Gollner, a history professor in his second year at Goshen, said this of the conference: “For students as well as for me, as a new member of the Goshen College family, it was refreshing to learn how peculiar the visions of ‘Mennonite’ higher education really are in our current context. How diverse its history has been. And I think we all left challenged by what futures may lie ahead.”
This conference, initiated and hosted by EMU in celebration of its centennial this year, comes at a time when Mennonite colleges serve historically low numbers of Mennonite students. Beginning last summer, the Mennonite colleges started to collaborate in their recruitment efforts at the bi-annual Mennonite Convention.
Dr. John Roth also found the conversation stimulating, reflecting that “Mennonite colleges and universities, like all institutions of higher learning, are facing lots of challenges right now. The gathering at Harrisonburg was a reminder that thoughtful conversations about the future of the liberal arts in a Christian context are more important now than ever. It was wonderful to engage with colleagues from other schools, and especially gratifying that our students could also participate vigorously in the conversation.”