NORTH NEWTON, KAN. - "To be white was to be a minority. That's a situation I've rarely been in," said Bethel College senior Joy Blackburn, after being part of an audience that heard civil rights leader Jesse Jackson speak at a political rally in Chicago during Bethel's interterm.
Blackburn and the other students in Ami Regier's Understanding Literature course met Jackson after they attended the Jan. 25 live broadcast of his Rainbow Coalition's Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity). The grassroots organization, founded by Jackson, focuses on a variety of political and economic issues related to advocacy for the poor.
Blackburn's experience of being in the minority echoed those of some of the other 14 Bethel students, whose five-day trip to Chicago in January provided a variety of first-time experiences, including interactions with people from various backgrounds and cultures.
Freshman Daniel Unruh appreciated the opportunity to expand his understanding of other religions through visits to a mosque and a Bahai temple. "I enjoyed being part of the worship services of other faiths. It's not every day that I have the chance to see God through a different belief."
For one or two Bethel students, especially for those from central Kansas, it was the first plane ride or the first time on the subway or city bus. For others it was the opportunity to eat new foods like goat curry in one of the many international neighborhoods visited by the group.
Planned by Regier, who is associate professor of English at Bethel College, and staff at the Urban Life Center (ULC), the trip was part of the ULC's LearnChicago Program. The course fulfilled Bethel's three credit-hour Cross-Cultural Learning requirement, which all students must meet before they graduate.
"Going to the city and being part of a tremendously diverse flow of humanity brought home to us a recognition that our sense of reality may often be geographically specific. I think we all felt an increased sense of importance of a wider range of international issues," Regier said.
The group worshiped and shared a meal with members of the Norwood Park Lutheran Church, whose ethnic background was south Asian. The experience was one of several opportunities for students to interact with people from cultures similar to those in the four novels on international human rights that the class had studied on campus during January.
"Probably the most memorable learning experience for me was speaking with several members of the Muslim community," said Blackburn. "In light of recent events in this country, speaking with these people was valuable. It is important for us to be able to understand Muslims as individuals and not just as a religious group. Our interactions with them in Chicago certainly helped with that."
For Blackburn, the highlight of the trip was seeing the murals and mosaics in the Pilsen neighborhood of Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans. The murals document shared histories and current issues.
"There's something redeeming in art, especially community art," Blackburn said. "Seeing the murals created by a community of immigrants, a community that has not had it easy either socially or economically, made me think. The value of art goes beyond aesthetics. Its value is not just to one individual but to an entire community. There's potential for community healing and growth locked inside a can of paint."
The Bethel students also met with an Amnesty International representative, talked with the editor of Sahara Magazine, saw the play "Judgment at Nuremberg" and visited Maxwell Street Market as well as the "new Chinatown" district on Argyle Street. At the Renaissance Society they saw video exhibits related to communal violence along the India-Pakistan border.
"Every day was a learning experience," Unruh said.
Blackburn, who lives in Hesston, is a senior communication arts and English major at Bethel College. She is a 1997 graduate of Western Mennonite High School in Salem, Ore. Unruh is a 2002 graduate of Peabody Burns High School and a Bethel College freshman from Peabody.
Other students on the Chicago trip were Jodie Allison, sophomore from Newton; Kara Bartell, sophomore from Hesston; Snjezana Duvnjak, junior from Wuppertal, Germany; Joel Krehbiel, freshman from Moundridge; Erin Langel, freshman from Omaha, Neb.; Michaela Martens, freshman from Henderson, Neb.; Dennis Nguyen, sophomore from Wichita; Leah Rapp, sophomore from Colorado Springs, Colo.; Joseph Schrag, freshman from Wichita; Emily Skinner, sophomore from Clay Center; Erica Stevens, sophomore from Harper; and David Stucky, sophomore from Moundridge.