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Freedom means moving forward, speaker tells MLK Day audience

January 23rd, 2020

The Bethel Worship Center band performs for the 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration at Bethel.

To help Bethel College celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Jan. 20, Michelle Vann chose to speak about freedom – starting in the New Testament.

Vann is a teacher, speaker, church leader and Christian counselor from Wichita, who came to Bethel at the invitation of senior Jenna Ratzlaff and Bethel’s Diversity Council.

Quoting Paul in Galatians 5, Vann said, “‘God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows.

“‘For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out – in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?’

“Does that [last part] sound a little like our country and our world today?”

Vann went on, “In life, there are chains. Some of them are real. Some of them are in our minds, in our spirits, in our families. We need to be broken free of them in order to go [forward].”

Looking at the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr., Vann said, a common theme that emerges is “freedom.”

Then and now, she said, there are “degrees of freedom” that have to do with physical ability, access to power, other social and economic factors, or even, she said, whether or not as a Christian you are “in bondage to corruption and sin.”

“One of the biggest things that keeps us from being free is to walk in unforgiveness,” she said. “We can all think of a time where something has happened to us, a time when you felt you were 100 percent justified in being mad at the person. If we want to walk in freedom, we have to examine ourselves first. Walking in freedom is not about pointing fingers, it’s about looking at ourselves.

“[Another] message Dr. King preached was that of love. When I walk in freedom, it’s not hard to love someone who doesn’t look like me, or to extend my hand to someone who doesn’t live or believe like me. It takes a lot of energy to hate, to hold a grudge – you have to remember all these things about what they did and why you’re mad.

“Dr. King said, ‘I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.’”

She concluded, “In this election year, we must put some demands on some people. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable – it requires sacrifice. It requires struggle.

“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. Whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward. ‘Freedom’ is ‘forward.’”

In a brief question-and-answer period following her presentation, one audience member asked Vann about how to build bridges between groups.

“Part of it is having conversations,” she said. “I think you started [this celebration] in a great way – eating together is a way to have good conversations.

“We all have the same needs no matter who we are and where we come from – for education, affordable healthcare, food, shelter. We need to understand we’re more alike than we are different.”

The celebration started with an informal time of snacks and conversation around tables in Memorial Hall, while the Bethel College Worship Center band performed instrumental and vocal numbers.

A highlight of the afternoon was a 15-minute excerpt from the address King gave at Bethel College Jan. 21, 1960, on “The Future of Integration.”

King ended that speech with a challenge to his audience.

“I’m proud to be maladjusted,” he said. “I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. 

“I call upon men and women all over our nation, and over the world, for that matter, to be maladjusted.”

Bethel is a four-year liberal arts college founded in 1887 and is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Known for academic excellence, Bethel is the highest ranked Kansas private college, at #12, in Washington Monthly, Top 200 Bachelor’s Colleges; ranks at #23 in U.S. News & World Report, Best Regional Colleges Midwest; is Zippia.com’s highest ranked Kansas small college with the highest earning graduates; has the #10 RN-to-BSN program in Kansas according to RNtoBSN.com; and earned its second-straight NAIA Champions of Character Five-Star gold award, based on student service and academic achievement, all for 2019-20. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu – Melanie Zuercher

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.