NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- North American peace activists these days live in challenging times, with everything from war in Iraq to continued violence in Israel/Palestine, Colombia and Sudan, to issues of domestic poverty demanding attention. So this year’s Bethel College planners of the Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship gathering, held Feb. 19-20 on the North Newton campus, decided to think small.
Or, as Julie Hart, associate professor of sociology, put it in the first "centering session" of the conference: "How can peacemakers hope to solve complex international issues if they can’t talk to someone down the hall who disagrees with them?"
When planning the 2005 conference, Hart said, "We wanted to help equip ourselves with the convictions and skills to reach across the specific situations and boundaries we encounter every day. When we began working on this a year ago, national elections were heating up, positions on the Iraq war were polarizing--there were deep divisions opening on campus."
With that in mind, the planning committee invited nationally known evangelical peace activist Jim Wallis, from Washington, D.C., to be the 2005 ICPF keynote speaker. Wallis accepted--but what no one knew at the time was that only weeks before the conference, Wallis’ latest book, "God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It," would shoot onto the New York Times bestseller list and the ICPF conference would land smack in the middle of a book tour and numerous national media appearances by Wallis.
However, as planners had hoped, Wallis’ two presentations focused heavily on the practical and on what those Christians who feel at home with neither the Left nor the Right can do, rather than what they can’t.
On Friday morning, Wallis presented the third in the 2004-2005 Peace Lecture series sponsored by the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR)--who with Mennonite Central Committee Central States co-sponsored the ICPF conference--to a crowd of several hundred. In the afternoon, however, he conducted a question-and-answer session with the roughly 90 students and faculty from Mennonite colleges and universities in the United States and Canada who participated in ICPF.
"The most powerful part of the peace conference was the time spent with Jim Wallis Friday afternoon," said Bethel College freshman Miriam Regier, Newton. "He called us, in words both inspiring and practical, to act for peace in creative ways.
"His suggestions included that we take power nonviolently, by ‘re-framing’ issues, and that we counter the roots of problems rather than simply the effects. For instance, there are many disagreements how to deal with abortion, but most people will agree that working against the causes of unwanted pregnancies will relieve some of the need for abortion."
"I found Jim Wallis to be a very engaging and inspiring speaker, connecting faith with social justice issues in a way I had never quite heard before," added Bethel senior Kelley O’Reilly, Mountain Lake, Minn., one of the conference planners. "It’s very inspiring to find a strong faith grounding for social justice concerns."
The other plenary speaker, on Saturday morning, was Michelle Armster, director of Mennonite Conciliation Service in Akron, Pa.
Her topic, "The Art of Creating Safe Space," looked at developing spaces that encourage and enhance dialogue between opposing viewpoints--central to overcoming polarization.
"A safe space ... would encourage the transformation of minds, where confession and repentance and justice are seen as integral parts of the process toward peace," Armster said.
The conference also included a session for faculty on "teaching peace" led by Bethel emeritus professor of history James Juhnke, viewing of the documentary "Death of a Shaman" with Armster facilitating the discussion afterward, image theater under the direction of Bethel assistant professor of theater Brent Noel, and concurrent dialogue sessions on Saturday afternoon.
Participants could explore "dialogue with people of other faiths," led by 2003 Bethel graduate Aziza Hasan, Wichita; "dialogue with other Christians," led by Armster; "dialogue with people from other cultures," led by Felipe Hinojosa, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Houston with a focus on Chicano/a history, ethnicity and religion; or "dialogue with people from the military," led by John McConnell, a Gulf War veteran who teaches English at Wichita State University.
"The session with John McConnell opened my eyes to how the military community sees the peace community, and how the two communities have much in common," said Regier. "He also gave us suggestions on how we can build bridges with people related to the military without alienating them."
As is always true with ICPF conferences, students listed interaction with other students from sister colleges among the high points of the weekend.
"Working together to make this fellowship happen was very rewarding," said Bethel student Joseph Penner, a senior from Reedley, Calif., and one of the conference planners. "I was very proud that Bethel College was able pull off a great conference. It was great to be able to network with other college students and engage issues of peace and justice together."
"I found it very satisfying to see the weekend go so well after we put so much time and energy into planning," added O’Reilly. "Besides hearing Jim Wallis, the other thing I found inspiring was simply the energy I saw in students from other schools."