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Bethel graduate’s winning speech stresses importance of hope in peacemaking

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- Jesse Nathan, a 2005 graduate of Bethel College in Bible and religion, took first place in the annual C. Henry Smith Oratorical Contest with a speech that looked at how bringing hope is critical to building peace. Nathan titled his speech "The thing with feathers," from Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins: "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul." He drew on the work of John Paul Lederach, a Mennonite pioneer in conflict transformation, and his own experiences abroad, particularly in Israel, West Bank and Guatemala.

"So critical is the link between hope and survival that every culture expects certain people to be what [Lederach] calls ‘hope-bringers,’" Nathan wrote. "According to Lederach, one of the primary tasks of all peacemakers, including mediators, healers, relief and voluntary service workers, religious leaders and community organizers, is to bring hope to those they serve."

Nathan cited examples of visits he made to an Israeli village where Jews, Muslims and Christians live together, and to Guatemala, where he spent time with people working to rebuild peace after decades of civil war.

Nathan, formerly of Moundridge, currently lives in Lawrence, where he spends his time writing on issues of nonviolence and community and volunteering at the Lawrence Solidarity Center. He also attends Lawrence Jewish Reform Synagogue.

"I’m using [this year] to figure out where I want to go next," he said. "I have no shortage of ideas and visions to share with the world."

His C. Henry Smith essay, he said, "grew out of a strong desire to discuss how we confront a world in which hope is not easy to find--really, something of a commodity. In our thoroughly postmodern society, we often think we have the luxury of hopelessness, or at least some malignant form of apathy."

The message he wanted to convey, he continued, is that "we don’t have that luxury. But rather than just speak in platitudes, I wanted to give the topic some depth by talking about how it’s not just an issue of what is good for us, but rather, hope involves a set of ethical questions as well."

The complete text of Nathan’s winning speech is online.

The C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest is open to students in every Mennonite and Brethren in Christ college in the United States and Canada. It is administered by Peace and Justice Ministries of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. The top three speakers receive scholarships to attend a peace-related conference or seminar as well as cash prizes, with $300 awarded for first place.

Second prize this year went to Anna Roeschley of Bluffton (Ohio) University for "Making peace in a red and blue country." Brian Hamilton of Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., took third place for "Catechesis as training in Christian servanthood."

Directors of the C. Henry Smith Trust established the contest in 1974 in honor of the late C. Henry Smith, a Mennonite historian and professor at Goshen (Ind.) College and Bluffton. Participating colleges host a contest with student speeches on the general theme of applying the Christian peace position to contemporary concerns. Judges for this year’s contest were Elsie Wiebe Klingler, abuse prevention and response coordinator for MCC British Columbia; Karin Kaufman Wall, peace and justice education for MCC Central States; and John Powell, director for missional church development for Mennonite Mission Network.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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