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“Holy space” of Bethel College expands to celebrate inauguration

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The “holy space” of Bethel College (named from the Hebrew Beth-El, “house of God”) was a much-invoked metaphor during the celebration that marked the inauguration of the college’s 13th president, Barry C. Bartel, on Oct. 8.

Almost 120 years ago, the Mennonite founders of Bethel College “established this special meeting place by both defining its mission clearly in the context of the Mennonite church and, in the words of our charter, ‘opening wide the doors of the institution, so that all may have an opportunity to partake of whatsoever advantages may be offered by it.’,” Bartel noted in his inaugural address.

“With the foundation in Christ reflected on our seal, the founders created … this house of God, this holy space. What an incredible vision and risk, a vision and a heritage we continue to nurture in the company of this great cloud of witnesses. And now that vision is a sacred trust, the leadership of which I accept today.”

Nearly 1,000 people gathered in Memorial Hall on the Bethel campus for a worship service in the morning and inaugural ceremonies in the afternoon of Oct. 8. Bartel’s vision of a house of God that continues to be open to the world was reflected in participants in both events.

In the morning, Angela Opimi, whom Barry and Brenda Bartel had known as a church youth leader and a co-worker when they served with Mennonite Central Committee in Bolivia, who is now MCC country representative in Nicaragua, read the New Testament Scripture. In the afternoon, Willi Hugo Pérez, president of the Seminario Latinoamericano Anabautista SEMILLA in Guatemala City, brought greetings in Spanish and English on behalf of all Mennonite institutions of higher education.

Barry and Brenda Bartel spent a total of eight years in MCC service in Haiti and Bolivia, requiring them to study several languages, including Haitian Creole and Spanish. Bartel used language learning as a metaphor as well.

“With language, as in all disciplines, we learn best when we take risks. That risk creates potential – and holy space,” Bartel said. He illustrated the point with a story about himself as a new learner of Spanish, visiting in a Mennonite church in Argentina where the pastor kindly interviewed him in front of the congregation instead of asking him to speak, as is customary.

At one point, the pastor, Tito Gutierrez, asked Bartel if he was married – in Spanish, casado. Bartel admitted that to this day he has trouble distinguishing between “married” and “tired” (cansado) and that he replied to Pastor Gutierrez and the whole congregation that he was “not much married.”

Bartel said he often tells this story on himself for its humor and its reminder of the importance of humility, but that it also invokes a memory of a group of people who, rather than laughing at him, affirmed him for his willingness to take the risk of speaking to them. In doing so, he said, they created “holy space” for him.

Ronald J.R. Mathies, former director of Mennonite Central Committee who is now a visiting scholar at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., in his commissioning address lifted up Bartel’s “global perspective” as one of the gifts he brings to the presidency of Bethel College.

“You have experienced that meeting people – really meeting people and ‘walking in their shoes’ – is a profound and transformational experience,” Mathies said. “You have learned to travel not as a tourist but as a pilgrim. … Pilgrims journey through life recognizing they are on holy ground, that God is already there.”

The inauguration events capped Bethel’s 36th annual Fall Festival weekend that drew nearly 6,000 people to campus for alumni reunions, musical and athletic events and children’s activities.

Guests ranged from prospective students to members of the extended Bartel family to representatives of Mennonite Church USA, MC USA’s Western District Conference, other small independent colleges in Kansas and other Mennonite institutions of higher education in North America – one of which, Bluffton (Ohio) University, was inaugurating 1978 Bethel graduate and former faculty member James Harder as its president on the same afternoon.

Bartel, a 1984 Bethel graduate with a triple major in Bible and religion, mathematics and peace studies, also has a juris doctor degree from Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore. He was a practicing attorney in the Denver area before returning to Bethel College in June as president-elect. He and his family lived in Lakewood, Colo., and Bartel was the first moderator of the newly formed Mountain States Mennonite Conference and chair of his congregation, Glennon Heights Mennonite Church in Lakewood. He also served on the boards of the Denver Conflict Center, the Colorado chapter of Mennonite Economic Development Associates and Mennonite Urban Ministries of Denver.

Bartel is married to Brenda (Isaak) Bartel, also a 1984 Bethel College graduate, a musician and teacher. They are the parents of two children, Jordan, a first-year student at Bethel, and Leah, a high school sophomore.

When he received the telephone call telling him he had been selected president of Bethel College, Bartel recalled for a convocation audience of students and faculty on Monday, Oct. 9, “I said, ‘That’s great – I’m thrilled, and I’m terrified.”

His wish for all students, he said, was that they could experience similar feelings during their time at Bethel College – the excitement of being in “this special meeting place” and also “the challenge of being stretched beyond what you thought you could do.”

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

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