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The border and the monastery: Bethel professors spend sabbaticals exploring academic interests

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Even teachers need to take time out to be students.

To that end, two Bethel College professors took sabbaticals during spring 2006 to explore areas of academic interest through firsthand experience.

William Eash, professor of music, and Larry Friesen, professor of social work, engaged the topics of Gregorian chant and Mexican immigration, respectively, by temporarily living and working alongside people for whom these topics are daily issues.

Eash, director of the college’s vocal ensembles, lived for two months at the abbey of Solesmes near the city of Sablé sur Sarthe in western France. His purpose was to study Gregorian chant, but also to experience the atmosphere of the Benedictine lifestyle.

“Benedictine monasteries are set up with the provision to welcome guests, on the theological basis that Christ could return at any time, and he could be anyone,” said Eash.

Eash lived according to the strict schedule set by the monastery, including designated times for praise, meditation, conversation, food and study. He observed that the required discipline made him more productive in his use of time and that the times of silence “opened [his] eyes to the other senses.”

“The Benedictines would always say, ‘We pray and we wait,’” Eash said. “What I’ve learned is that no matter how we view the day, we begin again tomorrow. This means that I exhibit more patience with my own life and the lives of students but still demand discipline to do what we have to do in the best way possible.”

With his newly acquired knowledge of Gregorian chant, Eash hopes to give each of his vocal ensembles the opportunity to sing in that style.

On Monday, Oct. 23, Eash will speak in convocation about his sabbatical experience, hoping not only to inform the audience about the Benedictine lifestyle but to actively engage audience members in some of the issues that arise. The presentation is at 11 a.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium of the Fine Arts Center. It is free and open to the public.

Friesen chose to spend his sabbatical learning about the immigration narratives of Mexican immigrants in the Newton area and in towns along the Mexican-American border. For those in the Newton area, he designed a questionnaire and recorded interviews in conjunction with the college’s Oral History Institute project.

“It is very important to document the narratives of people and their experiences,” said Friesen. “As a social worker, my role is to try to understand people based on their stories.”

Friesen traveled to Harlingen, Texas, for a week in April, where he met up with a former student, 2000 Bethel College graduate Annaken Toews, who now works for ProBar, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation program. Toews was a link for Friesen to visit informally in the homes of immigrants, and also detainees who had either committed minor crimes or were sent back across the border.

“I come away from this brief sabbatical experience grateful to the people I met,” said Friesen, “and aware that it was not easy to let someone like me in on their stories of hopes and struggles.”

“However one feels about their documentation status,” he continued, “immigrants are vulnerable to being taken advantage of. We should make the effort to understand who they are and why they want to come here.”

Like Eash, Friesen plans to integrate aspects of his sabbatical experience into his teaching. He already teaches the interterm course Social Development and Social Justice, which involves travel to Mexico. He also hopes to allow his students the opportunity to talk firsthand with immigrants.

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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