NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The geographical distance between Bethel College and Bluffton (Ohio) University makes it easy to forget, in everyday life, the strong ties between the two schools.
But when shock and sorrow came to visit Bluffton early on the morning of March 2, after a charter bus drove off an overpass in Atlanta and six people, including four members of Bluffton’s baseball team, died, the strength of those many ties came to the fore.
The Bethel College Board of Directors, gathered for its annual spring meeting, observed a moment of silence as they began their work on March 2, as did the convocation audience later that morning. Bethel students organized a prayer vigil for Monday night, March 5. Most recently, the weekly Wednesday chapel service, already scheduled to highlight the tie between athletes and faith, was largely focused on the tragedy at Bluffton.
“The planning for our chapel service [for March 7] began with a focus on athletics and team camaraderie,” said campus pastor Amy Barker. “It developed into something of a memorial to the tragedy that struck Bluffton’s baseball team. In the passing days and hours since last Friday, we have come to realize more and more connections, shared history and relationships between our Bethel and Bluffton communities.”
Chapel services are held at 11 a.m. on the second floor of the Administration Building and are open to anyone from the community.
In the March 7 service, admissions counselor Clark Oswald read reflections from the past several days written by his co-worker, Lowell Wyse. Wyse is a 2006 Bluffton graduate and played on the baseball team. The spring break trip to Florida to open the baseball spring season – the reason the bus was driving through Atlanta with the team on board – is an annual event. Wyse would have been on the bus a year ago. He knew the bus driver and his wife, Jerry and Jean Niemeyer, who died in the crash. He knew most of the coaches and many of the players and even had a family connection to one of the four killed, David Betts from Bryan, Ohio, whose uncle is married to Wyse’s aunt. At the time of the chapel service, Wyse was en route to Bluffton to attend funerals on Thursday and Friday.
Two Bethel students, siblings Ross Lehman, senior, and Meredith Lehman, freshman, come from Bluffton. Their father, George Lehman, teaches at the university. In the chapel service, the Lehmans read some words written by their father in response to their asking him: “How is everyone doing?”
Dorothy Nickel Friesen, the minister for the Mennonite conference (Western District Conference, with headquarters in North Newton) with the closest ties to Bethel College, opened the Monday night prayer vigil. She also offered remarks in the chapel service. Nickel Friesen was the pastor of First Mennonite Church in Bluffton for several years before taking her current position. First Mennonite is “the Bluffton College church,” with many members of the university faculty and staff as regular attenders there.
Those attenders include Bluffton’s president, James Harder – inaugurated on the same day in October as Bethel’s new president, Barry C. Bartel – and his wife, Karen Klassen Harder. The Harders were faculty members at Bethel before taking faculty positions at Bluffton University and both are Bethel College graduates.
The ties between the two colleges, both located in small Midwestern towns though they are about 1,000 miles apart, go on and on.
Undergirding them is the one not so evident to the casual observer, the fact that both schools were begun by Mennonites who were part of a denomination known as the General Conference Mennonite Church. About five years ago, this group joined with another body of Mennonites to form one Mennonite denomination in the United States, called Mennonite Church USA. The two colleges are now associated with Mennonite Church USA, as are Hesston College, Goshen (Ind.) College and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.
In the March 7 chapel service, Dale Schrag, director of Church Relations, gave a brief overview of the historic ties, going back 100 years or more, between Bethel College and Bluffton University. “That’s why this tragedy strikes home even if we don’t personally know any of the players who were killed or injured,” Schrag said.