NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The final two chapels at Bethel College this year centered on favorite hymns and reflections on Bethel, both by graduating seniors – a tradition from the past number of years. In other ways, however, the Wednesday morning institution has been seeing some changes.
Most notably, this year Amy Barker, campus pastor, not only organized a group of students to help plan chapel services, which has been done before – she also gave them major responsibility for carrying chapel out.
“At the beginning, I laid out the dates for traditional chapels, such as favorite hymns and Ash Wednesday,” Barker says. “Then I said, ‘How would you like to fill in the rest? What if different ones of you would lead [some of the other] chapels? It has a different feeling when I carry the responsibility for chapel than when you do.’ Finally, [one of the students] said, ‘Let’s try it.’ It has been successful because they owned it.”
“It has been a blessing to work with fellow students on the chapel committee this year, mostly because there are so many gifts in the students that participate,” says Maya Kehr, a sophomore from Goshen, Ind. “Within the chapel committee this year, there were people with a lot of spiritual gifts that were willing to share them, but I also believe that there are many more students out there with more gifts to offer.
“[One of Bethel’s core values is to be] student-centered, and I think this year was possibly a step in the direction of changing the role of chapel at Bethel,” she continues. “While I don’t feel that the style of worship changed much after students took control – mainly because the majority of the committee came from similar Mennonite backgrounds that favor a certain type of worship – because it was student-led, students were inherently more involved in the services then they might have been before.”
“My personal vision for chapel is to keep incorporating the traditional with the new,” adds Greg Shelly, junior from Lenexa. “Culture and religion are not stagnant ideas – they grow with the people that are involved in them. Chapel is meant to be a place where people can come and grow personally as well as help religion grow overall.
“With the new planning, we are trying to incorporate more members of the body so we together can function as a whole here at Bethel. Change is not bad, it’s just different and takes some getting used to, and so far the members of the body here at Bethel have enjoyed the new outlook and setting we created with the student-planned and -led chapels.”
Several crisis situations involving students this school year gave chapel a different feel as well. Freshman Lindsay Geisler struggled with cancer her last year in high school. Junior Sunita Pudasaini and sophomore Brittany Voth were both involved in potentially life-threatening car accidents around Thanksgiving. Lynnet Maidhi, a junior from Kenya, went home at Christmas to visit her family and got caught in post-election violence in her country at the end of the year. These events became part of chapel services later.
“One chapel, in particular, that I helped plan [was when] Brittany Voth and CJ Unruh [a junior who was in a serious car accident several years ago] shared their ‘death to life’ stories during the Easter season,” Kehr says. “It was an incredibly powerful service. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the chapel after they spoke. There is a lot of value in the honest sharing of students that draws other students in.”
In another chapel, Maidhi shared her experience of learning that her family’s home had been burned to the ground and of being unable to get back to Kansas in time for her January nursing class. She and five other Bethel students from Kenya led the music and worship for that service. “As Kenyans, we have seen violence,” Maidhi told the chapel congregation. “It’s not easy, but we try to share love in the face of violence. I’m standing here to say that yes, there is a God who loves us.”
Nathaniel Yoder, a junior from Kalona, Iowa, and a member of the chapel planning committee, recalled the bluegrass chapel, another tradition at Bethel, in which most of the songs happened to have a theme of heaven and hope of life after death. But the songs and the chapel itself, he says, took on a whole new meaning after a prayer request at the beginning of the service involving the terminal illness of a faculty member’s mother.
“I have been very pleased with the chapel services, especially those chapels we are not used to, such as the Kenyan chapel service and the bluegrass service, which I at least had not experienced before,” says Shelly. “It was fun to intertwine those new chapels with ones that are traditionally loved, such as the seniors’ favorite hymns, the Easter chapel and the camp chapel. The comments I’ve gotten from faculty and staff, as well as many students, is that they have enjoyed the services.”
“The very last chapel of the year involves senior reflections and many seniors who had never attended chapel that year came to support their peers,” Kehr adds. “If we can involve the greater community at large in planning and participation of chapels, then I think chapel has the potential to become more dynamic.”
The students on the chapel planning committee have also experienced some personal growth as a result of their deeper involvement in chapel.
“This was my first year planning chapel, even though I have attended chapel religiously – excuse the pun – the last two years,” Shelly says. “Planning chapel has definitely added a lot of stress to my schedule, and caused me to think about different things. When you attend a chapel service, you can usually sit there and filter what you believe applies to you today and let the rest go. When you are planning, it causes you to have to think outside of that mind frame, to encompass other students, as well as faculty that might come to share in worship.
“The need to see from other points of view has really caused my faith to open up and encompass a bit more than I used to. Adding parts of other beliefs to my own has really strengthened my faith, by giving me alternative ways to relate to different experiences religiously and to other people.”
“Some of the results of our planning have helped to nurture my faith,” Kehr says. “There have been some incredibly poignant and powerful moments that I’m not sure can or should just be attributed to the efforts of students, but hopefully we can give the credit to God.
“Personally,” she adds, “I’ve been encouraged by several faculty to explore [the Ministry Inquiry Program] which I am thinking seriously about for next summer.”
“As part of our role in Student Life, we are ministering to students,” says Barker. “We also want to provide opportunities for students to minister, so how do we give them the chance to be leaders? I’ve had the vision [for student-led chapels] but never, until now, the particular group to make it work.”
In addition to Kehr, Shelly and Yoder, the student members of the chapel committee this year were Miriam Regier, senior from Newton, Kyle Unruh, sophomore from Goessel, Max Wedel, junior from Tucson, Ariz., and Sharayah Williams, sophomore from Kalona.
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 was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.