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Bethel service project gets an enthusiastic Harrisonburg reception

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – For the second straight time, the Harrisonburg (Va.) Mennonite Church youth group won Bethel College’s service promotion at the Mennonite Youth Convention (MYC). And for the second time, Cornerstone Christian Academy in Philadelphia was the beneficiary.

As they did at the MYC in San Jose, Calif., in 2007, at the 2009 convention in Columbus, Ohio, staff from Bethel’s admissions, alumni and church relations offices, co-sponsors of the college’s booth in the MYC display area, chose to emphasize service. Youth who stopped by the booth helped put together playground equipment to be given to FCI Academy Kindergarten Village in Columbus and also had the chance to designate funds to a service organization of their choice.

Each of the four full days of the convention, individuals could put a ticket in the hopper. The more times you visited, the greater the chance of being one of the three individuals chosen on the last day of the convention to select a service organization to receive $1,000.

In addition to Harrisonburg Mennonite’s youth group, the other two winners were the youth groups from Kidron (Ohio) Mennonite Church and University Mennonite Church, State College, Pa. On Sunday, Nov. 22, Clark Oswald, Bethel associate director of admissions, visited Harrisonburg Mennonite Church.

Harrisonburg Mennonite has a close relationship with Cornerstone Christian Academy (CCA) that goes back about 25 years, Oswald notes. CCA was founded in 1988 with 40 children in grades K-3. Its birth followed the 1980 Philadelphia teachers’ strike and subsequent distress in Philadelphia schools, when attorney James Sweet and evangelist Tony Campolo began investing themselves in the lives of children in southwest Philadelphia. The school is located in the heart of southwest Philadelphia and has now grown to about 230 students in grades K-8.

Oswald visited the two Sunday worship services – contemporary and traditional-style, which run simultaneously – at Harrisonburg Mennonite to present the check for $1,000, which the congregation decided to match with an additional $1,000, to Richard Ollinger, president of CCA.

In the traditional service, Ollinger “preached about ‘thank yous’ and after the sermon, I was asked to come forward to present the check,” Oswald says. “I talked about convention and Bethel’s emphasis on and commitment to the ethic of service.

“I was overwhelmed by the extended applause response from the congregation,” Oswald continued. “Peter [Eberly, HMC youth pastor] went on to talk about how the youth group was moved by what Bethel has done and wanted to match our generosity to CCA. After he presented the youth group’s check, there was another eruption of applause and we were graced with a standing ovation from the congregation.”

After the service, Oswald added, “numerous people talked about how meaningful the service was for them. One lady said, ‘Great job, Bethel – that is really putting the meat on the bone.’ I was able to share with others the purpose behind our booth and what convention means to us here at Bethel. Our ability to implement faith-based marketing initiatives – I am coining that phrase, if it hasn't been already – brought joy to a number of people in that congregation.”

Oswald also said he was grateful to be able to learn about some of the work Bethel’s money is doing. “I had the unique opportunity to see what our money supports,” he said, “an elementary school that is a nurturing, caring place for students. Richard talked about how 100 percent of the students from CCA go on to graduate from high school, [an amazing record] for an inner-city school.

“There is a mission in this school,” Oswald continued, “a school that we are directly supporting through our efforts. It was an honor to be a part of these worship services. I hope Bethel can continue to make a difference in our broader church in what it means to be a Mennonite Christian.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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