NORTH NEWTON – Not even yet officially on the job, Bethel College’s new president, Perry White, got his first real introduction to Mennonite Church USA by attending the Western District Conference annual gathering.
White’s first day as president was July 19, but he and wife, Dalene, traveled from Manitowoc, Wis., to WDC’s meeting at Lakeview Camp and Conference Center, Waxahachie, Texas (near Dallas), for WDC’s meetings July 9-11.
Dale Schrag, Bethel College director of church relations, and Dave Linscheid, director of the Office of Alumni Relations, had planned a meet-the-Whites reception for Bethel alumni and friends for Friday night. However, volatile summer weather conspired against them, diverting the Whites’ Dallas flight to Fort Smith, Ark., and causing them to arrive at the camp too late for the evening reception. It was rescheduled for the next afternoon, during the slot marked “free time” on delegates’ schedules.
“I thank Dale and Dave for helping to set up the reception, and for rolling with the weather delay,” White says. “And I especially commend Bethel alumni for coming at the rescheduled time, during their free time – I was surprised and impressed how many people chose me over swimming, in that Texas heat. It shows the deep interest in Bethel College and the life of the church.”
In addition to the Q&A session – which included the story of how Perry and Dalene White met, and a brief religious history (White was raised Baptist, attended a Lutheran college for his undergraduate degree and has taught and served in administration at Presbyterian and most recently Catholic liberal arts colleges) – White was able to meet with both WDC leaders and MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman over meals and attend a “listening group” session on “Our new Mennonite identity,” led by Clarence Rempel, newly appointed WDC conference minister, and Janet Trevino-Elizararraz.
“I was impressed by his ability to relate and communicate with people,” said Marvin Zehr, a long-time pastor in WDC and a member of Shalom Mennonite Church in Newton, “and by his deep appreciation for the values and history he sees represented at Bethel College.”
“The best question I was asked, for which I got the answer absolutely wrong, was ‘Do you know “606”?’” White recalls. “They showed me the correct answer by all 80 or so people getting up and singing it. I will never forget that moment.
“Dalene and I were thrilled to go to this meeting,” he continues. “It was an ideal introduction to our Bethel College experience and the future of our work here – an opportunity to meet people heavily involved in the [broader] church and Western District Conference, coupled with the chance to meet Bethel alumni.”
In addition, White notes that his time at the WDC meetings felt like “homecoming.”
“I was very comfortable [in this setting],” he says. “This is not only a great opportunity for me professionally – to be a member of a team that is out to create a more robust Bethel College and to contribute to a more robust academic environment in this country overall – it’s also a return home for me.
“I was brought up Southern Baptist,” he says. “The Anabaptist tradition and believers baptism is a familiar and comfortable environment for me to live and work in.
“One thing I enjoyed about the WDC meetings, in conversations with people, was the importance placed on living our beliefs,” he adds. “I’ve always seen myself as an academic evangelical. I expect many Mennonites see the Baptist tradition as Evangelical with a capital ‘E.’ To me, being ‘evangelical’ means displaying how we live our lives. It will mean not shying away from the important components of what makes a Bethel experience special – that our faith and traditions help us turn out students who make decisions for their lives and for others based on that bedrock of faith.
“We need to blow our own horn – not by going door-to-door to give testimony but by stating openly that we have a great thing here, a good product and good people, students, faculty and staff.”
Since White has begun in his new position, a time and place for his inauguration has been finalized, with planning to be done mainly by a committee, he says. The inauguration will take place Sunday morning, Oct. 10, in conjunction with the Fall Festival worship service.
“I hope that this combination of worship and inauguration will help confirm that Bethel College is strong in our commitment to our faith tradition,” White says.
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 Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges profiled in Colleges of Distinction 2009-10. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.