NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – “Hope” was the unmistakable theme of the worship service and inauguration of Bethel College’s 14th president, Perry D. White, during the college’s Fall Festival Oct. 10.
That was because it’s a theme to which, in only 10 weeks in office, White himself has repeatedly returned, doing so again in his response near the end of the inauguration ceremonies.
“It is an obligation of higher education,” he said, “to nurture hope, as action – not just in thought or theory – in our students and through our students, for the community and for society at large.”
The Fall Festival worship service, which began the morning’s activities, set the stage with both Scripture and meditations. Heidi Regier Kreider, pastor of Bethel College Mennonite Church, in her welcome invoked Jeremiah 29:11, in which God promises God’s people “a future with hope.”
“In the face of challenges and uncertainty,” Regier Kreider said, “God offers a challenging and lifegiving relationship to all who seek God.”
The worship Scripture texts included Ephesians 1:15-19, which speaks of “the hope to which God has called you,” and Romans 5:1-5, which describes “the hope [that] does not disappoint us” thanks to God’s love and the Holy Spirit.
Mayeken Kehr, senior from Goshen, Ind., and John McCabe-Juhnke, professor of communication arts and faculty chair, gave meditations on the inauguration texts.
Kehr spoke of “the great calling it is to live in hope.”
“When darkness comes, when storms gather, when everything falls away like sinking sand,” she said, “how are we to rejoice and boast in suffering, to redeem it to where it produces hope? We can’t but God can. We stand on Christ the solid rock and rejoice that in our emptiness, transitions and inadequacies, God dwells with us.”
McCabe-Juhnke quoted two stanzas from Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the thing with feathers” and then told a story about directing a play with men in prison that also had the title Hope is the Thing with Feathers.
“My prayer for Bethel College as we inaugurate a president is that we may indeed abound in hope, informed by wisdom, seasoned through effort and feathered with grace,” McCabe-Juhnke said.
The third reflection of the morning came from Weston Noble, professor emeritus of music at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, who taught White when he was an undergraduate and has been a friend and mentor ever since.
“Hope is basic to life,” Noble said. “It’s what oxygen is to lungs. It’s the engine that drives us.”
Imagination, he said, is essential. “Show me a child filled with imagination and I’ll show you a child, a person, filled with hope.”
Before Bethel Board Chair Mel Goering Santa Fe, N.M., led the investiture of White as president, another of his mentors, Richard Giese, president of the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, offered words of counsel.
Giese was serving as president of Monmouth (Ill.) College when Perry White came to interview for a tenure-track position on the music faculty. Giese’s recollection, he said, was that White “took the campus by storm,” literally. A tornado siren went off during White’s interview – which continued, in the tunnel between buildings that served as a tornado shelter, while straight-line winds uprooted trees and tore off shingles outside.
White got the job and later moved into administration at Giese’s prompting. “Perry makes a great first impression,” Giese said. “And those of us who know him well can tell you there is substance behind that.
“I hope you will all join him in developing an effective college that will produce outstanding students for generations to come.”
In his response, White thanked his two mentors, Giese and Noble, for being part of the inauguration ceremonies. “Bethel is the kind of place you can find mentors like these,” White said. “Bethel College can do for students what these two men have done for me. It’s part of the institutional DNA. It hasn’t taken Dalene and me long to become extremely proud of our association with Bethel.”
He pointed to one recent honor the college received of which he said he is especially proud: the “Mother Jones list.” The magazine listed Bethel College along with seven others as “combining great values with good value,” in Bethel’s case “for students who want to give peace a chance.”
The listing was particularly special, White said, “because it recognizes one of our cornerstone commitments. We’re proud of that heritage.”
White noted that “higher education – especially in nonprofit, private, liberal arts colleges – is being challenged from many sides today.” He listed some of Bethel’s challenges – to grow enrollment, to “keep reevaluating, regenerating and rejuvenating our curriculum,” to improve students’ residential experience and to enhance Bethel’s regional and national reputation.
Growing enrollment isn’t just about Bethel remaining “a viable institution,” White said. “We must grow enrollment because the world needs more Bethel graduates. Our graduates are the barometer by which we measure our success.
“If we want to make a difference,” he concluded, “we must nurture hope in others. Life will never be void of challenges, [for us] as people or a college, but we can be assured of a future built on the hopes we share today.”