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Embodied testimony: Bethel has been lighting the Green at Advent for 25 years

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – One of Bethel College’s most beloved Advent traditions started from a longing for common ground.

Faculty, staff, students and community members will circle the Green with candles for the 25th year in a row on Sunday evening, Dec. 12, at 8 p.m., in the annual Lighting of the Green.

In 1986, Beth Hege, Stephanie Gingerich and Patty Shelly were all “second-years” at Bethel College – Hege and Gingerich as sophomore students, Shelly as a professor of Bible and religion.

“I came from a pretty conservative background politically, and this was in the middle of the Reagan years and the end of the Cold War,” says Beth Hege Piatote, who is now assistant professor of Native American Studies at the University of California-Berkeley. “When I came to Bethel, I met a lot of people whose political backgrounds were different, and sometimes these encounters were kind of painful. But it was just part of the college experience – encountering new ideas – and I was trying to figure these things out.”

She went to a meeting of the campus Peace Club and afterwards, back in her room, remembers thinking: “Isn’t there some common ground we have, some starting point beneath all of these things, these political arguments?”

“I thought something like: Couldn’t we have an event where we all just agree that we want peace?,” she says. “I had the idea that maybe we could get enough people to circle the Green and light candles, and just be quiet for a few minutes and appreciate that shared desire for peace.”

Eager to tell someone about her idea, she ran up from her first-floor Haury Hall room to the second-floor room of her close friend, Gingerich, who happened to be on the Religious Life Team. “Stephanie helped refine the idea,” Piatote says, “and suggested we talk to Patty Shelly [who was also on the team]. So the two of us went from the second floor to the basement of Haury Hall, where Patty’s office was.”

These “little details” matter, Piatote says, because they were important to the event coming to fruition. “Basically, there was never a moment to slow down or stop the momentum. That physical closeness made a difference. If Stephanie hadn’t been there to support the idea, or if we had to hike across campus, or if Patty hadn’t been in her office – any of these things could have given us enough pause to not follow through.”

But Shelly was in her office. “She immediately liked the idea,” Piatote says, “and started putting the whole apparatus into place. Right away she was thinking about how it would all actually happen. Getting the candles, getting the paper hand guards for the candles, getting everyone to shut their lights off – all of that happened through Patty and the Religious Life Team.”

Remembering the first Lighting of the Green 25 years later, Piatote adds, “I want to emphasize how central Patty has been. She brought music to the Lighting of the Green, and she also is the person who set the tone – no pun – from the very first night.”

When the first Lighting of the Green happened in December 1986, “it was amazing,” Piatote says. “Thinking about this story now makes me think how the way it came together was like the event itself – one light going to the next. I came up with the idea, but then it moved to Stephanie, and then to Patty, and then to each person after that – it became part of something much larger.”

Gingerich, who now works in community development in Grand Rapids, Mich., remembers most of all wondering if anyone would show up. “This had pretty humble beginnings, in a dorm room,” she says. “We said, ‘We can draw up flyers and post them – and who’s going to do that? Well, we are.’

“You don’t realize how easy it is to start a tradition – you have an idea, you invite people to participate in it and they do. It shows that you shouldn’t give up on your dreams too easily.”

As for the first Lighting of the Green, she says, “I was pleasantly surprised as people just started coming. They felt it was a meaningful thing to do, to come together like that.”

“I remember being impressed at who came,” says Dale Schrag, who is now campus pastor and director of church relations and was then director of libraries and on the Religious Life Team. “There were students there who I would never have suspected of having any interest in spiritual life on campus.”

An important part of Lighting of the Green is to have darkness on campus to strengthen the symbolism of the candles shining in the darkness, invoking the central biblical text from John 1. At first, that meant turning off lights in buildings, but within a few years, with the installation of outdoor lighting around the Green and on nearby buildings, this became more complicated.

Les Goerzen, a campus maintenance technician in 1986 and now director of the campus physical plant, has been turning off the lights for 25 years. He is in charge of those that require more than throwing a wall switch, such as the Administration Building façade floodlights, the walkway lighting and, most challenging, a large utility light on a pole south of Haury Hall. To douse that light, he has to climb a stepladder and install a metal hood that one of the maintenance staff made especially for the purpose (originally he used a cardboard box).

Finally, he goes up to the third floor of the Ad Building – for the purpose of shutting off lights, although one year he surprised a student who was planning to pull a prank that involved sending “some other kind of light” from the Ad Building at a crucial moment.

When they were boys, Goerzen’s sons, including the younger one, Peter, a 2007 Bethel graduate and now pastor at Grace Hill Mennonite Church in rural Newton, would accompany their father on his light-dousing rounds. Several years ago, Peter recalled standing at a third-floor Ad Building window as one candle’s light appeared below, then another and another.

“I watched intently as that single small flame gradually spread across the Green,” he said, “each little light taking its place in the stunning wreath of warmth and light in the cold, dark night.”

That experience, his father says now, makes the annual work and the worry about the weather (though in 25 years, Lighting of the Green has happened in Memorial Hall only twice), “completely worth it.”

Schrag and Shelly both say one reason Lighting of the Green works is because it is short – about 15 minutes – and simple, with a format that has changed little in 25 years. One significant alteration took place early on, within the first few years: having people walk from the edges into the center of the Green with their candles, changing the “Advent wreath” to a “Christ candle.”

“This came after a conversation with [professor emeritus of history] Jim Juhnke,” Shelly says. “He was talking about how wonderful it was, but then said it was hard to hear the voices on the other side of the Green when we were singing the carols, which took something from the corporate experience.

“It’s beautiful to see the string of lights around the Green,” she says, “but it’s completed when the lights begin moving toward each other.”

“People crave a way to participate in something that has meaning,” says Gingerich. “Lighting of the Green is a very simple but meaningful way to be part of a community, even if you might have entirely different reasons for being there than the person standing right next to you.”

“Lighting of the Green is visually compelling,” says Shelly. “It’s a worship service and it’s performance art – you act the truth of the John 1 text. You give embodied testimony that ‘the light shines in the darkness.’

“Every year, I stand by the fountain and think: ‘This is the year there won’t be enough people.’ It’s dark, so I can’t see anyone. I start speaking the words of welcome into the darkness, and then when I begin to sing ‘The light shines in the darkness’ [the first verse of a song she wrote years ago based on John 1], the light begins to move around the circle, and then I begin to see.”

“For me, Lighting of the Green will always have something to do with creating a sense of shared humanity, some very basic connection with other people,” says Piatote. “And because it is part of Advent, I think it is also about experiencing the mystery of hope.

“I have always loved Advent – maybe because growing up Mennonite, it was the only time we ever had candles in our church,” she continues. “And the songs, like ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel’ – songs of longing and mystery and hope for a redeemed world. Christmas means the possibility of something new and miraculous in a damaged and suffering world – again, it is the mystery paired with the hope.

“When you see images of people passing a flame, not just at the Lighting of the Green, but any time, you see something mysterious and beautiful happening. I think it might have something to do with why people have been committed to making this happen all of these years.”

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