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Prize-winning paper examines 1972 controversy

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A Bethel College student’s prize-winning paper sheds some light on conflict and reconciliation in the face of Mennonites’ growing global diversity.

“Fragile Bonds and Global Fellowship: The Ninth Mennonite World Conference in Curitiba, Brazil, 1972,” a paper by Meredith Lehman, senior from Bluffton, Ohio, became the 23rd by a Bethel student to win a statewide contest sponsored by the Kansas Association of Historians.

(The paper also tied for first place in the 2009 John Horsch Mennonite History Essay Contest sponsored by the Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee and was excerpted earlier in the January 2010 issue of the Mennonite Historical Bulletin.)

KAH (formerly the Kansas History Teachers Association) has sponsored a competition since 1971 for papers at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Twenty-two Bethel students (one won in two different years) have been first-place finishers in the former category. Miriam Friesen was the last Bethel winner, in 2009.

Lehman will graduate in May with majors in Bible and religion, German and history. Her history seminar topic came from a conversation with her father about the ninth gathering of the global Mennonite church in 1972, and a Bethel history class, Contemporary Mennonite Conflicts, taught by Mark Jantzen, assistant professor of history, in fall 2008.

In the class, Lehman learned more about the controversy surrounding the Curitiba Mennonite World Conference assembly. The issue: Brazil had been ruled by a military dictatorship since a 1964 coup, with the ensuing years seeing continued violent repression and political censorship. As a result, European Mennonites – especially the Dutch – objected strongly to Curitiba as an assembly location.

An important part of Lehman’s research was her attendance at the 15th MWC assembly in Asunción, Paraguay, in July 2009, aided by a successful application to Bethel’s Undergraduate Research, Internships and Creative Activity (URICA) Summer Research fund and a “generous” gift from her home congregation, First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, which had set aside funds to enable young adults to go to the MWC assembly.

While in Asunción, Lehman interviewed four South American Mennonites who had been involved in some way with the Curitiba assembly.

Ultimately, Curitiba was a story of conflict, dialogue and some reconciliation in a global Mennonite church that was rapidly diversifying. Lehman’s conclusion was that, overall, MWC leaders in Curitiba were able to listen to different viewpoints in ways that maintained unity and did not threaten the safety of those who had to keep living in Brazil after the assembly was over.

KAH, composed of historians in university, archival and public settings, awards prizes to papers in two categories in the undergraduate division: Category I, in which Lehman finished first, for papers produced in seminars or other semester-long courses in which a paper is the principle objective, and Category II for papers produced as one of several important activities that constitute a course.

The contest receives submissions from nearly every college and university in Kansas. Any student may submit a paper as long as it is in history and sponsored by a history instructor.

Winners receive a modest monetary prize and an invitation to present their papers at the KAH annual meeting, which took place earlier this month on the campus of Johnson County Community College in Overland Park.

Lehman, however, had to turn down the invitation – since February, she has been working as a short-term volunteer in the MWC office in Strasbourg, France (she wraps up at the end of April), helping sort and process archival material in anticipation of the office moving when MWC General Secretary Larry Miller leaves the position in May 2012.

“It’s been a great job for getting to read through lots of historical documents, which was a big part of its appeal for me,” Lehman says. “The archives don’t deal directly with [Curitiba], but I do see many of the same questions arising in subsequent decades. I could see ways to expand the scope of my research, for instance looking at the location challenge surrounding the 14th assembly in Zimbabwe.

“Mostly I’m struck by the huge and ongoing effort involved in facilitating international relationships. Curitiba was a snapshot of that effort, but the everyday work of MWC four decades later still reflects many of the same challenges.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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