NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Though Bethel College’s peace institute has at times faced an uncertain future, it’s now marking 30 years and still vital.
The Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, or KIPCOR, kicked off a year-long celebration of its 30th anniversary with a dinner and program for long-time supporters Nov. 13.
Though some of its programs, most notably the Peace Lecture Series, are older, KIPCOR dates its founding to 1986, when Bethel alumnus Ken Good pledged $1 million to Bethel College, providing half of it went to building a peace institute.
Kirsten Zerger is one of two people who have been associated the longest with KIPCOR – the other is its director, Gary Flory. Zerger retired from her position as KIPCOR director of education and training last spring but continues as a senior associate of the institute.
During the evening, Zerger spoke about KIPCOR’s history while Flory looked ahead to its future.
Zerger told a story about Good from his student years at Bethel in the 1960s. “There were some guys sitting around a table in the cafeteria when it was still in the basement of Memorial Hall,” she said, “talking about ‘what we want to do when we grow up.’
“Ken said, ‘Get rich,’ and he did. He was an optimist and a master of the art of the deal – before the book was written [in 1987, credited to Donald Trump].”
KIPCOR’s was “an unplanned and unexpected birth,” Zerger said, “and its survival was rarely assured. I call it The Little Peace Institute that Could.”
Zerger went on to list seven “hinge points” in KIPCOR’s history, starting with the $500,000 pledge from Good.
The second was KIPCOR’s partnership with the Peace Lecture Series, which Duane Friesen, professor emeritus of Bible and religion, had started in 1972 as part of Bethel’s peace studies program.
Over the years, the series has brought in nationally and world-renowned speakers, including two Nobel Peace Prize winners. It has currently expanded to screening award-winning documentaries on important social and economic topics at Bethel several times a year.
In 1990, Ken Good lost his millions in the Silverado Savings & Loan scandal, and his total gift never materialized. KIPCOR struggled through to 1996 when, at KIPCOR’s 10-year mark, Bethel College did an institutional assessment, with Zerger leading the KIPCOR section – the third hinge point.
“The fourth point was when Bethel decided to renew institutional support,” Zerger said. She was serving as director at the time but knew “I wasn’t the right person [to lead KIPCOR forward], but I knew someone who was.” That was Flory, then teaching at McPherson College.
“The fifth hinge point was when Gary and Bethel both said yes to him being KIPCOR director,” Zerger said. “He has tremendous statewide and national contacts, and the wide-ranging vision for what KIPCOR could become.”
The sixth hinge point came in 2003, when KIPCOR moved to Kaufman House, once the home of Bethel President E.G. Kaufman and left to the college by his estate. His widow, Edna Ramseyer Kaufman, later made the major gift that allowed the house to be renovated into KIPCOR’s offices.
“We finally had a big enough room to do our trainings, and enough privacy to hold mediations,” Zerger noted.
“So many tears, so many breakthroughs, so many ‘Aha!’ moments have happened in Kaufman House,” she continued. “Many people have commented on the ‘special feeling’ of the house, and of the Bethel campus.”
The final hinge point, Zerger said, is “you, the loyal, dedicated, hardworking supporters, contributors and volunteers.”
Beachy Amish storyteller Leroy Hershberger followed Zerger. Before he began his story, he said, “Something with that many hinge points holding it together isn’t going to fall apart soon.”
In his remarks, Flory listed several hopes he has for KIPCOR’s future. Among these: “Look for and try new, cutting-edge programs”; “Continue programs with broad community impact,” such as Restorative Practices workshops with public school personnel and training more health-care professionals in conflict resolution, as has been the case with Bethel nursing students for the past decade; and “Emphasize Consensus Council work,” which focuses on bringing consensus into public-policy decisions.
What might be the most important, Flory said, was what he called “uninvited activities addressing issues in our culture.”
“My goal from Day One [at KIPCOR] has been to change the culture of how we manage differences. … This past week, we have been reminded how much work we have to do. …
“How do we address a culture that has been emboldened to make overt threats to people of color, to religious minorities, to immigrants, to the LGBTQ community? … Do we target areas where it’s clear people are vulnerable and not safe – intervene as an uninvited presence to work with all parties?
“This may be a key area in which conflict resolution and social justice intersect,” Flory said, “when we take good process models for civil discourse and problem-solving into communities even if we aren’t invited.
“In the world we [now] find ourselves, this may be as important for the future of KIPCOR as anything else we can do. And we don’t have a clear roadmap.”
The evening concluded with a selection of songs from Arthur Marks, a singer, dancer, choreographer, social worker and Bethel graduate from New York, with accompanist Christopher Shaw of Wichita. Marks chose his songs, he said, keeping in mind the events of the previous week and KIPCOR’s history of peacebuilding.