NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Social change requires willingness to find new ways – or create them if they don’t exist.
That was the message students gathered at Bethel College for the annual conference of the Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship (ICPF) heard from speakers and in discussion.
The conference, which took place Feb. 10-12 on the Bethel campus, drew students from several other Anabaptist-related colleges – Bluffton (Ohio) University, Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, Hesston College and Tabor College, Hillsboro – as well as Kansas State University.
The conference theme was “Uniting for Social Change: Intersections of Race, Environment and LGBTQIA Identities.”
David Anderson Hooker, professor of the practice of conflict transformation at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, opened the conference with a convocation presentation.
To find “the way forward,” he said, means “we have to know differently, ‘language’ differently and be differently.”
Hooker introduced many in the audience to the term “epistemic injustice” – when the dominant group in a culture or society decides that others have “a credibility deficiency, no capacity to contribute to a body of knowledge, or are to be dismissed [solely] by virtue of who they are.
“Epistemic injustice makes it difficult, if not impossible, for us to unite,” Hooker said. “We have to find ways for those we have previously dismissed to contribute to the body of knowledge if we’re going to have any hope of uniting for change. We have to know differently to do differently.”
The world we want, he continued, can’t be described in terms of the words we currently have. “If we are trying to undo the logic [of injustice], we have to undo the words and the meanings that come with it.
“We are narrating our way into Humanity 3.0,” he said, “and the tendency is to say, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ Nope, you have to believe it in order to see it.
“There was a rabbi 2,000 years ago who said [to those around him]: ‘The kingdom of heaven is here now.’ Only by believing can you bring it into being.”
The “environmental justice” keynote speakers were Aubrey Streit Krug, a graduate fellow of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska, and Alicia Harris, a doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma and a member of the Assiniboine, Fort Peck nation.
“Environmental justice involves new and renewed relationships with each other, and with plants, the land base upon which people live,” Streit Krug said.
She went on to describe a “new, radical, alternative” way of looking at and paying attention to plants that has “been a reality lived by indigenous peoples and communities, who have long known plants as living, active beings.
“Plants have been on the earth longer than humans have, and they have things to teach us if we will listen and learn,” Streit Krug said, quoting Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Potawatomi nation.
Harris spoke of her experience joining the camp at Cannonball, North Dakota, this past summer that had been established to support those opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), an effort begun by members of the Standing Rock Sioux nation.
Making the drive from Oklahoma, Harris said, “I felt angry and disgusted and ready to fight.
“I had forgotten the ‘historical resilience’ of many people gathered together in camp. When we are in camp, we are in prayer. We pray for our kin, human and otherwise, for the water, for the earth itself. I was reminded we have the responsibility to care for the place of our heritage, and there is strong medicine in gathering together for that cause.
“That weekend, with its gifts of community, prayer and ceremony, brought me back into peace. Centering love and peace in our hearts can bring about mighty peace and unity.”
One of the things Michelle Armster, executive director of Mennonite Central Committee-Central States, called for in the “racial justice” keynote was to read the Bible in new ways.
“Many of us have been taught to see, read and interpret the Bible through Pharaoh’s eyes,” she said. “Instead, we have to start seeing, reading and interpreting from the other side, from the inside out.
“That book becomes so amazing, so rich, so prophetic when you do that. Otherwise, ‘empire’ is the religion. If our faith is not about freedom, then we need to interrogate our faith.”
She recalled a conversation years ago with civil-rights leader Vincent Harding, who asked her: “If you are an anti racism trainer, what are you for?”
“That has continued to be a thread [for me],” Armster said. “We can talk about what is wrong, but we also need to say, ‘How do we make it right?’”
Racial justice, she continued, “is proactive, seeks to interrogate injustices, and addresses [both] the personal and systems.”
She told the students, “Be brave. It’s OK to sit with the questions. Recognize white supremacy for what it is – bondage for those who are white, death for those who are non-white.
“We need not be threatened by other people’s stories, other people’s lived realities. When we allow ourselves to connect, we are richer.
“So work with your communities. Work with your own people. Own your power and privilege as men, as white people, as white women. Take your power and privilege and educate yourselves.
“Most important, stand on the side of love. Vincent Harding said: ‘Love trumps doctrine every time.’”
Joel Barrett and David Seymour, a married couple from Kansas City, talked about their very different experiences as gay men. Barrett grew up in a deeply conservative Christian (independent Baptist) family and was a pastor for many years, married to a woman and the father of three children.
Nevertheless, he knew from a young age that something was “different” about him, something he begged God to take away.
“When you’re not allowed, or you don’t allow yourself, to be who you are, and when you have to hide who you are from everyone else because you think that’s expected, and you end up hating yourself because you think God hates you,” said Barrett, who is now a writer, speaker and life coach for LGBT+ people and issues.
Seymour grew up experiencing the effects of his father’s mental illness and abuse of Seymour’s mother.
“I still marvel at my mother’s ability to take me through this,” Seymour said. “I didn’t end up scarred – both through how I was created and how I was nurtured. I definitely don’t want to relive those days – but you learn. Where there is sadness and weakness, there is also great strength and resilience.”
David Anderson Hooker, who had been asked to share observations from the entire weekend at the closing gathering, also put forth a challenge.
“Instead of having a shared vision, a narrowly constructed consensus vision,” he said, “what about having a vision for a shared future? I’m inviting us to talk about how we would create a vision of a shared future.”
He led the group through a visioning exercise. “Imagine the world 25 years from now. What would you have to do 20 years from now?” The questions went on in terms of years and months, down to two hours.
“There’s something you have to do before you go to sleep tonight in order to get to that 25-year mark,” Hooker said. “What is one thing you can do by the end of the week to move toward creating the world you say you want 25 years from now?”
Hooker concluded by asking members of the group to share their “take-aways.”
“The very smallest thing can cause a very large impact,” said one person, “starting with my own thoughts and being critical of them in order to affect others around me positively, to make a difference,” while another said, “Our vision of the future will bring the future about.”
Other activities through the weekend included the simulation “The Loss of Turtle Island,” investigating the experience of indigenous people in North America, led by MCC-Central States staff; a time of sharing about peace and justice activities on the various campuses; an exploration of how theology relates to justice, with Bethel campus pastor Peter Goerzen; student storytelling around some of the issues contained in the conference theme; and a dance led by David Seymour, an experienced Latin dance instructor.