Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Eastern Mennonite University: Welcome to my home

Exhibit 1 of what I'll miss: Sunrise over Massanutten & Park View/EMU
There are two senses in which I intend the title of this post to be taken. 1) In an autobiographical sense, as in Eastern Mennonite University has become my home in a significant way; and 2) as if the institution itself were uttering the phrase. I'll use the first to get to the second over the course of this post...

For the past four years I have called this Mennonite village my home. I have come to understand that EMU is but one part of what I've just called a "village," because it's embedded in the Park View neighborhood, in the city of Harrisonburg, in the region of the Shenandoah River Valley/South Fork watershed. This is an area that generations of Mennonites have called home for over two centuries. On this stretch of beautiful earth, these Mennonites have attempted to embody the Anabaptist tradition of Christian discipleship in their families, congregations, and institutions.

As an Iowan Brethren with no prior substantive experience with Mennonites, I only knew there to be an historical connection between the two traditions, that connection having something to do with "Anabaptism," a word I only knew in name and not content. So it was upon coming here that I discovered the Anabaptist tradition not only articulated but embodied in substantive ways. The "thickness" of this embodiment is something I immediately felt, and it was only after more than a year of living, studying, and working here that I began to understand and be able to myself articulate what was going on and why. More on that later...

Going home?

Now after four years, I'm getting ready to leave this place that I have become deeply a part of, what I've come to see as my ecclesiological/church home. I am returning to my geographical, cultural, and familial home in rural Iowa, moving into my wife's home town of Toledo where her family still lives. Toledo is just an hour from where I grew up in Prairie City and also an hour from the Des Moines area where we had lived for seven years prior coming to Virginia. So while my wife and I both grew up in Iowa farm towns, we haven't lived in one for 15 years, residing instead in colleges towns or suburbs.

This transition back after a significant time away will likely involve a struggle for me, on a number of levels. In terms of church, there are no Mennonite or Brethren congregations in the immediate vicinity, and with my family we'll have to work out what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the Anabaptist tradition in a local community where there are no Anabaptist resources. My developing mindset as a Brethren minister has been one of a "reverse missionary" of sorts, trying to merge and embody the two senses of "home" - ecclesiological and geographical-familial-cultural. It's a theological statement that I see my "church home" as the primary mover in the relationship (Mt. 10:34-39), so conflict may be inevitable. (To not sound too gloomy: I am an ecumenically-minded Anabaptist, so also inevitable will be joyous surprises and connections to be made with other Christians - and non-Christians - in the local community, in addition to my wife's family whom I dearly love.[1])

So with these different autobiographical senses of "home" in view, I turn to the institution that's nurtured me these past four years, Eastern Mennonite University, which bills itself as...

"A Christian university like no other"

This marketing slogan was put into place at EMU about a year ago, showing up first on the website home page, then more recently in banners hung around campus, extolling the particular virtues of such a claim: faith, community, peacebuilding, among others. It was developed in conjunction with a local marketing firm, Gravity Group. While I usually have pretty critical things to say about the marketing industry, I think something strange and wonderful happened when this slogan was settled upon. (And I worked for the Marketing dept. at the beginning of this process, getting to know the people at Gravity a bit; great bunch of folks.)

From my Brethren view, EMU is doing something that would be impossible amongst the historically Brethren institutions of higher ed. First, the word "Mennonite" is in the name of the school itself, effectively hanging the particular faith tradition on the front door. Next, by claiming to be "a Christian university like no other" - this makes a further bold claim of particularity, namely that this is not only a Mennonite university - which can and has been understood/expressed in strictly sociological terms - but it is a Christian university, a move that hangs theological particularity on the front door.

I've come to know that one perennial question around EMU is: How "Mennonite" should Eastern Mennonite University be?[2] This question gets focused in a number of ways, particularly the recruitment and enrollment of Mennonite undergraduate students[3] and the hiring of faculty and staff. I'm not intimately familiar with all the internal policies for hiring, but they do include some commitment to have a certain percentage of Mennonite faculty. The worry from some is that this will shut down creative thinking that is the hallmark of the liberal arts educational endeavor. I'm sensitive to this concern, but rather than the common move of framing "diversity" per se as the good, I think it's more interesting and faithful to frame "hospitality" as the good, and then narrate it and embody it, in particularly Mennonite-Anabaptist-Christian ways.

In many ways, EMU already does this, and here are just two examples:
  • The Summer Peacebuilding Institute, run annually by EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding/CJP, is an amazing program that brings peace practitioners from around the globe to campus for six weeks of learning, sharing, fellowship, and friendship. Certain practices of hospitality deliberately accompany the institute, both within the program itself but also from congregations and families in the surrounding Mennonite community. Plus not only students, but also instructors come from a wide array of cultural and religious backgrounds.
  • I've experienced a number of devout Muslim students come through the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding's various programs who have voiced admiration for the theological convictions stated up front at the institutional level. These students have felt both welcomed and respected as co-laborers in the work of building peace, with neither party attempting to downplay or even hide substantive theological convictions that go "all the way down." I have also heard from atheist and/or secularist friends in CJP that, despite being somewhat nervous at the outset about how "religious" the school is, they have come to appreciate how the school pulls off this balancing act.
Neither devout Muslims, ardent atheists, nor even all Mennonites at EMU are always happy in such an arrangement, but where can you find any utopian institution or community? In a recent conversation on the topic of particularity vs. diversity at EMU, one of my professors used the analogy of two forms of the practice of hospitality: That of the home, and that of the chain hotel.

The chain hotel is stripped of particularities that give one the impression of being nowhere in particular, with no one in particular. It is a universal experience: A Marriott is a Radisson is a Hilton.[4] The home on the other hand is inescapably bound up with all kinds of messy particularities: Decor, family, food, language, smelly pets, etc.

Now which is the more substantive expression of hospitality? Both claim to be doing it, but which is experienced as more genuine?[5] 


It's my contention that diversity for diversity's sake is the chain hotel model of hospitality, and in higher education that often means certain regimes of secularism and liberalism are operative, the "corporation" running the place that's supposedly stripped everything bare/neutral/objective in the name of hospitality. Anabaptist-Christian hospitality, on the other hand, happily invites in diversity/guests while maintaining the integrity of the home.[6] This approach is more risky, but it's the more honest and worthwhile endeavor; it is the better way to do Christian higher education. It doesn't mean that hosts are perfect, but even that can be theologically narrated and turned into ethical criteria to hold the host to account for its treatment of guests.

This is why it's exciting to me to see Eastern Mennonite University hang the statement, "A Christian university like no other," under the name on the front door to its house of hospitable learning. This is why it's exciting to me that EMU is a formal educational arm of the Mennonite Church USA. This particularity has not scared away non-Mennonites and non-Christians. Far from it!

Christian institutions of higher education that take seriously "the politics of Jesus" can and should hold together particular theological convictions embodied in institutional forms and policies and practices of hospitality that welcome diverse, sometimes divergent, perspectives. In fact, take out that "and." Such practices of hospitality flow naturally from Anabaptist-Christian theological convictions held at an institutional level. If they don't, we may be dealing with too much hotel management baggage, which does happen even at EMU.

It is ecclesiological wisdom from which institutional practices of hospitality at EMU have emerged, and this wisdom has permanently altered my way of seeing/being church. It's this Anabaptist vision that I'm taking back to rural Iowa, despite the challenges. It's this vision I hope to see embodied at EMU when I return periodically (using any excuse I can find!). It's even my hope that this vision will captivate my daughter and inspire her to come to school here. That's what good, hospitable discipleship does: It tries mightily to be faithful and transmits its goods across generations.


  1. After all, in addition to my "neo-Anabaptist" heroes, John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas (himself an Methodist-turned-Episcopalian), my favorite Christian philosophers include a "Reformed charismatic" (James K.A. Smith) and a Roman Catholic (Charles Taylor), and my favorite political theologian is also Roman Catholic (William T. Cavanaugh). Note: Yes, all of these are white dudes, and yes, I know that's a problem.
  2. Among others: Should EMU have a football team? (We don't and likely won't.) Should EMU fly the flag and play the national anthem of the U.S. at sporting events? (We don't and almost certainly won't.)
  3. Including from Mennonite K-12 schools, the Mennonite Education Agency model being another unheard of practice/institution in Brethrendom.
  4. This prof referenced the work of Elizabeth Newman and her book, Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers. Quick story: In a hotel in rural eastern Illinois recently, I entered my room as the woman cleaning the room was still finishing up. With a rural Midwestern drawl, she apologized profusely, but I insisted she not feel bad and engaged her in a bit of conversation, giving her a bit of myself in conversation in an attempt to make even just a momentary, fleeting connection with her. Give me the messiness of actually existing people, even in places that try to erase all sign of it!
  5. Anabaptist hospitality network: Mennonite Your Way
  6. Thought experiment: Trash your hotel room, and what happens? You get a bill for repairs and perhaps some legal troubles. Now, trash your grandmother's house or the house of some little elderly Anabaptist couple that's opened their home to you? This constitutes a serious breach of relationship and is incredibly more unthinkable than the hotel room scenario. There's a reason for that difference.

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