President’s Letter: The Power of Place

By Susan Schultz Huxman | June 14th, 2018

NEW YORK, N.Y. – so nice they named it twice, with many more nicknames: The City That Never Sleeps. The Big Apple. Gotham City. The Crossroads of the World. Indeed, New York City is a powerful place.

To illustrate the importance of place, one need only recall the dramatic origins of EMU.

For over a decade, in the first part of the 20th century, Mennonites in the East debated where to plant their church school. Should it be Pennsylvania? Ohio? Maryland? Virginia? And then, when interest solidified around Virginia, the squabble only intensified!

Denbigh by the sea almost won out; then there was momentum for Alexandria, smack dab in our nation’s capital. That location was nixed when Bishop Daniel Kauffman stepped in to say: “We can’t have a Mennonite school that close to the nation’s capital – too militaristic.” And finally, perhaps as much out of weariness as inspiration – this beautiful place in the Shenandoah Valley with its rich farmland and stunning vistas won out. And in October of 1917 in the midst of the Great War, Eastern Mennonite School opened.

For 100 years, EMU’s idyllic spot has given it agency. Located in the South, race relations and diversity take special urgency for us. Located so close to the nation’s capital gives our peace witness extra “saltiness.” “The Friendly City” of Harrisonburg, nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, has become a tourist and retirement destination and a celebrated college town. Here in this place, our special entrepreneurial and counter-cultural identity is rooted in our commitment to creation care, service and faith formation.

In a sense, EMU’s location allows us as educators – like Paul on Mars Hill – to speak into Athens and Jerusalem. Reason and revelation, art and science, service and scholarship come together every day for us – and give us a mandate to “speak truth to power,” to live into our mission “to prepare students to serve and lead in a global context.”

John Mark Reynolds, author of When Athens Met Jerusalem, says we sometimes forget that Paul was successful on Mars Hill because he understood the rational world view of the Athenians and used that inquisitive mindset to “win over” converts to Christ. Paul understood that Jerusalem gave the world truth, but Athens gave Jerusalem a valid way to express that truth – a creative harmony. He closes by noting: “Christians must recapture the middle place – Athens and Jerusalem are not two cities, but two districts in one city – the city of God.”

EMU’s location helps us for our day to recapture that mediating place that Paul found.

The alumni featured in this issue of Crossroads call New York City home. Each gives voice to the power of place. They stand at the crossroads of the world – a contemporary Mars Hill. And what are they doing? Many things, of course. But each in their own way is equipped to shine Jesus’ reconciling love in the City That Never Sleeps.