“The Christian peace position is a radical thing,” began Seth Stauffer in his winning speech, “The Danger of MCC’s Own Single Story,” at Eastern Mennonite University’s C. Henry Smith Oratorical Contest held last month in Martin Chapel.
Stauffer, a second-year peacebuilding and development major from Lebanon, Pa., delved into the dangers of avoiding difficult discussions about violence in some areas where Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) works. “I think it is important for MCC to consider what ability they have to be subversive to violence by communicating about it in a more helpful way,” said Stauffer.
The annual C. Henry Smith Oratorical Contest brings together students from Mennonite and Brethren in Christ colleges and universities in the United States and Canada to speak on contemporary issues from a Christian perspective. Winners at each school move on the intercollegiate portion of the contest for cash awards and conference scholarships.
Stauffer’s speech drew inspiration from ideas put forth in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In that talk, Adichie speaks of painful experiences she has had coming to terms with others’ perceptions of her, and her perceptions of them based on the dominant cultural narrative. To her, these single stories were fraught with inaccuracy and unhelpful stereotypes; getting beyond them allowed her to more fully experience the world.
Stauffer summarized Adichie’s point by noting that one story is never enough. But ignoring one particular story among many also has its pitfalls. As an example, he cited MCC censorship of a blog post he wrote about violence he witnessed last summer, while volunteering for the organization in Honduras. MCC, he said, didn’t want to reinforce the perception of Honduras as a violent place. “In some ways, just talking about violence will reinforce popular assumptions,” Stauffer said. “But in this case, MCC had similarly adopted a single story to compensate against the dominant narrative.”
After a lengthy discussion, a three-judge panel, including EMU professors Jayne Docherty and David Evans, and Jennifer Davis Sensenig, a local Mennonite pastor, deemed Stauffer’s speech the best of the five entered in the contest.
The judges evaluated each speaker on topic, content, conclusion, delivery, introduction and originality. After the speeches, Nancy Heisey, organizer and emcee of the event, thanked all the student participants for their courage and their insight, and expressed her relief at not having to judge such an outstanding group.
The judges awarded Stauffer the first spot and also recognized two runners up, Chris Yoder, a senior writing studies major, and Jordan Luther, a senior majoring in Biblical studies. Yoder spoke about cultural adaptability in the context of cross-cultural experiences, while Luther gave a speech about the challenges and social stigmas associated with accent.
Rounding out the five speakers was first-year Sara Caitlin Neubert, who investigated issues of body image and the role of the church in promoting positive self-image. Chris Parks, a junior, drew the first speaking position of the evening and made an appeal for acceptance and equality titled “Dreaming a New America.”
Stauffer will receive $250 and entry to the intercollegiate portion of the contest.
Last year’s winner of the C. Henry Smith Oratorical Contest at EMU was Emily Harnish. She placed third at the binational contest with her speech, “Lessons from the Hymnal in an Election Season.”