This past weekend I jumped into a car with four other EMU students from Peace Fellowship Club and drove 10 hours north to Conrad Grebel University College in Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. About an hour and a half southwest of Toronto, Conrad Grebel is a sister school of EMU’s and was the host of this year’s Inter-Collegiate Peace Fellowship (ICPF) Conference.

Conferences are strange beasts. Though I am still somewhat new to the game of attending them, there are three main variables I consider when determining as to whether the conference is considered a good one: 1. the locational situation of the conference, 2. the social and communal side of other attendees, and 3. conference presentations and lectures. We will walk through them in order.

  1. Conrad Grebel has a unique campus situation: it is under the wider umbrella of the University of Waterloo — sort of like if EMU owned one large catch-all building which included a library, classrooms, cafeteria, and dorms on the edge of JMU’s campus — and the large campus being completely covered in a foot and a half of snow certainly contributed to my rosy view of the event. Canadians also lived up to my stereotype of being nice and well-informed, from the cashier at Wendy’s who exchanged currencies for us to the Conrad Grebel students who seamlessly accommodated us and invited us to do Canadian things like play hockey and go to Tim Hortons. Canada and its people far surpassed my expectations.
  2. Socially, this was an amazing event. ICPF is made up of the Mennonite colleges and universities in the United States and Canada, and since I did my first two years at Hesston, it was unsurprising to pile out of the car into the Canadian winter and be greeted by friends who I had not seen in several years. These and other connections between peace clubs and students from across the Mennonite landscape made the social side of the conference rewarding, and refreshing and building relationships is a primary reason for the conference’s existence.
  3. Every year, the conference, which rotates between the Mennonite universities, has a different topic. This year’s topic was Restorative Justice (RJ), pioneered by EMU’s own Howard Zehr. It’s an intriguing topic and growing field that has an unfathomable amount to offer to our world and justice system, and EMU’s Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice is one of the best in North America. RJ centers around processes meant to restore broken relationships. It aims to foster understanding for both the offender and the victim, not just punishing the offender and removing the victim from the process – a process which further harms both parties. At its best, RJ can solve even the most complex interpersonal problems. Getting better acquainted with RJ was worth driving 20 hours for a 2-day conference. Unfortunately, though, the content as a whole was a bit repetitive and very Canada-specific. Though we heard some interesting case studies — including the testimony of a currently imprisoned female inmate who is benefiting from an RJ-inspired program that creates social bonds between imprisoned women and a social circle outside of prison — the meat of what RJ is and how to do it wasn’t discussed as much as I would have liked. More sobering, though, is that everything we learned about Canada’s problems — from mass incarceration of people of minorities to high recidivism rate and police brutality and reform — is miles ahead of where the United States is at the moment.

Can we, as a country, move to a place where we can discuss what justice, mercy, and restoring peace in broken relationships actually looks like? At the moment, this place seems far away. But maybe, in the next ten years, when the students who attended the 2018 ICPF conference are up on stages, working in jobs, and sharing about the power of restorative justice, maybe then we can make some of the change we should all be dreaming of.

Caleb Schrock-Hurst is a 4th year Language & Literature major, a copy editor for The Weathervane, and co-president of EMU’s Student Government Association.

The post was originally published in EMU’s student newspaper, The Weathervane.

Photo by Taylor Maria Bella Legere.