President’s speech: “The world needs Goshen College”

A chapel message from presidential candidate of choice Jim Brenneman on Nov. 18, 2005

On Nov. 18, 2005, the Church-Chapel was filled with more than 800 students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members awaiting the announcement by the Presidential Search Committee of the candidate of choice to serve as the 16th president of Goshen College. Rick Stiffney, chair of the search committee and vice-chair of the Goshen College Board of Directors, introduced educator, biblical theological and church leader Dr. James E. Brenneman to the community, culminating a discernment process that began following the resignation of Shirley H. Showalter in August 2005. Confirmed by the Goshen College Board of Directors to serve a four-year term, Brenneman will take office on July 1, 2006, following a period of preparation and involvement with the college to begin in February 2006.

If it’s true, as G.K. Chesterton once said, that “gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder,” then my joy and wonder at being called to be the next president of Goshen College evokes my deepest gratitude to many people. I am also grateful for the opportunity to meet many of you for the first time, and to reconnect with others whom I have known for a long, long time.

I admit that I became somewhat nervous about being here when I read in the Record a few weeks ago that some GC men are wearing skirts and remembered that psychology professor Julie Reese, a former member of our congregation in California, might dig up some old photos of me in a tutu taken at a church retreat. I was also a little worried that Professor [of Biology] Stan Grove might remember some heresy I espoused during my know-it-all pre-teen years back in our little church in Tampa, Fla., where he became someone I looked up to and deemed worthy of emulation.

One of my biggest fears was facing my former biology professor Jonathan Roth, after having ruined one experiment in Microbial class where I secretly inscribed – in a gelatinous Petri dish, using staphylococcus bacteria – the words, “Culture … for Service.”

So let me begin this morning by asking for a general absolution, and then move on with a clean slate.

Reflecting on the call to become the next president of Goshen College, I’ve felt the pull of a force beyond me like an iron shaving drawn by a sacred magnet – back to this little corner of the universe, this “spot in Indiana where the leafy maple grows.” This Church-Chapel sanctuary, with its magnificent beams overhead radiating out from the center of a grand circle, inspires the feeling that “this spot” is holy ground.

I remember a similar feeling when I stood in the great rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the place of Mount Calvary and the Tomb of Christ. There in the center of the basilica, below the magnificent dome in the marble floor, is a circle that marks what is believed by worshippers to be the very center of the world. That very spot recalls the words of the Psalmist: “God is my King of old, who works salvation in the midst (or center) of the earth.” (Psalm 74:12) It is good and right to imagine that spot in Jerusalem as the center of the world, the place where God worked out our salvation.

But, for all of us whose lives have been irrevocably altered for the better, and for those whose lives will be changed forever still, and for all those who experience God’s salvation here at this little “spot in Indiana,” is not Goshen College in its own way a “navel of the earth,” the center of the world for us? I, for one, believe this to be so. So much so, that I want to invest my future in it. And I know many of you have done so also.

I believe the world needs Goshen College. Goshen College exists to pass on to a new generation the grand and glorious biblical values and Scriptural truths articulated 500 years ago by a forward-looking, outside-the-box thinking group of people called Anabaptists. I believe the core values of Goshen College: being Christ-centered passionate learners, servant leaders, compassionate peacemakers and global citizens are as revolutionary in scope today as were the values of our fore parents in faith and practice. These values, backed by a powerful Strategic Plan of action for Goshen College, are not ours to hold on to so much as ours to share. These values are much bigger than we are and are capable of influencing whole cultures, like leaven.

I believe Goshen College’s unconventional ways, balanced by what Brian McLaren calls a “generous orthodoxy,” makes it ecumenically contagious. I’m reminded of the story told by a colleague about a motorcycle developed by BMW some years ago called the R8OGS. Today it’s even bigger, and called the R1200GS. This bike was strange – an 800cc dirt bike that could carry suitcases, coast the highways and also go fast. When BMW first introduced the model, questions abounded: “Is it a touring bike, a dirt bike, cruiser or what?” The BMW designers replied, “It’s a hybrid, something completely unique. You can’t compare it to anything else.” People didn’t know then how to think about the R1200GS, but last year Motorcyclist magazine named it the “motorcycle of the year.” This weird beast was their most desired bike, even though it didn’t fit the standard category. I think Goshen College can be the RG1200GS of Christian colleges. It is a unique place.

And a bit odd, perhaps. Former GC President J.L. Burkholder once said that Goshen College assumes “that which is odd, or exceptional or different may be worthwhile, even revelatory.” It is this out of the ordinary, outside-the-box nonconformity that may be among Goshen College’s greatest assets, our pearl of great price. But I hope we will always be more than oddly nonconformist. In the words of John Howard Yoder, ours must be an “evangelical nonconformity” – articulated and expressed as good news to a watching world. The world wants what Goshen College has to offer.

So I would ask us, why the bashfulness about our faith and practice? Goshen College is part of a 500-year-old movement that first demanded the separation of church and state now enshrined in the constitution of nearly every Western democracy. Two hundred years before the Emancipation Proclamation, this movement of which we are a part called for the abolition of slavery. Before Congress passed conscientious objector laws, some of Goshen College forebears (if not alumni) went to prison rather than war. Before the Peace Corps, established in 1961, there was Civilian Public Service and Mennonite voluntary service. Before international fair trade sales became chic, Edna Ruth Byler visited artisans in Puerto Rico and in 1946 started selling their embroidery from her home – the roots of a fair trade effort that have come to be known as the Ten Thousand Villages. Before the University of California thought of an international studies program, Goshen College had Study-Service Term, and one of its own, Provost Emeritus Hank Weaver, was called to California to help set up a similar program. Before mediation services spread to judicial courtrooms throughout the United States, there was a Victim Offender Reconciliation Program in Elkhart County.

Clearly, Goshen College is part of a movement that has been often centuries ahead of its time. That is good news, indeed.

Following such a wonderful precedent, “how can we keep quiet?” To the faculty, I would ask, are we preparing a new generation for jobs not yet imagined and still unknown in the market place? Are we thinking beyond the scope of conventional wisdom so as to train our students to live and be now what we hope the world will some day become? I believe we are. I would ask parents, why mainstream your child in a large state-university with mainstream conventional values that may be great, but less good, than Goshen College? To students, I would invite those already on campus and those not yet here to come join a revolution! Come join in what Dallas Willard calls a “divine conspiracy” to change God’s world for the better.

Yes, there is a “spot in Indiana where the leafy maple grows.” That spot may seem like it’s in the middle of nowhere, at the edge of the world. But in truth, I believe, it’s a spot at the cutting edge of God’s will for the world. And yes, I believe Goshen College can, with due regard, claim to be “in the midst (or center) of the earth,” where God’s salvation is made known to all who pass through its sacred portals. Goshen is indeed a gateway to the future. With your support, I’ll stake my life on it.