Bethany Seminary Hosts Third Presidential Forum

Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind., hosted its third annual Presidential Forum April 8-10.


Martin Marty greets students at Bethany Theological Seminary’s Presidential Forum (photo courtesy of Bethany Seminary)

This year’s theme, “When Strangers Are Angels: The Spiritual and Social Movements of Brethren, Friends, and Mennonites in the 21st Century,” was celebrated through lectures, discussions, drama, and worship. The story of Jacob wrestling with the stranger from Genesis 32 was invoked in a variety of ways.

Martin Marty, distinguished service professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and columnist for “The Christian Century,” was the featured lecturer.

A Pre-Forum Gathering for alumni/ae and friends featured lectures presented by Bethany faculty members. Academic dean Steve Schweitzer shed light on “Dimensions of the Stranger in the Old Testament.” “Surprised by Emmanuel: Mission with Jesus in Matthew” was presented by Dan Ulrich, professor of New Testament studies. Through story and song, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, associate professor of preaching and worship, gave a presentation on the prophetic and pastoral distinctives of Anabaptist-Pietist preaching. Tara Hornbacker, associate professor of ministry formation, and Russell Haitch, associate professor of Christian education and director of the Institute for Ministry with Youth and Young Adults, invited participants to share in small group discussion on the topic, “How Is Today’s Church Living out Our Brethren Values?”

The Presidential Forum began with worship and a plenary session on “The Demands of the Stranger” led by Marty. He challenged the crowd to consider three aspects of the stranger: the stranger within ourselves and our own faith communities, the stranger beyond our faith communities (where he noted the particularity of the Anabaptist tradition being founded on estrangement from mainstream Christianity), and finally the global stranger.

A play closed out the evening, “Man from Magdalena” written by Earlham School of Religion student Patty Willis. The play chronicled the journey of Manuel Jesus Cordova Soberanes, a Mexican immigrant, who rescued a nine-year-old boy whose mother had just been killed in an automobile accident in the southern Arizona desert.

Saturday morning began with a panel discussion, where representatives from each of the historic peace churches (Church of the Brethren, Friends, and Mennonites) responded to the questions “What defines someone as a stranger in your faith community?” and “How are we strangers to each other?”

This led to a lively discussion about the particularities as well as deep points of connection between the three traditions. As a Mennonite teaching at Bethany, Malinda Berry, instructor in theological studies and director of the Master of Arts program, spoke of her experience on the Church of the Brethren campus as “coming to spend time with the cousins and getting to know the extended family.” Jay Marshall, dean at Earlham School of Religion, noted that today Quakers may have few external identifying markers such as unique dress, but “many orientations still matter, including the inner light, spiritual disciplines, and a commitment to equality.”

Following the panel discussion, attendees had the opportunity to continue the conversation with pairs of panel members or discuss the theme topic with area experts on poverty, immigration, globalization and militarism, sexuality, and racism.

Scott Holland, professor of theology and culture and director of peace studies and cross-cultural studies, led a Saturday afternoon intertextual interpretation of the theme of the stranger, engaging stories of Anabaptists’ experience from around the globe. The discussion and question time centered on the complexities of befriending the stranger. Holland responded with a question a man had asked him in Kenya: “What do you do when the stranger wants to kill you?” He concluded that such questions will never completely be answered, but that the two simple answers we have known–fight back or die–are not the only two options and there are a variety of ways to create cultures of peace.

During the final plenary, Marty spoke about the gifts of strangers. He presented several ways in which the Historic Peace Churches offer a unique perspective. The principles of community and hospitality were highlighted in his address.

The forum culminated in an energetic closing worship service. Participants were invited to break bread with a neighbor unknown to them. Blessings were exchanged, hearts were opened, new ideas were planted.

— Lindsey Frye is a student at Bethany Theological Seminary.