Eastern Mennonite University is not Eastern Mennonite College only bigger and with graduate programs added.
When EMC became EMU those who questioned this move were assured that the core mission of the school and its commitments to the church would not change. I believe those assurances were given in good faith, but they were incorrect. I can understand why some who opposed the change feel betrayed by what EMU has become, and I am sorry for that, but I do not think it was intentional.
I also think the changes that upset them actually started with the decision in 1982 to establish a Cross Cultural Program that requires all students to travel out into the world with faculty members. The Cross Cultural Program set in motion new ways of thinking about education, new ideas about what the future might hold for our graduates, and a host of smaller changes that we are still feeling our way into. At its core, sending students out into the world challenges the idea that the church can (or should) remain separate from the world.
Gradually, the EMC core mission of preparing students for church leadership and to return to their Mennonite communities or at least to stay very connected to those communities is being replaced by the EMU mission to prepare Anabaptist influenced leaders for the world.
EMC was deeply tied to a single community that was defined by a combination of:
- Religious commitments — both theological and behavioral,
- Cultural practices, and
- Interconnected familial relationships.
EMU is held together by a shared commitment to:
- Engage in intellectual inquiry and critical thinking,
- Use teaching practices that empower students to make changes in the world,
- Provide a liberal arts education and professional skills that can be used to lead and serve in the world,
- Promote the values of nonviolence, building justice, and living in right relationship with the planet,
- Openly witness to our own faith commitments while engaging with those holding other commitments, and
- Create and sustain a community that welcomes members equally regardless of their relationships with the Mennonite cultural group.
The change from EMC to EMU was gradual, and the decision to change the name of the organization from college to university was one stop along the way, not the starting point for the change.
Indicators of how different EMU is from the college out of which it grew include:
- The students at EMU identify with dozens of denominations and faith traditions, and more than 30 nationalities. Only 44% of EMU undergrads are Mennonite. There is greater ethnic diversity among the students (graduate and undergraduate). Even the seminary has diversified its students through a special relationship with the Methodist Church.
- The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding welcomes students of many faiths and no faith, promotes dialogue and conversation with members of the military who also want to reduce US misuse of military power, and teaches professional skills and practices for building more just and peaceful societies as well as discussing the normative reasons for choosing nonviolence.
- The undergraduate Peacebuilding and Development major continues to include courses on the theology and philosophy of peace and nonviolence, but it is also one of only a few undergraduate programs in the country that focus on teaching skills and professional practices for building peace and promoting justice.
- The Center for Interfaith Engagement promotes interfaith discussion and hosts non-Christian visiting faculty members.
- The teaching community and staff include individuals from many non-Mennonite church backgrounds — some that would be identified as more “liberal” than MCUSA and some that would be identified as more “conservative.”
- A growing number of military veterans are enrolling in programs at EMU, most of them rejecting the militarized culture of the United States and looking for ways to lead and serve nonviolently.
- EMU is home to an Intensive English Program (IEP) that enrolls students from China, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and the very diverse international community in Harrisonburg.
If you begin with the assumption that being true to the church requires the university to privilege or focus primarily on sustaining an ethnically homogeneous community marked by:
- Largely uniform beliefs,
- Thick relationships that include professional engagement at the university, membership in the same churches and even intermarriage, and
- Shared cultural practices and assumptions,
then EMU has, indeed, strayed far from the Mennonite Church as it existed in 1917 when EMU was founded.
The church has also changed significantly since 1917.
You only need to look at the demographics of the worldwide Mennonite community to know that the ethnic groups that founded EMU are no longer the majority in that church tradition.
In that respect, EMU has grown and changed with the church.
Why, then, do some in the church think EMU has grown away from the church?
This is kind of personal for me, and I will admit it irritates me. As the Catholic/Episcopal Program Director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, I sometimes feel that my presence (and the presence of others like me) is considered part of the problem. Having me directing the “flagship program” (ironic that Mennonites use this military metaphor to describe CJP), is an indicator that the university has gone astray. But, my observation is that the non-Mennonite faculty at EMU are the ones most likely to see the real power of the Anabaptist core that anchors EMU and makes it a unique and powerful offering to a world in need. We are more likely to think big and push EMU to grow into its full potential. We are the most inclined to rip the bushel from over the lamp and shine the light of Anabaptist teaching, practices, and values into a world that is desperate for this witness.
In my next posting — Some challenging questions for MCUSA.