President's Message

Healing the world, peace by peace

Friday, February 19th, 2010


When I think of the most basic of all human longings, found in all religious traditions the world over, and especially in the Christian faith, I think about the longing to be at peace with God our Creator and Redeemer, to be at peace with our fellow human beings and to be at peace with our own selves. Making peace in all its forms seems to me to be so fundamental to human flourishing that one would imagine every college and university would claim such a message for itself. And yet, they have not done so. I am so pleased that Goshen College has!

If God’s name is Peace (Judges 6:24), if God’s Son is our Peace (Eph. 2:14), if we worship such a God, and if we put God before everything else, then the scope of our peacemaking must be deep and wide. Making peace can never be just about conflict resolution, reconciliation or reducing evil. Nor can making peace simply be about nonviolence, being anti-this or antithat or trying to stop wars or protesting wrong – as important as those activities are.

Making peace must be about human flourishing, joy, beauty and celebration. The prophet Isaiah dreams of a day when the children of the world will be taught by Rabbi God how to create shalom (great prosperity) for the whole world (Isa. 54:13). Pope John Paul II, sounding a similar refrain, once said, “To reach peace, teach peace.” Philosopher Nicholas Walterstorff called such a vision “educating for shalom.” And Albert Einstein insisted that lasting peace “can only be achieved by understanding. [It] cannot be kept by force.” Prophet, pope, philosopher and scientist – all came to the same conclusion, that the outcome of a good education grounded in faith and core values, the kind we are committed to providing here at Goshen College, should be lasting peace in all its forms. A liberal arts education doesn’t get much better than that.

Making peace means inviting God to be present in our lives, day by day, minute by minute. Making peace means doing good, celebrating accomplishments and competing well. Making peace means discovering new medicines, creating a musical masterpiece, teaching a child to read. Making peace is a warm embrace, the thrill of a kiss, a word of encouragement and a job well done. Making peace, as expressed throughout this issue of the Bulletin, is anything and everything that encourages human flourishing and hope.

We cannot go back to the old “peacenik” days of yesteryear, when the work of peace was too often reduced to a pet list of sanctioned professions, or callings, or issues, or narrow means to the exclusion of other equally powerful peace-making options. A businessperson in a manufacturing company must not be viewed as a second-class peacemaker to a voluntary service worker in some faraway country. An engineer is no less called to make peace than a preacher. A basketball coach who works miracles of heart, motivation, discipline and teamwork may, in fact, outpace a bookish theologian in creating a more peaceful world. The social policy expert in Washington, D.C., is no less a potential peacemaker than the social worker on Skid Row, the politician no less than the mediator, the wonky green economist no less than the radical prophet. Dolores Huerta, the Latina civil rights leader, said in 2008 when she visited campus: “Every person can make a difference, and every minute is a chance to change the world!” I agree.

What matters most? What matters most is a world at peace with God, with each other and with ourselves. At Goshen College, “Healing the World, Peace by Peace” is more than a catchy phrase, a clever slogan; it is a promise to live by, a vocation, a holy calling. So, let there be faithful followers and deep thinkers, soccer games and poetry jams. Let there be movie nights and recycling days. Let there be Goshen College, ever singing, honor to our Master bringing. And, yes, let there be peace on earth!

Also read a special online introduction to the Bulletin from President Brenneman »

Let unconquerable gladness dwell amid unprecedented times

Thursday, October 8th, 2009


We are living in unprecedented times. No doubt about that. Elkhart County, home of Goshen College, was described in The New York Times several months ago as “the white-hot epicenter of the economic downturn.” That is not a distinction about which our county wishes to boast.

Unprecedented times call for unprecedented faith, which poses a paradox for all believers in God’s divine providence. Retired Admiral James Stockdale, who endured eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said he learned while in prison that one must “never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever that might be.” Jim Collins, author of the book Good to Great, called such conviction the “Stockdale Paradox.”

Long before there was the Stockdale Paradox, there was the Jesus Paradox: that ability to confront the brutal facts of reality even while tenaciously holding on to the faith that he would, you will, we will, ultimately prevail. As direct with his disciples as he was about his impending brutal death (Mark 8:31-38), Jesus offered a reality check based upon the promise of a coming resurrection. As people of faith, new hope, new possibilities, new opportunities are always potentially ready to be born again into our lives, no matter what our circumstances.

Goshen College has lived through unprecedented economic times before – some in the distant past, some more recently. Such experiences have offered unprecedented opportunities to come together, to re-imagine new and unprecedented futures for Goshen College based on a strong, faithful foundation. This past year, we have worked hard and worked together in sacrificial ways to remain among the top 13 Christian colleges and universities and in the top quartile of all colleges and universities ranked for financial stability, despite a nearly 40 percent drop in the value of our endowment.

What matters most these days at Goshen College? To use such unprecedented times, however difficult, to challenge ourselves to become far more than we have ever been. We are positioning ourselves to press further and reach higher – not to settle for anything less than the most we can achieve. We are undertaking an unprecedented realignment from top to bottom, inside and out, around our core values as they guide our curriculum transformation, student learning outcomes, hiring and tenure process, orientation of new employees and board development. Even our new unprecedented marketing efforts are bearing exciting fruit as we boldly invite prospective students to come to Goshen College – a place to study, learn and serve; a place to discover peace with God, with others and themselves; a place where “healing the world, peace by peace” is a calling, a vocation of lasting joy whatever their major or chosen profession. As you read this, we are welcoming the largest incoming class in 27 years!

I am full of gratitude for the great blessings that God has given Goshen College; indeed, blessings given to all the colleges and universities of the Mennonite church, blessings we gladly share with the church and the world. I am grateful for the many ways alumni, donors, students, faculty, staff live out the Jesus Paradox of confronting reality in all its challenges, yet refusing to have it confine your hopes, your generosity, your vision for a more flourishing future.

In the post-Depression years, on the wall of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Oval Office, a motto in seeming paradox to the times read: “Let unconquerable gladness dwell.” Such a slogan without context might have sounded like another Pollyannaish political cliché. However, the line is set within a prayer from the Episcopal Prayer book which invites a depth of faith, hope and conviction that remains truly prayer-worthy for each of us today:

“O God, Author of the world’s joy, Bearer of the world’s pain; At the heart of all our trouble and sorrow let unconquerable gladness dwell; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Dr. James E. Brenneman
President of Goshen College

What Matters Most…

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

Maple seeds and other miracles of hope

     Milagros! Miracles! During the fall semester, 19 students took Professor of Art Judy Wenig-Horswell’s last official jewelry class before she retires in June and experienced the power of milagros. In Latin America and in other cultures, a milagro is a pendant that represents either a miracle for which the wearer is thankful or a miracle for which she or he hopes and prays to come to pass.
     Students were asked to design and create personal milagros using a “found object” that could either be worn as a pendant or displayed in other ways. One student designed his milagro using two rocks he brought back from his Study-Service Term in Nicaragua in thankful memory of his experiences there and as a prayer for the well-being of people of that poor and conflicted nation. Another student designed a “tree of life” milagro to symbolize “growth” and “renewal” in which each branch contained a personalized symbol representing her mom, dad, brother, two sisters and her. The milagro or miracle in her life for which she was most thankful was, in her words, those “who make my life what it is – my family.” I wish I could recount for you all the “found objects” and miracles experienced and miracles hoped for by these students. To do so would not only fill these pages and many more, but also fill your heart and soul beyond measure.
     If I were to design a milagro for Goshen College my “found object” would be, no doubt, a maple seed – you remember, that whirly-gig, helicopter-like seed that is itself a miracle of design and playful wonder. For me, the maple seed symbolizes the miracle of hope, which echoes this year’s spiritual life theme at Goshen College: “Sensing God’s Hope, Claiming God’s Hope.” For me, hope, like a miracle, isn’t mere “wishful thinking.” Hope is “confident expectation” based upon past or present signposts of God’s participation in our lives. Hope is a mighty unstoppable force. For me, these days, that’s what matters most.
     To mix seed and nut metaphors a bit, Ralph Waldo Emerson likened hope to the power of one acorn to create a thousand forests. Or put less eloquently, another sage mused, “Today’s mighty oak is yesterday’s nut that held its ground.” I am so hopeful about the future, in part, because at Goshen College our students are a bit “nuts” – holy, thoughtful, mighty nuts holding their ground. Our students are maple seeds, the source of a thousand future forests of miraculous possibility.
     Milagros! Miracles! Seeds of hope! Recently, I received a letter from a stranger to Goshen College, that is until he and his wife hosted four of the GC Women’s World Music Choir members in their home. He wrote, “The music was absolutely fantastic. But, it’s not because of the music I’m writing you, but about the extremely fine group of women we hosted in our home … Truly, if these ladies are representative of the students at your institution, you are more than extremely fortunate.” Indeed, we are fortunate.
     Our sports teams are competitive in the conference, but even more, they are seeds of hope in a hurting world. Our Athletic Department sponsors a child from Rwanda with HIV, the basketball team recently offered a free basketball clinic at a local elementary school and went on to play at the Ionia Maximum Security Correctional Facility in Michigan as part of the inmates’ rehabilitation. “I was in prison and you visited me,” Christ said to his disciples – affirming words to our disciple-athletes.
     This issue of the Bulletin is full of reminders of miracles that have sustained Goshen College through 114 years of its existence – countless individuals who planted “maple seeds” of hope. We also see in this issue, future miracles unfolding, lives transformed at Goshen College, maple seeds, Maple Leafs, who have and will heliport and whirly-gig by the wind of the Spirit in service to God and others all over the planet. Our students and alumni are miracles-in-the-making, the plantings of a thousand forests of dreams and possibilities. They are, you are, divine signposts of a hope-filled future. Miracles! Milagros!

Dr. James E. Brenneman
President of Goshen College