Eastern Mennonite University: A Christian University Like No Other

Mennonite Rainbow Pic - Glynnis Jones_Shutterstock_The Atlantic  .jpg

by Justin Ayars, JD

It’s a balmy December evening on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) outside of Harrisonburg, Virginia. At 7:30 P.M., only a handful of students are traversing the leaf-covered sidewalks of the college that bills itself as “A Christian University Like No Other.” Towering over campus at the top of a hill sits the University Center, which houses administrative offices, a handful of classrooms and a cavernous meeting area in the middle of the building reminiscent of a 1970s sunken living room (less the shag carpet). On this particular Monday evening, a group of students and one faculty member gather around a table adorned with teacups, napkins and Chips Ahoy cookies. As the group assembles, people begin preparing their wild sweet orange or lemon and ginger tea and a young woman named Meg Greene clears her throat. She is about to call to order a meeting of Safe Space, a student-run group for LGBTQ students and their allies.

You might find it strange that a Christian University like EMU has a group like Safe Space. However, Safe Space actually began in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic. Although the organization died out in the 1990s, it was resurrected in 2007 for a short while before going dormant again. In 2011, Safe Space returned to EMU in the wake of the LGBTQ community’s mounting legal victories across the nation.

Meg starts the meeting by asking the group to find a comfortable spot on the floor to lie down and meditate. Once everyone had claimed their spot on the carpeted floor and closed their eyes, Meg says, “Bring yourself into your body, into your mind.” She then begins to read a college Christmas poem called The Twelve Days of Finals. As Meg recites the poem, I look around the large meeting area and notice that the room is surrounded by hand-made posters that appear to have been used in past LGBTQ demonstrations on campus. Dominating the front of the room is a large banner with the EMU logo and the words “A Christian University Like No Other.” I began to wonder how EMU came to be such an inclusive Christian University in a fairly rural part of western Virginia.

EMU – More Progressive Than You Might Think

EMU Panorama .jpg

EMU was founded in 1917 by a handful of Mennonite church members who recognized that their church-centered communities needed to offer schooling beyond the basic level for young Mennonites who were hungry for more knowledge and more opportunities beyond the farm. From exclusively serving members of the Mennonite church in the early and mid 1900s, EMU has evolved to educating thousands far beyond its original constituency. Today, only about 50% of EMU’s students are Mennonites. EMU and its seminary are affiliated with the Mennonite Education Agency of the Mennonite Church USA, as are five other institutions of higher education: Bethel College, Goshen College, Bluffton University, Hesston College and Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Of these colleges, only Goshen College has a higher percentage of Mennonite students (53%).

EMU describes itself as a “leader among faith-based institutions” in emphasizing “peacebuilding, creation care, experiential learning, and cross-cultural engagement.” According to an August 10, 2010 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mennonites—cousins to the generally more conservative Amish—are “[m]otivated by faith and a philosophy of service.” Even though there are fewer than 370,000 Mennonites in the United States and only about 1.5 million worldwide, they “have come to be regarded as leaders on the international relief stage [who work] to ease suffering worldwide, especially in the face of disasters.”

University President, Loren Swartzendruber, has said, “We are, I think, a different kind of Christian. If [students] assume they’re going to find at EMU what they would also find at Liberty University [the conservative Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell] they’re not going to be very happy here. . . . [W]e believe that the New Testament is pretty clear that there is a social dimension to what Jesus called us to be and to do.”[1] Indeed, EMU has a long history of tying peace to social justice. EMU’s mission statement refers to Micah 6:8 on doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God. This distinguishes it from most of the other 108 members of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), whose mission statements sometimes mention justice but almost never mention peace work.

The social justice component of EMU’s mission has made the campus a quiet trailblazer in national civil rights battles for over 65 years. In 1948-49, EMU quietly admitted two local African American students, becoming one of the first historically white colleges in the South to integrate, defying written and unwritten rules enforcing segregation prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In recent years, EMU’s mission has brought it to the forefront of the LGBTQ civil rights movement.

EMU Takes a Major Step Towards LGBTQ Inclusivity

At the end of 2008, a LGBTQ-inclusive group within the Mennonite Church called the Pink Mennos was formed. According to the group’s website (www.pinkmenno.org), their vision is “to achieve healing and hope for the Mennonite Church through the inclusion and welcome of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) individuals and their supporters.” Since its inception, the Pink Mennos has been supported by members of the EMU family.

For years, EMU has had a policy that prohibited the university from hiring and permitted the university to fire faculty and staff that were openly gay. On March 14, 2014 hundreds of people assembled on Thomas Plaza in front of the University Center for a candlelight vigil to show that, in the words of student Christian Parks, “the campus was really, really, really ready for the hiring policy to change.” People carried signs saying “Hire Like No Other,” a take on EMU’s unofficial motto, “A Christian University Like No Other.”

From June 30 through July 5, 2015, the Mennonite Church USA held their biennial convention in Kansas City, Missouri. Although the convention did not pass any resolution pertaining to the LGBTQ community—despite the ardent efforts of the Pink Mennos, which for the first time in history was allowed to set up a booth at the convention—it did reach an informal understanding: the issue of making the church more inclusive to the LGBTQ community would not be raised for the next four years. In effect, EMU’s Professor Kathy Evans notes, “This was really just an opportunity for the church to turn a blind eye.” However, it was this “forbearance option” that allowed EMU to change its hiring policy at the beginning of last semester.

This past August, EMU (along with Goshen College) changed its employment policy to allow the hiring of faculty and staff members who were in a same-sex marriage. The night the email announcing the decision was sent out to the entire EMU family, hundreds of people spontaneously gathered at Thomas Plaza to celebrate and sing hymns. “It was a good night,” Professor Evans recalls. EMU’s and Goshen’s actions prompted a crisis within the CCCU and the threat of a broader split over what was seen as the authority of Scripture. The crisis was relieved by the announcement on September 21, 2015 that both EMU and Goshen had withdrawn from the Council. It’s worth pointing out that EMU was a founding member of the CCCU in 1976.

Safe Space Continues to Carry Out EMU’s Mission of Peace & Social Justice

After Meg counts eight beats, the group slowly stands up and forms a circle. I join the circle as we go around introducing ourselves, stating our preferred gender pronouns and physically acting out the emotion that we were feeling. After stretching a bit more, everyone returns to the table to enjoy tea and cookies. The bulk of the meeting is spent reviewing the history of Safe Space at EMU and the school’s recent policy change. Meg notes, “It’s important that we review where we’ve been so we can better plan for the future.” After learning about EMU’s history of pursuing social justice and its monumental policy change last summer that lead to its departure from the CCCU, I am convinced that EMU truly is a Christian university like no other.

Panorama Photo is courtesy of Michael Sheeler

 Group photo:

Student Group Photo.JPG

Toni Doss – Blue Hoodie

Esther Ajayi – Blue Hair

Carolann Wengerd – Pink Hair

Molly White – Red Shirt

Meg Greene

Christian Parks – black guy

Devon Fore – pink shirt

Kathy Evans – professor

Elizabeth Redden. "What Would Jesus Do (in College)?" Inside Higher Ed, 30 June 2008. www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/06/30/progressive