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Essay #4, Joseph A. Manickam: Schools as laboratories of the church

4.8. 2019 Written By: Joseph A. Manickam 503 Times read

Photo: Joseph A. Manickam. Photo provided by Hesston College.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a seven-part series by the presidents of Mennonite Church USA higher education institutions. From March to May an article by each president will be posted every two weeks. The entire series is available at themennonite.org/mheaSign up for our TMail newsletter and follow us on Facebook to receive the articles.

Excerpt from MHEA vision statement Joseph is focusing on: Inspired by the gospel’s vision of the reign of God, graduates are equipped to embody Christ’s love, participate in and lead vibrant congregations and witness to their faith.

I was born and raised in Thailand to parents who were missionaries from India sent by the Church of South India in 1958. Though many of my childhood friends were Christians, the society we lived in was very Buddhist, and Christianity was and continues to be a minority religion. I attended an international school in those formative years, and my classmates came from a many different countries.

Fast forward to 1983, when I arrived in North Canton, Ohio, and enrolled in a vocational training school in its automotive mechanics program. As I neared completion of this program, the U.S. military recruited me to join their officers training program. I was a child of Indian missionaries, and finances were tight for our family. The idea of a free education and a guaranteed career track was appealing and fit my faith convictions at the time. However, my Quaker friend David Johns, now president of Ferrum (Virginia) College, challenged me to read the Bible in a new way. He asked if following Jesus really fit with military service. Through various events, I decided to attend Hesston (Kansas) College in the fall of 1985, since it had an automotive technology program and offered a strong scholarship package to international students. I had never heard of Hesston College or traveled to Kansas or heard of Mennonites. Little did I know how my life would be transformed over the next two years at this small Mennonite college in Kansas.

During my years at Hesston College, I was challenged to relearn how to read the Bible. Though Christ was central in my heart, he was not central to how I read the Bible. At Hesston, the classroom lessons on the Bible formed a theological framework for me. But it was my relationships with the faculty and staff and students that formed the foundation for my faith. The coming together of the theological and the social was critical for living the life of a follower of Christ.

Much has occurred in my life since I graduated from Hesston College 32 years ago. My perspective on God’s love for all, including my enemies, has continued to blossom. I have now lived on three different continents, traveled to nearly 50 countries and have had the privilege of engaging with some of the most beautiful people in this world. (Yes, there is much beauty in the world.) Through all this, my commitment to mitigating acts of violence has continued to be central to who I am, though I confess I do not always do this well. Yet I know I’m on a journey, one that began with David back in 1985 and intensified during my two years at Hesston College.

When I was invited to the presidency two years ago, I was unsure of my calling. As I look across our campus today and see the diversity of our students, who have come from across our country and from around the world, I am assured that Hesston College continues to be the right place for me. Today it is not the same place it was 32 years ago, yet in many ways it is the same. We continue to be inspired by the gospel vision of God’s reign. We continue to seek to be that place where we all feel safe, no matter where we come from. We believe Jesus has played a role in developing this community we call Hesston College. And we believe the church is significant for our world today, serving as God’s primary vehicle to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth.

In this missional framework, Hesston College is a laboratory of the church, one where we safely perform experiments. We put on gloves, wear masks and lab coats and other safety gear and go about doing experiments we wouldn’t do elsewhere. And when we are done, we feed our findings back to the church as the church continues to play its vital role in our world. It is true that many of our students come to Hesston with a nominal faith or no faith or other than Christian faith, yet we are all full members of this community. Our hope and prayer is that our graduates will lead vibrant congregations as a witness to their faith.

As I look around at our world, I know it needs our Mennonite schools, each distinctive while connected to Mennonite Church USA. Collectively, we have a crucial role to play in proclaiming the gospel message. In closing, I ask that you keep our students, faculty and staff in your prayers. Pray that God’s Spirit will continue to transform lives on our campuses so that we can be a beam of God’s love for this world.

Joseph A. Manickam is president of Hesston (Kansas) College.

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