College classes started early for me this summer. I got to visit Bethany College for the first time as part of the West Virginia region’s CYF conference and felt right at home staying on a college campus. Bethany is a “small college of national distinction,” steeped in Disciples’ history and located atop the beautiful mountains of West Virginia. The campus brings back memories of both our nation’s and our denomination’s rich past. I counted at least five plaques dedicated to US Presidents who had visited Bethany, and I learned about the frequent visits James Garfield made to see his friend Alexander Campbell. Our tour of the Campbell Mansion allowed me to join a long list of guests to the home, putting me in the company of such notables as President Garfield and Jefferson Davis. My stroll through the neighboring graveyard gave me the chance to pay my respects to the Campbell family, several former presidents of Bethany College, and many other prominent members of the Christian Church.
Learning about the history of Bethany would have kept me busy enough for the week, but CYF conference and my duties as a peace intern kept me occupied as well. The peace and justice interest group was kept busy reflecting on unearned privilege in the U.S. We also looked at our nation’s complicated relation to race and the turbulent times of the Civil Rights Movement. Watching footage of politicians spewing virulent racism from the podium, of police arresting peaceful marchers and unleashing dogs on children, and of the trial of the murderers of Emmett Till gave us a chilling reminder of the wounds that still scar our history. These images stood in stark contrast to the passionate calls for justice of the congregants in Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, to the commitment to non-violence of the college students being spat on and beaten at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, and to the courage of Moses Wright who was likely one of the first black men to accuse a white man of murder in a Mississippi courtroom and live.
Looking back on our nation’s past gave rise to discussion on problems we still face today. The high school students recognized that stereotyping and bullying continue to plague our society, being especially damaging in our schools. They wrestled with the challenge of poverty, learning firsthand its effects while preparing meals and doing other volunteer work at the Wheeling soup kitchen. The students also had the opportunity to buy and collect school kits for distribution by Church World Service to children across the globe. (For more information on this project, follow this link to Church World Service’s website: http://www.cwsglobal.org/get-involved/kits/school-kits.html).
By the end of the week, most of us were pretty exhausted from the days of service, worship, and discussion. Spending the week in Bethany’s dorms brought back fond memories of my not-so-long-ago tenure as a college student. The week also assured me that there are many more young people committed to learning, service, and justice who will soon take up their studies at colleges across the country. Our past presents many problems for us today, but I am confident that there are leaders who will rise to tackle and overcome these challenges.
Jonathan Cahill is a 2014 Disciples Peace Fellowship Intern, sponsored by Federated Church of West Lafayette.