By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
GOSHEN — It was a day of song, reflection and positive affirmation at Goshen College Monday morning as students, faculty, staff and community members gathered to celebrate the 19th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Study Day.
During the annual study day event, students at the college set aside their usual class schedules to attend an inspiration-filled presentation celebrating King’s message of equality for all individuals, no matter their race, gender or place of origin.
That message, brought so vividly to life on Aug. 28, 1963, with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, served as an undisputed catalyst in the American Civil Rights Movement, the message of which continues to inspire to this day.
Kicking off the celebration early Monday morning was a Spoken Word Coffeehouse event in the Church-Chapel Fellowship Hall where students, faculty and invited guests gathered for a program of poetry and storytelling drawn from the day’s theme of “Hope, History and Change”.
Among the first to speak during the coffeehouse event was GC student Joel Kawira of Tanzania who presented the poem “Notes from a Speech” by Amiri Baraka.
“I believe that it’s important for everybody to be aware of our past, and where we came from,” Kawira said of why he chose to speak Monday. “I think it’s good for the students to get involved, whether it’s through poems they like, or even their own experiences. I think it’s a good time for people to reminisce back on the old days and remember or history.”
Also presenting during the coffeehouse event was Gabriella Hydes, a GC student from the Cayman Islands, who presented the poem “Million Man March” by Maya Angelou.
“I feel like it’s important to remember this day, because most of the time I think it just kind of sits in the back of people’s minds,” Hydes said. “By doing something like this, I think it’s a good opportunity to really sit back and reflect on the past and our shared history.”
Following the coffeehouse-style gathering, attendees made their way to the college church-chapel for some inspirational music by the Parables worship team before hearing from the day’s featured speaker, Vincent Harding, a pioneer of the civil rights movement and close friend of Dr. King.
Included among Harding’s most notable accolades was the drafting of the “Beyond Vietnam” speech delivered by King at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967. Harding is also credited with founding the Institute of the Black World in 1969 and the Veterans of Hope Project in 1997.
As something new for the study day this year, the presentation of the featured speaker took the form of a question and answer session led by GC broadcasting major Yolo Lopez Perez, who in speaking with Harding brought up questions on everything from multiculturalism to Mennonite identity and what it means to be a servant leader.
Among the first questions to be asked of Harding during his presentation was “What does it mean to you to have a multicultural campus?”
“One of the first things that it means is that we have a community in which we encourage each other to share our uniqueness, and not push each other to become one thing that represents one culture, one life, one community,” Harding said. “We bring all the various experiences, histories, communities, cultures together, and help to create something new. That’s what I see as the strength and meaning of a multicultural community, a community built of many communities.”
When asked if he could give an example of where he sees that unity playing out at GC, Harding pointed to a recent musical performance by the GC group Parables, which he said successfully and beautifully meshed the influences of the African-American experience, Irish and numerous other cultures together into one amazing and vibrant song.
Shifting from the topic of culture to identity, Lopez Perez asked Harding his thoughts on whether he feels opening GC’s doors to so many different cultures and beliefs threatens its Mennonite identity.
“Identity is not something that is most valuable to us when we are grasping it,” Harding said in response. “It is most helpful when we say ‘How can we join what we have with what others have?’ We’ve got to be ready to look at the possibility that something new needs to be born. What we call Mennonite identity...must not be a block of stone that we set down.”
As a way to put imagery to his feelings, Harding gave the example of a caterpillar, noting that if it was never willing to change, it would “lose the chance to fly.”
As the idea of servant leadership is synonymous with the Mennonite faith, Lopez Perez then asked Harding what servant leadership looks like to him.
In response, Harding noted the life of King, who devoted his life to serving people, be it through interests in teaching, preaching or activism.
“King saw his role had to be something to do with serving the people,” Harding said.
In closing the discussion, Lopez Perez asked Harding to explain what has kept him going in his work as a teacher and activist for so many years despite all the different challenges and hardships that such a line of work can entail.
“Well, for one thing, my dear, I have committed myself as fully as God gave me grace, to take Jesus seriously,” Harding said. “If we want to walk with Jesus, we’ve got to look for the weakest, the poorest, and the most beat up, and the most pushed aside. If he is there, and if I say I want to follow him, then I need to be there too. So that’s what helps to inspire me.”