ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Mission Network) — Educators know learning is important. Mennonite service workers know it is also powerful—it is a tool God uses to build the kingdom.
At a religiously affiliated school in Lithuania, a seminary in Spain and a secular university in China, service workers are finding ways to share Christ with their students. Whether through overt theological dialogue or by modeling a Christ-like lifestyle, educators continue to strengthen their faith and the faith of their students.
Michelle and James Stabler-Havener have worked with ministries in China since 1997. They have been with Mission Network since 2004. At that time, the Stabler-Haveners were connected through Mennonite Partners in China (formerly China Educational Exchange). Michelle currently serves as an English language instructor at a university in Chengdu, China.
“I am passionate about higher education because I believe that education makes a profound difference in both the lives of individuals and their communities,” said Michelle Stabler-Havener. “These are powerful legacies.”
Dennis Byler began teaching Koinē Greek and introductory Bible courses at Seminario Evangélico Unido de Teología (a Protestant seminary northwest of Madrid, Spain) in 1997. Byler and his wife, Connie, are long-term workers with Mennonite Mission Network (since 1972 – in Spain since 1981), serving the Association of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches in Spain.
Byler believes that teachers, especially those in higher education, can be influential at a formative stage in the lives of young people.
“I think Christian teachers … have enormous potential to influence people’s lives in ways that make the kingdom of God real and invite people into deeper relationship with God and healthy relationships with others,” said Byler.
Robin Gingerich serves as director of the English Language Institute at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania and believes the need for committed teachers is great.
“We have the students and we have waiting lists for students and we don’t have people to teach,” she said.
Gingerich is connected to LCC through Mennonite Mission Network and previously through Mennonite Central Committee. She works alongside fellow Mission Network representatives Jim and Virginia Mininger, outgoing LCC president and donor communication coordinator, respectively, and Betsy and Steve Dintaman who serve as librarian and chair the theology department, respectively.
Gingerich realizes that most people may not associate service work with higher education.
“To put university and mission together is really an opportunity to impact young people in ways that will change their lives at crucial points in their development,” said Gingerich. “The idea that higher education is mission, to me, makes a whole lot of sense.”
Gingerich believes that the classroom enables faith development. Students and teachers from different cultures, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds meet on common ground that allows them to build relationships and discuss faith issues.
Although Gingerich teaches at a Christian institution, her students come from a range of religious backgrounds. She explained that some students do not arrive with an understanding of God as loving, peaceful or faithful.
“Students realize that God is a just God and that he desires peace for people—things that I consider very basic—and become quite excited; they’ve never really experienced that,” Gingerich said.
Byler cherishes the moments when students and faculty get beyond the transfer of academic skills and discuss what really matters to them.
“Whenever those special moments [occur], unprogrammable and usually unexpected, when we ‘get real’ with each other and share the hidden treasure in our hearts, it is always something to experience with awe and reverence as a gift of God,” said Byler.
Working in an interdenominational seminary, Byler also has opportunity to engage in discussions across faith traditions. The ability to share his Anabaptist theology and to listen to the theology of other denominations is crucial to Byler.
“I believe passionately in the importance of an unapologetically Anabaptist voice at each and every interdenominational Christian seminary which is willing to put up with one or more of us,” said Byler. “In respectful dialogue across the traditional fault-lines of denominations, I believe we all come away enriched.”
Michelle Stabler-Havener has had a different experience. The institution where she teaches is not religiously affiliated.
However, Michelle does share in class that she is a Christian and her faith influences the content of her courses.
“We talk about poverty, the environment and volunteerism. Non-Christian teachers do this too,” said Michelle. “The difference is that I clearly tie my ethics on such issues to my faith.”
Michelle notes that some of her students make more ethical choices and are more active in volunteerism as a result of her class, even if they do not become followers of Christ. A few have chosen to teach in poor, rural areas as opposed to the more prosperous cities in order to inspire excellence in others.
But the Stabler-Haveners also have several barriers to overcome.
“Many students have been hurt by tactics of some Christian workers who only pay attention to students who are Christians or are interested in learning more about the Bible and becoming Christians,” said Michelle.
These students have said that because Stabler-Havener does not show favoritism, she has helped to redeem their view of Christians.
A few of Michelle’s students will become Christians, and many will go on to positively influence their communities.
Mennonite Partners in China is a joint program of Mennonite Mission Network, Mennonite Central Committee, Eastern Mennonite Missions and Mennonite Church Canada Witness.