A Day at Messiah College With Students from Georgetown Day School

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The Georgetown Day School students get a lesson on the history and identity of Messiah College in Hostetter Chapel (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

Last year some faculty and administrators at Georgetown Day School (GDS) in Washington D.C. contacted me about the possibility of bringing some high school juniors and seniors to Messiah College as part of the school’s “minimester.” What is a minimester? Here is a description from the GDS website:

Georgetown Day School’s mission calls us to challenge the intellectual, creative and physical abilities of our students, and to encourage inquiry and self-reliance in those students as they grow into “lifelong learners.” In February of 2020, GDS students and faculty will participate in a three-day program designed to bring that mission to life through an immersive and experiential learning experience wholly separate from the normal day-to-day academic program of the school.

We’re calling this experience Minimester.

On February 26th – 28th, GDS teachers will lead dozens of deep, creative experiences with themes sprouted from the passions and interests of faculty and staff — passions that may or may not fall within the purview of their academic disciplines. Students will select the Minimester course in which they’d like to participate, and will spend the allotted three days immersing themselves in their chosen topic.

The students who came to Messiah College on February 27, 2020 were enrolled in a minimester course titled “A View from the Other Side: Partisan Politics in Trump’s America.” Here is a description of the course:

Over the course of our minimester, we will explore the other side — meaning the political, social, economic world beyond the typical GDS view of things. A variety of speakers, from “explainer” journalists and commentators to those who inhabit the conservative spectrum, will engage with us as we dive deeply into the current political landscape and the operative theme of, “how did we get here?” We’ll also journey outward, exploring the world beyond the Beltway and the GDS bubble focusing on candidates’ platforms and what it is that people have not been hearing for years from either Democrat or Republican candidates. We will consider what the world looks like to Americans living in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and other parts of the country, and why they might take a chance on a non-politician who says, “No one cares about you, but I do.” One hoped-for outcome might be a service trip to Appalachia in the Spring. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “You have to go there to know there.”

This course included conversations at GDS with Juan Williams of Fox News, Kate Bennett of CNN (and author of the book Free Melania), and conservative Republican Washington Post writer Gary Abernathy, among others.

GDS teachers Lisa Rauschart (History), Sue Ikenberry (Politics), and Michael Manson (English) were familiar with my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and asked me if the could bring students up to Mechanicsburg to talk about why evangelicals support Donald Trump. They also wanted to learn more about a region that went heavily for Trump in 2016.  Throughout the course of the day, students and their teachers talked about getting out of the “GDS Bubble” and having an experience in a place that was unfamiliar to them. Most of these kids grew up in liberal and progressive Washington D.C.-area homes.

Fifteen students, the aforementioned teachers, and Gary Abernathy arrived at Messiah College by bus around mid-morning.  I took them on a very short tour of campus.  We stopped in the chapel to talk about Messiah College’s history and its connection to the Anabaptism, Wesleyan, and Pietist streams of Christianity.  The students seemed particularly interested in Messiah’s commitment to pacifism.  They were also surprised when I told them that the school, in accordance with its Anabaptist heritage, does not fly an American flag on campus.  These were bright kids destined for Ivy League and other elite colleges and they displayed a deep curiosity about Messiah’s roots and our unique approach to Christian education.  (I told them that if they liked what they saw and heard they should apply! 🙂 )

We treated the group to lunch at the dining hall (thanks Pete Powers and the School of Humanities) where they were joined by three Messiah students (including our own Annie Thorn) who were gracious enough to take time out of their day to visit with these high school students.

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L to R: Katy, Annie, and Chloe were great hosts! (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

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With GDS teacher Michael Manson and Washington Post writer Gary Abernathy solving the world’s problems in Martin Commons on the campus of Messiah College (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

After lunch we headed to downtown Mechanicsburg where we met local historian John Klinger at the Mechanicsburg Museum Association.  Klinger gave a short lecture on the history of Mechanicsburg and then took us on a walking tour of the town, ending at the historic Frankenberger Tavern on Main Street. The students got a full taste of the town, including one house that had a huge Confederate flag flying on its front porch. While I am no fan of this flag, it provided a wonderful educational moment.  I reminded the kids that they were no longer in Georgetown.

The day ended back at Messiah College with a conversation about evangelicals Trump.  I used the time to define evangelicalism using Bebbington’s Quadrilateral and tried to explain Messiah College’s relationship to the larger evangelical world.  I distinguished Messiah from Liberty University, a Christian school of which most of the students were familiar.  Some of the students had no idea that Christian colleges were not all alike.

I explained why I wrote Believe Me, said a few things about the central argument of the book, and then let the students ask questions. (Students received a copy of Believe Me as part of the minimester course).  This was the highlight of the day for me.  These kids wanted to talk about everything–abortion, gay marriage, religious liberty, immigration, and the way Trump was using evangelicals in the 2020 election.  I am guessing that many of them agreed with my conclusions about Trump, but disagreed with my reasons for opposing him. They were respectful and intellectually curious. A scheduled 45-minute session lasted close to 90-minutes and we continued talking as we left Boyer Hall.

Fea in Boyer with GDS

Why do so many evangelicals support Donald Trump? (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

Fea with GDS students

The conversation continued well after the former session was over (photo by Lisa Rauschart)

When we got on the bus, Abernathy thanked me for hosting the group and then told me, with a smile that could only come from spending a long today together, that he disagreed with just about everything I said.  I laughed and told him that he would get the last word with the students as they drove back to D.C. 🙂

At the end of the day one of the students asked me for some tips about how to overcome the divisiveness and partisanship in American culture today.  I suggested that we need more days like this one!  She agreed.  As these kids head off to college and find themselves in positions where they will be able to change the world, I hope they will remember their visit to Messiah College and their experience in central Pennsylvania.  Thanks for coming and letting us see ourselves through your eyes.  I learned a lot from the visit!