When I was editor of the student newspaper, Ivy Rustles, during my senior year at Messiah College (1967-68), I wrote 15 editorials, using my platform to write about small and large campus controversies, philosophical and religious quandaries, seasonal reflections, interpersonal relationships, and more. At the time, I had no inkling that I would become a writer and editor for most of my professional life. Rereading the editorials 50 years later, however, I’m struck by how they foreshadowed some of the themes that have shown up repeatedly in my later writings and in the publications I’ve edited.
Last week, a current Messiah College student asked me what my vision was for the newspaper. Her question was perfectly legitimate, but it caught me off-guard. I can’t remember ever thinking of needing to have a “vision” when I became editor. I had served on the newspaper staff during my sophomore and junior years, and it seemed like a natural progression to become editor-in-chief. My main goals were to continue the same kind of coverage as others before me had done and to meet publication deadlines (in other words, I didn’t want to mess things up!). I simply don’t remember having any overarching grand vision, and I can’t help wondering: did anyone then have formal vision statements, or is the idea of having a vision for what you want to do a more recent phenomenon?
I started the year calling for “intelligent participation” from readers, which I defined as thoroughly reading each issue, constructive criticism, and direct participation (by writing for the paper). The closest I came to articulating a vision was in the concluding sentence: “In this way, Ivy Rustles can more closely reach its aim of being a successful college paper, and thereby an important avenue of communication.” A couple months later, I responded to some of the “constructive criticism” the newspaper must have received and lamented that a lack of adequate funding prevented us from doing more to address the critiques. I went on: “Neither the administration and the faculty nor the students seem to be clear on exactly what Ivy Rustles is supposed to do. . . . Is it a campus news sheet, a printed Wittenburg Door for all the campus grievances, a propaganda sheet for the editor’s views, or . . . something else?” So, even though I don’t remember ever formally stating my vision for the newspaper, I clearly wondered about its purpose and role on campus.
Several editorials were about interpersonal relationships: the importance of communication, listening to each other, and being a friend. My editorial about “listening to people creatively” seems almost prescient, given the current environment: “We should listen openly so as not to make rash, and consequently false, judgments. . . . Perhaps if we heard things correctly in the first place, we could more easily discern the motivations, evidence, [and] reasons behind the statements.” Creative listening, I said then, would be characterized by “learn[ing] to understand people as they really are rather than as we have previously ‘heard’ them to be.” The concepts I was advocating then are echoed in themes in Shalom! over the years: language and how we communicate, creating safe space for dialogue on difficult issues, relating to people who are not like us, let peace begin with me, and bridging the divide. Or these blog posts: “speaking truth with words that give grace,”“truth matters,”“a modest proposal for truth,” and “when people differ.”
I also foreshadowed some of my activist bent when I addressed campus controversies, such as what kind of music was being played in the dining hall (classical or the Tijuana Brass), the potential hypocrisy of prayer at basketball games (when the opening prayer for good sportsmanship would be followed by loud/rude criticisms of referee calls), and the apparently difficult relationship at times between faculty and students. I called for a New Year’s resolution to “put actions to our words: to do instead of merely to say.” My fellow senior English majors and I co-signed an editorial proposing a senior English seminar rather than the comprehensive exams we had to take.
Then there were the more philosophical reflections. I pondered the meaning and relevance of the “social gospel” and “secular Christianity” versus the more “traditional Christianity” of personal faith and evangelism. I’m sure this editorial was a product of my own intense spiritual quandaries that year. I wasn’t ready then to make a choice, but rather called for some kind of middle road: “We can retreat to our ‘spiritual fireside’ and our comfortable stock of religious cliches; we can forsake it [all] and become converts of secular Christianity; or we can find a median between the two which satisfies us personally and socially.” I still reject either-or solutions to choices like this.
In an editorial entitled “The Dilemma of the Liberal Arts,” I questioned whether the liberal arts and commitment to Christian faith could co-exist: “If we narrow our definition of liberal arts then how can we legitimately say that we are a liberal arts college and leave the illusion that we are completely open to anything, which we are not? On the other hand, if we broaden our perspective of Christianity, will we not lose the basic reason for the college’s existence in the first place?” I concluded: “I believe that much of the future of Messiah College depends on the seeming disparity which we presently have between liberal arts and Christianity. I further believe that there is a way in which the two can live in harmony. We need to find out how.”
It is significant that this editorial appeared in an expanded issue that covered the college administration’s extremely controversial decision not to renew the contract of a favorite young professor who was in his first year of teaching at the college. I also wrote the lead front-page article in that issue, “Contract Non-Renewal Subject for Campus Controversy.” As objectively as I could, I laid out the sequence of events and the source of the controversy. Inside, the paper also published the college president’s letter to the professor explaining the decision as well as excerpts of the professor’s response to the Board of Trustees.
Looking back on what I remember as a seminal event in my college career when I personally sided with the professor rather than with the college, I am impressed that I was able in both my lead article and the editorial to maintain at least some journalistic objectivity. I didn’t use my editorial platform to express my own opinion (that the professor’s contract should have been renewed), but instead to explore what seemed to me to be one of the basic questions at the heart of the controversy: how committed to the liberal arts can a Christian college be? It seems to me this is still an interesting and legitimate question, albeit one that Messiah College has tried to answer with integrity in the intervening years.
Who could have predicted that the editorial skills and perspectives I honed as a senior in college would find their way into a 40-year body of work where I have explored ideas, mediated between various points of view, expressed deeply-held convictions, provided others with a forum to express their ideas and tell their stories, and advocated for peace and justice? I certainly couldn’t have predicted where I would end up, but it’s satisfying to see that as a very young and generally naive college student, I was well on my way to finding my voice.