Photo courtesy of Sarah Balzer

Sarah Balzer, a social work major in her junior year at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, won the 2018 C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest administered by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. 

Sarah Balzer, a social work major at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, won the 2018 C. Henry Smith Peace Oratorical Contest administered by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S.

Balzer’s speech, “Environmental Inequalities in the Age of Plastic,” drew on the biblical concept of shalom, or a holistic peace, which “cannot be achieved in the presence of injustice.” She contends that the overuse of plastics takes us further from shalom.

When people dispose of water bottles and other plastics, they tend not to think about the reality that disintegrating plastic releases harmful chemicals, which enter the food and water supply, she says, citing scientific research.

The people who are impacted most tend to be poor because they are most likely to live near landfills that can leach chemicals or rely on contaminated food from rivers and oceans for their protein, Balzer explains.


The overuse of plastics contributes to their oppression, because they have less resources to combat the effects of pollution and environmental degradation.

“When Jesus said, ‘love your neighbor,’ he did not simply mean ‘do not kill your neighbor,’” Balzer says. “Our Christian peace perspective calls us to not only to abstain from fighting, but to also to go beyond current societal norms, examining our own lives to find ways to prevent injustice and speak up for the oppressed ‒ and combating environmental degradation is one way to do so.”

Working against oppression and environmental degradation is part of the Christian call, she said.

“Minimizing our contributions to plastic waste is one of the multitude of ways a few, small changes in our everyday lives can help reduce inequality and injustice and promote shalom around the world,” Balzer suggested.

Balzer, who attends Buhler Mennonite Church in Buhler, Kansas, was a sophomore at the time of the contest. As the winner, she received a cash prize of $300 and a $500 scholarship to a peace-related conference or seminar of her choice.

Caleb Schrock-Hurst, an Eastern Mennonite University student from Harrisonburg, Virginia, took home second place for his speech, “Is this a Bonhoeffer Moment? Asking the Right Questions in Trump’s America.” Schrock-Hurst earned $225 in cash and a $200 scholarship. Goshen (Indiana) College student Achieng Agutu from Kisumu, Kenya, came in third place with a speech entitled, “The Introduction: A Story of Inner Peace,” and received $150 in cash and a $200 scholarship.

The C. Henry Smith Oratorical Contest is open to all students of Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ colleges in Canada and the U.S. To be considered, speeches were to be written on any peace theme applied to contemporary concerns.

Three judges – Jill Schellenberg, an assistant professor and director of criminology and restorative justice at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas; Elizabeth Miller, an MCC representative for Colombia; and Trent Voth, a member of the ministry team at Toronto (Ontario) United Mennonite Church – reviewed the speeches.

Directors of the C. Henry Smith Trust established the contest in 1974 in honor of the late C. Henry Smith, a Mennonite historian and professor at Goshen College and Bluffton (Ohio) College (now Bluffton University). Participating colleges host a contest with student speeches, and these individual campus contests usually take place during the spring semester of the academic year.