On Friday, October 4, Rob stepped up to the microphone in College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, to address a crowd of Goshen students and alumni at the annual homecoming convocation. 15 years earlier, Rob could have been one of these students, filing in and taking a seat for the mandatory chapel service.
Except he probably would not have been there, not because he was playing hooky, but because as a returning older student finishing up his undergrad at Goshen, he was exempt from the chapel requirement. In fact, a Friday morning may well have found Rob staffing World Fare, the non-profit, volunteer-run fair trade store he helped start in Three Rivers, Michigan, where he lived while commuting to Goshen. Or maybe he was putting the finishing touches on the bi-weekly catapult magazine, an online publication he and others had founded in 2001. He may not have been sitting in a chapel seat, belting out the bass line of the morning’s hymn in true Mennonite fashion, but still, he was singing praises in the key most true to his nature: community development.
View the video from the 2019 Goshen College Homecoming Convocation above. Rob’s award and speech take place between minutes 17 and 30, and Minh Kauffman’s talk after Rob’s is wonderful as well. If you’ve never heard the loveliness of Mennonite part singing before, you’ll want to listen to the alma mater chorus starting just after 41:30—beautiful!
In his early 20s, “community development” was not the term that Rob used to describe the theme of his creative, entrepreneurial work, but his work in the Peace, Justice, and Conflict Studies program at Goshen College was planting that seed in the soil of his intuitive organizational imagination. Even though moving back and forth between the worlds of a full-time college student and a married adult running two non-profit organizations was exhausting at times, the experience proved to sustain a delicate balance. While many of his peers in the PJCS program found themselves overwhelmed by the wounds of the world, Rob had a sense of purpose and meaning in practical work to address those wounds. The fair trade store was bringing the Three Rivers community into relationship with economically disadvantaged communities around the world, in an alternative trade framework that placed the flourishing of the most vulnerable people at the center. Through events and online publishing, *culture is not optional was calling its constellation of people of faith to deeper practice of social, aesthetic, and environmental values in everyday life, through storytelling and art. There was no time to wallow—there was work to be done!
Rob gratefully counts many of his Goshen professors among his inspirational models of integrated heart and mind, celebration and lament, prayer and work. One of those professors, Joe Liechty, has become a good friend over at-least-annual get-togethers for coffee at Goshen’s Electric Brew. Joe’s gifts of listening deeply with humility and working for change out of a spirit of love and longing have been hugely influential for Rob in his work in Three Rivers, and so it was especially honoring to discover that Joe had nominated him to receive Goshen College’s Young Alumni Award.
Which brought him to College Mennonite Church the morning of Friday, October 4. After Goshen College President Rebecca Stoltzfus presented him with the token of his award—a ceramic pitcher handmade by a local potter—Rob stepped up to the lectern. In the previous months, he’d been thinking back on himself as a student, full of despair and hope, and experimenting at the intersection of his sense of calling and the world’s need. What would he have needed to hear from a random speaker in a mandatory chapel service? Recalling his fellow students, whose despair at the state of the world drove many away from their faith tradition, and others who sidestepped the pain to embrace the status quo, he dug into the entwined roots of his Reformed and Mennonite influences to issue a challenge:
We need a robust imagination to realize the vision for the beloved community, loving the stranger and our enemies until we all become neighbors, and then loving our neighbors not just in theory, but in practice. The work is exceedingly difficult, but the vision for flourishing is enduringly beautiful. The world needs each and every one of you to help bring this vision into being, in whatever field you are in and in whatever place you choose to live. We need it now, ‘times being what they are: hard, and getting harder all the time.’ We need doctors, sociologists, and historians who are imagining solutions to high infant mortality rates in communities of color. We need bankers who are imagining pathways to home and business ownership for populations who have been left behind by gaps in generational wealth. We need farmers and eaters who are committed to the land, living out the connection between soil health and healthy communities. We need engineers who imagine new means of energy production as we stare down an uncertain future for our planet. We need journalists who lift up the value of the voices of the voiceless. We need politicians who set policy based on the care of the least of these, neighbors and strangers, reminding us that ‘justice is what love looks like in public.’ And in the end, we all need each other to imagine and live into a vision of neighborliness that is nothing less than kinship, which, as Father Greg Boyle articulates it, is not serving the other, but being one with the other. ‘Jesus was not a man for others, he was one with them.’ That is the beloved community, friends, and I am so thankful for the ways that Goshen College is growing that community through the formation of each of us.
This basic conviction—that we each have a calling to dismantle the causes of suffering and cultivate healing—was nourished in Rob by a great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, named and unnamed, and we can only hope the soil of the next generation is already seeded with the love to continue this good work in every place and in every field.
Goshen’s homecoming was a wonderful opportunity for Rob to reconnect with former professors and fellow students, and to be reminded of the important role of institutions like Goshen that are committed to non-violence as we seek to bring about flourishing for all in this world. Monday morning found him back at work in Three Rivers, completing the next iteration of *culture is not optional’s offering to that effort: a new community space designed to plant the seeds of sustaining friendships and lifesaving imagination through shared stories and experiences. Thank you, Rob, for your fierce, compassionate, creative vision and leadership in our community! May you be sustained in this work into the future with deep companionship, clarity, energy, and hope.Tags: education, Goshen College, Joe Liechty, Mennonite, Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma, servant leader, vocation Last modified: March 4, 2020