Distinguished Service Award: Gilberto Perez

By Emily Wade Will | June 1st, 2018

Photo by Brian Yoder Schlabach (Goshen College)

Immigrants crossing deadly deserts. College students emerging into adult identities. Newcomers striving to start businesses in new and foreign communities. These are some wayfarers Gilberto Perez Jr. ’94, GC ’99 (conflict transformation) has dedicated his life to serving. In many roles – therapist, social worker, peace evangelist, community advocate, social work professor and now dean of students at Goshen College – Perez’s overarching goal has been simply to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, in his own words “living fully into the work of serving others.”

He grew up watching his parents Gilberto and Elizabeth, pastors of a Mennonite church plant in Robstown, Texas, offer hospitality to Central American immigrants fleeing violence and war in the 1970s and ‘80s. Enamored with music, Perez thought he might be a high school band teacher like his role model, Charles Cabrera. After experiences at Hesston and Bethel colleges, he spent two years and a summer of service, then transferring to EMU. During spring semester 1993, he and friends Susan Huyard ’95 Miller and Marc Hershberger formed the choral group Straight and Simple, and went on a 14,000-mile U.S. tour, singing at churches, Mennonite high schools, juvenile detention centers, an adult prison and nursing homes. At EMU, professors Vernon Jantzi ’64, John Paul Lederach, Titus Bender ’57, Mary Jane Fox and Jane Wenger Clemens were mentors, “people I really admire to this day.”

Among his formative peacebuilding experiences was civil disobedience against a U.S. Navy and Marine bombing target range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques. He was then in a five-year stint as a hospice social worker and mental health counselor at Hospital General Menonita, as well as a peace evangelist for Mennonite Church USA. During this period, Perez also earned a master of social work at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico-Metropolitan Campus.

Back in Indiana, Perez worked at the Latino Behavioral Health Division at Northeastern Center. He questioned how to sow joy among individuals in great distress, having trouble adjusting to a new culture. The answer: plant newcomers in supportive networks where they use their own unique gifts to become involved in their new communities. In 2004, he wrote a mental health promotion curriculum, “Bienvenido,” now widely endorsed and used in 13 states and a Canadian province. More recently, he founded Bienvenido Community Solutions to connect community organizations, mental health research teams and health organizations.

Authenticity is one of three principles Perez adheres to in his commitment to following Jesus. The other two: allowing the Spirit to guide him and simply being patient and present with people as they work their way into a better place. Perez spends time in prayer and contemplation in daily walks. “I ask for direction and clarity,” he said. “I listen to what the Spirit is saying to me and I reflect on it, always in the hope that I’ll do justice to what the Spirit wants me to do.”

Perez joined Goshen College as associate professor of social work in 2012. Three years as senior director at the Center for Intercultural and International Education contributed to growth in Goshen’s racial and ethnic diversity. Perez also founded and developed an educational program for Latino entrepreneurs that is funded and promoted by Mexican consulates in Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis and beyond.

In 2017, Perez began doctoral studies in educational leadership and became dean of students at Goshen College, a position that has allowed him to continue “serving the other, finding joy and creating peaceable communities where people can connect with one another and with resources.”

Among his other awards are the Local Defender of Human Rights award, Elkhart Community Schools, 2018; Chickadee Bird Award, Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance, 2017; and the Hispanic of the Year, Indiana Governor’s Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs, 2007.

Perez is married to Denise Diener ’92, who was raised in Puerto Rico; the couple has three children, with the oldest just completing her first year at Goshen.

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