Professor Ken Nafziger directs Chamber Singers alumni in a selection to conclude the worship service on Homecoming and Family Weekend Oct. 16 at Eastern Mennonite University. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Homecoming worship service lifts up words of Micah to honor alumni award winners and retiring professor

The honorees at Eastern Mennonite University’s Oct. 13 Homecoming and Family Weekend worship service included a pastor and social justice activist, a couple who has devoted themselves to a community of healing for those in mental health distress, a woman who lives among the poor of Asia, and a well-loved music professor, who has, among other gifts, has crafted many of the university’s beautiful, thought-provoking worship services.

After lofty choral anthems, congregational singing and Bible readings, the audience of several hundred listened to the 2016 alumni award winners, who reflected on the words of the prophet Micah — Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God — on their life and work.

Harvey Yoder: “Live in a way that justice will ‘roll down’”

Harvey Yoder, 2016 Alumnus of the Year

Harvey Yoder, ’64, SEM ’99, was the first speaker, his theme of “do justice” an apt choice. Yoder is a pastor, counselor and social justice advocate in Harrisonburg and the broader community.

“Thanks for the opportunity to speak to a sometimes neglected aspect of ‘what God requires of us,’ and to what Richard Stearns calls ‘the hole in our gospel,’” Yoder said. “I can’t thank EMU enough for its part in being the kind of alma mater, nurturing mother, in addressing that issue of justice in a way that’s made a huge difference in my life from the time I enrolled here 56 years ago.”

Yoder named his father and mother, as well as experiences in EMU classes and chapel services and special events, as “transformative.” Relationships with friends, including his future wife Alma Jean Wert ’63, and professors “enlarged my world and impressed the words of Micah, the prophets, and of Jesus ever more indelibly on my life.”

One such experience at EMU, visiting inmates in a local jail, led to a lifetime of advocacy for criminal justice reform. Yoder named two men he has advocated for, Charles Zellers Sr. and John Bennie Williams, and shared of their repeated denial of parole requests.

“These are just a few of the things that have motivated me … to keep using whatever influence and whatever means I have left to encourage everyone to love justice as God does and to keep praying daily that God’s upside-down kingdom would come and that God’s will truly be done right here on earth as it is in heaven.”

Donna and Wayne Burkhart: ‘Love mercy’

Donna and Wayne Burkhart, Distinguished Service Award

Among the experiences of life that made him “wonder and reflect,” Wayne Burkhart ’67 said, was the loss of his son 22-year-old son Christopher. Wayne and his wife, Donna ’69, recipients of the Distinguished Service Award, were recognized for their years of dedication to Gould Farm, a therapeutic residential community for those learning to manage psychiatric disorders in Massachusetts.

“Fortunately I came out on the other side with love … and seeing the beauty of the universe,” Wayne recounted. “Mercy is something I’ve thought about a lot. To live in mercy is to be calm and confident that I should continue life’s journey in faith.”

For me,” Donna said, “mercy has been a simple opening of the heart. It’s what God did in standing with his Son on the cross … it is what of each of us does for a way forward in a fragmented, struggling world not knowing the answers. Not building walls and not solving all the wrongs, but person to person with our hearts wide open embracing what we cannot bear, not pushing it away, embracing God’s mercy in our lives. Whatever we hope we have done has been our path to everything we have received.”

Grace: ‘Walk humbly as we follow’

Grace has lived in Asia for the past six years among the urban poor. Grace first answered Jesus’s call to “follow me” into the slums by listening to a small girl. “Jesus gives each one of us the same invitation follow me. The logistics look a little different for each follower, but we are called to follow humbly…”

Grace compares the journey of walking with Jesus to walking as a baby learns, step by step under the watchful eye and helping hand of a parent.

“Part of my job of following God is to teach my son how to follow, too,” she says. “…The irony is that often my children teach me about humility, about how to love others and about God. [My son] is not afraid to get dirty and run through puddles and play with mud for hours. He forms friendships across economic and religious and social barriers without even realizing it. Jesus gives us each the same invitation today. Follow me, follow me.”

This is not a clean or comfortable calling, but it is a way to God, she says.

“In the bittersweet knowledge that all of my efforts to make this community a better place are nothing but a drop in the ocean, it is the truth that God was in this place before I came, God loves these people more than I ever can and God has a plan that I cannnot fathom but that I know is good. And the great news is that Jesus invites us all to follow.”

Professor Ken J. Nafziger

Professor Ken J. Nafziger with wife Helen at the conclusion of Sunday's worship service. (Photo by Jim Bishop)
Professor Ken J. Nafziger with wife Helen at the conclusion of Sunday’s worship service. (Photo by Jim Bishop)

Professor Ken J. Nafziger led the service, weaving together congregational and choral singing, scripture and reflection in a way he is known for across Mennonite Church USA and beyond.

Nafziger will retire this May after 40 years with EMU’s music department, which includes founding the annual Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival more than 25 years ago. He is artistic director and conductor of the festival.

Saturday afternoon, he was joined by 50 former Chamber Singers for a time of reminiscing — both funny and profound — about experiences as members of the choral group. And they also sang together.

At Sunday’s service, advancement associate Braydon Hoover, a former Chamber Singer himself , shared a few anecdotes and thanked Nafziger for his dedication to music excellence, student musicians and a lifetime of service to EMU, as well as the broader church.

“It’s a profoundly moving and exhilarating experience to gather representatives of 39 years’ worth of Chamber Singers experiences at the same time and place to hear what threads were constant throughout those 39 years,” reflected Nafziger later. “I was pretty much blown away! And, without a doubt, it was also profoundly moving and exhilarating to see lots of friends with whom I’ve shared music and experience and life. Thanks to all who organized that event, and to all those who attended, and to those who sent me notes saying they wished they could have been there.”

The Chamber Singers alumni provided the final selection of the worship service, “Dona nobis pacem” [Grant us peace], the concluding chorus of the Bach Mass in B Minor. In the group were five sets of parents and children: Kendra Good ’85 Rittenhouse and son Steven ’11, Michael Bishop ’81 and son Jonathan, Andy ’90 and Tina Martin ’89 Grove with son Dylan; Fred Kniss ’79 and sons Mike ’06 and Steve ’11; and Pam Risser ’80 with daughter Leah ’11.

Nafziger was presented with a fall bouquet in appreciation by Jeff Shank, director of alumni relations and parent engagement.