People on journeys. Immigrants crossing deadly deserts. College students emerging into adult identities and roles. Families seeking sound mental health and solid relationships. Newcomers striving to start businesses in new and foreign communities. These are some wayfarers Gilberto Perez Jr. has dedicated his life to serving. In many roles – therapist, social worker, peace evangelist, community advocate and social work professor – 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.”
Now dean of students at Goshen College, Perez is EMU’s 2018 Distinguished Service Award recipient. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1994 and a graduate certificate in conflict transformation from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in 1999.
He began this path of accompaniment watching his parents Gilberto and Elizabeth, pastors of a Mennonite church plant in Robstown, Texas, offer hospitality and service to a steady stream of immigrants fleeing Central America’s violence and war of the 1970s and ‘80s. (His aunt and uncle Conrado and Esther Hinojosa offered similar aid in Brownsville at the Iglesia Menonita del Cordero.) He says: “I spent my formative years sleeping on the floor and listening to stories of desert walks of people in transition. My parents were pastors but they also served as social workers, without formal degrees, accompanying immigrants to community services or to find work.”
Perez did not realize he would follow in their footsteps. Instead, he contemplated being a high school band teacher like his role model, Charles Cabrera. After experiences at Hesston and Bethel colleges, Perez did two years of Mennonite Voluntary Service in San Antonio at a community health clinic, followed by a Mennonite Central Committee summer service term in Newton, where he carried out a community needs assessment.
These involvements sparked his interest in social work, but Perez still had music on his mind. After transferring to EMU in 1992, he and friends Susan Huyard Miller and Marc Hershberger spent the spring 1993 semester on a 14,000-mile mission, singing at churches, Mennonite high schools, juvenile detention centers, an adult prison and nursing homes across the U.S. The group was called Straight and Simple, sharing “a straight and simple message of loving the Lord your God with all your heart.”
During his senior year, Perez settled down to serious study with professors Vernon Jantzi, John Paul Lederach, Titus Bender, Mary Jane Fox and Jane Wenger Clemens, “people I really admire to this day for their work on issues of poverty, mental illness and family intervention in the U.S., in Latin America and as peacemakers.” Lederach’s Matrix of Peacebuilding provided a realistic time frame needed for social change – years and decades, not months. They all “emphasized sharing the Gospel through social action and social justice.”
In 1994, in protest of a Harrisonburg police shooting that killed an immigrant, Perez wrote a letter to the newspaper, even knowing he had a practicum in Harrisonburg’s juvenile probation center the following semester, where he’d work alongside police and prosecutors. “I knew I had to speak the voice of this individual without a voice,” Perez said, adding that he was supported in the act by his practicum supervisor Ben Risser. Another “formative experience” was participating in civil disobedience a few years later as a young father on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, calling for closure of a U.S. Navy and Marine bombing target range. 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 the Mennonite Church USA. (In 1994, Perez married Denise Diener ’92, who was raised in Puerto Rico; the couple has three children, the oldest is completing her first year at Goshen.) During this period, Perez also earned a master of social work at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico-Metropolitan Campus.
The couple then moved to Goshen. Perez offered therapy to individuals, mostly first-generation Mexican newcomers, suffering persistent and serious mental illness at the Latino Behavioral Health Division at Northeastern Center, located in Ligonier, Ind. He questioned how to find and sow joy among individuals in great distress, having trouble adjusting to a new culture, feeling unwelcome. The answer was to help 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 and trained leaders to use it in schools, churches, juvenile correction facilities and other Indiana venues. Bienvenido is now used in 13 states and a Canadian province, and was selected as one of 16 nationally recognized mental health programs by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Latino Behavioral Health Association for its community-defined evidence with Latino immigrants.
More recently, he founded Bienvenido Community Solutions, with a focus on building bridges connecting community organizations, mental health research teams and health organizations. Partnerships with the Columbia University School of Social Work and the Indiana University School of Medicine have helped research teams better understand the mental health of Latino youth.
For his success in building Bienvenido into a major force of advocacy for the well-being of Latinos in Indiana, the Governor’s Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs named Perez Indiana’s Hispanic of the Year in 2007. In 2017, the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance awarded Perez the Chickadee Bird Award for his steadfast support for immigrants and immigrant youth throughout Indiana. In 2018, Elkhart Community Schools selected Perez as one of seven Local Defender of Human Rights award recipients.
Perez has also advocated on such issues as affordable housing and criminal justice. “I’ve grown more assertive than I ever thought I’d be in life by being authentic and learning to listen more carefully to those who have different experiences,” Perez said. “From them I’ve learned to be a better peacemaker.”
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 during a 10-minute walk to and from campus and in a longer evening walk. “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 the Goshen College faculty as associate professor of social work in 2012. He then served for three years as senior director for the Intercultural Development and Educational Partnerships at the Center for Intercultural and International Education. Educational partnerships established with groups such as the Mexican Consulate in Chicago, ReconciliAsian, My Hood Needz Me, and Latino and African American congregations 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 and Indianapolis, and beyond.
In 2017, Perez experienced two major life transitions. He began doctoral studies in educational leadership with a focus on transformational leadership and he became dean, a position which shares commonality with his previous endeavors: “thinking with and hoping with students and student life staff on ways to create an environment centered on trust, transparency, and supportive relationships.” The position creates opportunities to put into practice his social work skills learned from mentors and other leaders throughout his professional career.
“It’s all about serving the other, finding joy and creating peaceable communities where people can connect with one another and with resources.”
Read about the other 2018 alumni award recipients:
- Alumna/us of the Year: Regina Horst Chacha
- Outstanding Young Alumna/us: Claudette Monroy
- Previous recipients
A version of this article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2018 Crossroads. Read more articles here.