EMU’s 2020 Alumni Award recipients will be honored during the Oct. 16-18 Homecoming Weekend. Read about Distinguished Service Award recipients Susan ’65 and Stan ’65 Godshall and Young Alum Lyubov Slashcheva ’11.
One evening in 1972 found Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) student Luke Gascho ‘74 and his friend in an old Physical Plant pickup truck that grunted and groaned along, heading south of Harrisonburg. They were in search of old railroad ties Gascho had heard were lying unused.
Gascho wanted to build compost bins for an organic garden behind the science center, after Professor Kenton Brubaker had encouraged him to join the newly-formed Earthkeepers club. They found the pile, loaded up the ties, and turned back toward campus as night fell – “and then we realized that the lights barely flickered on the thing,” Gascho remembers with a chuckle.
Making the most of limited resources and adapting to challenges has served Gascho well in life. From the beginning of his career as a 21-year-old principal of a small Christian school; to cultivating the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College into an accredited program with award-winning green building designs, Gascho has used every opportunity to live out his commitment to his faith, education, and creation care.
He is the recipient of EMU’s 2020 Alum of the Year Award.
A lifetime of care for the land
The words ‘creation care’ and ‘ecology’ were never used on the small farm where Gascho grew up in northern Minnesota, but he says he watched his parents “care for the land very well and very carefully.” He considered becoming a farmer himself, but was also interested in education. He decided to attend then-EMC to pursue a biology degree.
There, he met people who would influence the rest of his life – his wife-to-be, Becky Lehman ’74, and professors like Brubaker. These faculty members encouraged him to take the opportunity when, as a fresh-faced graduate, he was offered the role of principal and biology teacher at Johnstown Christian School in Pennsylvania. He stayed there for two decades, and shepherded the school through full accreditation. “It was great to see the school grow through those 20 years,” Gascho says.
In 1997, Gascho felt it was time for a change and began looking for jobs in higher education. He applied for a position advertised at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College: a 1,189-acre educational land preserve encompassing wetlands, lakeshores, forests, prairies, and meadows.
“The opportunity to lead Merry Lea was a real blessing for me,” Gascho says. Education, ecology, and faith, the “three major parts of my professional life and personal interest, were synergistically coming together in one position.”
Gascho retired at the end of June 2019 as the executive director of Merry Lea last year after 22 years. The center provides educational programming for over 5,000 K-12 students annually. Under his leadership, the center created field-based programs in sustainable agriculture, environmental science, and sustainability leadership with Goshen College, and a master of arts in environmental education – Goshen’s first graduate program.
He also oversaw the design and construction of Rieth Village, an ecological field station for undergraduate classes. Merry Lea’s goal was to construct an environmentally-friendly building “to provide an appropriate space for learning that had a pedagogy all of its own.” In 2007, it became the first building in Indiana to earn a platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. Since then, Gascho has led tours for thousands of visitors interested in green building and design.
Gascho was honored with the 2019 Howard Michaud Award for Environmental Educator of the Year from the Environmental Education Association of Indiana.
For Gascho, his commitment to sustainability is inextricably entwined with his Mennonite faith.
“Sustainability takes on a whole other level of importance when you approach it from a framework of values and faith,” he says.
Following the merger that created Mennonite Church USA in 2002, Gascho says many of his friends and coworkers felt that the church was no longer putting enough focus on ecological sustainability.
As an administrator, Gascho understood that church leadership already had their hands full during that time of transition. Out of meetings in his living room, the Mennonite Creation Care Network was born in 2005: a ministry of Merry Lea which aims to guide the Mennonite church in environmental stewardship.
Gascho has drawn on his strengths in strategic planning to help further creation care projects. He led Goshen College in strategic planning processes for 15 years, which included sustainability initiatives. He assisted Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in green projects on their campus, and taught the first “creation” course in their curricular offerings. Gascho also worked with the founding of several other creation care organizations; Mennonite Central Committee‘s creation care taskforce, Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light, and the Center for Sustainable Climate Solutions.
In these wheelhouses of faith and sustainability, a few main directives stand out for Gascho: addressing climate change, living out ecological leadership, and dismantling the “doctrine of discovery” in order to respect indigenous peoples’ rights to and relationship with the land. The concept of environmental stewardship for future generations is personal for Gascho, who has three adult children and four grandchildren.
Some of these can seem like “almost unsolvable problems on certain fronts,” he acknowledges. In light of that, “I think it’s important for me and for Christians to be both joy-filled and hope-filled people, which is an essential message to carry forward.”
These days, when he’s not studying, writing, or at a speaking engagement, Gascho can often be found in the diverse fruit, nut and berry orchard and gardens on his and Becky’s 2.5-acre property near Goshen College. Gascho says that caring for God’s creation remains at the core of his life commitments.
“I’m producing good food that’s good for my body, I’m doing physical activity that’s good for my body, but there’s also a spiritual connection,” he says.