Finishing his master’s degree in the Christian leadership program at Eastern Mennonite Seminary took Joe Ropp 25 years. And even though the 2020 commencement ceremony has been rescheduled for the fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s just “good to finish something that got started so long ago,” Ropp says, almost nonchalantly. Joe and his wife, EMU mail room supervisor Ranene Schrock Ropp ’98, have lived through a lot in that time.
They have raised two children, moved 16 different times, including to Canada and back again, represented their church conference in Ethiopia, battled cancer, and run a family pet store.
All of this is part of Joe and Ranene Ropp’s story – but it began in 1997, when they met through church friends over Nepalese cuisine at the Indian and American Cafe in Harrisonburg. A year later, they were married.
“We just rushed into all sorts of things!” Ranene recalls, laughing.
“I was almost 30! At the time that seemed really, really old!” Joe exclaims.
She was going into her fifth and final year as an English major at EMU; he had just decided he didn’t want to be a pastor and was taking some time off from Eastern Mennonite Seminary (a year at EMU, he had finished a Honors pyschology degree at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, in 1991).
For their first date, they went to local watering hole The Artful Dodger, where Joe asked to see Ranene “more often without the rest of the group.”
“We hung out every day after that,” Ranene says. “So obviously Harrisonburg and the Shenandoah Valley have a special place in our hearts.”
Three weeks after she graduated from EMU, the two were married in Wisconsin in her grandfather’s church. Joe’s father had, just previously, had two strokes in a row, and could no longer run the family business: Ropp’s Pet and Hobby, Ltd., a combination pet and crafts store in Alberta, Canada. So the newlyweds decided to spend a year in Joe’s hometown to help out.
They bought a tiny, $16,000 “former crack house,” sight unseen, and completely renovated it while living with his parents – whom Ranene had only met twice beforehand. They laugh as they remember the chaos of their early married life. One year turned into 14. They had two children, Josiah and Noelle; they scrapped the crafting materials and expanded the pet store; Joe’s brother joined the business.
They were active in their local church – Joe as an administration team member, Habitat for Humanity volunteer, and delegate to the Northwest Conference; Ranene as the “best worship leader” in the whole church, as Joe says. But despite their busy lives a country away from EMU, he still talked about finishing his master of divinity degree.
Then, about seven years ago, they sold most of their shares in the pet store to Joe’s brother and returned to Harrisonburg. Joe worked various jobs, including at Seasons Bounty Farm, which is run by Ranene’s brother Radell Schrock ’01, before starting his own painting and handyman business – Revive Home Services. Ranene was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. While still in recovery, she heard that her former boss, Betty Hertzler was retiring from EMU’s mail room.
“I stopped by one day and asked her if it was true,” Ranene says. “She said yes, and if you want the job you’d better apply quickly.” After four years in the supervisor position, she still says it’s the best job she’s ever had.
Joe kept taking seminary and graduate counseling courses here and there.
“I just enjoy taking courses periodically,” he says. One day, associate seminary dean Nancy Heisey pulled him aside.
“You’re basically one course away” from finishing an MACL, she told him. And even though Joe had decided years ago he didn’t feel the call to be a pastor, he’s always had “a heart for the church and the workings of the church.” To that end, for his ministry specialization project – the final task to earn that degree – Joe surveyed congregants at Zion Mennonite and two other churches about how they’d arrived to their views on homosexuality, and what they thought of those with opposing views.
Ranene explains that it was less about the issue itself, and more about “how people think about the issue. What are their instinctual responses?”
“I personally think it’s a shame when you lose diversity, both of thought and approach, within the church community,” Joe says. He presented his paper on April 25 – thus completing a degree over 25 years in the making.
With that degree under his belt, and their children close to graduating high school, what’s next for the adventurous pair? Well, they’ve learned “it’s really hard to make predictions, for our lives particularly,” Joe says.
Overseas service work or volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service is on their minds, though. And for two people who are nothing if not impressively energetic, they see it as “sort of a semi-retirement plan,” Ranene says with a smile.