Community acceptance directs graduate toward voluntary service
by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It’s not unusual for up to 10 percent of a Bethel College senior class to choose voluntary service upon graduation.
But the choice wasn’t a slam dunk for Wes Goodrich, who completed a double major in biology and psychology in May and will be starting a Mennonite Voluntary Service term in Tucson, Arizona, at the end of August.
Goodrich came to Bethel from Independence, Kansas, but he didn’t grow up there. He was born in Washington, D.C., and lived with his family in Atlanta, and then Colorado, before moving to southeast Kansas to be closer to extended family.
Growing up, Goodrich says, faith didn’t play much of a role in his family life. “We did go to a Baptist church at one point, but it never really stuck,” he says.
About the time he started high school in Kansas, Goodrich’s divorced mother met and eventually married a Jewish man, whom Goodrich describes as “unorthodox, but observant.
“It made a bigger impression on me, since it was during those critical years,” he continues. “We tried to observe the high holy days. But I’ve done Christmas for a large part of my life, too.
“There were two families [in the Independence area] who used to meet at the old people’s home every couple of weeks. It was a very individualistic journey, without the community you’d have as part of a church or synagogue. That’s one thing I came to appreciate about Bethel, the model of community.”
As for how he got to Bethel College, “You could call it a spiritual journey – spirituality plays a part in most everything, although I didn't know much about the spiritual aspect [when I was looking at colleges].
“I was sold on the price tag. I didn’t heed the Mennonite part much at all. I knew there would be an opportunity to play sports, plus with other scholarships, Bethel was more fiscally responsible.”
Goodrich is spending the summer working a part-time campus job and studying for the medical school entrance exam, the MCAT. But “I didn’t come to college with the 10-year plan, or knowing what I was going to do. It was things I got involved in. I ended up with two majors plus a minor in chemistry and a neuroscience certificate.”
He also “got involved with everything else under the sun,” he says.
He came to college expecting to play soccer but didn’t get along with the coach at the time. “I started talking to the tennis coach and he offered me a scholarship. Halfway through my time at Bethel, I was not completely satisfied with conditioning, so I joined the cross-country team as a walk-on.”
He was also a member of the campus chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), served as student body president in his junior year, worked as a community (resident) assistant for the Student Life office and held down several other part-time campus jobs.
In his sophomore year, Goodrich instituted a spring activity that he continued for three years, a Passover Seder open to anyone from the campus community.
For the first one, he figured he would just go out and buy some food and pretty much wing it. Then Marla Krell, a Student Life staff person who grew up Jewish, heard about what he was doing.
“She went to Wichita and bought the cultural food items and made most of the food. We had about 10-12 people in one of the seminar rooms.”
By the next year, Goodrich was more aware of funds available for spiritual life activities and was able to get the Seder meal catered by campus food service. He also teamed up with another Bethel employee, a Mennonite woman married to a Jewish man whose extended family observes Passover each year.
“We had almost 30 the second time,” Goodrich says. “The second year, it was a very traditional Seder led by experienced leaders. People were able to see more of the traditional things, to follow the Haggadah and make their own connections as Christians.
“The leaders did a good job of stopping throughout and asking the questions that made people think about how they could connect from their own traditions, and explaining the symbols and the story of the Exodus and why it’s significant to our lives today.”
Because of Goodrich’s three years of Seder, there is now an account in Student Life to help carry on the tradition if there are people who want to do it.
By the time graduation rolled around, Goodrich says, “I realized I was pretty burned out and I wanted to take a gap year. I had heard other people’s stories about MVS being a big thing, especially at Bethel. So I applied.
“I was hesitant at first, but I talked to Graham Unruh [a Bethel graduate who works in recruitment for Mennonite Mission Network] and he said they wouldn’t turn me away for having a different religious background.
“Thank the heavens, I was very fortunate that Bethel taught me a lot about spirituality and religion in general. I had never done a Bible study or been a part of a church or looked into religion.
“I took BIFL [Basic Issues of Faith and Life, required of all seniors] and Philosophy of Religion in my senior year, and that began directing my faith toward messianic Judaism. I really liked the theological discussions I was getting involved in. This is a liberal arts institution that doesn’t push any one thing. I was developing my faith as others were.
“I came from a rough background. I lived with poverty. I had the struggles that naturally pushed me toward asking the questions about whether there was a God or if God was present. I liked talking with people about this.
“I had my interview for MVS after BIFL and that helped me a lot in knowing where I was standing with my faith.”
It turned out “I was more worried about the ‘Judaism’ part than MVS was. In the interview, the question was how was your spirituality shaped, and that’s a question you can answer no matter what your denomination or affiliation.”
His choice of MVS resulted from “over the last four years learning about the Mennonite faith and the huge emphasis on service.”
Plus, “MVS did have some health-related things I could do that could benefit my future aspirations to get involved in the health field, while also exploring spiritual aspects for a solid foundation.
“I’m going to be at the St. Elizabeth Health Center in Tucson, with their patient-centered medical home program. This is a facility that works with underserved populations. And I’m very excited to work on my Spanish.
“I’m working toward medicine [as a career] and I have been for a while. But I really feel like I’m going to be told or shown what my purpose is, what I’m supposed to be doing. I thought MVS would be the place where that might happen. I hope I can do the same as I did here at Bethel and get involved in as many things as possible.”
And he’s also discovering that the community he learned to appreciate at Bethel keeps reaching wider.
“I didn’t grow up with any kind of community,” he says. “And even before I went to Tucson, people here were telling me about their own connections. There’s a welcoming community already waiting. It’s very comforting.”