NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – At first glance, a formerly homeless street musician might seem out of place among some of the greatest Christian thinkers of the 20th (and 21st) century.
But according to the guidelines of the Staley Distinguished Scholar Lecture Series, Jimmy Rienzo is right where he belongs.
Rienzo, who also goes by the name Jimmy Magellan when performing, will be at Bethel College Sunday and Monday, April 15-16, under the auspices of the endowed lectureship, which has brought to campus such speakers as Mary Cosby, Ronald Sider, Tom Sine, June Alliman Yoder, James Brenneman (now president of Goshen [Ind.] College) and most recently George M. Marsden in spring 2006.
Rienzo is not the first musician to deliver the Staley “lecture,” however. The Staley guidelines say: “The Thomas F. Staley Foundation is firmly persuaded that the message of the Christian gospel, when proclaimed in its historic fullness, is always contemporary, relevant and meaningful to any generation.” The Staley Lectures seek to bring to college campuses speakers “who truly believe and can communicate to students.” And according to those who have heard him perform, that is exactly what Rienzo does.
He is a regular resource person for Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR), an urban exposure and Christian service program geared to high school youth and based in Denver. That’s where Tina Schmidt-Tieszen, Bethel College senior from Newton, first heard Rienzo when she was working as a DOOR staff person in summer 2005.
Rienzo, a guitar player, “knows tons of songs,” Schmidt-Tieszen says. “He’s also humorous. He tells jokes and funny stories, but he also has a very clear message about how Jesus saved him.
“The youth loved him,” she says. “They often said he was one of their favorite parts of the week [with DOOR].”
Rienzo says of himself, “I was born on October 18, 1947, in Jersey City, N.J. I quit school after 8th grade and hung out on the streets until everyone in my life started to yell at me to ‘Do something!’ I joined the Army and found myself in Vietnam as a medic from 1967-68. After surviving the horrors of war, I left the service and went to San Francisco and played music for 20 years. I was saved in 1997 after being an atheist for 40 years.”
Kristen Wedel, senior from Hutchinson, worked for DOOR last summer. When she came back to school in the fall, she told Dale Schrag, director of Church Relations and also the head of the Convocation Committee, which gets a Staley lecturer for one convocation a year, that Schrag “just had to get Jimmy to speak in convo.”
According to Wedel, Rienzo was once an outspoken atheist, one of whose greatest joys was arguing with Christians. However, in order to be well-prepared to enter into these arguments, he also read the Bible carefully and thoroughly – and ended up converting himself to Christianity. Schmidt-Tieszen believes that DOOR may have found him through a café for homeless people where Rienzo works and performs and that is one of the programs to which DOOR introduces youth groups.
Roger Juhnke, youth pastor at Bethel College Mennonite Church, affirmed Schmidt-Tieszen’s description of Rienzo as effective with youth groups. So in addition to speaking and singing in convocation on Monday, April 16, at 11 a.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium, Rienzo will tell his “stories from the street” on Sunday, April 15, at 7 p.m., also in Krehbiel Auditorium. The latter is especially aimed at high school youth groups, but both events are free and open to everyone.
The Staley Distinguished Scholar Lecture Series was established in 1969, named for its benefactors, Dr. and Mrs. Thomas F. Staley of New York, who set it up to honor their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Staley and Mr. and Mrs. H.H. Haynes. Bethel College has been hosting Staley Lectures since 1972.
Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.