Serving Through the Generations
In their role as MCC Representatives in Haiti, Paul and Rebecca Shetler Fast travel throughout the country visiting projects and meeting with individuals and community groups. Recently Paul was talking with the head of Haiti’s largest health care system and asked where he got his start in medicine. The man credited an MCC clinic in Grande-Rivière-du-Nord…the very clinic that Paul’s grandfather, Dr. John Bender, founded 57 years ago.
For the Bender family, this full circle moment came as no surprise considering three generations of their family have served with MCC. It began back in 1959 with John and his wife Naomi establishing that clinic in Haiti and continued with their daughter and son-in-law Jan and Peter Bender Shetler, Paul’s parents, serving in Ethiopia, DRC and Tanzania. Dan Shelter, Paul’s older brother, then served with MCC in India from 2008-2011, and now Paul and Rebecca have been serving in Haiti since last December, along with their two young children.
For John and Naomi, they made the decision to serve with MCC when they were young. “We were in our mid-twenties when we went. I was two years out of medical school and had only been in a general practice for one year before going to Haiti,” remembers John.
John and Naomi acknowledge that it was a hard start, dealing with a government that moved slowly, a new language and funds that kept running out. They saw their first patients on the porch of an old building. “The first year was very lean, but very busy,” said John. Their family lived in one big house with the other doctors, nurses and other staff. “It was a great experience but difficult,” he said. “We enjoyed and respected the Haitian people that worked with us. They became leaders in the clinic.”
In addition to the two years they spent in Haiti with MCC, John and Noami have done shorter term assignments in Ethiopia, Thailand, Vietnam and Nepal with MCC and other service organizations. “We didn’t push or shove service on our children,” said Noami. “They decided it on their own.” John and Naomi’s other daughter, Linda, taught school in Ireland with Mennonite Mission Network, and their son Jon owns a computer business with international partners.
Jan was two years old when their family moved to Haiti to serve with MCC. “Even though I was very young, serving was always an important part of our family story,” said Jan, now a history professor at Goshen College. “It certainly formed my own desire to serve.”
As a college student, Jan and her soon-to-be-husband Peter sat down with an MCC recruiter and asked how they could be most useful to MCC. This set them on the path to becoming a teacher (Jan) and an agronomist (Peter), which eventually led them to an MCC assignment in Ethiopia. Despite the communist revolution and subsequent departure of most expatriates connected to churches, they were able to complete their three-year term.
Dan, their oldest son, was born in Ethiopia during their time with MCC. At six months old, he moved with his parents first to Portugal and then to Tanzania where they continued serving with MCC. “It was a good childhood,” remembers Dan. “My parents had meetings in all these villages all over. They’d have three day meetings and we’d just run around and chase the cows and play with the local kids.”
Their family spent six years working with Tanzanian Mennonite churches, helping congregations develop programs to serve their communities. “Those were really magical years,” remembers Jan of their time as a young family. Paul was born after they moved to Tanzania. “We did pretty much everything together,” said Jan. “Our work and our family and our home were very much integrated.”
The family of four returned to the U.S., but it wasn’t long before Dan and Paul would embark on MCC service terms of their own. “To have both of our kids serve with MCC certainly makes us feel like there was something about our lives that they found also satisfying,” said Jan. “To have them make those same choices means a lot.”
A couple of years after graduating from college, Dan knew he wanted to serve with MCC. “Hearing stories about my grandparents serving and seeing all the really good relationships that we had and my parents had, I always thought that I would serve with MCC,” said Dan.
After several other placements fell through, Dan ended up in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India working with a water development project. A year after he arrived, the project was intentionally phased out, and he began working at the Henry Martyn Institute based in Hyderabad but primarily working in northeast India helping to lead conflict transformation workshops.
When asked how his parents and grandparents influenced his decision to serve overseas with MCC, Dan said, “It was by their example and values of what you do and how you build relationships. And thinking about the injustices in the world and poverty and what we can do to help that.”
Paul remembers climbing the mango tree in their backyard in Tanzania with the neighborhood kids. “I think growing up in different places, and so often being in the minority, made me more open to seeing things from other people’s perspectives than I otherwise would have been,” said Paul.
Paul and Rebecca first got to know each other while with Goshen College’s SST (Study-Service Term) program in Ethiopia where they worked on MCC projects. As their relationship grew, they discovered they both shared a passion for service with vulnerable populations. After getting married and both earning masters’ degrees, they were able to fulfill their goal of returning to work overseas.
“This move to Haiti, and our work with MCC is a fulfillment for us of this passion for service, and of our sense of calling,” said Rebecca.
In addition to the community development work and project management in Haiti, Rebecca and Paul have a food blog titled “The Hungry Hounds” where they post photos, recipes and non-food related reflections.
“Growing up as an MCC kid, I grew up seeing and feeling up close the vast disparities and injustices that MCC service is called to address,” reflected Paul. “But growing up within MCC, with the models of my parents and grandparents, tempered this awareness of vast need with a belief that these injustices need not be, that we could make a difference, that our faith means we must make a difference, that service was both an obligation of our faith and a productive response to a world that was hurting.”
This legacy of service that began 57 years ago in Haiti continues on.