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From Bricklaying to Bangladesh

The best job description according to Roy Berkenbosch is “whatever the day needs.” In his life this has meant jobs in both bricklaying and Bangladesh. In the episode Roy shares stories from his development work with World Renew and his experience at King’s University with the Micah Centre.

The following is a transcript of Season 6 Episode 6 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

We are grateful to the Micah Center for sponsoring this season of the podcast.

Chris: Well, hello friends, welcome back to another episode of Do Justice. It's me, Chris Orme and today I'm very privileged to be joined by a friend, a colleague, a co-worker, and co-conspirator in a lot of good things for the kingdom. Yeah, a mentor, someone who's invested in me and I know a lot of you will probably recognize his name. We'd like to welcome Roy Berkenbosch to Do Justice, Roy, welcome.

Roy: Thanks, Chris. Nice to be here. Thanks for the invitation.

Chris: Yeah, it's really good, Roy. You've got an amazing resume. There's a lot that you've done. You are currently attending Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton. You've worked at the King's University in Edmonton with the Micah Centre. You're the founding director of the Micah Centre. You've worked with World Renew in Bangladesh. You've worked in other parts of the globe. A lot of folks will probably recognize your voice and recognize you from some of the World Renew online devotionals and stuff that we've done together over the last years, particularly in the pandemic times. It was a really good way to connect, so I'm glad that you can join us today. Roy, let's talk. Let's jump right into it. Let's talk about how you've been a part of the development world and been in development work for many years, including living in Bangladesh. How did you end up being called to that part of the world? How did you end up there?

Roy: Well, that's a really interesting story, and it was a very unexpected U-turn. Not really a U-turn, I guess, but an unexpected diversion in my life that ended up changing my life majorly in many different ways. You know I had done a number of things before that. I had tried my hand at my father's craft—brick laying—and then, you know, went into engineering, and I spent a number of years, actually, as an engineer on utility infrastructure stuff and was always kind of restless, though, so when the King's University opened its doors, I enrolled in 1979 and went on my way to Calvin, and eventually to Calvin Seminary, sensing a call into ministry, although it never was particularly clear to me if that was the direction I wanted. Mostly I just wanted to learn. But my wife and I had a family and everything at that time we were attending Grace Church in downtown Grand Rapids where at the time, Roger Van Harn was the minister, and there were a number of people attending Grace Church who were in senior leadership positions at what was then the CRWRC. And we've got to know them through our fellowship at church.

And one day after the service, John DeHaan, who was at the time the director of CRWRC in the States said, “How'd you like to go work in Bangladesh?” And I said, “Well, what would I do?” He said, “Whatever the day needs!” I thought that was about the best job description you could give a guy like me.

Chris: It's nice work if you can get it.

Roy: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I actually had to go to a map, I think, and see exactly where Bangladesh was located. It was in a subcontinent somewhere, but anyway. Long story short, we accepted that invitation, and part of what made that intriguing to me was that we were working with a pretty interesting group of people over there who had remained in Islam, but who were followers of Jesus and were working as staff for one of our partner organizations. Part of what interested World Renew (CRWRC) in me was that I had some theological training and I had some project—then development project management experience. And so it seemed like that might be a good fit. And so part of what I did in Bangladesh, part of that was just working alongside, doing some discipling with this new group of Muslim converts. So we ended up going to Bangladesh and that was really—it just felt like such a great fit. Our life up to that point, we'd had lots of exposure to people living with vulnerabilities of various kinds. We have a daughter with disabilities. We had fostered numerous children who came out of really bad situations. We’d been involved in inner-city ministries and that kind of thing. So it seemed like a really—World Renew had been on my radar, CRWRC had been on my radar quite a bit. Quite a few people from Edmonton have been quite involved in establishing the Sierra Leone projects at the time, and so it was certainly on my radar. And increasingly so as I was in seminary and became really intrigued by liberation theology coming out of Latin America but also out of Africa, and also feminine theology at the time, feminist theology. 

Chris: I want to touch on that a bit, too, you know, you and I have a lot of conversations just the two of us talking about liberation theology and some, you know, Gutierrez and later, even guys like Moltmann, who integrated a lot of Latin American liberation theology into his work. What is it about that work or the opportunity to be in Bangladesh and to respond to that spur of the moment call, what was the nexus point between your theology and that action?

Roy: You know, I felt often, depending on who I was talking as well, but I felt quite often that there needed to be some kind of theological or evangelical justification for CRWRC and for the work that it was doing. You know, we would write letters home and every once in a while some well-meaning person would say, “Well, these are all interesting stories about fatter babies and healthier communities, but how many people are now following the Lord because of what—” right? As if the development work was a way to prime the pump and prepare people to receive an evangelical message, and that always irritated me quite a bit. Not that I mind if people follow Jesus, obviously, but it just intuitively seemed wrong to me to think that doing that kind of resourceful work among the poor and enabling poor communities, empowering them, giving them tools and skills and all that sort of thing, that that was somehow lesser than. And so I invested myself pretty heavily in developing a kind of a theological framework for thinking about development biblically, and that inevitably leads to theological reflections on justice, by the way. And so that was really kind of the nexus point for me, you know. It was interesting that this group of people that I was discipling in Bangladesh, who were also development practitioners, we were challenged about that upon my return. We were challenged about that by USA people who were suspicious that we were using money that was directed towards development, but using it for evangelical purposes. And I had a very interesting interview with the guy that was doing the evaluation work where I said, “Well, you know, the Bible actually is a really, really significant and rich development resource. And to understand its themes and to mine those themes meaningfully is really about developing—it's kind of a professional development for development practitioners.” And he was quite intrigued by that, and he accepted that answer.

I had a chance to share with them just what that looked like in terms of the Bible's emphasis on economic justice, for example, and care for the poor and those themes that really helped to ground people. You know, people go into development work for lots of reasons. They burn out for lots of reasons, too. But I think that, because Christians can hold on to this deep theological tradition, that gives us some sustainability and some real staying power. So I that—was that the nexus?

Chris: Yeah, I think that sounds like a nexus to me. And I think, you know, I've been batting this one around for a while. I think of Jesus feeding the 5,000, I mean, it made sure everyone had enough to eat before a conversation even started. And it's there, those themes are there. They're present, and I like how you say “mining” for those for those truths and for those realities. That the work that we do is so grounded and rooted in the Biblical stories. But you know that's long and hard work and quick fixes are appealing to today's society. We live in a Tiktok generation where you consume 15 second sound bites all the time, and we want to get the quick recipe, we want to get the quick financial answer. Quick fixes are just everywhere, but when we're talking about discipleship and working toward God's Shalom, when we're talking about working toward justice and reconciliation, there's this quote from Eugene Peterson that we've been using as our guiding post for this series of podcast episodes. These things are done in a long obedience in the same direction. So you've been involved in this work for a lot of years, Roy. And what has, I guess the question is what has “long obedience in the same direction” meant for you as you've engaged with your work.

Roy: Oh, that's a loaded question. That quote gets attributed to Eugene Peterson because he uses that as titled for one of his excellent books. But you know where that quote really comes from, though?

Chris: I think we're gonna learn!

Thanks to the The Micah Centre at the King’s University for sponsoring this season.  The Micah Centre helps students and the wider community grow a global vision of justice and renewal. Through classes, workshops, internships, lectures, global learning experience, and community initiatives, the Micah Centre brings the ancient Hebrew prophet Micah’s call to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” to bear on our contemporary world of global hunger, injustice, systemic poverty, war, and violence.

Roy: Frederick Nietzsche. Who has very little in common with Eugene Peterson. And you know where I learned that? I learned that reading Bono’s autobiography Surrender, which I got for my birthday recently, and it's just an amazing read. And actually, it's not coincidental that Bono uses that line himself, because I think that the whole history of U2 has been something like that, you know, a long obedience in the same direction. I don't want to claim that I have been obedient, and don't want to claim that I've been obedient for a long time always, either. But I think that what my immersion in World Renew, and my theological reflections have done is they've touched me in a deep, profound way. My whole theological paradigm, to be honest with you, I think—I don't want to overstate this. But my whole theological paradigm kind of shifted because of our experience living in Bangladesh, encountering the poor, trying to make sense of, “what's a North American Christian guy doing in the slums of Dhaka?” You know, trying to understand that, and trying to give an account of that that is not just evangelistic, but that finds theological grounding for the very act of coming alongside the poor. And then also being present during the cyclone, during which over 150,000 people perished. That happened while we were there. And I used to say to my students about Bangladesh, what happened as a result of all those experiences was that I know [unintelligible] and any theological framing of something or notion or construct that was not somehow able to account for the suffering of so many people, and get some account of it, or take it into consideration would set off alarm bells for me. So I don't wanna say that I've always been obedient because I don't think I have been always. I certainly don't want to claim that for myself, but I would say that this commitment to the poor and commitment to seeking justice that's just become part of my—I don't like this word very much anymore—it's part of my world view. It's just how I see things. And it's part of your orientation.

It’s led me over the years. We didn't stay in Bangladesh as long as I had wanted because we have a daughter with disabilities and it turned out that the educational resources that she would need were not available to us there. So we just served the one term, much to my regret.

But the door that got closed resulted in many open windows, and I've been invited back to Bangladesh, I don't even know. I can't even count how many times. Two dozen, maybe, over the years. I've just remained part of the team. In fact, I just came back just before Christmas from spending another month over there with Nancy in Bangladesh and India. So that's in the same direction. I've maintained those relationships and relationships with the partners and have done multiple workshops around Biblical foundations for gender justice, Biblical foundations for creation care, Biblical foundations for leadership, you name it. We developed a whole trove of various workshops that are really about empowering staff and partners. So that's been part of it, but the other part of it was that I was so blessed to be invited to come to King’s. First of all, as the first campus minister, but very quickly thereafter I became the director of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program. And part of that included hosting two 3-day conferences each semester. Or, one each semester, two a year, and I kind of could just pick the themes, and I picked up on Justice themes. I was very interested in, you know, we had a conference about the Micah challenge and the whole Jubilee Initiative. We had conferences on food justice, we had conferences on truth and reconciliation which is really quite an important topic here in Canada.

And anyway, all of that led to a wider, more robust engagement with some constituency around Edmonton, and the result of that was—a couple came to me one day, an elderly couple, and they said, “You know, we really like what you're doing with these justice initiatives and we'd like to give you some money to make those kinds of experiences—” This is an already couple, I'll tell you who they are, they’re Clarence and Jenny Visser, she's passed and Clarence is now quite elderly. But they had, later in their life, he had been a hog farmer most of his career, and later in their life they had an opportunity to go to Haiti and also to Nicaragua, I think with Change for Children, and Sierra Leone. And he will tell you that those experiences just changed his life. I mean, he knew about these things in a kind of head way, but he was on the World Renew board at the time, and it just made a profound impact on him. They wanted to give me kind of a legacy fund so that I could provide those kinds of learning options for students, so that students could have that kind of impact made in their lives at a time when they were still making career decisions. And I said, “Well, I don't want to. I don't want to take your money. You just use it for, you know, airplane tickets to send young people around, and so on.” So we took that and we brainstormed together and we visioned together. We prayed together. And the outcome of that was the Micah Centre for Justice Education at the King's University, which that's part of that moving in the same direction. We are trying to, you know, pick up on themes that first entered my life when we lived in Bangladesh which we've been building on. World Renew became a partner in the Micah Centre, as did many others. The social justice institute here in Edmonton was part of that, and many others too, and through that we've been able to impact the lives of hundreds of students in lots of really cool ways. So, that's kind of how that's been working in my life. And yeah, I don't want to talk too much here.

Chris: No, I mean that's awesome, because, to boil that down, and then I wanna ask maybe a more direct question, because you answered beautifully. And the idea of the journey motif in justice work, and you talk about how you had a theological paradigm shift, that bridge between theoretical and incarnational, it seems to me—and with a lot of folks that I've spoken with, whether they would articulate it that way or not, but whatever that bridge is between the theory and the incarnational aspect of embodying something, that seems to be that long obedience. Is that fair to say?

Roy: Yeah, I think, so, yeah. You know, Gutierrez, I love his definition of theology, right?

He probably knows—he says that theology is reflection on praxis in light of the gospel. So the praxis in his description, praxis actually precedes the theological reflection. It didn't necessarily do that in my case, but I do think it was the praxis in the exposure and the experience that forced me to go back and read Scripture, read it again and again, and it still happens to me all the time. I have to go back and read at night, and I find new challenges for myself in it. So, like we're talking—I mentioned truth and reconciliation, and that's been on the heart and mind of a lot of people here in Canada because of the residential school situation and the Commission that completed its work just a few short years ago, and we became kind of heavily involved in that at King University. Listening to the stories of residential school survivors, and then reflecting on Scripture again. You know an amazing thing happened when I read the Exodus story again. You know, I think that until just very recently, whenever I read that story, I would identify with the Jewish people who were enslaved because Israel and the Church are one long historical covenantal reality, right? The church is the new Israel, in a sense. But after listening to the residential school stories and coming to know again the role that the church has played in that, I realized that when I read that story, my community, my tradition, my heritage, is really much more on the side of Pharaoh than it is on the side of the residential school survivor. And so those kinds of theological reflections, they grow out of experiences and out of practices.

Chris: Yeah, I love that. The Gutierrez quote—Gustavo Gutierrez is Peruvian, right?

Roy: Yup!

Chris: He's a Peruvian theologian, and other guys like Leonardo Boff, you know, all part of that sort of same school. Reflecting on the praxis and actually coming a story like the Exodus and like, “where do I locate myself in this?” Those are, I think, key questions to ask as we're on this journey. But yeah, you've painted this picture for us, Roy, and I appreciate the way that you are so open and honest and transparent about the process that you've been on and the journey that you've been on and the way that you share it so generously. I appreciate it and I've gotten a lot from that. So I thank you for that. But as we continue to reflect on this work of justice, we have the theory and we have the theology, but there’s also a mystical side to the way the Spirit of God works in the world that we don’t quite always understand and it’s surprising. Sometimes, if I'm to be completely honest, I get so busy, I get so centered and fixated on one thing that I sometimes forget God is at work in this too. Maybe I should lean back for a minute and see what's going on here. But Can you share a story with us where God has been at work in the work that you've done and is there something that went beyond what you expected, something that went beyond what you would have predicted as an outcome? But you just could only say, “Wow, God was in this. And that happened. Wow!”

Roy: Yeah, I sure can. Lots of different ways, actually. Oh, which story should I select. Well, I’ll tell the story about Maggie. Maggie Hodgson is an indigenous elder here in Edmonton. When I first began thinking that we should do a conference around truth and reconciliation, this was shortly after her first apology, and I realized I don't really have a clue what I'm doing. I don't know enough and I know there are lots of protocols that I should be paying attention to, so I asked a friend of mine who worked for Health Canada, and he worked with a lot of northern communities and he says, “You gotta talk to Maggie Hodgson.” So I got a hold of her, and I asked her if she would be my mentor, coach me, tell me what to do. She was very suspicious of this white guy from an evangelical christian college, and so she really tested me. We went out for dinner and she just put my nose in it all over the place to see how I would react. At the end of the day she agreed that we could maybe work together, although she was suspicious about this “born again,” which is what she called me. But I discovered in her a traveling companion who just absolutely was God's gift to me, because she taught me the things that I needed to know, and she prompted me—well, maybe prodded  is even a better word—to be the kind of person that I would have to be if I was gonna engage with Indigenous people in any meaningful kind of a way. And my journey with her, she’s getting older and she's a bit infirm now, but in fact, I just had a long conversation with her just last evening, and she's like an angel in my life. She just teaches me, and I think of her as a gift to me. A gift from God. So I don't know if that's the kind of story you're looking for, but I meet these people and you think you have something that you want to offer them and it turns out that what they're offering you is something much more important than what you thought you could offer them. That happens all the time

Chris: Yeah, and I think that's fantastic. I think that's something that—I’ve experienced that in my journey, too, with a lot of different folks where maybe more often than not I find myself in the middle of situations or involved in things where I'm like, “What am I—I have no idea what I’m doing.”

Roy: You know, I’'ll tell you a funny story about Maggie if we’ve got time for that. 

Chris: Oh, yeah.

Roy: At the end of this conference that we did, and it went really well. At the end of that conference I thought that I would buy a pair of wooden shoes and a pair of moccasins and I would give her one wooden shoe and one moccasin and I would keep one of each, and that would be sort of symbolic of our journey together. So she looked at me, she says, “Well, you're really stupid. You can't walk in one moccasin and you can't walk in one wooden shoe, so I'll just take both. Thank you.” So she took both pairs. She says, “You know, symbolism is good, and it's important. We have lots of it in Indigenous communities, but your symbolism has to make sense.” So she says, “Well, instead of buying me half a pair of shoes, bring me a sack of potatoes next time.” The other thing about that is that through Maggie I’ve become friends with a number of people who have become really important in my life in that community.

Chris: Yeah, no, that's awesome. Roy, thanks so much for taking the time today and talking us through a really important piece of what it means to be on this journey and be involved in this work of justice. Folks, a quick Google search of Roy will bring up copious amounts of articles and writings and talks. If you're in the World Renew orbit you can check out, on the World Renew community Facebook page, Roy and I doing some devotionals together. They're all up there. There are a lot of ways to get connected with Roy. Roy, I'm grateful for you. You've been one of those people for me, and I'm glad to be on that path with you. So thanks so much for joining us today, man.

Roy: Thank you, Chris. It's been a real privilege, and it's great to see you again.


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