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Alumni Profile

Joe Shenk

by Omar Eby

Joe Shenk
Joe Shenk, a graduate of both EMU and the Seminary, served as EMU campus pastor for eight years.

"All the students look alike," the new campus pastor mused in 1981. That might be expected of a man out of Africa. Born, reared, and 20 years employed in Africa as teacher and preacher, Joseph C. Shenk, a 1960 graduate of Eastern Mennonite College and a 1996 graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, could read African faces effortlessly. It would take years for him to distinguish American college women and to stop calling every college male Mike.

A man of two continents on opposite sides of the equator, Joe felt the deep rift in his psyche; he often described himself as an "outsider." He did outsider things. Walking a mile to campus he rescued earthworms stranded on the tarmac, washed there by a thunderstorm. From a concocted recipe he brewed his own runny yogurt.

Biking, he looked as if he had ridden out of the 19th century: he wore not a stitch of fancy pants spandex; the bike’s reversed handlebars made him a matador taking a bull by the horns. To better know students, Joe donned a chef’s hat and plastic gloves to hand out sloppy joes in the cafeteria line.

The outsider worked hard to weave his ministry into the fabric of student lives. He preached memorable short sermons aimed at mainline Mennonite children. Jesus’ presence at a Galilee wedding became, "When Jesus comes to your party." Still, inevitably, Joe attracted the marginal. International students found him a soft touch, when they needed money. They found a warm man in this outsider they mistook for an insider.

Joe pored over the Myers-Briggs personality test until he became something of an expert—inflicting it on anyone who expressed mild curiosity. He found in it an entrée to understanding certain types of students—and faculty, the malleable and the precious. He was, after all, Campus Pastor, not just spiritual father to students. All found in Pastor Joe a "warm, generous, spiritual man," as his colleagues and assistants in Student Life remember him. He prayed for everyone as he ran, two miles before breakfast, then twice weekly on a ten-mile block around the university, and later, eight marathons.

Joe arrived on campus with a new president, Richard Detweiler. His was an era of transitions. Although Joe took change in stride, after seven years, he felt that the college, now a university; needed a sophisticated insider for a campus pastor.

Joe discovered there was life after EMU—even a good life. In 1986 he became lead pastor —an outsider at an old southern congregation—at Weavers Mennonite Church, a position he held until his retirement in 2002. Whereupon, with his wife Edith, Joe went home to Africa as principal of the Mennonite Theological College in East Africa, Musoma, Tanzania. There among the Tanzania Mennonites, as among the Virginia Mennonites, and the EMU bureaucrats, Joe never let the political background static distract him from his unfailing trust in the mission of Christ’s church.

Then, a lorry loaded with charcoal struck Joe, out for his morning jog near his African home. He died in a Nairobi, Kenya hospital.

—Omar Eby is a 1957 graduate of EMU, where he was a professor of writing and literature for more than 20 years before he retired to pursue his own writing.