A peacemaker’s personal battle
By Jodi H. Beyeler
When Goshen College Associate Professor of Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies Carolyn Schrock-Shenk was growing up in a Conservative Mennonite home near Middlebury, Ind., she was, at one point, the fastest runner in her school. But the all-around athlete’s life was forever changed when, while a senior in college in 1980, a car accident resulted in broken vertebra.
Not paralyzed by the injury, Schrock-Shenk was able to walk and move fairly freely from 1980 to 2003. But she slowly lost function in her legs because of the damaged vertebra, and pain became a constant challenge. She was faced with having to decide whether to have spinal cord surgery to stop the deterioration.
After months of deliberation, with help in discernment from friends and family, Schrock-Shenk traveled to a spinal cord specialty center in Florida for extensive, invasive surgery. Unfortunately, the procedure in the fall of 2003 was only the beginning of a long and intense medical journey. Over the next two years, she experienced constant setbacks, undergoing 11 surgeries and experiencing rapid loss of function that has left her with no function below chest level.
Those years were excruciatingly difficult as her struggle for physical survival was mixed with dashed hopes, despair, questions about suffering and healing, and much deep grief. “While I have come a long way,” said Schrock-Shenk, “I will never be completely done grieving. There are times when I am suddenly filled with an intense longing for the body and life I once had.”
During those all-consuming two years, Schrock-Shenk was unable to teach her conflict studies courses or practice conflict transformation work. But in 2005 she returned to the classroom – to the pleasure of her students – in her wheelchair. “Peacemaking has become a very personal thing – trying to make peace with what life has handed me,” said Schrock-Shenk.
While relying on much help from those around her, Schrock-Shenk has also sought to gain back some independence. She bikes again using a hand-pedaled bicycle; she learned how to drive a vehicle with hand controls; she navigates around campus in an electric wheelchair that even offers the ability to stand for periods of time.
The recent purchase of a van outfitted with hand controls, though, has given Schrock-Shenk a new lease on her changed life. Made possible by contributions from many generous family members and friends, one gift that she received towards the van stands out in her mind. Near the end of the fall semester, a student of Schrock-Shenk’s walked into her office with a manila envelope. When she opened it, inside was $200 and a homemade card – signed by 13 of her students – that said, “We love you, Carolyn. We heard you were raising money for a van and we wanted to help.”
Though her identity now also includes being a person in a wheelchair, this peacemaker, teacher, mother, spouse and friend continues to learn how to persevere in the midst of her greatest personal battle – which is probably one of the best lessons Schrock-Shenk can offer her students.
“I am trying to trust that this life, so very different from what I wanted, can be rich and meaningful and complete. And that it can be a blessing to others,” she said.