Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma ’05: Young Alumni Award Winner
Three Rivers, Michigan | community development leader | peace, justice & conflict studies major
By Siana Emery ’20
More than a decade after graduating from Goshen College, Rob Vander Giessen-Reitsma ’05 is using the skills and concepts from his peace, justice and conflict studies major to lead a life dedicated to community development, working toward solving injustices with a Christ-centered approach.
Vander Giessen-Reitsma arrived at Goshen in 2003, four years after he left Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.
“I was getting really into politics and social justice work and I was looking for a Christian college that took those things seriously,” said Vander Giessen-Reitsma.
Since the early 2000s, Vander Giessen-Reitsma and his wife, Kirstin, have been leading a movement based in Christian community development in Three Rivers, Michigan.
Vander Giessen-Reitsma works as the executive director of *culture is not optional (*cino), a nonprofit organization with a mission to model and encourage creative communities, rooted in the love of Christ, in Three Rivers and beyond. The core values of this organization include, but are not limited to, experiential learning, unfettered imagination and contemplative activism.
“It started in 2001, and it originally was a discussion board on the internet with a bunch of our friends from Dordt College,” said Vander Giessen-Reitsma. “We were taken with this notion that a sort of radical Christian alternative was out there for all areas of life, and we wanted to talk about what that might look like and how that might bring flourishing to all people.To our surprise, a whole bunch of other people started to find us and wanted to join the conversation. That’s when we decided to start an organization to foster those conversations.”
In addition to the core staff, *cino has hosted a number of college students and interns to serve the community through fellowships, service and political engagement. This summer, *cino is hosting its first cohort of AmeriCorps VISTA members.
Currently, *cino’s main focus is The Huss Project, a collaborative initiative that began in 2009 to transform an abandoned elementary school in a lower-income neighborhood in Three Rivers into a lively community space. It is Vander Giessen-Reitsma’s faith and brute persistence that have allowed for this project to progress. At the end of last year, his leadership was crucial in a successful financial campaign to raise $175,000 — including a $50,000 grant from the state of Michigan — to create a renovated, indoor community space at the Huss School called the Imaginarium, which will allow for year-round programming.
“Over the years, I think we as people and as an organization have grown in understanding that the only way to live alongside and serve your neighbors is to do that in the place where you are,” Vander Giessen-Reitsma said. “And so over the years the online conversations we were hosting turned into actual, on the ground projects.”
While the building currently doesn’t have a functioning heating system or running water, The Huss Project promotes community development and has hosted such programs as art installations, festivals and service-learning groups. Over the summer, The Huss Project partners with local schools to provide lunches for children during the week. They also have an urban farm on site, and 80 percent of the produce is distributed to people in the area without access to fresh vegetables.
Annelie Haberman, who interned at the Huss Project in 2017 and is a current AmeriCorps VISTA participant, said, “Rob’s vision for the work at the Huss Project is ultimately to create a community space where imagination and truth seeking is paired with providing concrete resources to help meet the needs in our community.”
“Ultimately, we’re trying to connect people and help one another see through other eyes,” said Vander Giessen-Reitsma. “At the end of the day, if we’re able to do that and form a robust and diverse community, we will be better equipped to solve some of our larger cultural and societal issues.”
Vander Giessen-Reitsma and his wife Kirstin also helped start and continue to help run World Fare, a volunteer-run fair trade store in downtown Three Rivers that they opened the same year he came to Goshen College. In her nomination for this award, Nina Lancot, a former coworker of Vander Giessen-Reitsma, said of World Fare, “Hot coffee is always at hand and all are welcome to come, sit, sip and visit. Many a disabled or disenfranchised or lonely person, welcomed as Christ, finds community around the coffee table here.”
Many of the volunteers are members of Florence Church of the Brethren Mennonite, where the Vander Giessen-Reitsmas attend. The store also hosts educational events, such as the annual A Chocolate Affair baking contest in February.
Vander Giessen-Reitsma has also invested himself into learning the workings of the Three Rivers Community, largely through fostering diverse relationships, and working with organizations such as the Downtown Development Association and the Three Rivers Area Faith Community (TRAFC).
“I think I’m still haunted by the question of what a good life looks like as Jesus was trying to live it, and what that requires of me,” said Vander Giessen-Reitsma. “I’m pretty convinced that if we were to try this radical love ethic we might find flourishing for all people, particularly the oppressed, but also freedom for the oppressor in that as well. That’s a pretty radical idea and hard to live out in everyday life, but it underlies most of what we’re attempting to do.”
“That Rob might have had a significant academic career and has instead thrown himself into serving the community of Three Rivers, Michigan, with no regard for prestige, recognition or maximum income, is the most powerful testimony possible to his status as a servant leader,” said Joe Leichty, professor of peace, justice and conflict studies, who was one of his teachers and mentors at Goshen College.