Jan Bender Shetler
assistant professor of history, 1999-present
By Rachel Lapp
Faith is a prime mover in the individual histories of people worldwide.
Jan Bender Shetlers experiences in service and scholarship
have crossed international and cultural borders and her stories
are now part of her classroom.
The daughter of Mennonite Central Committee volunteers in Haiti,
Bender Shetler also grew up in Goshen and in Utah. She came to college
interested in a biology major, but the stories of other cultures
captured her interest.
I took Western Civilization as a general education course
and thought, This is really interesting, and in studying
history I became interested in communication across and among different
cultures, Bender Shetler recalled. She had a strong conviction
about service making the world a better place. While having
gone through stages of doubts about God and asking the big
questions, her faith life took a major turn when returning
to Haiti with the eyes of a young adult.
I had been in Haiti as a child, but seeing the poverty as
a college student well, it just hit me, and it was overwhelming,
she said. I had a Damascus Road sort of conversion
experience. I realized that if I was a good person and wanted to
bring change and healing in the world that I couldnt do that
by pure human effort. I needed to submit to Gods grace. I
came home really fired up about faith and was baptized.
She married Peter Shetler, a Bluffton College student who went to
Africa-influenced Haiti through SST, and the two immediately made
plans to serve with MCC. Peter was encouraged to get a degree in
agriculture, so they went to Utah for additional schooling.
Jan was assigned to teach and Peter to do development work with
the church in Nazareth, Ethiopia. Halfway into their term, the countrys
socialist government was arresting native leaders of the growing
spirit-filled Meserete Kristos (Mennonite) in Addis Ababa
threatened by its popularity. After the government closed church
institutions throughout the country, Jan and Pete were without official
jobs; they spent the rest of the term supporting the church in whatever
way possible, seeking information about and supporting imprisoned
Ethiopian Mennonite executive committee members. In 1982, their
first son, Daniel, who will attend GC this fall, was born.
Their African experience would total 11 years. After several rescheduled
assignments, they landed in the Mara region of Tanzania where more
than 200 Mennonite churches had been established. The Shetlers networked
churches with projects such as grain mills, sewing and water projects
and youth groups. They also made connections over the next six years
that became important to Jan when returning to Tanzania in 1995-96
to collect oral histories as part of her doctoral dissertation in
African History through the University of Florida, Gainesville.
It seemed natural to go back to Tanzania. One of our contacts
welcomed us we were brought into the family and they even
built us a house, said Bender Shetler, who tape recorded 250
stories, noting issues of changes in social identity.
Bender Shetler was invited to teach at Goshen in 1999 after the
family, including second son Paul, lived in Colorado for several
years. GCs history department encouraged her to develop courses
she wanted to teach; her comparative studies in world history courses
are helping students history majors and those from other
disciplines weave global stories into themes that can inform
our understanding of human systems.
This history department has always sought to recover the histories
of people who are marginalized. That is tied to service caring
about the poor and disenfranchised and valuing their experiences,
said Bender Shetler. But we also take peoples faith
seriously that is a primary mover in history.
Bender Shetler said students appreciate her stories, and she seeks
to integrate them in meaningful ways into the context of her courses.
It is wonderful to teach world history to students from SST
or international students, who are trying to understand what theyve
experienced, she said. With comparative courses like
Global Poverty, International Womens History or History of
Christianity of Africa and the African Diaspora, they can see how
ideas used in one culture can take you places in another. It brings
students interested in peace and justice, or economics or other
areas, into the department, and I love that.