As part of Women's History Month, Mennonite Mission Network highlights the ministry of Julie Bender: a teacher in Ghana (1988-1993); a pastor and advocate for restorative justice in Ontario, Canada (1993-2004); and a teacher and mentor in China (2004-2013).
Joy, transformational teaching, restorative justice and a pastor's heart characterized Julie Bender's ministry on three continents. Students in China and Ghana benefitted from Julie's expertise in counseling and teaching, and from her deep interest in them as individuals.
Several Chinese students asked Julie and her husband, Philip, to be their godparents, a role akin to being a mentor in North American culture. The loving and caring relationship between the Benders and their gan'haizimen (godchildren) continued through correspondence after the couple moved back to North America. Julie and Philip also returned to China three times. Two of their trips were to attend weddings.
Julie was especially close to Liu Gang, a student and godson, who is now a cardiologist in China. When he heard about Julie's 11-month journey with cancer that ended in her death on Feb. 13, 2020, he wrote a long letter to Julie. Phil shared this excerpt:
"I met you when you were my English teacher. My first impression of you was warm, patient and willing to listen. Your positive and sunny attitude towards life deeply infected me. Thank you for being a great mother with a loving soul. Being your godson is the greatest gift and honor."
"Bruce" and "Snow" were also Julie's students, who prefer to be identified by the names they used in English classes. They played groom and bride in a mock wedding that was part of Julie's teaching repertoire. These weddings included traditional Christian vows.
In their tribute, Bruce and Snow wrote, "Dear Julie, we believe you must become an angel in heaven. We still remember the taste of the (wedding) cake that you made for us. You are just like the food you made, which is sweet, making everyone feel happy and satisfied. There were so many unforgettable moments when we were together. You are and will always be living in our hearts."
Bruce and Snow went on to get officially married in 2017.
Though Chinese authorities warned the Benders against speaking about their faith in Jesus, except when students asked questions, Julie was openly called, "The God Lady." Sometimes students accompanied the Benders to English-speaking worship services "to practice their conversational language skills," and once a student agreed to translate Julie's English sermon into Chinese.
Similarly, former students in Ghana wrote about their friendships with Julie and Philip in Unless a Grain of Wheat: A Story of Friendship Between African Independent Churches and North American Mennonites.
Esther Manyeyo Tawiah learned to know Julie as her teacher of pastoral counseling at Good News Training Institute (now Good News Theological Seminary — GNTS), but the two women soon "became like sisters," Esther said. Esther often traveled with Julie and Philip when they were asked to preach and teach because she speaks three Ghanaian languages fluently. Esther taught Julie how to make local specialties, and Julie shared her cookie recipes with Esther.
"The Benders loved to work with the Indigenous churches in Ghana," Esther wrote. "They honored most of the invitations from these churches, such as harvest and thanksgiving services, funerals and naming ceremonies. … There was a special bond between the couple and me, such that I was able to go to them at any time if I did not understand what they taught."
Humphrey Akogyeram, now a GNTS professor, also began his theological studies with Julie and Philip. He credits them with helping to advance his teaching vocation through study in the United States and commends them for continuing to return to Ghana for seminars, even after their ministries took them to other countries.
"My lifelong friendship with [the Benders] has had an enormous impact on me," Humphrey wrote in Unless a Grain of Wheat. "They have strengthened the churches in Ghana through their preaching, teaching and counseling. I hope the seeds sown by the Benders will continue to grow and extend beyond the sphere of Ghana."
Humphrey's wish for others to experience the benefits of the Benders' gifts was realized. During more than a decade of interlude between international ministries, Julie and Philip co-pastored two congregations in Ontario, Canada — Zurich Mennonite Church (1993-97) and Hamilton Mennonite Church (1997-2004). Edgar Rogalski voiced the consensus of the Hamilton congregation when he said, "Whenever Julie entered, the room would light up."
During the months between pastoring the two churches, the Benders worked with Mennonite Voluntary Service (a Mennonite Mission Network program), where Julie became involved in the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program. This experience led her to restorative justice advocacy through the Circles of Support and Accountability program of Mennonite Central Committee, a passion she retained the rest of her life.
Julie (Julianna) was born to Erma (Eash) and Tobias Bontrager of Middlebury, Indiana, on June 13, 1948. She attended Eastern Mennonite College (now University) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, before graduating from Indiana University with a bachelor's in psychology. In 1982, she received a master's in social work from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Several months of study and service with Youth With A Mission in Texas and Belize in 1984-85 were transformative in her life. Julie married Philip Bender in 1986 and they moved to Altona, Manitoba, to teach at Elim Bible Institute.
In 1988, the Benders began their assignment in Ghana with Mennonite Board of Missions, a predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network. From 1993-2004, Julie and Philip co-pastored in Canada. Then, they went to China with Mennonite Partners in China, Mennonite Church Canada and Mission Network where they taught English at universities in Chongqing and Dazhou until 2013.
The Benders retired to Goshen in August 2016 and became members at College Mennonite Church. During a voluntary service assignment at Eastern Mennonite University from September 2016 to August 2017, Julie became part of the Valley Justice Coalition of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Her advocacy on behalf of prison inmates led her to write an article for Sojourners magazine, "Who Pays for Prison?"
In retirement, Julie served as a Caring Friend volunteer at Greencroft Retirement Center and continued to pursue her interests in home decorating, restorative justice, counseling, reading and spiritual direction.