NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Since Judy and Keith Harder retired, they've finally had time to tackle a stack of unread books. In a recent interview, they said they relish the more reflective pace after ending longtime vocations: she as a college theater director, and he as a Mennonite pastor and denominational leader.
Yet, their spirits still hanker for real-life experiences beyond words on the page, they said. In short, they are not yet ready for a full-time, easy-chair life in their Hillsboro, Kansas, home.
"In retirement, it's important to continue being stimulated by new ideas and new people," Keith Harder said. "That's part of good brain health and provides a balance of self-care with giving to others. These new experiences keep you engaged in a season of life when it is easy to draw into your own comfort."
As part of their search to balance retreat with engagement, they discovered SOOP (Service Opportunities with Our Partners), a Mennonite Mission Network service program. Directed by Arloa Bontrager, SOOP offers short-term service opportunities to retirees, adults of other ages, and entire families.
The Harders chose a monthlong assignment in fall 2015 at the Washington, D.C., guest house, run by Allegheny Mennonite Conference. They said the experience was where dialogues with others unfolded in ways that not even the most well-written books could replicate with the same originality and immediacy.
Judy Harder described the atmosphere as "homey and informal as well as globally challenging" — a fit for retirees rooted in Kansas who still reach for adventure. Prior to the guest house experience, they had hiked a 300-mile portion of the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route that runs through Spain.
At the guest house, they shared evening "devotions" with other Mennonites, Muslims, Christians from other denominations, and people who don't identify with any faith. It was this diversity that Keith Harder said he most enjoyed. For example, Pope Francis visited Washington for a week during their month at the guest house. The event brought many Catholic guests to the hostel.
"Some of those guests came to support Francis," Harder said "And others, people from indigenous tribes, for example, came to lobby against the canonization of a saint in California who they felt was part of a mission that had abused Native people. So we got to hear both sides of the story."
Whetting their appetite for more
The guest house experience left them thirsty for more diverse stimulation, they said, and which they found during Mission Network's alumni service-learning tour to Arizona this past November. They learned about how migrants suffer from policies created by the current U.S. immigration system. They also served at SOOP sites and visited the Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona where some Mennonites and some of the Hopi people are partnering to develop the newly emerging Peace Academic Center.
"Like most people, it is easy for Keith and me to get into a mode of 'out of sight, out of mind,'" Judy Harder said. "This trip helped us to walk into information and situations with some baby steps that brought us into a lived, sensory experience."
A powerful example of this introductory immersion was their participation in a vigil held in Douglas, Arizona. They joined a group of people who gathered to honor migrants, who, while fleeing suffering in their homelands in Mexico and Central America, died in the U.S. deserts just across the border wall.
Keith Harder said the vigil was striking for him because "it was the one occasion during which we could enact something. We could become part of the story."