Rebecca Vander Meulen '99
What degree did you graduate Calvin with?
Minors: Third World Development Studies and Archaeology
Graduation year: 1999
What's your official position where you are working now?
Community Development Director, Diocese of Niassa, Mozambique.
Though I did not specifically plan out the path I have followed, each step along the path has led naturally to the next one. I traveled to Washington, DC with Roland Hoksbergen to learn about development and advocacy organizations during interim of my senior year at Calvin. One of the organizations to which I was introduced was Bread for the World, where I started working as an intern soon after graduation. During my time at Bread, I became interested in the links between health (particularly nutrition and AIDS) and poverty, and I left after two years to study international public health at Emory University. A professor at Emory had met someone from Mozambique at a conference in China, introduced us all, and as a result I headed off to Mozambique to do my public health thesis research work there during the summer between my two years of class work at Emory.
I returned to Mozambique after graduation to work for two years with several local associations responding to HIV (supported, on a volunteer basis, by Concern America). Mid-way through these two years, I met the local Anglican bishop, who was interested in launching a more formal response to AIDS within the church. This work—strengthening and capacitating the local congregations to respond to the needs around them—quickly became full time, and it is the work I continue in now. We now have about 170 congregations with “Equipas de Vida” (“Life Teams”) that are defining their own strategies to respond to the needs in their communities.
How does your faith influence the work that you do?
I believe that faith, by definition, bubbles over into social action. Clearly, the form this social action takes looks different from person to person. But I think that each of us—the illiterate woman living with HIV in a village in rural Mozambique; the executive of a for-profit company; the teenager in the outskirts of a Honduran city; the American college student with too many papers to write—was created by God to serve our neighbor. Working here in Mozambique with the Anglican Diocese of Niassa, I’m helping equip church leaders to mobilize people “in the pews” (on the straw mats / benches) to put their faith into action in the areas of HIV, agriculture and the environment, through practical service and advocacy. It’s frustrating when people cannot even glimpse the treasures they are as children of God, but life-giving to see people blossom into a reality of service and freedom.
What is your best advice for current IDS students?
Study abroad. Learn about other cultures through international students. Get to know people from other countries within Grand Rapids—either refugees or people who have immigrated voluntarily. You won’t be the same after this.
Looking back at your time at Calvin, what were your favorite aspects of it and is there anything you wish you would have done differently or more of?
I trace my current work back to all I learned on a semester in Honduras, where I began to glimpse the complexities of development, and saw ordinary people follow God’s call and do extraordinary things.
Do you have any other words of hope or wisdom to offer soon-to-be IDS graduates?
If you’re interested in an expat salary, it might be best to follow traditional job-hunting strategies. But if you’re interested in doing community development, and learning as you go, just get out there and do it. Almost every community or small town I’ve visited has some sort of association responding to issues of HIV or of poverty or of the environment. Work with these associations, share frustrations with them, learn from these people, and share your technical skills with these people—though be prepared for them not to agree with all of your strategies and theories! (Despite all my higher education, the most widely respected skill I have seems to be my ability to type without looking at the keyboard.) In the process, you’ll start to understand even more deeply what community development means. You’ll make friends. Your work might develop into a job or a career (as it did in my case); it might simply be a season of deep learning.