Dr. Gary Bekker, who is retiring after serving for many years in several roles for the Christian Reformed Church, believes his interest in and acceptance of people from different cultures and economic status began in grade school.
His father worked as a chemist at an isolated research facility in the mountains of Pennsylvania at the time. That meant Bekker went to the local school and found himself surrounded by sons and daughters of coal miners, woodcutters, and subsistence farmers as well as the children of scientists who held Ph.D.s.
“I have often wondered if my curiosity and concern for people who didn’t look or live like me started there,” said Bekker, who served as director of Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM, now part of Resonate Global Mission) from 2001 to 2017.
Delegates and visitors to Synod 2019 took time to attend a retirement lunch in June to honor Bekker for his varied career that includes work as an educator, a missionary, a pastor, and an agency director who helped unite CRWM with Christian Reformed Home Missions into the new agency Resonate Global Mission in 2017.
Among those who made comments was Colin Watson, Sr., director of ministries and administration for the CRC and longtime friend.
Watson recalled that when they first met, he was on a prayer mission trip to Sierra Leone where Bekker was a part of the country evaluation that was underway there on behalf of CRWM.
Watson, who served on the board of CRWM, said, “Gary played a significant role in introducing me to denominational work at the CRCNA. I appreciate and applaud his work as director of CRWM, and as one of the catalysts in the creation of Resonate Global Mission and in so many other leadership roles.”
Many Mind-Shaping Influences
In a recent interview, Bekker spoke about a number of things in his life that helped to shape him as a church leader who has worked to point ministry in the CRC to meet the demands of the future — a future known to our Lord but uncertain from our perspective — but that he considers full of promise.
After his family left the mountains of Pennsylvania, they moved to Wyckoff, N.J., where Gary attended Christian elementary and high schools.
In high school, the fight for civil rights and different views on the war in Southeast Asia presented hard issues in the U.S. and Bekker was involved in a few events calling for change. From what he recalls, adults were not always pleased by his actions and beliefs or those of others. “But I was blessed by enough people who didn’t stifle our questions,” said Bekker.
At Trinity Christian College in Palos, Heights, Ill., Bekker’s instructors continued his education and encouraged his questions, helping to expand his mind and worldview, he said, particularly on how the Reformed faith addresses tough issues and circumstances in the world. “We had faculty who encouraged asking hard questions out of biblical conviction,” he said.
Then, after college, said Bekker, his years at Calvin Theological Seminary deepened his faith, broadened his understanding of theology, and led him to consider working as a missionary — as a way to live out the convictions that had been forming in him.
Serving on the Mission Field
Bekker added that his years on the mission field from 1977 to 1984 in the Philippines gave eye-opening and challenging experiences. For one thing, he said, he split much of his time between teaching and church planting on Negros Island — and that proved to be a tough task. “Both of these are all-encompassing enterprises,” he said.
Immersing himself in the life of the people was enjoyable. At the same time, being there in the late 1970s and early 1980s he was aware of guerilla warfare in the mountains not far from where he and his wife, Norma, lived. In their early years in the Philippines the country was under martial law.
Welcoming the Stranger
Following his time as a missionary, Bekker attended graduate school at Michigan State University, where he earned a doctorate in education. He wrote his dissertation on the ways in which some 40 or so people, whom he had been able to interview for his research, had “welcomed the stranger” by helping to resettle Southeast Asian refugees in the years after the conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
He learned that refugee sponsors covered the gamut from taking on the role of social workers to essentially becoming surrogate parents to the newcomers.
“I interviewed a disabled World War I vet who welcomed these strangers as if they were his own kids,” said Bekker. “He spoke of helping them buy a car, get a job, buy a house. He bailed them out of jail.”
At Work in the World of Theology
After earning his Ph.D., Bekker taught missiology for nine years at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston, Mass. During his years there, he taught missions and some church education. He taught and worked with people from all over the world. And in coming across different approaches and viewpoints that way, he said, he was both stretched by what he learned and reassured that the Reformed faith is strong and resilient.
“My CRC roots helped to ground me there,” he said. “I was reminded that in being Reformed there is no question you are scared to ask.”
From Gordon-Conwell, where for two years he also pastored a local CRC congregation, Bekker moved in 1995 to take up the role of academic dean at Calvin Seminary. This too was a valuable experience, he said, but he also longed for something else. He knew his mind and heart needed more than the academic life could offer at the time.
Then one day in 2000 the former CRC executive director Peter Borgdorf visited him in his seminary office and asked Bekker if he would be interested in becoming director of World Missions.
Assuming Leadership at a Time of Turbulence
Bekker eventually stepped into the job as director of CRWM on Sept. 1, 2001, the same week serious violence erupted in Jos, Nigeria. Just 10 days later, terrorists flew passenger planes into the World Trade Center in New York City.
So he had to hit the ground running. “It was a dramatic beginning,” he said — and that pace didn’t relent much over the next 16 years.
“We needed to create a new statement of mission,” Bekker said. Christian Reformed World Missions moved from seeing itself as faithful only if they were bringing salvation to the ends of the earth, to joining with others to share the light of the gospel and to live out our faith in Christ together.
For instance, they partnered to strengthen theological education among Pentecostal churches in Uganda; and joined with others in nurturing neighborhood-based communities in cities in Latin America and Africa. “We realized that we needed to create a specific mission strategy responding to Christ’s call in today’s global context,” he said.
As director of World Missions, Bekker took many trips to visit missionaries on the field, helped to reorganize the structure of how the agency functioned within the denomination, and often relied on his former roles and experiences to help guide the agency through and around numerous challenges.
A highlight, he said, involved moving World Missions board meetings once a year from Grand Rapids, Mich., or Burlington, Ont., to locations across North America so that board members could experience just a little of the breadth of Christian Reformed life and challenges in ministry. On one occasion they saw World Missions work directly in Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. On another, they visited ministry in Tijuana, Mexico.
“It was important for us to see the breadth of all God’s children, using these visits to show unity in many racial and cultural contexts,” he said.
Unifying the Mission Fields
Deeply aware of the changing world and how global demands were changing the role of doing missions, Bekker played a key role in the unification of World Missions with Christian Reformed Home Missions — an accomplishment for which he feels grateful. He sees being part of that process as an acknowledgment of the need for the church to gather its resources to meet the needs of the day. In some ways, it took him back to elementary school in the mountains of Pennsylvania and how kids from so many cultural and economic worlds came together as a community to learn and grow.
Beyond World Missions
Then when Resonate sprang to life, Bekker took on the role of directing a group of three leadership-training ministries — the Timothy Leadership Training Institute, Global Coffee Break, and Educational Care — and, as he leaves, this group has become Raise Up Global Ministries.
At the synod lunch, Bekker offered a few words in looking back: “I am alone accountable for decisions made over many years that didn’t turn out so hot or with which someone may want to disagree. I assure you that anything positive the Lord got done through me was done in concert with others — never by way of just me alone.”
Looking ahead, he sees the church facing many challenges — and he suggests moving on as our Lord leads, without spending time longing for past times, to address them.
And in doing this, he said, live and work with others.
“For those of you called to serve now and in the future, as leaders, ask the Lord . . . for cooperation from church governance and support from coworkers,” he said. “If the Lord places you as a coworker, cooperate. If he places you in governance, support.”