By Bishop Mike Rinehart
John Nunes will be our keynote speaker this year. This week I interviewed John about his life and history.
John Arthur Nunes was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica. His parents moved to Canada when he was four years old for educational opportunities.
“We joined a magnificently multicultural congregation in the Toronto area. People from every continent. People from the Chinese International School. People from Guyana. People from the African continent. India. The congregation was relatively conservative theologically, but sociologically and culturally they were progressive and open. They celebrated difference. I remember my pastor preaching about Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Then, when he graduated from high school, John moved to the United States. “We are double immigrants. I came in through a tunnel (the Detroit-Windsor tunnel). I have a very immigrant sort of sensitivity.” At 18, John began college at Concordia College, Ann Arbor.
“I majored in the pre-seminary program.” There he would study Latin, Greek, Hebrew, philosophy, and the classics. “But I found it to be monoculturally myopic.” At 22 I wrote a blistering letter to the college about my exhaustion with my experience of exclusion.
“Due to the experience in Ann Arbor, which was traumatic, I left the LCMS. I went to Philadelphia Seminary for a year and a half. They had the Urban Institute. They still do, I believe.” While studying at Philadelphia, a lot of people in the LCMS reached out to John. In time, he came back into the LCMS. He struggled with St. Louis and Ft. Wayne, so he went to Concordia Lutheran Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario. “It was an excellent experience. A small seminary in Canada was just the thing I needed. I lived in Buffalo and worked at an African American congregation there for seven years. I was functioning as a pastor. The District President authorized me to baptize and consecrate, locally.” John was ordained to Word and Sacrament ministry in 1991.
He stayed a few more years in Buffalo. “Then I went to Detroit and directed an inner city program called Lutheran City Ministries. I served there four years in my late 20’s and early 30’s. I was young and passionate about inner city ministries.”
Next, John developed a congregation in Dallas, Texas – St. Paul Lutheran in South City. It was another urban congregation in a multicultural community, mostly African American, but also Latino and Anglo. “We built a new building and paid for it while I was there. We had Eucharistic worship, but a jazz/gospel musical idiom. I worked on This Far By Faith, on the editorial committee and also the liturgical committee. This was the last joint project between LCMS and ELCA.
Then, something amazing, life changing happened. Thank God for the people in our lives who see potential in us. A benefactor told John, “I will pay for you to get a PhD.” John went to LSTC, the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, where he worked on a Masters of Theology and a PhD in Systematic Theology in Post-Colonial Identity. He finished his course work and was nominated for the presidency of Lutheran World Relief (LWR). In 2007, John became President and CEO of LWR. This was the year I was elected bishop. Soon our paths would cross. It took John another five years to finish his dissertation. In 2012, John received his doctorate. Over the years, he has also received honorary doctorates from Concordia Ann Arbor and Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
I really got to know John on an LWR trip to Nicaragua, where we visited projects, including one I will never forget. One of the projects we visited was a processing plant owned by a coffee cooperative. The director of the co-op, Fatima, told us that administrative corruption in the coffee industry and reduction in coffee prices worldwide led to a near collapse of the system and widespread poverty. Coffee is a rich product in high demand, and yet most small growers live in poverty. Profits go to the large coffee organizations. You know their names. They formed a coffee cooperative. Fair trade made it possible for them to make a handy profit.
Lutheran World Relief offered training and technical support. LWR has given $2M to this project. USAID has given $1.5M. $580K has come from unrestricted funding. LWR resources were used to create a dry mill ($250K) and a warehouse ($50K). By processing their own coffee, they could pay workers more, make more profit, and fold more capital into the community schools. Rather than more toxic charity, I saw LWR helping build sustainable economies that will feed many for years to come.
Fatima said, “We’re small, but we are strong. The transnational coffee companies have us beat on volume hands down, but we have quality. They are volume, volume, and volume. You get a ton of mediocre coffee. We are about quality, quality, and quality, in every way.”
You can read more about this visit on my blog.
During this trip, I got a chance to know John and appreciate his vision. I saw both a theological mind and a mind for business. We talked a lot about the church. I began to ask questions, like, “What would it look like to run a synod like a healthy non-profit corporation? What could synods learn?” After we returned, I asked John to coach me for a year. We visited monthly by phone and occasionally in person. It was a great year. I learned volumes and still go back to my notes from those conversations. We have become good friends.
In 2013, John was invited to serve as the Emil and Elfriede Jochum Chair at Valparaiso University, my alma mater. This professorship supports the study of Christian values in public and professional life. “It has been awesome – the perfect place and platform for me to write, think deeply, and speak publicly on the intersection of faith and life.”
Never one to let moss grown underneath his feet, John has now accepted the position of President at Concordia College in Bronxville, NY. He will begin this coming July 2016. “I am animated by two things: the student body and the mission. It’s a multiethnic student body: 30% white, 25% African American, 22% Latino, and 18% Asian. We have a lot of international students. A lot are first generation immigrants. They view education as a search for a meaningful life, not as a search for meaning in life. Do you see the distinction, Michael? This is not the navel-gazing of entitlement. Many are working their way out of poverty. A quality education is the greatest anti-poverty program that we have in the U.S.”
John’s wife Monique will be with us at our Synod Assembly. She will share her musical gifts with us. They have been married for 27 years. “She has been my partner in Christ through the course of my life. We met in church in the South Side of Chicago. I was enamored by her musical gifts. In New York, she will be the Director of International School Programs at Martin Luther School, where they have over 100 international students.”
“So my early ministry was about urban multicultural ministry. Then LWR gave me the opportunity to travel the world and learn leadership. This phase of my ministry will bring the pieces together on a college campus.”
At assembly John will talk about the Spirituality From The Edges. He defines DIVERSITY as Different Individuals Valuing Each other Regardless of Skin, Identity, Talent, or Years. He will unpack this as an outpouring of our baptismal identify. We are all created in the image of God. Celebrate difference. Diversity doesn’t have to be divisive. The Body of Christ is called to lead in this respect.
John Nunes is the author of Voices from the City: Issues and Images of Urban Preaching and, with his wife Monique Nunes, a children’s book called, Little Things Make Big Differences: A Story about Malaria. With Mary Joy Philip and Charlie Collier, he edited and contributed to the recently released, Churrasco: A Theological Feast in Honor of Vítor Westhelle. He is working on his latest book, Reimagining the Reformation from the Edges.