By Marlys Weaver-Stoesz for AMBS
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Al Fuertes of Fairfax, Virginia, a professor with a focus on peacebuilding and conflict transformation in war zones, and Roger and Cynthia Neufeld Smith of Jackson, Mississippi, former pastors at Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, Kansas, are the 2019 recipients of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s (AMBS) Alumni Ministry and Service Recognition.
The Elkhart, Indiana, seminary’s annual award honors alumni with an outstanding record of faithful ministry and service. Fuertes earned a Master of Arts: Peace Studies (MAPS) in 1997, and Roger and Cynthia Neufeld Smith earned Master of Divinity degrees in 1986 and 1989, respectively.
“This year’s award recipients represent the exemplary service we note in the ministry of so many AMBS alumni — in congregational roles as well as academic, peacemaking and mission roles,” noted AMBS Alumni Director Janeen Bertsche Johnson, M.Div. “Cynthia and Roger, in their 30 years of ministry in one congregation, have shown the fruits of long-term relationships and steady leadership. Al, as a teacher and practitioner of peacemaking in the United States, the Philippines and many other places, is influencing hundreds of people to work for peace and justice in communities that have experienced devastating conflict.”
Originally from Surigao City, Philippines, Fuertes worked from 1991 to 1995 as a resident pastor with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines in Sto. Nino, San Agustin, Surigao del Sur, an ongoing war zone. Ed Martin, then regional coordinator for Southeast Asia for Mennonite Central Committee, visited him in 1995 and, after hearing about his work, offered him a full scholarship to earn a master’s degree in peace studies. Fuertes began studying at AMBS in 1995, having chosen the seminary largely because of Ted Koontz, Ph.D., and Gayle Gerber Koontz, Ph.D., AMBS faculty members (now retired) who had been his professors at the Silliman University Divinity School in Dumaguete City, Philippines, where he earned a Bachelor of Theology in 1990.
“Having been in a war zone for five years prior to coming to AMBS,” he said, “I was overwhelmed and consumed by so much anger at the Philippine government and Philippine army for human atrocities and all kinds of injustices, militarization and oppression committed against Filipino people.”
Fuertes credits AMBS with introducing him to the field of peace studies and peacebuilding, naming “memorable and life-changing courses” taught by the Koontzes as well as now retired professors Mary Schertz, Ph.D, and Daniel Schipani, Dr.Psy., Ph.D. He wrote his MAPS thesis on partnerships between global organizations and churches, especially between developed and developing countries. He also recalled the vibrant and supportive learning community and noted that he has continued relationships from his AMBS cohort, collaborating on projects together around the world.
Now an associate professor at George Mason University’s School of Integrative Studies in Fairfax, Virginia, Fuertes focuses his work and teaching on intercultural and interreligious dialogue, cross-cultural experiential learning, conflict resolution and transformation, human trafficking and smuggling, community-based trauma healing, sustainability of Indigenous communities in Southeast Asia, refugee and internal displacement, and liberation theology, among other fields.
“I am who and where I am today partly because of AMBS through MCC,” he said.
Fuertes participated in Mennonite Central Committee’s International Volunteer Exchange Program in 1990-91 and in Eastern Mennonite University’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in 1999 and 2000. He earned a Ph.D. in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in 2007. He is also a covenant minister at Wellspring United Church of Christ in Centreville, Virginia.
Roger and Cynthia Neufeld Smith
Roger and Cynthia Neufeld Smith not only experienced spiritual and academic growth during their time at AMBS, but also met each other while studying at the seminary, marrying in the AMBS chapel in 1987.
Originally from northwestern Ohio, Cynthia Neufeld Smith earned her bachelor’s degree in music from Bluffton College (now University) in 1976, taught public school music, and then earned her master’s degree in music theory from Bowling Green State University in 1982. Feeling unsatisfied with her life and uncertain about what to do next, she came to AMBS in the fall of 1984 “for a year of discernment.” She took organ and piano lessons while at AMBS and ended up focusing her MDiv studies on worship and music. She later earned a Doctor of Musical Arts in church music with an emphasis in organ performance and choral conducting from the University of Kansas in Lawrence in 2000.
Roger Neufeld Smith, who grew up in central Kansas, graduated from Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas, in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He worked four years as a youth pastor at his home congregation, First Mennonite Church in Newton, and one year as a research chemist in Wichita, Kansas, before testing the “seminary waters” by enrolling in January interterm classes at AMBS in 1981 and 1982.
“As I moved into a leadership role with our church’s young adult group and lived in a household that aspired to be an intentional Christian community, I realized that I needed more biblical background and pastoral skills to be a ministry leader,” he said. “Though I still had doubts about pastoral ministry as a profession [after the interterm classes], I decided to enroll full time at AMBS to learn how to be a Christian minister.”
Roger Neufeld Smith said his professors helped him gain the biblical grounding and pastoral skills he’s used throughout his ministry. Specifically, he named Willard Swartley’s (Ph.D.) New Testament classes and David Augsburger’s (Ph.D.) family systems course, which he said had a “profound effect” on his life. Cynthia Neufeld Smith referenced the Bible classes in particular as having deepened and expanded her understanding of how the Bible came to be and of how to read it.
The Neufeld Smiths also emphasized the importance of the close community they found at AMBS. The K-Group they formed on campus has met almost every year since their graduation.
“The AMBS student community supported and inspired me to learn and grow in so many ways as we shared and discussed and argued and worshiped and confessed our humanity to one another,” said Roger Neufeld Smith. “The experience of such a learning, worshiping, discipling, sharing community gave me a vision for what God’s reign might look like no matter what the situation or context.”
From September 1988 until July 2018, the Neufeld Smiths pastored together at Southern Hills.
“It’s a wonderful congregation, and the musical resources in the congregation as well as the opportunities for me to be involved in music in the community all contributed to our decision to stay so long,” Cynthia Neufeld Smith reflected. In addition to pastoring, she taught worship and congregational arts classes at the former AMBS–Great Plains Extension in North Newton, Kansas (2000-11) and offered her music and worship gifts in various conference and denominational settings.
The couple is now leading a Mennonite Mission Network Service Adventure unit — a yearlong service assignment for young adults — in Jackson, Mississippi.
“It is both rewarding and challenging to live with three young people; participate in the very small, interracial Open Door Mennonite Church; and learn to know a new (to us) part of the country,” said Cynthia Neufeld Smith. “Our training at AMBS — in Bible study, theology, marriage/family systems, etc. — continues to serve us well in this new context.”
She noted that her AMBS education and experience are also contributing to her work on the team that’s creating the new Voices Together hymnal.
While in Kansas, Roger Neufeld Smith served as a board member for the Topeka Center for Peace and Justice, Interfaith of Topeka and the Topeka Justice Unity Ministry Project. He has also served on multiple Western District Conference committees and as WDC moderator. The Neufeld Smiths have two adult children.