For 35 years, Elbert van Donkersgoed has served in leadership for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario. He sees this work as “faith work” and has helped the organization develop policies on farmland preservation, marketing, land use, and environmental stewardship.
Growing up as the son of immigrant farmers, Elbert van Donkersgoed ’67 had a family- assumed career goal: farming.
“My younger brothers eventually took over the family farms,” he said. “But early on, I was saying to my parents, ‘I don’t want to be on the farm. I want to go off and study and do church work.’ And that meant leaving the farm and maybe being a pastor in a church or a Christian school teacher.”
In the end, van Donkersgoed’s career culminated in a combination of farming and “church (or “faith”) work,” serving 35 years in leadership for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, an organization that promotes economic, social, and environmental sustainability through farming policies based on Christian stewardship principles.
DISCOVERING GOD’S CALL
His idea of “church work” was quickly expanded to “faith work” upon his arrival at Calvin in 1963. “During my first year at Calvin, I started reading philosophy with [Calvin professors] Evan Runner, Alvin Plantinga, and Nick Wolterstorff, and those three changed my view of what I should do with my life. I should actually do ‘faith work,’ not just church work. It was a bigger calling.”
Upon graduating, van Donkersgoed returned to Ontario with a clearer understanding of vocation. “Calvin got me thinking about living a life that recognizes the lordship of Jesus Christ, wherever we find ourselves and wherever we’re called to serve,” he said.
So when he read about a position as a fieldman for the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, he knew it was his calling.
“When I applied for the job, I had no doubt what my career was going to be,” he said. “When I started the position, I was given a bit of history about the organization, three boxes of paper, the names of 100 farmers scattered all around Ontario, and $20 in the bank.”
He started his career driving the backroads of Ontario meeting with family farmers, and by the mid-1990s that list of 100 names had grown to 4,300 members across the province, about 10% of Ontario’s farmers.
“My role was to strategically encourage discussions among family farmers—as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17)—on subjects that really counted and on which we could make a difference from a faith perspective,” he said.
WORKING OUT FAITH
Under van Donkersgoed’s leadership, the organization developed policies on farmland preservation, marketing, land use, and environmental stewardship.
For instance, in 1990 the government leadership in Ontario changed, and farmers were concerned about government-agency- designed regulations for environmental sustainability.
“Within two weeks we put together a coalition of 28 farm organizations determined to put together our own plan,” said van Donkersgoed. “The key commitment was to ask all farmers to voluntarily put together an environmental plan for their own farm, identifying strengths and weaknesses for the environment. And where there was serious concern, there was a plan to improve the situation. We got that adopted throughout the farm community, and we presented it to the government, and all of the government agency plans went away.”
His foundation at Calvin helped van Donkersgoed prepare well for his nearly four decades of service to the Ontario farming community, he said.
“My time at Calvin gave me an approach to the world. I’m able to look at a slice of our culture and say ‘how can we make our faith and the lordship of Jesus Christ relevant in this very narrow and specific area like agriculture?’” he said. “And at the same time, Calvin gave me a worldview that looks at the big picture and holds it all together.
“In Genesis, God tells us, ‘It is good.’ So how does one hold onto that notion of the original blessing of the creation along with the nitty gritty of working out one’s faith in fear and trembling? It’s part philosophy and part a life approach, and Calvin gave me that.”