July 23, 2007
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — After a life of globe trotting, the Rev. Marthinus Riekert had found spiritual contentment and geographic stability as pastor of the Congregational Church of Middlebury, which he joined in 2005.
But only two years into his tenure at the church, Riekert and his family have found a new calling that has them again packing their bags. The family, which hails from South Africa, will soon leave Middlebury to lead a church half way around the world, in New Zealand.
“It was a very difficult decision to make,” Riekert said on Thursday. “It was taken with sadness and after a lot of deliberation and thinking.”
But in the end, Riekert said he could not ignore the appeals from a community of South African nationals who have relocated to Auckland, N.Z., in the wake of increasing violence in their native land. Riekert explained that South Africans are leaving their homeland by the thousands to escape crime that has become particularly violent in nature.
“It’s not a racial thing; it’s involving all people of all races and all segments and levels of society,” Riekert said. “One of the results of that is that there are huge immigrant populations forming across the globe, of which one is in New Zealand.”
One of the groups, in Auckland, has formed an Afrikaans-speaking church. Afrikaans is a language spoken by roughly 10 million South Africans.
Riekert is fluent in Afrikaans. As such, he has occasionally been recruited over the years by South African immigrants to lead a church in Auckland. He has declined the invitation in the past, but feels he can no longer do so, given the suffering of his former countrymen.
“With the deteriorating situation and many of them having gone through the trauma of experiencing violent crime firsthand, I feel I cannot sit here in luxury, in an idyllic setting, and ignore their plea,” Riekert said. “This came suddenly and unexpectedly. I wasn’t looking for another position.”
Riekert acknowledged that he and his family are feeling a personal tug to New Zealand. That’s in large part due to that nation’s health care system, which he said can provide affordable services to the Riekerts’ extended family. Those services are increasingly unavailable in South Africa and unaffordable in the United States, according to Riekert.
“Our parents are reaching the age where they will need increased medical care and perhaps other forms of assistance,” Riekert said. “We can get them into the New Zealand system, so that is also a big consideration for us.”
Riekert officially tendered his resignation on July 15. He, his wife Christa and their son M.J. plan to leave for New Zealand around the end of October. Ironically, all three became naturalized Americans during their time in Middlebury.
While he knows his departure will unfortunately trigger the Congregational Church’s second search for a pastor in three years, he is “confident there is a lot of good momentum and there is a broad consensus on the future direction of the church.”
While his tenure has been brief, Riekert has become well known and the Congregational Church of Middlebury accomplished a lot during his tenure. It established, thanks to some generous donations, a transitional housing project in Middlebury; reinvigorated a series of community suppers; and sold the Charter House on North Pleasant Street. The Charter House will soon become home to the Gailer School, while the church congregation is considering an addition to its iconic structure on the Middlebury green to meet its space needs.
Riekert credited church volunteers and citizens leaders for much of the accomplishments.
“My intention here has always been to make myself redundant in a church,” he said. “The character, energy and identity should not come from myself or any minister, but it should be vested in the organization — in this case, the church.
“I am definitely not irreplaceable,” he added.
Congregational Church officials were scheduled to meet this Wednesday, July 25, to sort out the search process for a new minister.
Riekert will be missed, according to Russ Carpenter, moderator of the Congregational Church of Middlebury.
“He will be missed, but we understand very well his reasons for leaving,” Carpenter said. “His term here has been well received by members of the church. We join together as a church to rejoice that we had him for the time we did, and we will join together to move forward to find a replacement.” ?