Looking back now, I see that God was preparing me for my vocation from a very young age. The field of communication is so broad. Too broad. It almost doesn’t narrow it down enough. There are so many things you can do with it. I honestly picked the major because (1) I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, yet (2) it was one of the only majors that would still allow me to graduate on time at just 60 credits, and (3) I was already a good communicator, and the idea of improving your strengths instead of trying to shore up your weaknesses was becoming popular through the StrengthsFinder test and the book Now Discover Your Strengths.
I remember being on the SPU Senior Cruise and talking with an acquaintance friend about her plans. “Well, I majored in Nursing, and already have a job at Swedish Hospital.”
“Wow!” I said, truly astonished at her hard work, planning, and certainty.
“What are you going to do with your Communication degree?” she asked. “Go into broadcasting?”
I don’t know, I thought, are you offering me a job in broadcasting? Then yeah, maybe.
The truth is I didn’t know what I wanted.
All I knew was that I had graduated and I loved to write but didn’t want to be a journalist. I was interested in debate but didn’t want to be a politician. I wanted adventure but didn’t know how to get paid for it.
The only jobs I wanted — U.S. ambassador to a foreign nation or National Geographic photographer — I was told were unattainable at my age and took years and years to achieve.
In the spirit of not knowing what to do, I signed up to go on a SPRINT (Seattle Pacific Reachout INTernational) trip. During the interview, they asked me where I wanted to go. “Just send me on your longest, hardest, dirtiest trip.” That turned out to be 2 months in Freetown, Sierra Leone, working at a children’s home for war orphans with an organization called Children of the Nations.
I was tired of the classroom and wanted to get out in the world. I wanted to see what people were doing to solve some of the world’s problems, not just talk and write about them.
I spent the summer sweating through all my clothes in West Africa, dancing and running and hiking and playing with the kids. We put on drama shows, led games, led camp! We did crafts, sang songs, we sat with the kids and learned their stories. We went out into the deep jungle. Way out to the way, way out.
No electricity, no roads, no white people. A group of old Mende women used their hard-earned firewood to heat up water in a huge black pot so I could take a warm bucket shower in the jungle. The first night I watched a Nigerian preacher on a tiny color TV while all the kids in the in the village peered in through the open-air window.
We laughed and cried and made new friends. Walked the streets of Freetown at night and saw the crippled helping make up beds for each other. Heard stories of family demons, secret societies, cannibalism, and the war.
When I stepped off the plane back in Seattle and my dad saw me, he said, “You look like you’ve been there.”
After going back home to finish out the summer, I moved to Seattle to find a job and be closer to my girlfriend, Holly. Doing temp work for nine months quickly made me realize I needed a real job. Holly and I got married on July 1, 2006, and I quit my temp job so we could go on our honeymoon.
I got my first real full-time job working at Expeditors International, a business-to-business freight-forwarder (I didn’t know what it was, either). I started at the very bottom and worked hard. After 6 months as a “runner” delivering checks and customs documents between downtown Seattle and SeaTac, I got my very own plastic name tag on my very own cubicle.
A year later, I knew I didn’t want to work at Expeditors. It was a good company, just nothing I was passionate about or interested in. But all I could figure out that I wanted to do was travel and write.
I had coffee with a family friend to get some leads on sales jobs that would make more money. After an hour he said, “It seems like you’re really passionate about these kids in Africa.”
“Yeah but you can’t make money at that,” I said dismissively.
He encouraged me to think about it. Walking out to my car in the parking lot I was miffed. He didn’t give me any leads on a sales job, I thought. That’s what this whole meeting was for.
I found a sales job. They offered it to me. But I never called them back. I can’t explain it. But it just didn’t sit right in my spirit.
I asked my wife about it, and we talked about exploring other jobs. I did several informational interviews with friends who worked at nonprofits, and talked with people about what they did for work and whether they liked it.
I met with Arleen Raub, my Sierra Leone trip leader. “You know, Children of the Nations is hiring.” She said.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to raise my own support and I’m not going to move to Silverdale,” I stated matter-of-factly.
“Well, you would have to raise your own support, but you wouldn’t have to move to Silverdale; we just opened a branch office in Green Lake.”
I told Holly I would interview just for practice, and three months later there was a bona fide job offer on the table. Everyone we talked to said we should take it.
It was scary, and exciting, all at the same time. I told Holly, “We’ll give it a year. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just go get a different job.” She said OK.
No health insurance, no retirement program, and I had to raise 100% of my salary and all expenses from friends and family. But I was fired up!
Twelve years later, this is the best job I’ve ever had, and I’ve never looked back. Thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars raised to help the poorest children in the world rise up to become leaders in their own countries has been a dream come true.
I started out organizing and leading volunteer meal-packaging events — groups putting together dried ingredients in an assembly line in school gyms, churches, outside in the park in the summer, in people’s garages! It was so fun and so fulfilling. I felt like I had been set free.
In my first year, I mobilized 2,303 people to package 431,789 meals. I started traveling to the countries to see the meals delivered, improve processes, and communicate back to donors. My creativity unleashed, I shot and edited videos, wrote blog articles, and took photos.
After three years I became an area community representative, still packaging meals and also getting children sponsored, recruiting short-term mission teams (we call them Venture teams), assembling SmilePacks (2-gallon bags of needed supplies for kids), and raising money for projects.
It’s hard to describe how rewarding it was. I felt like every skill, ability, talent, and piece of knowledge I had was being put to use to help these children who really needed it.
At some point it became my vocation, or maybe it always had been and it just took me awhile to realize it. I started to understand that I had the freedom to try new ideas and launch new initiatives that would help more children, if I could raise the money for it. So I started to get really good at fundraising. At six-and-a-half years working at Children of the Nations, I was asked to start and manage the Philanthropy team.
Five years later I was promoted to director of development. I now manage all our marketing and communication, philanthropy (mid and major gifts), and community development events.
In 12 years I’ve mobilized 20,000 volunteers in the greater Seattle area and beyond, led over 162 meal-packaging events, raised over $8 million dollars, packaged 2,524,112 meals, sponsored 837 children, recruited 276 short-term mission team members, and assembled 2,541 SmilePacks.
I’ve led teams to Malawi, Uganda, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and, yes, back to Sierra Leone. The photos I’ve taken have been featured in blog posts, social media, and emails seen by tens of thousands of people. We sponsor six children and have watched them grow up.
Children of the Nations provides holistic, Christ-centered care for 5,000 orphaned and destitute children every day, enabling them to create positive and lasting change in their nations.
Children who were once lost, alone, and afraid now have loving, caring homes. They are growing up to become doctors, teachers, pilots, lawyers standing up for justice, mothers and fathers, community advocates, world-changers!
Looking back now, I can see God was preparing my heart for missions as a boy growing up in a wonderful Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) church in Salem, Oregon. Carrying the values of my Mennonite heritage forward, honoring the tradition of my family, I stepped into a profession I never planned but that has been one of the best things in my life.
My SPU education
Seattle Pacific University let me explore my interests in philosophy, theology, theatre, and political science in an atmosphere of Christian thought with service to others as a central value.
I heard so many stories of successful people who had amazing careers that had nothing to do with their degree. As it turns out, I use my Communication degree every day.
I’m grateful for many of the professors I had at SPU, Dr. Cuneo, Dr. Purcell, and Dr. Ediger spring to mind, who saw a young, enthusiastic student with lots of ideas, and didn’t dissuade me, but encouraged me to ask tough questions and think big.
Looking back now, to my surprise, my formal college education and SPRINT trip gave me the direction I was looking for and set me on a trajectory towards an amazing career.
Thank you, SPU.
In the circuitous route of young people finding their way, I did not set out to attend SPU. I was just starting to feel confident about my place in high school by my senior year when my parents brought up the idea of college at the kitchen table one Saturday.
“Do you think I should go to college?” I asked them.
“Yes” they said, almost in unison.
My Dad felt like he had missed his calling to be an engineer, and grew up with his parents admiring R.G. LeTourneau, so the first and only college we visited was LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas. Since I didn’t know what college was, and had nothing to compare it to, it looked good to me.
I grew up in Oregon, which is in the United States, and I subconsciously reasoned that since Texas was also in the United States, it would be about the same. It was not. It was very different. My first year was filled with new friends and new experiences and culture shock.
After realizing what college was, and that there were other colleges out there, I began to seriously consider transferring. I visited SPU with my parents on Spring Break, and I was blown away. A full library with study rooms! In a major city with art and culture. A theatre department. Really good food. A really nice dorm. We walked into Emerson Hall, and my Dad exclaimed, “Wow, is this a college dorm or a ski lodge?”
I applied and was almost immediately accepted.
How my faith has grown
On the plane ride home from my first year of college at LeTourneau University, I picked O, The Oprah Magazine out of the seatback in front of me, mostly out of boredom. I got sucked into a long article about how women were horribly abused and treated in Afghanistan. I expected the article to wrap up with a happy ending “things are better now, things have changed, etc.” But it didn’t. The article just ended. All of these things are happening right now, I thought. Right now at this very moment, and God is watching it happen.
That set me on a path to dismantle the faith I had grown up with in the church and see if I could rebuild it. Suddenly all the Sunday school answers wouldn’t satisfy anymore.
Over the course of almost two years, I interviewed people about their faith and tried to find an answer to the problem of evil. I was shocked at how little most people had thought about it, if they had thought about it at all. I was even more shocked at the answers well-respected pastors and theologians gave. I began to get angry with God.
My weekly radio show on KSPU, “The Common Sense Hour with Fraser Ratzlaff,” started to move past irreverence and border on blasphemy. “If God’s so powerful and so good, why doesn’t he get off his ass and do something about it!!? He’s just watching children die of hunger. He’s watching kids get molested. He’s watching women get beaten and raped.”
In the spring of my junior year, my parents came to visit campus for a weekend. My dad could see that I was stuck, even if I couldn’t. “You need to drop out of school and travel to Europe in search of the answers you need, or you need to decide what you believe and move on.”
I knew he was right. I took a few days to seriously consider what I believed. There had to be a God. There was too much order in the world for this to happen by accident. This was by design. But who was that God or gods? Were they good? How could I know?
After a few more days, I realized I had made the decision intellectually, but not at the heart level. In the early evening, after dinner, I found the small chapel on the second floor of Emerson Hall, which almost no one knew about, and was almost always empty. I got down on my knees and prayed to the God I had grown up with. As soon as I started praying, I felt God rush back into my spirit. It was as if I had been slowly pushing him out over the past two years. Then I heard a voice, loud and clear, in my spirit: “I AM PLEASED WITH YOU.”
I was sobbing, snot pouring out of my nose and into the carpet. I had stepped out in faith, and God had met me there, confirming he was there, he was real, and that I already knew him.
I went for a walk through campus in a state of euphoria. Never had I felt more elated, and never had the world made more sense than in that moment.
My father would call it my spiritual graduation.
Highlights of my time at SPU
Being an A-type perfectionist, I was hovering nearby Dr. Purcell as he was grading papers in class. He got to mine, drew a star at the top and handed it to me. “How many points is this?” I asked. He smiled at me and gave me a thumbs up. “What does that mean?” I said. “How will this be counted toward my final grade?”
He looked at me and said “I’ve read a few good papers, and a lot of bad papers. But mostly I’ve read papers that didn’t say anything.”
That moment taught me to think beyond grades and meeting requirements. To think bigger about what I believe and how to communicate that well.
My senior year I was in a debate class, and Dr. Purcell had us team up in pairs to debate two sides of an issue. I was paired up with Chase, and we were given the topic of homosexuality. Chase happened to be gay.
After quickly discovering the SPU Library did not have the books we needed for the subject, Chase and I embarked off-campus to the University of Washington library, which had too many books.
Over lunch I suggested we do a practice run-through of the debate; I would argue for homosexuality, and he would argue against it. He said OK, and I dove in, laying out the points in about five minutes. He was heartily agreeing with me and then I said, OK, your turn. He laughed and shook his head, “I can’t do it!” he said with a big smile on his face.
I think I remember us getting a good grade on the project, but that conversation at lunch taught me the value and importance of understanding the other person’s perspective and even being able to argue from their point of view.
My time in the program was edifying. I learned a lot about public speaking, debate, marketing, writing, and how to communicate. It was really the Communication program within the whole SPU experience that helped me and set me up for success in my career and life.
I was able to graduate in four years, even as a transfer student. I lived in France for a quarter and was able to have all those credits count toward my degree. SPU allowed me to try out many subjects to see whether I was interested. I was able to get a basic college-level understanding of many fields that have helped shape my worldview and build a career. I took classes with good and sometimes great professors in psychology, philosophy, theology, theater, French, business, political science, and even astronomy on Blakely Island.
I received a true liberal arts degree, and I am grateful to all the students, staff, and professors who helped me along the way.
A conversation with Dr. Ediger
After reading a Noam Chomsky book, I was horrified that America could have done so many atrocious things. I marched into the office of Dr. Ruth Ediger, tossed the book on her desk, and said “Did we really do all this stuff?” She calmly looked down at the book and said, “Yes.”
Outraged, I said, “Well, then, I’m leaving. I can’t be part of a country that has done these things.”
“Where are you planning to go?” she asked.
“I don’t know, I hadn’t seriously thought about it until now. I guess if I had to live in another country, I would choose France, because I know the language.”
Without hesitation, she began listing off the atrocities France had committed throughout history.
“OK,” I said, surprised but not deterred, “I’ll go to England.”
Without glancing at a book, she started listing off unimaginable acts of brutality committed by England.
“OK,” I said, disgusted. “Then I’ll go live on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific.”
“Then how will you be able to be ‘in the world but not of the world’?” she asked.
I was stunned. I had walked into her office five minutes earlier ready to leave the country if what I had just read was true.
Now I was walking back to my dorm room with a lot to think about.
I was so impressed with Dr. Ediger’s knowledge and understanding of history, her availability (she was actually in her office and had time for me), her empathy (she took me seriously), and her kindness.