When Andrew Ryskamp was a child growing up in rural Wyoming, Ontario, he could not leave home because of terrible homesickness. Since then, he has traveled thousands and thousands of miles over a 41-year career with World Renew, the last 17 of which he has served as its U.S. director. He will retire on July 1. World Renew is the relief and development agency of the Christian Reformed Church.
Ryskamp joined the organization, known then as Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), in 1974, working in Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Sierra Leone.
When Ryskamp talks about his work, it’s all about the stories. He recounted an experience he had a few weeks earlier sitting in a community in Kenya where annual rainfall has gone from 400 ml (15.7 inches) 20 years ago to 100 ml (3.9 inches) today. “We introduced a conservation agriculture approach that allows moisture to be retained and crops to do well,” he said. “The concept behind that is the biblical teaching of being God’s stewards and producing [food] for their neighbors.” Ryskamp said the spokesperson at that community meeting is the leader of 100 farmers in the area. “They start the meeting with prayer and end the meeting with prayer. You’re just so blessed to the see the physical and spiritual impact on the community.”
Ryskamp said that World Renew’s focus on community development is unique because it builds on resources already in communities. “We can do that because of the support we get from the churches and donors,” he said. “It allows us to work patiently with communities, and that is the most effective. It doesn’t assume that knowledge and technology from the west will save these communities.”
“Sometimes people suggest that there are many organizations out there, and so do we really need World Renew? While there are many good organizations, many of their programs are driven more by the desires of the donors and marketing expectations than the needs and resources of the communities.”
But, he said, conveying that effectiveness is always difficult. “When we do our synod report, as an example, a common reaction we get is, ‘How come we didn’t know about this?’” He wishes he could sit down and have a coffee time with every congregation, just to tell those stories.
Media coverage of relief agencies increases whenever there is a natural disaster, and World Renew is no exception because it is often on the front lines of cleanup and recovery. Ryskamp has seen his share of those during his career: two major droughts in East Africa, Hurricanes Andrew, Hugo, Katrina, and Mitch, along with the tsunami in Asia, the earthquake in Haiti, Superstorm Sandy on the U.S. east coast, and most recently Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in the Philippines.
While the disasters are higher profile, Ryskamp said it is the lower-profile community development that makes communities less prone to natural disasters and more resilient when they do come.
Always More to Do
Ryskamp said there is always a need to do more. “The frustration is in knowing you have a program that gets at the heart of physical and spiritual transformation needed in our world,” he said. “Having then to say no and watch the impact on staff and people in need is hard. For instance, seeing the current work in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan halted because of insufficient funding impacts us as well as the refugees we seek to serve."
Does he ever feel that in the face of such overwhelming need, the work is like spitting into the ocean? “You only have to visit a few communities to realize you are not,” he said, referring back to his recent experience in Kenya. “We work hard at tracking impact, so we can look at this one community and say, ‘This impact is now happening in over 2,000 communities.’ That’s something to celebrate!”
He’s seen huge changes in his time at the helm of World Renew, not the least of which was the organization’s name change. “The change has given us access to working with other networks, with governments, with young people for whom denominationalism is just another ‘ism.’”
He said one of the biggest gifts he has received is being surrounded with people like Ida Mutoigo, World Renew-Canada’s director, and Wayne DeJong, just recently retired after heading up World Renew’s disaster response team. “Making that binational piece function well is a gift the Lord has allowed me to enjoy,” he said.
He doesn’t know yet what retirement will bring for him. He still wants to serve the church, whether at a denominational level or in his local congregation, Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, Mich. But, he said, family will be a high priority. “I travel 25 percent of the time. That’s 10 years away from family,” he said.
That’s a lot of time away for a kid who once couldn’t leave home.