Tanya Gertz

“Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.” —Rainer Maria Rilke

My journey is a story less about knowing the right answers and more about asking faithful questions. I see vocation as something woven through the details, which helped me to make choices and develop my sense of self along the way. The choices didn’t always make sense to others, and I wasn’t always sure of them. In the end, it seems that the vocation part is in learning to honor the character of person we are, the people placed in our lives, and the opportunities we didn’t expect.

In my senior year of college, I was set to graduate with a B.S. in psychology with two minors—theology and gender studies. The minors were the outcome of taking extra classes that connected to my sense of faith and community. However, one of these classes uprooted my plan to pursue advanced degree programs and the Fulbright Scholar program related to psychology research. I felt a growing desire to work with those who were the victims of America’s systemic injustice and wanted to do a year of service. I applied to the Lutheran Volunteer Corps and was accepted, and then my parents realized that I actually intended to do it. The idea was not entirely surprising. Throughout high school and college, I had participated in service trips to Appalachia and Mexico. However, choosing to spend my first year out of college serving the less fortunate and living at the poverty level was not exactly my parents’ idea of a grand college outcome. Their apprehension affected me, and I didn’t go. Instead, I began an intense “regular” job writing behavioral programming for autistic adults. After a year, I was exhausted and still seeking.

That same year, I led a group of students on a Mexico service trip through my home church. After returning, I remember my dad responding with a chuckle that he was surprised to see me so happy after 10 days with high school students and shoveling concrete by hand. This experience encouraged me to again apply to Lutheran Volunteer Corps. I was accepted and placed in Chicago’s AIDS Pastoral Care Network, an interfaith organization that connected persons living with AIDS and their families to spiritual support. It seemed to be a better fit with all of my college education than I could have created if I tried—and certainly would have never guessed. I was inspired. My parents could tell and supported me. I began a year of volunteer service with people who lived each day with AIDS, histories of addiction, and exclusion from the church, all seeking to connect. I experienced a bit of their discrimination in our world, simply by sharing with others what I did and seeing their reactions to it. Due to a grant, this was the only year that AIDS Pastoral Care Network had a volunteer. There are occasions, when timing makes our connections, when I can’t help but wonder about the concept of “meant to be.” I thrived in my work, spent a good deal of time seeing the world through the eyes of a wide variety of people, and became committed to an active and inclusive faith.

After my volunteer year, I took a position as a full-time staff member. One day an AIDS Pastoral Care Network volunteer shared that he had just met someone who reminded him of me, and he thought we’d work very well together. I wrote her a letter and six months later I was working for Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s foundation, where I worked with development boards to put on many big-ticket fund-raising events. I was excited by this new chapter but at the beginning wondered whether I had lost my sense of service. What I found was that I could transfer and build on the skills and understanding of others from my earlier roles. Plus, I was able to continue my education by working on a certificate of nonprofit management and philanthropy. I was still serving but in a different way—God was growing me and working within this community too.

And then good golly, I fell in love. My now-husband, Faust, and I had been together already for a couple years when he was offered a position here at Luther. Then, just before filling his U-Haul to move to Iowa, he proposed. A year later, we decided to both be in Decorah. When we made that decision, I felt a strong sense of call to this place, but I was still unsure how I would be called to connect to the community.

Luther College is now a part of that connection. As the director of campus programming, I see myself serving the students of Luther and our community as a whole. My heart responds to the concept of connecting life’s work with service and freedom with responsibility, as stated in Luther’s vision statement. And, just as I believe in an inclusive faith, I am committed to accessible and inclusive performing arts in my work. I have been fortunate to incorporate the arts that I have always deeply enjoyed and valued in my employment.

Instead of entering a specific profession by following a determined plan, I have served each role in my life by seeking to be true to me and building upon the experiences I have gained in other settings. Throughout everything that I have done—whether educating congregations about HIV or coordinating a myriad of event details—I have sought to honor and value people and opportunities around me. I believe that how we decide to respond to situations is where our vocation is truly lived.

There are many times when I was unsettled in my heart because I wasn’t sure about a particular choice or step. I always wanted to know if I was making the “right” choice. In my head, I would hear the messages of American culture defining what success was, the voices of expectations, and my own wonders about whether a choice would narrowly constrain me. These are real apprehensions especially in our world today. I think the challenge is being able to discern through the many messages to find the authentic voice within us, the God- created contours of our character and our gifts. I have come to realize that a particular job choice or decision does not define who we are—even though the first question one is often asked is “What do you do?” I think vocation is related to our employment, but it is also connected to how we make the choices along our journey, how we approach opportunities, and investing ourselves in what we value.

Perhaps this is how, as Rilke says, we live into the answers.

Tanya Gertz