Rodale and Renate Emken

On the power of friendship, chickens and giving
by Jo Ann Dollard

When you talk to Rodale and Renate Emken, donors to The Campaign for the ELCA, you are reminded that giving, at its best and most meaningful, is about building a genuine relationship that grows over time.

The Emkens themselves are a beautiful example of that. They met 56 years ago at an army base outside of Nuremberg, Germany, where Rodale was stationed. Renate was born in Karlsbad, Sudentenland (now part of the Czech Republic), and raised in Nuremberg.

Rodale and Renate met at a dance on the base. “Elvis Presley was playing on the jukebox,” Rodale remembered. A year later, in 1960, they married, and then moved from Nuremberg to Rodale’s native Nebraska.

Renate grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and Rodale in the Christian Church. After they married, “We had to find a church home together,” said Renate. After visiting several churches, they settled on the Lutheran Church and have been very happy with their choice.

The couple settled in Holdrege, a Swedish farming community of 5,500 in south central Nebraska, where they raised three daughters. For 40 years, Rodale owned Emken Bookkeeping and Tax Service and also held a variety of positions in city and county government, including serving as mayor. After their daughters were grown, Renate worked as a loan officer for the Federal Farm Administration.

Rodale and Renate are members of Spirit of Grace Lutheran Church, a mission church in Holdrege. In 2010, the couple took their first trip with the Nebraska Synod to Tanzania, a country in East Africa known for its vast wilderness.

After their first trip, “I said I’d never go back,” Rodale recalled. He changed his mind. “In 2012, we went back and have been going back ever since.” You could say they have a pretty special relationship with the people there. He explained, “That’s why we go back.”

Rodale and Renate’s connection to Tanzania has grown deep. They are involved with two parishes there, including Kiruweni Parish in Mwika, Spirit of Grace’s sister congregation, and KIA Lutheran Parish, which serves the Maasai people.

Besides projects funded through their home congregation, like adding windows, doors and floors to Kiruweni’s new church, the couple have initiated their own personal philanthropy efforts. During one of their visits, the pastor announced they needed funds so that each of the women could have two chickens. Immediately, Renate placed a gift in the offering plate. “She became an instant friend to all the ladies,” Rodale recalled. This simple gift has been both transformational and self-sustaining, allowing the women to have an income from selling eggs so they can send their children to school. The couple also contributes scholarship assistance for the pastors’ sons, Baraka and Calvin, and textbooks in honor of their family members — called the “Textbooks for Tanzania” project.

Renate explained, “When we go to Tanzania, I experience the deep faith of the people there. We go to church with them, we stay in their homes, we eat with them. They have so little, yet they really, really believe.” She added, “I tell you, when I go over there and I come home again, I feel so blessed because I really feel they’re giving me something so much more than I can give them financially.” During the year, Rodale, Renate and Pastor Mlay (Kiruweni Parish) and Pastor Lyamuya (KIA Lutheran Parish) stay in touch, exchanging frequent emails.

Inspired by a meeting with Bishop Eaton last fall, the Emkens also made a gift to the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program, a one-year international service learning opportunity for young adults. Their gift has enabled one young man to serve on the island nation of Madagascar.

“With our background in Tanzania and Madagascar kind of being [in that part of the world], we thought it was a nice fit,” Rodale said.

Of their motivation to give, Renate shared, “When I grew up, it was after the war and we really didn’t have very much. When Rodale and I started out, we didn’t either. …we are now at the level where we can give. I thank God for all the blessings that he has bestowed on us and I just wanted to share that.”

Rodale added, “My folks were always very giving and always said you should give back to society and I guess I’ve always had that philosophy. Renate has that same philosophy, too. I enjoy serving and helping people.”

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