Remembering Peter Borgdorff

Commentary
Peter Borgdorff, Photo courtesy Wes Granberg-Michaelson

From Jim Wallis, President and Founder of Sojourners:

Our dear friend Peter Borgdorff died early Monday morning. Peter had been diagnosed with brain cancer but went more quickly than any of us expected. We are stunned by the loss of Peter but so deeply grateful for all he gave to all of us, to the church, and to the biblical message of justice, which he loved and always fought for. Peter Borgdorff was a pioneering leader in the Christian Reformed Church and the global communion of Reformed churches all over the world, as Wes Granberg-Michaelson shares in his statement below to the CRC and global Christian communions.

But we at Sojourners were especially blessed to have Peter’s leadership for 26 years on the board of Sojourners and, before that, Call to Renewal, which we and he helped found on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable. That was a deep passion for Peter, for those left outside that Jesus told us to bring inside.

Peter was a business person, an executive leader who was called to the ministry. So he brought all those skills and that competence to the churches and to faith-based organizations like Sojourners. He was core to the Sojourners fiscal responsibility, always asking the hard and important questions; he literally responded with approval to an audit committee e-mail just days ago. I never wanted to do things in our organization without Peter’s approval.

But what most often struck me about Peter was not just his competence but his courage — to stand up for what was right and against what was wrong, to stand for the marginal and oppressed, and against the politics of injustice and violence. Those things made him mad and ready to act. Peter was always ready to stand up for social justice, and even against the cowardly social conformity of the churches.

Peter so exemplified everything I believe about what it means to be a Christian — and a Christian not afraid to lead with the gospel. He was unique and beloved by so many of us. Peter was really one of my favorite people on the planet. His gifts to Sojourners and to me personally were immeasurable. His consistent competence and good judgment were bedrock for us as an organization. But finally he always took the time to make sure we were all OK, showing real personal support for me and other members of the staff. I will miss him very much, but his courageous, generous, and gentle spirit will stay with me and us forever.

I looked up indomitable today because that’s a word that came to me about Peter. The dictionary definition used words like “impossible to subdue or defeat, unconquerable, unassailable, unshakable, unsinkable.” That was Peter Borgdorff: an indomitable child of God who lived that way both in life and in death.

Peter was one of the 22 “elders” who signed the Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisiswhich will be launched this first week of the Pentecost season. He was very keen to join this effort that asked what it means to say “Jesus is Lord” at a time like this. Peter always wanted to ask that question. So it is fitting that the last thing Peter Borgdorff signed was a basically theological statement aimed at the moral and political crisis at the highest levels of power that this nation is now facing — a declaration that lifted up importance of truth-telling; defending the poor, the vulnerable, and women: refusing racism because of the image of God; lifting up servant leadership over tyranny and reminding us that the body of Christ is a global community that puts no nation first. What does come first, the declaration says, is our identity as followers of Jesus Christ, which was always what came first for Peter Borgdorff. Peter becomes the first those elders to pass. Well done, thou good and faithful servant. 

Janet and the whole Borgdorff family are in our prayers. We are keeping them and the countless number of people Peter touched in vigil these days. 

From Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson, Chair of the Board for Sojourners and General Secretary Emeritus, Reformed Church in America:

Peter Borgdorff was a giant. The impact of his faithful ministry extended not only throughout the Christian Reformed Church in North America, but across the world. Peter was a global church stateman, representing the best of the Reformed tradition, and always seeking new bridges for unity and mission in the body of Christ.

It was my privilege to know Peter as a church leader, an ecumenical partner, and a deeply treasured friend. I witnessed his service in three primary ways.

First, Peter was a strong advocate for healing the wounds and building a closer relationship between the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. The promising possibilities that will be explored when our two synods meet together in early June would have been impossible without Peter’s pioneering work begun years ago. For Peter, the commitment to unity in the body of Christ had no integrity if it didn’t begin close to home. He began there. During that time, Peter and I met monthly from breakfast at Bob Evans, sharing our journeys and brainstorming about how our two denominations could grow closer together for our common witness and mission.

Second, among many boards and groups, Peter served faithfully on the Board of Directors of Sojourners, with its persistent witness for God’s justice in the world. This came out of Peter’s deep commitment to the whole gospel of Christ. He and I served together supporting the ministry of Sojourners for years. Peter loved this engagement, never tiring of his desire to express a courageous witness expressing God’s love for the poor and marginalized, and the gospel’s imperative for racial healing and reconciliation.

Third, Peter worked tirelessly for unity and shared mission in the worldwide Reformed family, and beyond. He was a stalwart leader in the Reformed Ecumenical Council. But he then led the CRC into membership in the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Few know how Peter was indispensable in the process that then gave birth to the new, unified World Communion of Reformed Churches, inaugurated at the General Council held in Grand Rapids in 2010. The WCRC now includes 233 member denominations in 110 countries with 100 million people. Peter continued to serve on its Executive Committee, and this vibrant Reformed global witness owes Peter a deep debt of gratitude for being instrumental in its birth and ongoing witness.

Personally, Peter Borgdorff was more than a trusted colleague. He became a close friend, whose counsel, encouragement, and support was a gift of God. My wife Karin and I came to know Janet and many members of his wonderful family. With them, we grieve deeply the loss of Peter, celebrate his life, and entrust them all to the eternal mercies of God’s grace and love.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new Audible spoken-word series, Jim Wallis In Conversation, is available now, as is his book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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