Harvey Yoder to retire from his job … but not from his activism 

A composite image with a headshot of a man and the webpage of a blog called Harvspot
Community activist Harvey Yoder, 84, is retiring from his counseling role but will continue to make his voice heard, including on his blog Harvspot. (Headshot provided by Harvey Yoder)

Harvey Yoder, 84, is finally retiring … sort of.

Yoder—a soft-spoken Mennonite pastor, activist, blogger and newspaper columnist in Harrisonburg—is stepping down March 18 from his day job as counselor at the Family Life Resource Center.

He joined the agency in 1988, a year after it was established by Virginia Mennonite Conference. He’s treated individuals, couples and families, and wrote the book “Lasting Marriage: The Owner’s Manual.”

“I’ve had a great life,” he says, and quotes his father: “Try to live simply and give generously.”

Injustice, found locally or globally, is fuel for his frequent columns in the Daily News-Record and his prolific blogging at harvyoder.blogspot.com. The price he pays for taking a stand is the insulting responses from some readers who label him as “insane … crazy.” Recently, the top essay on his home page was titled “Has There Ever Been So Much Polarization, Violence, And Insanity In Our Country?”

“While many folks become less ‘radical’ with age, Harvey’s commitment to justice and peacebuilding have grown in his later years,” says Daryl Byler, the son of a pastor Yoder once worked under. “Harvey is transparent, vulnerable and caring.” 

Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson said even though he and Yoder have different perspectives, he respects Yoder.

“It’s safe to say we do not agree on many things at all,” Hutcheson said. “So often in our society today, it is assumed that if you do not agree on a topic then there has to be animosity, or we have to be enemies. He truly is the exception to that and has set a great example.”

Yoder’s to-do list is still long. He’ll continue as part-time counselor at the new women’s quarters of the Gemeinschaft halfway house, filling in until a permanent counselor can be hired. He remains chairman of the Valley Justice Coalition. He’ll still serve as pastor or in some leading role at Family of Hope Mennonite House Church. He’ll continue as founding member of Valley Interfaith Action (“Now our focus is transportation and childcare,” Yoder said). He’ll keep advocating for legislation to establish a local public defender’s office. And he’ll continue as Daily News-Record columnist and blogger.

“Retirement is a long time coming,” he says with a straight face. 

“He’s always been too busy,” says his wife, Alma Jean. “Once … I counted 13 different committees and groups he was involved in.”            

Phil Kniss, senior pastor at Park View Mennonite Church, was in Yoder’s Bible class at Eastern Mennonite High School and was moved by his “gentle and authentic manner.”

He says Yoder “shows a willingness to engage respectfully with people across the spectrum” on touchy issues such as military buildups and unbridled affluence.

Kniss recalls a simple but powerful idea Yoder offered several years ago: Why not staff a table outside the annual Mennonite relief auction to collect cash or checks as direct relief for refugees?

“Over the years, it gathered steam,” Kniss said. “In 2023, the take was $34,000. That’s nearly 10% of the [auction’s] whole take.”

Yoder grew up Amish in Kansas as the youngest of nine and the only survivor today. The family moved from Kansas to Augusta County, Virginia.

He names his seventh-grade teacher and principal as his greatest influences, because they encouraged him to go to college. That’s “something no one in my [religious] community would even consider. Otherwise, I’d be working on the farm.”

At Eastern Mennonite High School, he taught social studies and the Bible, and his future wife taught home economics.     

A photo of a woman and man together
Harvey and Alma Jean Yoder will celebrate their 60th anniversary in August. (Photo courtesy of Harvey Yoder)

He briefly served as a principal at Western Mennonite High School in Oregon, after which he was a dual-career teacher and pastor, at Zion Mennonite Church near Broadway. 

Now living in Park Village at the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community, he walks about a mile a day and tends his 9-by-60-foot vegetable garden. His knees can still take it. 

In 2019 he had triple bypass surgery and months later felt a nodule in his left jaw, which triggered 21 radiation treatments.

He and Alma Jean will celebrate their 60th anniversary in August.

“I don’t remember any time in my life that I’ve felt better.”

One injustice that consumes Yoder lately is punitive and undeserved treatment of inmates, such as denying parole when they’ve done everything they can to rehabilitate themselves. He’ll be working on that, too.

“My daughter once gave me a St. Jude candle, St. Jude being the patron saint of lost causes, in recognition of all the many things I have championed that were far from successful.”

“I have one life,” he says, “doing whatever to try to make a difference. That’s what keeps me from losing hope. I can sleep better at night knowing I’m at least doing something.”

Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Yoder was not a founder of the Family Life Resource Center.

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