Discerning what's special

Everyday Stewardship |

One couple constructs a different kind of wealth

Robert and Esther in their house

Esther and Robert Mast recently set up an endowment to help "the poor and the lost of this planet." Photography by Rhea Anna.

By all rights, Robert W. Mast shouldn’t have just celebrated his 80th birthday. Robert burst upon the scene in Tidewater, Va., two months prematurely, weighing less than 3 pounds. His parents were told he wouldn’t live through the night. Virginia “slept little and prayed a lot.” Robert didn’t listen to the doctor.

“Mother told me early that ‘God has something special in mind for you,’” Robert recalled. “I have tried to discern that ‘something’ all along.” Recently, he and his wife, Esther, started a new venture that may be part of that special something.

A profound change in Robert’s life came at age 13, on a carpentry job, when he saw his father accidentally plunge to his death.

“This loss was devastating,” Robert said. “As the oldest child, I took on formidable responsibility to help Mother. We lived frugally, but our church reached out to help.” Robert worked evenings and Saturdays on a dairy farm and later learned carpentry.

Family obligations kept Robert from continuing his education after high school, but he completed his civilian alternative service.

Esther, now 74, said she also experienced serious struggles while growing up. But she chooses to remember “the miraculous leading of the Lord” along life’s pathway.

Coming from a non-religious background, she said that becoming a Christian at age 14 was one of the most influential events in her life – as was meeting Robert four years later. “He was a gift from God – as was the church community,” she said.

The couple married in 1959 and moved to Ontario, where Robert attended a Bible institute. Soon after graduating, he was tapped on the shoulder. Deep Creek Mennonite Church, Chesapeake, Va., needed a pastor – would he come? He did, serving the congregation 10 years while working as a self-employed builder. “We were given property by a church member and built a house for $8,000, which we later sold for considerably more,” Robert said.

The couple moved to Harrisonburg, where Robert served five years as home mission representative at Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions and completed his bachelor’s degree. Robert and Esther then moved to Chesapeake, Va., where he became pastor of their home congregation, Mount Pleasant Mennonite. He later earned a master’s degree in church ministries. At that time, property they owned in Virginia accrued in value.

The heavy workload took its toll in 1987. Robert was admitted to a hospital for depression. He spent time in therapy, followed by recuperation, and experienced later episodes as well.

“My depression humbled me and enabled me to better understand the frailness of human life, starting with myself,” Robert stated. “It opened my eyes to discover depression in four generations of my family.

“God has healed me wonderfully along with daily medication,” he added. “I give thanks that God has freed me to be a happy old man.”

They became involved as volunteers. Their interest in Mennonite Central Committee was sparked by the organization’s portable canner that came to Chesapeake annually to pack meat for international relief. Later, Robert and Esther took their grandchildren to volunteer at MCC’s headquarters.

Mast family walking outside

Robert and Esther recently moved to New York to be close to their daughters.

They have volunteered with Robert’s sisters and spouses for 15 Mennonite Disaster Service housing reconstruction projects. He recalls once installing heavy 12-foot pieces of drywall on ceilings with his sisters. “What a day that was!” he smiled.

After Robert served as a Mennonite conference overseer in 1990-2000, and in jail ministry much of this period, he retired.

While many seniors move to warmer climes, Robert and Esther uprooted from Chesapeake last year and resettled near Buffalo, N.Y. The obvious reason: to be closer to their daughters and their families. They continue to volunteer and travel, including soon to Turkey.

“I am realistic about my mortality,” Robert said. “I’m taking a cue from my late uncle and plan to build my own casket.” That’s rather significant resolve from someone who fought as a babe to see the light of day.

Jim Bishop, Harrisonburg, Va., is a writer, photographer, speaker and disc jockey and attends Community Mennonite Church.

An endowment gives back

When Robert and Esther Mast married, they owned a 1955 Ford and $2,000. “First priorities were our marriage, raising three daughters and the work to which God was calling us,” said Robert.

And their definition of “wealth” focused on relationships: “Next to Christ and the church, people are most important. We have a passion for the poor and the lost of this planet.”

The couple recently worked with Everence to establish the Mast Family Mission Endowment Fund to benefit programs close to their heart.

“They are so appreciative of how others have supported them early on, and this has become a way for them to return that benevolence,” noted Joseph L. Lapp, Managing Director of the Everence Harrisonburg office and Charitable Services Representative.

“Important to our life journey has been our many wonderful friends. We love them all,” Robert said. “The generous friends and family who shared gifts with us that accrued in value over the years has enabled us to plan with Everence.”

To learn more about charitable gift choices, contact your denomination or local Everence office or visit everence.com/charitable-services.

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Jim Bishop