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Katie Toop Named 2019 Alumna of the Year for the College of Arts & Sciences

Almost two decades ago, Katie Toop '00 was a physics major aspiring to land a stable, well-paying job and steer clear of the overseas ministry work that runs in her family. She had a plan, but God had a different one—and now her work is transforming communities all over the world.

By Jenny Hudalla '15, senior content specialist

August 14, 2019 | 4 p.m.

Bethel University Alumna of the Year Katie Toop

Alumna of the Year Katie Toop '00 has become something of a cultural chameleon, learning local languages and customs as she carries out community development work in countries like Afghanistan, Kenya, South Sudan, and Sri Lanka.

Katie Toop was traveling down a bumpy road in Sri Lanka when she watched the ground explode in front of her. The military vehicle she had been following was the target of a remotely detonated explosive device, and if her car had been even a few yards closer she probably would have become yet another casualty in the country’s decades-long civil war.

It was a curious place to find herself, considering Toop had always known exactly what she didn’t want to do with her life: international ministry work. Having grown up with family who lived and served overseas, she thought someone ought to stay stateside, get a stable job, and make a decent wage. But God had other plans. “The Lord made it really clear that He wanted me to go, and I thought it was better to be uncomfortable than disobedient,” Toop says. “In that moment on the road, I realized just how much I’d grown.”

Recently named Alumna of the Year for Bethel University’s College of Arts & Sciences, Toop has worked in some of the most unstable parts of the world, including South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Kenya. She’s slept underneath bug nets, cooked over charcoal, and lived without electricity—all while helping architect initiatives to bring clean water, education, and sustainable food sources to underserved communities. For the self-proclaimed introvert from Seattle, it’s hardly the lifestyle she had imagined. “At some point I decided to just go and trust the Lord,” Toop says. “Since that first assignment in Sri Lanka, it’s been one step of faith after another into the next adventure.” 

Now the director of transformational development for World Concern—a Christian global relief agency headquartered in Seattle—Toop oversees specific programming and project design, develops staff training and curriculum, and sets a strategic vision for community development work. While she has borne witness to much of the world’s injustice and oppression, she has also seen narratives of hope and redemption that embolden her to continue serving the world’s forgotten.

“It was during my undergraduate years at Bethel that God really started to turn my heart toward the poor,” says Toop, who majored in physics before going on to earn a master’s degree in water and environmental management. “I took a course called Christian Perspectives on Global Peacemaking, and our first textbook was Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I was convicted just by the title, and I began to realize that to live a life of worship is also to care for the poor.”

That’s what Toop has been doing for more than 15 years, and she has the stories to prove it. Some are heartwarming, like the time an Afghan man set aside cultural norms and wept at the wisdom in Proverbs. Others resurrect past trauma, like the time Toop remained on the phone for hours trying to comfort a friend who had been held at gunpoint by armed intruders in South Sudan. But one moment in particular has shaped Toop’s life and ministry more than any other.

Bethel University Alumna of the Year Katie Toop serves in Afghanistan.

Hundreds of miles into the desert, this little Afghan village is one of many places Toop has visited to deliver water treatment training and hygiene education.

It was Ramadan—a holy month of fasting, prayer, and reflection celebrated by Muslims worldwide—and Toop had traveled several hours into the Afghan desert to administer a water treatment training. Tasked with delivering information correctly in the villagers’ native Dari language, Toop was so focused on the effectiveness of her teaching that she was hardly prepared for what came next. As she wrote down the names of those in attendance, an older woman seated at the back of the room grabbed Toop’s hand and asked if she could write down the name of her daughter, who had recently died. “It was such a defining moment for me,” Toop says, “because I realized that one of the most significant things I can do is to see people, know their names, give witness to their stories, and let them know that there is a God who sees them and knows their name.”

It’s a truth Toop repeats to herself often, even as the fragmented nature of nomadic life has acquainted her with a certain kind of loneliness. She’s been away from her family for a year at a time, missed the funerals of close friends in the United States, and grieved alone during the burials of coworkers killed in the line of service overseas. Her work can be painful and costly, but the community she has cultivated across the globe energizes and encourages her to keep her eyes trained on a higher purpose. 

“I fall in love with people wherever I go,” Toop says. “I can envision myself in so many different corners of the world, sitting with people who won’t be known and celebrated on a grand scale but who are precious and priceless in the eyes of the Lord. I want people to come away thinking, ‘Wow, Katie really believes that God loves me—and she told me all the time.’”

Nominate the 2020 Alumni of the Year!

Every year, Bethel honors three outstanding alumni. If you know an incredible alum who deserves to be recognized, let us know! Nominations are accepted year-round and remain in consideration for three years.

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