Goshen professor lives out faith through informatics

Kent Palmer is naturally ambidextrous, at least when it comes to using a computer mouse. The four computer monitors in his office flicker numbers and letters foreign to the common eye, yet Palmer navigates them with the fluidity of a skilled painter, his right hand dragging, his left hand clicking.

He pauses momentarily to point at the third monitor: “Right now, I’m setting up an iPhone app that will calculate imaginary numbers and complex fractions.”

Two of these computers are propped up on stacks of heavy books with titles like “Computer Networks and Internets,” “The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening” and “Fundamentals of Generative Medicine.” Kent Palmer is a man of many talents; he’s also an associate professor of informatics at Goshen College.

It doesn’t take much to see that Palmer takes his job seriously. “Most nights I’m here until 2 or 3 in the morning,” Palmer said. “Technology keeps moving. My students keep finding ways to connect online. I’ve got to keep up.”

When conversation turns to informatics, his eyes light up. “OK,” he said, settling into his desk chair. “On a very basic level, informatics is applying computer technology to real-life problems.”

More specifically, informatics studies the structure and behavior of systems that store, process, and communicate information.  In Palmer’s case, informatics led him into the world of nonprofit organizations.

Over the span of his career, Palmer has devoted more than 15 years to church organizations and nonprofit agencies. His passion for social justice started at an early age. In high school, Palmer organized recycling projects in his neighborhood, a suburb of Jacksonville, Ill.

“I was a pretty disciplined child,” he said. “I took my studies seriously, especially when it came to environmental conservation.”  In fact, a large part of Palmer’s decision to go to the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, for his undergraduate studies was its advanced environmental studies program.

After finishing a master’s degree in environmental administration, Palmer settled in Americus, Ga., at Koinonia Partners, an intentional community and the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity International. He was originally hired as the onsite gardener, but happily switched to  computer networking roles when there was a need.

Over the next 10 years, Palmer taught himself the basics of JavaScript, firewalls and networking hubs, eventually developing a fundraising software to support the growing organization.

During his time at Koinonia Partners in the 1980s, Palmer was among the first to protest the School of the Americas, an international military training facility near Fort Benning. “It used to be a monthly event,” he said. “Around 10 of us would stand outside the gate and pray as soldiers passed in and out.”

The military base now attracts hundreds of protestors for an annual march in November. “I don’t go now because of the crowds,” he said.

These days, Palmer addresses social justice issues mostly from behind his desk. He manages websites as a network volunteer and forum administrator. One of the sites, Eat Right for Your Type, offers support and advice for people with specific food allergies and dietary needs. “I joined that after a bout with food poisoning in California,” he said.

In the virtual world, Palmer is known as “C_sharp.” “It’s a general-purpose, object-oriented programming language,” he said. “Not to be mistaken for a music reference.”

He also maintains a translation website for the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi mystic. Although raised Presbyterian, Palmer has worshipped in a variety of faith traditions: a Quaker church during his undergraduate studies, a start-up Mennonite church in Americus and a Baptist community while he was teaching computer science at Wingate University in North Carolina.

Since settling in Goshen, though, Palmer has chosen Assembly Mennonite Church as his regular place of worship. “I align myself more closely with the peace churches,” he said. “Maybe even more on the mystic side than most Mennonites are comfortable with.” Palmer cited a number of Christian mystics that he enjoys reading, such as Jim Marion, Saint Teresa of Ávila and Julian of Norwich.

Though deeply spiritual, Palmer is glad he did not pursue divinity school. “I think I’d be fine with vocal ministry behind the pulpit, but when it comes to interpersonal connecting and the counseling aspects, well, I just don’t think that’s my calling,” he said.

Within the Goshen College community, Palmer has found ways to live out his faith while connecting with his students. He regularly attends student-led Taize services as well as Zumba workouts. “I’d prefer Dances of Universal Peace, but Zumba works too,” he said.

Still in progress, the iPhone app on the computer screen is blinking. An error message pops up and Palmer clicks around for a moment. “I’m hoping to get the kinks figured out tonight. Tomorrow, my students get to try this out for themselves.” He tips his head back slightly to avoid the glare of his thick bifocals, and goes to work.

By Mary Roth

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Written by Matthew Amstutz

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