When you peel back the layers, the peak of the hippie movement was truly one of the most peculiar periods of western history. Amidst the shift into a post-WWII society emerged a group of nomadic, eco-friendly, long-haired folks travelling the globe styled in bright, flashy colours. Conrad Grebel University College alumnus Ruth (Richardson) Ragovin was no stranger to this movement. Before she arrived at Grebel in 1975, she was driving across continents in a Volkswagen van. Coined as the Hippie Trail, Ruth started in Germany and made her way well into Asia before her trip was cut short from a near-death experience in Nepal.

Ruth did much of her early schooling in Germany, until the age of 15 when she dropped out. With nothing but a bag and boyfriend by her side, she set out to see the world. She travelled through Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan.  

When she arrived in India, as an American passport holder, she wasn’t allowed to stay. Instead, she detoured to its neighbor, Nepal. With her boyfriend now out of the picture, Ruth was stranded in Kathmandu where she became extremely sick. She was rushed to the hospital, but road closures had led to a severe shortage of medical supplies and antibiotics. “I was in the hospital for two weeks near death,” she said. “My body wasn’t fighting it off and I had this near-death experience that changed my life. It was just how people describe it, with the whole tunnel of light, except I also felt surrounded by an overpowering love. It helped me realize my life on this earth was just one small piece of the larger reality of our existence.”

At the age of 15 years old, Ruth awoke from what she thought was her life slipping away, stranded alone on a new continent and barely able to communicate. Upon starting recovery, she was introduced to a Christian community known as Dilaram House, affiliated with the Youth with a Mission organization, that acted as a support group and shelter for hippies and travelers in need. Ruth lived with the Dilaram House community for six months, in a place that “helped me make sense of what I had just experienced,” she said.

Two weeks before this interview, Ruth was reminiscing about her teenage days and on a hunch, searched the internet to see if the Dilaram House was still active today. She was surprised to find that they closed in the ‘80s. What shocked her even more was a Facebook page she came across, dedicated to Dilaram House memories, with a black-and-white photo of herself alongside the caption, whatever happened to Ruth?  “I typed up a paragraph and multiple replies started coming in,” she said. “Now I’m reconnected with my Dilaram House friends after more than 50 years.”

At 16 years old, Ruth returned to Canada. Having lost a few years of schooling, she enrolled in Meisterschaft College in Toronto, which offered individualized programs to bring students up to speed. Ruth’s father, University of Toronto professor Herbert Richardson, knowing of her travel experiences, suggested connecting with Conrad Grebel College, which Ruth described as “the perfect decision.”

Grebel’s Peace and Conflict Studies program was one of the first of its kind when Ruth joined the College. “What Grebel was doing was extraordinary,” she said. “There were so many amazing ideas and challenges being showered down as we shared meals, worshipped, and studied communally.” Similar to her time at Dilaram House, Ruth was involved with the Grebel worship team where she sang and played the guitar. She was also a part of the College’s worship committee where she was baptized.

“I came to Grebel from a very different background than most of the other students,” said Ruth. “But I never felt unwelcome. The two years I lived at Grebel were some of the most meaningful years of my life because it provided a space to think about my faith, become justice oriented, and be challenged by a number of professors.” Ruth recounted Professor and founding President Winfield Fretz as one of the most important mentors in her life, and she especially remembered the trip he planned for their class to travel to Haiti and a trip to visit the Bruderhof.

“It all inspired me to become a missionary,” said Ruth. “But to do so, I knew it wasn’t enough to just preach the gospel but rather I needed a practical skill. So, I double majored in Religious Studies and Health Studies.”

Upon graduating in 1978, Ruth was eager to put her degree to work, and so she travelled to Jamaica through a program with Mennonite Central Committee where she worked in maternal and child nutrition. She noted that although the work was meaningful, it didn’t feel like her calling, and decided she needed a change. She repaid Germany a visit and spent a semester at the University of Munich trying to discern which direction to take her career – health or religious studies? It wasn’t until she audited a course about a scholar named Friedrich Schleiermacher that she decided exactly what she wanted to do.

“Schleiermacher was this 19th-century German theologian and philosopher that practically nobody in the English-speaking world knew about because his works weren’t translated,” Ruth explained. “I was so awed by the thought and greatness behind him, I decided to pursue graduate studies in the area of theology.” Ruth relocated just outside of New York City where she received a full scholarship to Drew University to pursue a master’s and PhD in Theological and Religious Studies – the graduate class of 1985.

1985 was a special year for Ruth, marking the start of two new chapters in her life – one as a scholar and the other as a wife. She fell in love with fellow graduate student, Russell Ragovin, and they married that same year. The two carried on illustrious careers in theology for the next few decades, travelling back and forth between Berlin, where Ruth was a Fulbright scholar, leading to decades of work on Schleiermacher. They kept an apartment there for many years that Ruth described as “a second home for us.”

Ruth explored many avenues of theology-related research work and published several books and articles on Schleiermacher. However, she recounts the most important part of her work was as a minister, ordained with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a progressive Protestant denomination. For most of her career, Ruth was actively involved in serving churches in New Jersey, Texas, Tennessee, California, and Kentucky. She also spent time in the rural ministry of Appalachia and twice on the border of Mexico where she gave birth to her daughter, Rachel. 

“What I’m most proud of is my work in rural, impoverished areas of Tennessee,” said Ruth. “I wrote a grant bringing art programs to elementary schools in that area. I helped found, at a grassroots level, a domestic violence shelter called Gracemoor. I also helped launch a pilot program called Healthy Start that helped to support first-time, at-risk teen mothers.”

“My view is that the Church is the only place where all generations come together,” said Ruth. “My work has been ecumenical, and it’s been interfaith. My last congregation even had a number of Jews and Muslims visiting, a few of whom sang in the choir. For me, ministry is about breaking down barriers to strengthen lives, relationships, and communities. Whether that’s sitting with them in a hospital room, helping them fill out food stamp applications, or even writing them a Conrad Grebel College application, who knows?” 

ruth ragovin

This page, or even words for that matter, are not enough to capture the true essence of Ruth’s life journey. From a life-altering experience stranded in Nepal, to working with mothers in Jamaica, then becoming an international scholar, to now devoting her life to helping communities through church leadership, there is one common thread in all of Ruth’s endeavors – her inclination to lend a hand. Today, she lives in Florida and worships at Emmanuel Mennonite Church in Gainesville.

As a final reflection on her time at Grebel, Ruth leaves you with this.

“Looking back, I had no idea I was having so much fun. I had no idea that I was studying with such masters. I had no idea that the conversations and memories I was building were so extraordinary. I moved off-campus in my third year, because that’s what everyone did. But truly, I wish I had followed my heart and stayed at Grebel for every year.”

Ruth's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.

By Farhan Saeed