Tribute to a Friend

On July 31, my friend Jane Light Raser passed away from complications of Parkinson’s disease. Even though I was not able to attend the memorial service which was held on August 15 in Claremont, California, where Jane lived, the family asked me to write a tribute to Jane to be read at the service. I was honored to do so, and here’s what I wrote.


Messiah College class of 1968 English majors with our beloved advisor, Dr. Robert Sider. Jane is on the right, next to him.

Jane and I first met when we enrolled at Messiah College in 1964. We both changed our majors to English at some point during our college career, and so, since Messiah was very small in those days, we had many classes together and began to forge our friendship there. Still, Jane was not in my closest circle of friends at Messiah. Our friendship solidified in the months following graduation in 1968 when we both went off to “remote” places—she to a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer assignment in Flowers Cove, Newfoundland, and me to graduate school in Moscow, Idaho. We were both extremely homesick and lonely, and letters back and forth were our lifeline to the familiar. Also, Jane was already dating Carl who was in voluntary service in Zambia, where he roomed with Dale who would become my long-distance boyfriend and then husband. When Carl and Dale returned from Zambia, Jane and I were at the airport together to meet them—although Jane and Carl’s meeting was far less awkward than Dale’s and mine because they had a romantic relationship that pre-dated Zambia.

Dale and I were married three days before Jane and Carl; Jane was a bridesmaid and Carl was a groomsman in our wedding, but we missed their wedding because we were on our honeymoon. Then they moved to California, and Jane and I didn’t see each other very often after that. Ours was a friendship sustained by voluminous letter-writing and then email. Jane wrote the BEST letters—long, chatty, funny, detailed, supportive, honest, dramatic, revealing, informative. And she was always very prompt in writing back when it was her turn; it would sometimes take me 2-3 weeks after getting a letter from her to respond, and then I would get her next letter in just a few days! I wish I had kept more of those letters. I have a few, in Jane’s familiar and impeccable cursive handwriting, and I have emails dating back to about 2010. Reading back over them again reminds me how much I valued our friendship, and what a gift Jane was to me.

Scan 56One of the letters I saved is dated September 4, 1968, about a week after Jane arrived in Flowers Cove, Newfoundland. I remember receiving it at my lonely outpost in Idaho and being cheered by it, because even though Jane’s account of her new life in Newfoundland was kind of grim, she tapped into my own need for someone with whom to commiserate. A few lines from what I consider a classic Jane letter:

If I don’t soon get some mail from somewhere, I am going to dry up completely! I really don’t see how I’ll ever survive here for a whole year! So far every minute has been a life and death struggle… Flowers Cove can easily be described in a few words: cold (no higher than 30 degrees since we got here), ignorance, poverty, and germs by the gillions…. I really hate to go into the gory details of our survival here, but in case you‘re also longing for those good ol’ Messiah days, I’m sure you’ll find my plight in life amusing…. A bit about the place where Frieda and I are living—the heating in the house consists of one wood stove in the kitchen—and the fire goes out every night. Our bedroom is on the second floor—it is about two inches bigger than our bed which is the lumpiest thing you could ever imagine! We have one pillow between us. They do have running water—i.e., one faucet on the kitchen wall with cold water…. They have electricity—i.e., one light bulb hanging from each ceiling. No light switches.

When I first read that letter from Jane in the midst of my own (albeit much less primitive) circumstances, I could laugh with her and know that I was not the only one feeling isolated from everyone and everything I knew. Over the years, Jane’s letters sustained me many more times. We shared our lives with each other—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The daily routines of life, news and questions about mutual friends, our mutual struggles with depression, my cancer, Jane’s Parkinson’s disease, family conflicts and heartaches as well as family joys and successes, career quandaries and changes, and political, social and religious commentary—nothing was off limits.

The last emails I have from her are from this past February and March; they are vintage Jane as she wrote about her visit to Baltimore for a “grandbaby fix,” what Sarah and Ben and Andrew were doing in life, and asking questions about my life and mutual acquaintances.

I regret that I wasn’t as faithful at communicating with Jane as I could have been over the past couple years, but she was never far from my thoughts. I grieved with her and tried to support her when her Parkinson’s was diagnosed and when she spiraled into a deep depression several years ago. The most recent handwritten letter I saved is dated July 7, 2011, when she told me she was finally emerging from that depressive episode, thanked me for my support, and said, “Your friendship is special.”

The feeling is mutual, Jane; you were a very special friend, and I will miss you a lot!

Makanalia and One Missionary’s Legacy

The name Makanalia is one I’ve known for almost as long as I can remember. My father had a very special relationship with this woman he first met in 1954 when she was a young girl living in her rural village in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and he was out visiting village schools. In his missionary memoirs, he describes noticing a girl sitting in the front row who had difficulty seeing the blackboard. He says, “Somehow, I developed a feeling that she needed special help and also I had the conviction that she had real ability…. I don’t remember just how I was prompted to take her to the mission or just what the circumstances were that caused her parents to give permission, but…permission was given, and she agreed that she would go with me.”

IMG_0887Twelve years ago, when I was in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe for the Mennonite World Conference global assembly, I met Makalania Dhlamini. This was just a couple months after my father had passed away, so it was particularly poignant for me to hear her profuse thanks for what he had done for her so many years before. I didn’t really understand then the depth of her gratitude, and little did I know then that I would see her again – on my home turf at the assembly in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

When we happened upon each other the first day of the assembly, she gripped my hand tightly and held on as we greeted each other. Again, she expressed her profound thanks for what my father had done. As we talked, I asked her to tell me the story I had often heard before but never from her. There were details that differed from my father’s account in his memoirs, but the basic outline was the same. One of the questions I’ve had for a long time was why her family was willing to let her go off with the white missionary, not knowing if or when she would ever return. Her answer was simple: “They trusted Umfundisi Sider; they trusted the missionaries.” (Umfundisi is a term of respect.)

She also talked about what my father did as a miracle. She remembered that the rural roads (if they could even be called roads!) were often muddy and impassable, and frequently Dad’s car would get stuck in the mud. I have vague memories of my mother back at the mission station worrying about where he was when he didn’t get home at the appointed time. In his missionary autobiography, Dad tells of one particularly memorable time of being hopelessly stuck in the mud, which may be the incident I vaguely remember. This time, however, when he was taking Makanalia with him back to mission station, there were no problems.

While that was perhaps a miracle on a smaller scale, the real miracle for Makanalia was that she was eventually able to get glasses for her poor eyesight, earn enough money from working to pay her school fees, attend school, and receive a teaching certificate. In his book, Dad describes her accomplishments: “She has been a teacher for many years,… [including being] a teacher of special education for the handicapped in Bulawayo…. She has helped to start both the Lobengula and the Bulawayo Central churches in Bulawayo. She has been a wonderful wife, mother [of four children], teacher, and example of Christian character and leadership.” All these accomplishments would not have been possible had my father not been moved by her plight all those years ago, and “fetched” her from her village, to use Makanalia’s word.

IMG_0297I still don’t think I quite grasped the depth of her gratitude until I took her to my father’s grave as she had requested. One of her main reasons for coming to the U.S. and to Pennsylvania for the assembly was to see where the missionaries had come from, and specifically to see where my father was from. On our way to the cemetery where my parents are buried, she said, “I know he’s not really there, but I want to see where his body is buried.” As we were driving up cemetery hill in Grantham, she commented, “We should have brought flowers.” I led her to the grave, and together we cleared away grass clippings that were obscuring the gravestone. She knelt down on the ground in front of the stone and asked if she could pray (watch and listen to her prayer):

“Let me pass the Word to all I come across. Help me, Lord, to love the poor, the fatherless, the orphans, those with nothing. I didn’t have anything when Lewis Sider picked me up. I had nothing. There are many in Africa with nothing, who have no school fees. I had a chance. Let me give them a chance…. I thank you, Lord. I prayed for this chance to come and thank you for their [the missionaries’] lives. I know they are waiting somewhere where we shall meet and sing together. I look forward to that day when I will see Umfundisi and tell him I am home too.”

By the end of the prayer, she was sobbing, and I was in tears as well. She finished her prayer, got up, and we started back to the car. She said again, “We should have brought flowers.” Across the way I noticed some Queen’s Anne’s lace and pink clover; I picked a few flowers and took them to her. She carefully and lovingly placed them on the gravestone. And then we left.

Just that morning at church, my Sunday school class had been discussing an article from Christianity Today entitled “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries.” The author cites research showing, among other things, that “[A]reas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”

My parents’ “proselytizing” missionary service was during colonial times, before the British colony of Southern Rhodesia became the independent country of Zimbabwe. Despite their deep love and appreciation for the black people of Southern and Northern Rhodesia (where they also served), in later years their attitude toward them seemed to reflect a somewhat colonial mentality and sounded paternalistic and condescending to my more “enlightened” ears. I also know that during the war in Rhodesia in the late 1970s between loyalists to the white government and those wanting independence and black rule, some blacks criticized the missionaries for not being more outspoken against the white regime on behalf of the black majority. Plus, given the bad economic and political situation in Zimbabwe for more than a decade now, with the country that was once thriving and considered the breadbasket of Africa deteriorating in many ways, the research conclusions cited in the article could ring a little hollow. What happened? Why couldn’t the influence of the missionaries have prevented the economic and political tragedy in Zimbabwe?

Missions methods have changed since my parents were missionaries, and my own views on missions have been mixed and complicated at times. But seeing Makanalia again and hearing her genuine and deep gratitude for what my father and other missionaries did for her gave me a new appreciation for the legacy they left. During the assembly and after, I watched her interact with several retired missionaries (see photos below), and there was nothing but mutual respect and love. Another older gentleman from Zimbabwe, Knight Ngwabi, age 83, who we hosted in our home the last night of the assembly, also fondly remembered my father from more than 65 years ago. The Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe, for many years now under the leadership of the indigenous people, is thriving, in part because of the sacrifice and dedication of people like my parents. It was good for me to reminded of that by people like Makanalia.


Makanalia chats with former missionaries. From left to right, Robert Lehman, George and Mary Olive (Lady) Bundy, and Eva Mae Melhorn Brubaker. Knight Ngwabi is also in the middle photo.


The Neighbors’ Flag

Last week, Dale and I watched the ceremony when the Confederate flag was removed from the grounds of the state capitol in Columbia, South Carolina. We were deeply moved and celebrated along with many others the removal of this racist symbol from public property.

Over the Fourth of July weekend, our neighbors had put up two flags in front of their home – a U.S. flag and a Confederate flag. Given the timing, this seemed like more than just a patriotic gesture over the Fourth of July but was also in direct response to all the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag precipitated by the murder of nine African Americans in a church in Charleston by a young man who espoused racist beliefs and draped himself in the Confederate flag. We don’t know our neighbors well (introverts that we are) and we don’t interact more than the usual casual friendly conversations across our front lawns. We did learn awhile ago that they hope to be able to move to South Carolina sometime in the next few years when they’re financially able to do so. Still, the flag-flying came as a bit of a surprise.

Then while Dale and I were watching the flag-removal ceremony, he mentioned that the neighbors had taken down their flags. I hadn’t noticed, but sure enough when I double-checked, they were gone. Yay, I thought! But I cheered too soon, because both flags went back up not long after and they’re still flying. We couldn’t help wondering whether our neighbors were so upset by the the Confederate flag coming down in South Carolina and many other places that they had defiantly decided to make their statement again.

Despite arguments that the Confederate flag is a symbol of southern heritage and history, and therefore deserves a place of honor, it is abundantly clear to me that the flag is much more a symbol of racism, beliefs in racial superiority, and white supremacy. When defenders of the flag talk about “southern pride,” they’re really talking about white southern pride, and disregarding all the African Americans who are also southerners and descendants of slaves and feel pain rather than pride when they see the flag. It might be true that many people who fly the flag don’t mean to be racist, and perhaps don’t even think about what the flag represents to others. I’m sure many of them are really good people. But that doesn’t negate the reality of the flag’s history (which I personally don’t understand how anyone can not see as blatantly racist), and its offensiveness to many of their friends and neighbors.

Our neighbors seem like good people who work hard and are trying to make a better life for themselves. Their decision to fly a Confederate flag in front of their home offends me, but what if anything should I do about it? It’s their home, their private property, and flying the flag is an exercise of their freedom of speech. However reprehensible I might think that particular kind of speech is, it is protected, as is my speech opposing their point of view or my decision not to fly any flag at my home. I also don’t have the kind of relationship with them to tell them I am offended by the flag and to ask them to take it down, and even if I did, I’m not sure that would be the right thing to do. At the very least, if the subject ever came up in a casual conversation, I hope I would be able to explain my views forthrightly while also listening carefully and graciously to their point of view, trying to understand where they are coming from, and what may have happened to them to make them believe as they do. That’s what I would want from someone who disagreed with me, and what I think my commitment to peacemaking requires. I would also hope I might be able to give them something to think about that might eventually change their minds.

Truth be told, I’m also uncomfortable flying the American flag. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what the flag is supposed to stand for, and I confess to feeling very patriotic during the Olympics or more recently, when the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup and draped themselves in the American flag as they celebrated their championship. But, my father was born in Canada and I still have family there; I was born and lived in Zimbabwe, and I also lived in Zambia for a time. Those flags have personal meaning. Plus, I’ve worked really hard over the course of my adult life to have a more global perspective, to try to see the world through other-than-American lenses, to be less ethnocentric. The Christian tradition I come from is reluctant to pledge allegiance to any flag, believing that our primary allegiance is to the kingdom of God rather than to any of the kingdoms of this world.

Despite my personal reluctance to display the American flag, however, I am not offended when my neighbors up and down the street do so during patriotic holidays, or in some cases, all the time. Our next-door neighbors can fly the American flag all they want, but I do hope they take down that Confederate flag soon!


Endings and Beginnings

Yesterday we buried my father-in-law, John Bicksler, and yesterday also marked the end of my almost-23-year career with the Pennsylvania Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and the beginning of full retirement. Two endings and one beginning; emotional overload.


Three of Dad Bicksler’s 12 great-grandchildren at the grave site

With Dad Bicksler’s passing, Dale and I are now the patriarch and matriarch of our respective families – he as the oldest son, and me as the only daughter. All four of our parents are now gone. Yesterday at his funeral, I had the honor of delivering the tribute to Dad Bicksler on behalf of his three children. I prepared by listening to stories from Lois, Dale and Dennis about their growing-up years and reflecting on my own experience with Dad over the 45 years I’ve been part of the Bicksler family. I was struck by the fact that as far as we know, he reached the end of his life without regrets. He was a man who was comfortable in his own skin, loved “the marvels of this life,” to quote a phrase that he almost always used in prayers, and was generally an optimistic and forward-looking person. He was ready to die, having long ago made his peace with whatever would come in the next life. He leaves a strong legacy of three children and spouses, seven grandchildren and spouses, and 12 great-grandchildren who will remember the many attributes he taught and modeled. In my tribute, I highlighted a few of those attributes: hard work, frugality, ingenuity, active lifestyle, healthy living, strong faith.


My retirement certificate signed by the secretary of the PA Department of Human Services

I too am in the process of making peace with what comes next in my life, although certainly not in the same way. Almost 23 years ago, I was hired part-time to create two new publications that would tell the story of the public children’s mental health system in Pennsylvania. Through changes in state administration and shifts in job responsibilities, one thing remained constant – my role as editor of those two publications. I retired from full-time employment three years ago, but kept a small part-time contract and continued to edit the newsletters.

When I began to think that I wanted to fully retire, one big thing standing in my way was my own worry about what would happen to those newsletters. Would they just die for lack of anyone with the time, skill, or inclination to continue them? And if so, what would that say about their value for all those years I kept on as editor? Over the years, I have received lots of positive feedback for the work I’ve done to fill the need for regular, consistent and educational communication, but what would it mean if that was all for naught and the newsletters were “retired” along with me? These questions are not meant to suggest that I think I am indispensable, but are indicative of how hard it was to become willing to let go of something in which I had invested so much of myself. I finally made the decision to retire before I knew whether or how the newsletters would continue. And now, even though I have been assured that they will continue in some form in the future, I am able to say that I’m okay with whatever happens. I’ve made my peace with what comes next.

At the end of the summer, I’m looking forward to another ending. I have served on the same committee at my church for about 30 years, the last six years as chair. I’ve been in some kind of major leadership role in the congregation for a significant portion of my adult life, and as of September 1, I won’t be on any committee or board for the first time in a very long time. Just as it was difficult to imagine those newsletters not continuing if I stopped editing them, it was also hard to make the decision to step down as chair and member of the committee. The issues we’ve been responsible for are ones I’m passionate about, and it wasn’t at all clear at one point that anyone would be willing to take over. Again I wondered, what will happen if I step down? And again, it has been hard to let go of something in which I’ve invested so much time, energy, and strong conviction. But other voices in my head – those voices that were expressing my weariness with the responsibilities of committee work and a growing awareness that it was time to “pass the torch”  – got louder and I had to listen. And now I’ve made peace with what comes next, even if it might not be the same as (and quite possibly will be much better than) it’s been for 30 years.

So what does come next? It will certainly be a change not to have to think about those two newsletters or any other work-related responsibilities, and it will feel very different not to be in any leadership role at church anymore. I will likely miss some things, and perhaps even find myself second-guessing methods or decisions made by others, but I really am looking forward to being free of certain responsibilities and the weight of multiple deadlines. I know people who talk about five-year or ten-year plans for their lives, but I don’t have any grand plan for what to do next. I am simply looking forward to more space in my life. More space is something I’ve needed for a long time, and so right now I don’t feel the need to find anything new to fill the space. I still have two ongoing volunteer editorial responsibilities that are creatively challenging enough to help keep my mind sharp (I hope), and I’m looking forward to having more time for other things I enjoy – my family (especially the grandkids), books, writing, friends, knitting, traveling.

Endings are always difficult, whether it’s the end of a long and well-lived life, or the end of a 23-year career. And even though beginnings sound like more fun, they’re also sometimes more difficult than you would think. But I’m ready for what comes next.


The Grandfather I Never Knew

IMG_0241Tucked away in a box of mementos from my parents that has been in our basement for many years was a small (4 x 6) plain brown envelope with the return address of a photography studio in Saskatchewan and a couple unrelated handwritten notes on the back. The other day I was looking through the box and saw the envelope. I opened it thinking there would be some old photographs. Instead I found a series of letters from my grandfather to my father, dated 1944-1947 and in their original envelopes. During these years, my parents and my older brother John were first at North Star Mission in Saskatchewan, then teaching at Jabbok Bible School in Oklahoma, and then in missionary service in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The letters were sent from my grandfather’s home in Wainfleet, Ontario, where my dad grew up. I don’t know if they are a complete set of letters from this time period; if so, there aren’t that many considering they span about four years, and if not, I have no idea what happened to all the rest.

Scan 24

Jesse and Alice (Steckley) Sider on their wedding day, December 28, 1910. Grandma Alice died during a flu epidemic in 1920, and Grandpa remarried Ada Ricker in 1921. (Alice is my middle name, after my grandmother.)

I never knew my Grandpa Jesse Sider. He passed away 67 years ago today, on June 21, 1948, less than two months after I was born on the other side of the world. Of course, my dad talked about him some, but I learned a lot more about the man I never knew from reading these letters. They are short with maddeningly few details, but they return to the same themes almost every time.

Interest and concern about his oldest son and family: Grandpa Sider may not have fully understood or agreed with his oldest son’s decision to leave home (and country) at age 18 and pursue a different career than farming, but he seemed to have made his peace with it. The letters indicate that he prayed regularly for my dad and supported him, even as he missed him and regretted not being able to see his oldest grandson (my brother John) very often.

March 24, 1944: We received your letter a few days ago….We suppose that it will be quite a change for you to be left alone, especially when there are no other ministers near. We pray that you may keep encouraged [referring to when my parents were left alone in charge of the North Star Mission.]

March 11, 1946: We understood from Murray [second son] that you must have passed your medical test as you are planning to come east at conference time. It will be nice to see you all again. This life brings many separations but God’s way is always best and we would not want to change it.

March 11, 1947: We received yours and Gladys’ letters and remembered your drought in prayer.

April 10, 1947: We received a letter from you lately also one from Walter Winger to be forwarded on to Uncle Lewis Steckley. Walter says that if you folks keep on as good as you have started that he thinks you will be alright [referring to their first missionary assignments in Rhodesia]. Your last letter came in 13 days from the time you wrote it. I suppose your home is not enough like a farm to suit John as he said before going.

Sprinkled through the letters are little messages to John about things he must have been interested in on the farm when he visited, including this P.S. on March 24, 1944: “Dear John, I would like to see you to take you to the barn and go riding in the car and go to S. School and talk to me. You live so far away that you cannot come often. Be a good boy. –from Grandpa.”

Farm life: Reading Grandpa Sider’s letters helps me understand where my dad’s obsession with weather and gardening came from, and also reminds me of the difficult life of small farmers. For as long as I can remember, my dad paid attention to the weather. He kept track of the rainfall each spring and summer and frequently remarked on the status of local corn fields and whether the lawns were nice and green. He always had a garden, even into his 80s when he was living at Messiah Village. (It might have been harder for him to admit he couldn’t garden anymore than that he shouldn’t drive!) Grandpa’s letters are full of news about the farm.

July 20, 1994: I rode the binder to cut the 19 1/2 acres of wheat although I was at it on four different days. Yesterday afternoon I helped Elmer [youngest son] shock wheat.

July 19, 1945: We have our haying pretty well along…. Our wheat is good, about ripe. Elmer is plowing for wheat as it is wet and cannot haul hay. It plows good now. There are practically no winter apples here this year and very few others, almost no pears. Strawberries were good and they say grapes are alright. Peaches are light. Mother feels that under conditions we will need to keep the dried fruit. Our new potatoes will soon be ready to eat but are a little later than usual on account of getting planted late. We sowed oats on Mar 30 and forepart of April but had a lot of rain after that.

October 31, 1945: We have had a very wet time since about the middle of September. Our buckwheat and a great many other people’s is not cut yet. We sowed 15 acres of wheat on the 17th, 18th and 22nd of October. Some of it is coming up now. A few people sowed in September before it got wet. Some have none… We had hoped to get our buckwheat cut with a combine. We are not very busy now on account of the wet. We have no apples to gather. There are very few around here.

December 16, 1945: We have bought two new seven year old horses. We got a gray last March for $100 and a black from Calvin lately for $110. Old Paddy is gone, he was about 24. Tell John the new horses’ names are Topsy and Polly. We have 51 pigs now. We took our old Jersey cow up to Uncle Jess’ for him to fatten on shares. We have lost our buckwheat crop. It is all in the fields yet.

March 11, 1946: The weather is getting a lot more like spring. The snow is about all gone. Elmer sowed clover seed on the wheat this morning. It was nicely frozen for walking. He has hauled about 150 loads of manure on a pile in the field by the barn….

April 10, 1947: We have had a late cool spring but the wheat is turning green now. We tried putting in a few fence posts but the frost bothers yet. Elmer got a nice lot of manure out but we cannot farm for a while yet. We have been getting our wagon, harness, etc. fixed up for spring. We have 18 of the hogs left yet that we had over winter

Church life: Grandpa’s letters are also filled with the names of relatives who visited, the accidents and illnesses of church members, and the revival meetings and Bible conferences he attended, where many Brethren in Christ notables of the time preached. He himself had been a minister in the Wainfleet district, so this may explain some of his personal interest in all the special meetings and the folks who spoke there.

January 31, 1944: Grace [daughter] does not get home very often, she was home only once since Christmas, a week ago last Thursday while our revival was on, which ended one week ago last evening. We had fairly good results the latter part of the meeting. Quite a number of the S. S. children were saved, which was very nice indeed. Bro Lady worked very hard both in preaching and praying. He brought his sister-in-law Naomi Wolgemuth along.

March 24, 1944: We are planning for our Bible conference tomorrow, and then special services all next week. Bro Henry Schneider is to be the evangelist. Uncle Ernie [E. J. Swalm was married to my dad’s mother’s sister] and Charlie Byers are to be the other speakers….. Cecil Mater met with a serious accident this week. He was on the highway up near Adens when he got in front of a car drive, I think, by a minister from Canfield. His left leg was badly broken below the knee and he was thrown quite a distance. The ambulance took him to Hamilton hospital yesterday and his leg was put into a cast. He was home again last night. Some of the men around here including Elmer have been taking turns staying with him at night but I guess they will not have to go much longer.

July 20, 1944: I have been going to the camp every evening. The attendance has been fair although the shortage of gas and tires no doubt makes a difference. Uncle Ernie was given a topic but I was told that he did not come on account of gas. Bro Witter is the evangelist and Samuel Lady one of the day speakers. We are getting some rich holiness teaching. There have been a few seekers and also some overflowing blessing in the meetings. We are having visitors from nearly every part of the Ontario church. I suppose you know that there are three meals per day served on the grounds in a large tent, then there is a smaller tent erected by it for dish washing. The cooking is being done by Elva Heise and helpers in Uncle Walter’s garage. Uncle Henry Steckley’s girls are staying here nights.

December 8, 1946: We were at Boyle Bible conference yesterday which I enjoyed very much but it tired me a lot. Bro Shoalts, Bro Gilmore, Earl Sider and John Rosenberry were the speakers.

March 11, 1947: George Siders have had a rather hard time, lost his cows thru contagious [did he mean spontaneous?] abortion in the fall and their house by fire this winter. They had about $500 and considerable goods given them. An offering was taken in the church and a shower held beside.

His health: In 1942, Grandpa’s barn was struck by lightning while he was in it milking the cows. According to my dad’s memoirs, Grandpa “barely had time to get the cows and horses out of the burning building, and the shock left him with a condition from which he never recovered.” I don’t know what the condition was, but the fact that his health was poor comes through clearly in his letters (and the postscripts written by Grandma Ada).

July 20, 1944: It is a long time since I have written to you but as I was not feeling well I was not in a mood to write, and besides I could not give a very good report of myself so I preferred to wait until I could write something better. I started with the stomach flu about the 24th of May and have not entirely recovered from it yet. I am gaining quite a lot lately and am working quite a bit lately.

October 31, 1945: I’m not able to do very much work now but my heart is some better. You can tell Bro Eyster that I am still expecting the Lord to heal me. It seems that I cannot keep the victory unless I believe it.

May 4, 1946, note added by Grandma Ada: Papa is not holding his own very good. Getting some weaker. Paralysis in both hands. Seems hard for him to talk very much.

January 11, 1947, note added by Grandma Ada: Papa went to church this morning, but he hasn’t been very good, so helpless and hard to dress and undress him, cannot cover himself in bed very good.

March 11, 1947: Have not been very well lately but am still hoping God will answer.

July 20, 1947, letter written by Grandma Ada: Papa did his best to write a bit, not very strong this morning. Stomach bothering him lately. Appetite not very good. P.S. added by Grandpa: I am not very well but thought I should write a little.


Grandpa’s grave in Maple Lawn Cemetery, Niagara Regional Municipality, Ontario. The stone marker includes his two wives and his infant daughter, Mary, who died the same day she was born.

The July 20, 1947 letter is the last one in this collection before Grandpa died on June 21, 1948, at age 62. The final letter is from Grandma Ada, dated July 6, 1948. My parents received a telegram at Matopo Mission in Southern Rhodesia at the time of his death, and then apparently they had to wait at least another month (allowing for two or more weeks for mail delivery) to find out more details. Grandma Ada describes the morning of his passing and the funeral. Then she continues: “We miss Papa so much. Imagine we hear him calling. Every place we go on the farm we see something Papa made or fixed, and it’s so hard on me.”

I put myself in my dad’s place, and I imagine how hard it must have been for him to be so far away. In his memoirs, Dad wrote about the last time he saw his father, not long before he and my mother and brother left for Africa in December 1946:

We needed to make a trip to Ontario to see my father who was in very poor health…. This was quite a memorable time. My father-in-law, Walter Bohen, took us in his car, and we were at Wainfleet for a Wednesday evening service. The next morning we left again for Pennsylvania and said goodbye to my father who was sobbing as we got into the car to leave. I have often wished that I could live those moments over and somehow make it easier for him. For this was the last time we would see him on earth, and I think he knew it.

I wonder if my dad, when Grandpa died so far away, thought about what Grandpa said in his March 11, 1946 letter, “This life brings many separations but God’s way is always best and we would not want to change it.”

Blessed Are the Merciful

I’ve been following the case of a young woman who in an episode of severe postpartum depression stabbed her toddler son and then herself in January 2014. (Her son survived.) She has been in prison awaiting trial for the past year. Just this morning she pled guilty but mentally ill to aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child, and was sentenced to 5-10 years in prison plus 20 years of probation and no contact with her son. I know her personally, although not well, and have been writing to her for almost a year. Before this happened, when we were participating together in the same activity, I never would have guessed that she suffered from postpartum depression. She always seemed like a highly intelligent and articulate young woman who spoke lovingly about her young son. Since she has been in prison, her letters to me have confirmed my initial impressions – she writes about books she’s reading, poems and stories she’s writing for her son, Bible studies she attends, classes she’s taking at the prison, and the progress of her case.

Her situation reminds me of a case from 2001 that was even worse, when Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub. She too was suffering from postpartum depression. Then there is the local woman who repeatedly attempted to abandon her baby recently, but was finally caught by an observant passerby. Fortunately, the baby was not harmed. This mother also suffered from mental illness.

I am not condoning the actions of these mothers. When innocent children are involved, I understand the instinct to condemn, and I agree that children must be protected. But I don’t condone the attitudes of some who have responded to news articles about these and other mothers. This morning, when a local news station reported on its Facebook page that the young woman I know and have been writing to had pled guilty but mentally ill, there were some who were understanding and compassionate in their comments, but others were hateful and nasty, calling her evil and saying she should rot in a cell by herself for the rest of her life. I almost cried as I read the comments (and I’m grateful she probably doesn’t have access to stuff like this in prison). Andrea Yates, who is serving a life sentence in a mental hospital, has requested permission to leave the grounds for supervised events with other patients. However, because of pressure from the public, judges have never granted permission, and she remains the only person at the mental hospital who has never been allowed to leave the grounds.

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are familiar to most people. The one that comes to my mind in this context is “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” There is a certain quid pro quo going on there – if we want to receive mercy ourselves, we need to show it to others. The prophet Micah named three things that God requires: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. When Jesus was attacked by the Pharisees for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he quoted the Old Testament, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” thus critiquing the Pharisees for putting the letter of the law above showing mercy to people, even undesirables. Mercy, lest we forget, means “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”

Sometimes it is hard to balance the kind of justice required by the criminal justice system (or the kind of justice that requires people to take responsibility and accept consequences) with mercy that understands the possibility of mitigating circumstances and takes them into account. When mental illness is clearly involved, however, it seems like it is even more important for the balance to tilt toward mercy. Recovery from mental illnesses like depression is possible; people do get better, and they can receive treatment and stay well with good medications and talk therapy. Despite this, however, the stigma against mental illness remains, making it difficult for people to ask for help when they need it.

So often these days it seems like there are many who don’t want to show mercy; instead, they want revenge, retaliation, retribution, and ongoing judgment. In our rush to judgment and condemnation, do we forget that sometime we ourselves might need to rely on the mercy of others? Do we forget the simple truth of the Golden Rule: Do to others what you would have them do to you (or to paraphrase it a little: treat others the way you would like to be treated).

Ever since I received a letter a few weeks ago from my acquaintance in prison telling me that her hearing was scheduled for today, she would be found “guilty but mentally ill,” and there were those in her family who thought she should be sentenced to life in prison, I’ve been mulling over the meaning and implications of “blessed are the merciful.” I’ve thought about what it means to show mercy in everyday situations as well as larger more difficult circumstances. Never having been the victim of a violent crime myself perhaps makes it easier for me to suggest that mercy is a better response to her and others like her than retribution and revenge. I can’t know for sure how I would actually respond if one of my family members were physically harmed or killed, but I can prepare my mind and heart to be more likely to want to be merciful and kind, to try to understand what happened and why, to be able to forgive, to look for restorative justice possibilities rather than retributive justice that feels like it simply perpetuates the cycle of violence and hatred. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Pondering History, Torture and Violence

Dale and I recently went to see the movies Unbroken and Selma, both based on true stories. Both have been criticized for the way they have retold history: Unbroken for leaving out a significant part of Louie Zamperini’s whole story, and Selma for inaccurately portraying President Johnson as being unsupportive of civil rights in general and the Voting Rights Act in particular.

Obviously, filmmakers have to make creative choices about what to include out of all the material that is available to them. It could be argued that it was a secular choice in Unbroken not to dramatize Zamperini’s Christian conversion at a Billy Graham rally as the ultimate reason he remained “unbroken” after everything he had been through. His conversion and healing from severe post-traumatic stress disorder, along with his decision to forgive the Japanese soldiers who had tortured him, are a significant part of his total story, so I understand why it is frustrating to many Christians that these details were relegated to a brief sentence on the screen at the end of the movie. But the movie still stands as a powerful testimony to the ability of one person to withstand great hardship and survive. Plus, to be fair, Louie’s conversion story takes up very few of the 528 pages of the original book on which the movie is based. (And yes, I highly recommend reading the book!)

In the case of Selma, I think it’s really important to recognize that this is history being retold creatively from the point of view of African Americans. I don’t know enough about the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson to judge how accurately or inaccurately it is portrayed. However, I also don’t find it hard to believe that Johnson was not always as supportive and helpful in the moment in the civil rights movement as his significant role in ensuring passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 would ultimately suggest. As I’ve listened to and read severe critiques of the movie for what is seen as an unfair distortion of LBJ’s record on civil rights, I found this perspective particularly helpful: “These critiques are part of a larger debate about who owns American history, especially the portions of that history that were led, organized and shaped in large part by African-Americans… . Selma is unapologetic in depicting the movement as one that was primarily led by black women and men” (from Selma Backlash Misses the Point, by Peniel Joseph on NPR’s website).

I can be as much of a stickler for historical accuracy as anyone, but I also know that American history has been recorded primarily by whites (actually white males), which is itself a distortion of certain truths. Rather than criticize the movie for retelling history a little differently than many of us in the dominant culture learned it or think we remember it, perhaps we ought to try to understand why it is being retold this way and how it helps enrich and enlarge our understanding of history.

It is difficult to view movies like these and not be reminded again of how cruel human beings can be to each other. Unbroken details the horrific torture meted out in Japanese prison camps during World War II and Selma reminds us of the awful violence the white majority inflicted upon African Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. These days, as the news is full of beheadings, bombings, massacres, rape and torture happening with regularity in many parts of the world, I ask myself: “How can people do such things? Why? What creates the conditions that make it okay and even virtuous to treat other human beings like that?”

We might be tempted to dismiss the violence as being perpetrated mainly by radical religious fundamentalists/extremists (who are often but not always Muslim) and having nothing to do with those of us who are American Christians. But it’s not that simple. The U.S. Senate report released late last year documents the torture done by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. Back in 2009 soon after I started this blog (but before anyone knew about it!), I posted a brief piece called “Whether Torture Works is Beside the Point.” I was reacting in part to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center: “White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did.” Following the release of the torture report in late 2014, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 69 percent of white evangelical Protestant Christians believed that the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists (using techniques that have been classified as torture) was justified. The numbers are even worse for non-evangelical Protestants (75 percent) and white Catholics (86 percent). I find this profoundly distressing.

Christians also have to deal with the history of the Crusades and the Inquisition, not to mention the slaughter of Native Americans, the racial violence perpetrated during slavery and into the present, domestic violence, and so on – all justified in part by various interpretations of the Bible. It is clear that being Christian does not always equate to a fundamental commitment to nonviolence.

In the middle of writing this, two items passed through my Facebook feed. One was a quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti, an Indian teacher and speaker with no allegiance to any nationality, caste, religion, or philosophy: “When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.” The second was a cartoon published on January 17, 2015 in The Economist. The cartoon depicted two dogs standing in the middle of a bunch of dead bodies and piles of rubble. One dog says to the other: “It all started with an argument over whose God was more peace-loving, kind and forgiving…”

I confess first of all to not knowing what to make of either item, given my belief that following the Jesus of Christianity should make one less not more violent. Secondly, in light of the history of the world and what’s happening in many places right now, I have to admit that there is a whole lot of truth contained in the quote and the cartoon. I’ve been asking the question about what makes people able and willing to do such awful things to each other, and along comes the Krishnamurti quote offering an answer that makes a lot of sense but also upsets much of what I have always believed. Does being a Christian really make a difference?

Martin Luther King, Jr. believed it did, basing the movement of nonviolent resistance that is depicted in the movie Selma in part on the teachings of Jesus. So on this Martin Luther King Day, I’ll end my rather rambling and inconclusive reflections with this quote from his essay, “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”: “When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable. I neither started the protest nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman. When the protest began, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its sublime teachings on love, and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. As the days unfolded, I came to see the power of nonviolence more and more. Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many of the things that I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action.”