On Not Giving In to Fear

Fear is an ugly thing. A couple days ago I wrote about how my own fears about potential responses to opinions I might express on social media sometimes keep me from standing up for what I believe is right – in this case, how we think about Syrian refugees. I could go on about other fears I’ve had or still have that sometimes cause me significant anxiety: cancer or other serious illness, something bad happening to a member of my family, financial concerns, interpersonal and organizational conflict, violence directed at me or someone I love, and so on. While these are fears I’ve faced personally, there are other more “global” fears that afflict many people to a greater or lesser extent: economic collapse and financial disaster, crime, loss of freedom and our way of life, persecution, death, catastrophic illness, and of course the big one right now, terrorism.

Fear of terrorism, specifically as perpetrated by extremist groups like ISIS or Al-Quaeda, is making many Americans irrational and/or mean-spirited, if you ask me. Witness the following:

  • one presidential candidate didn’t completely disavow the idea of registering Muslims in the U.S. in some kind of database, and said that it might also be a good idea to close mosques;
  • another made the unfortunate (and perhaps unintentional – I’m trying to give him the benefit of the doubt) comparison of Syrian refugees with rabid dogs;
  • others suggest allowing only refugees who can verify they are Christian to enter the country;
  • national polls show that a majority of Americans want to stop the flow (however small it has been so far) of Syrian refugees into the U.S.;
  • the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill prohibiting Syrian and Iraqi refugees from entry into the United States until security and background protocols are strengthened (never mind that security for incoming refugees is already pretty strict) and the Senate is working on similar legislation;
  • more than half of the nation’s governors have stated they will not accept refugees into their states;
  • the comments sections after many online news stories about refugees are filled with hate, with truly vile sentiments being expressed by people, including some purporting to be Christians.

And we could go on. Presidential candidates and others are playing to our worst fears, and many people are allowing themselves to succumb to those fears against all reason.

This all makes me very sad and disheartened. While parallels to U.S. hysteria about Germans during World Wars I and II and about Japanese during World War II are not exact, they are close enough that they should give us pause. The same attitudes and fears that drove our response then seem prevalent today. Do we really want to repeat what we did when we rounded up Japanese people and sent them to internment camps, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Have we learned nothing from history? And then there is the hypocrisy and blindness of being so concerned about the relatively small threat of being killed by terrorism here in the U.S. that we close our borders to refugees who are fleeing actual terrorism, while at the same time not having the national will to do much of anything about preventing the daily toll of death by gun violence in our streets, schools, and homes.

Fear is a powerful motivator, and I confess that it has motivated me far more often than I care to admit to think and act in ways that I wish I hadn’t. I really do understand the fear. But I don’t want to be ruled by it. Fear is not emotionally healthy and I don’t think it’s particularly helpful either, especially when it turns me into something other than my best self. Plus, for Christians, the Bible repeatedly tells us not to be afraid. During a particularly stressful time of my life a number of years ago, when I couldn’t sleep at night, I would quote Psalm 23 to myself, including these words: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” More often than not, I would soon fall asleep – not because the psalm was some magic potion, or because the fear was gone, but perhaps because I had focused on something other than the fear and been reminded of something/someone greater than myself and my fears.

Fortunately, there are rays of hope, decency, and compassion; not everyone is giving in to fear. Many religious organizations (such as Mennonite Central CommitteeNational Association of Evangelicals, and Sojourners) have categorically stated the need to reach out to Syrian refugees and remain faithful to the clear call of Scripture. My own Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has indicated that we will accept refugees into our state, despite the political backlash he is receiving. Many individual Christians are speaking out about the need to follow the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger,” reminding us that Jesus himself was a refugee; many are making valiant efforts to counteract misinformation with facts, about what it actually takes to be able to enter the country as a refugee, for example. And many are trying to inject the toxic conversation with kindness, compassion, and common sense, often at the risk of being ridiculed and called horrible names. All of these things give me hope that we will all  come to our senses and live up to the values not only of our faith but also of our country.

I want to have the courage to stand up for what I believe is right and not give in to fear, to be compassionate and welcoming to people in great need, including refugees from Syria.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). 





Overcoming My “Opinephobia”

I started writing this post weeks ago, long before the latest terrorist attack in Paris. As I’ve watched, read, and listened to the news the last few days, particularly related to how we should respond to refugees from Syria, I decided I have to say something, to express an opinion about what I believe is right – which simply stated is that we must not give in to our fears and close our borders to those seeking refuge from violence and injustice. To explain why saying that in a social media platform like this is difficult for me, let me describe what I consider one of my afflictions.

I coined a new word – “opinephobia,” or fear of expressing an opinion – to describe the affliction. There is so much happening in the world these days that seems to need some kind of response, with sane and wise voices providing perspective. When events unfold in the world, fragments of blog posts often take form in my head as I try to make sense of what I think and believe. I usually don’t finish them, however, because: 1) I decide not to take the time to flesh them out; 2) so much has already been said and I feel like I can’t add anything new to the discussion; 3) my post could easily degenerate into some kind of rant, given my extreme frustration sometimes, and that wouldn’t be helpful; or 4) I’m reluctant to put myself out there – in short, I’m scared of the reaction I might get.

Number 4 is the one I’d like to unpack a bit. Why am I afraid to express an opinion or give my perspective when so many people seem to have no such fear, and when I believe it’s important to stand up for what one believes is right? Here are some possible reasons:

  1. I fear judgment from those who will think I’m wrong, whether ideologically, theologically, biblically, morally, or whatever.
  2. I recognize that issues are always complex, with many shades of gray, and I can’t account for all those shades of gray when expressing a simple opinion. (Someone recently said, “The gray middle is vanishing and all that’s left is the light and the dark.” While I understand what the person meant – he was expressing his opinion about the current state of affairs in the U.S. – I still see shades of gray in almost everything.)
  3. I fear the mean-spiritedness that could be directed at me or those I care about. I don’t like it when people are angry with me!
  4. I fear being unable to express clearly what I mean and as a consequence being misunderstood.
  5. I recognize I probably don’t have all the facts, and don’t want to appear ignorant.
  6. I am well aware that equally sincere and well-meaning people I like and respect often see things quite differently, and I fear that people with whom I disagree will feel like I am judging them.
  7. Perhaps I also fear that even though my opinion is deeply held, I could be wrong and I don’t want to have to admit I’m wrong. (Hard to admit that fear!)

These fears are a little odd, I suppose, because for more than 35 years, I’ve been expressing my opinions in print publications on many difficult and controversial topics. Those opinions are not always in the mainstream of public opinion. This is particularly true when it comes to my commitment to nonviolence, which often leads to less than popular opinions on issues like guns, the death penalty, and war (I’m opposed to all three). I can be fairly fearless in print, speaking the truth as I see it while also recognizing that not everyone will agree with me. Why am I able to do it there but have more difficulty doing it here in this blog, on other social media, or in letters to the editor or online comments sections of various news outlets? Why is it so difficult to have the courage of my convictions in these contexts? I fear the response and I dislike the nasty turn so many online discussions can take.

This is not to say that nothing I’ve written or edited for print has ever received a negative response. But when the response comes by land mail or email to me personally, it’s easier to handle, perhaps because the disagreement is not immediately public and I have more time to think about how to respond. I can cool down from the initial emotional impact (if the letter seems unfair or is hurtful), consider the pros and cons of what the person said, and carefully craft a response that explains why I said what I did, perhaps apologizes for my lack of clarity or for over-stating something, but also acknowledges the value and the validity of the person’s critique. There’s time for nuance and a recognition of complexity that often seems impossible or impractical in the instantaneous world of social media. Online, some people seem able to fire back at will with rebuttals and counter-arguments, while it takes me awhile to formulate what I want to say and how I want to say it, and by then the moment has passed. Also, in online forums, often those who comment make personal attacks or come to wrong conclusions about the kind of person you are, based on what you thought was a simple and honest opinion. And then, of course, there is the issue of my introverted and basically shy self asserting itself, not to mention my long-standing dislike of conflict and desire to avoid it whenever possible.

When I first started writing this, I was thinking of opinions I would like to express on the Black Lives Matter movement, criminal justice, presidential candidates who seem to be the embodiment of the title character in the fairy tale “The Emperor With No Clothes,” gun violence and gun control, and the Iran nuclear agreement, to name a few. Right now, I’m thinking especially of the recent terrorist attack in Paris and the resulting efforts to close our borders to refugees from Syria because of fears that we will be vulnerable to a terrorist attack in the U.S. I understand those fears – as someone who fears many things I wish I didn’t – but I am convinced that we should not let those fears rule us. When people, and especially Christians, call for closed borders and/or only accepting Christian refugees, I am, quite frankly, appalled and embarrassed. In what Christian universe is this okay? Whatever happened to biblical principles like these: “show hospitality to strangers” (Heb. 13:1); “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35); “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers” (Deut. 10:19); “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27-31).

Particularly, at this time of year, when (as various people have helpfully pointed out on my Facebook news feed) we celebrate the birth of Jesus who with Mary and Joseph had to flee death and become a refugee, it seems like the height of irony and hypocrisy for Christians to refuse to welcome refugees and strangers. (Or to quote a recent tweet: “If only we had a seasonally appropriate story about middle eastern people, seeking refuge, being turned away by the heartless.”) Let’s be Christian in the most grace-filled and compassionate sense of that word, refuse to give in to our fears, and open our hearts, minds, and hands to do what is right and what our faith tells us we should do. And that’s my opinion!


A Modest Proposal for Truth

We all know the story of Pinocchio, or at least the part about his nose growing every time he tells a lie. I’ve been thinking lately that many of the current crop of presidential candidates would have very long noses if that happened to them. Not that I am accusing them all of flat-out lying. I will grant that sometimes they aren’t deliberately saying something they know not to be true nor are they necessarily intending to deceive; they are simply choosing the details they want to emphasize to make their point in a way that isn’t actually false but also doesn’t tell the whole story. That said, there’s a whole lot of stuff being said that just doesn’t stand up to the truth test.

What if every time a presidential candidate or prominent politician gave a speech or news conference or participated in a debate, there was a fact-checker on hand to immediately challenge the person? Or what if over each person’s head there was a device (like Politifact.com’s “Truth-o-Meter”) with a dial that moved from “true” on the one side to “false” on the other, and perhaps even included a “pants-on-fire” setting, depending on what the person said? What if the meter dinged loudly when the dial hit the false setting? What if candidates and politicians were simply not allowed to get away with stretching the truth, distorting the facts, or actually lying about what they said or did or what their opponent(s) said or did?

We like to think that there is accountability. After all, political pundits on the cable news shows spend a lot of time exposing the ways in which politicians don’t tell the truth. And there are reputable and nonpartisan websites such as the aforementioned politifact.com or factcheck.org, and the Fact-Checker at the Washington Post that regularly evaluate the veracity of politicians’ statements. The problem, however, is that this is all done after the fact, after the damage is done. With nothing to call people to account for what they say while they are saying it, in front of everyone they’re saying it to, soundbites take on lives of their own. No amount of fact-checking will counteract all the damage to truth that has been done, or keep politicians and their followers from repeating the soundbites every time they give a speech.

Whenever I hear a politician I disagree with speak falsehoods, I get angry because these falsehoods will not only mislead people but are also often completely unfair to their opponents. On the other hand, when politicians I generally respect and agree with say things that aren’t true or cherry-pick the facts, I am also frustrated because I don’t believe it helps their cause. They become just like every other politician who spins the facts to suit his or her own purposes. I long for candidates and leaders to be confident enough of the rightness of their beliefs to speak the truth all the time and not feel like they have to rely on half-truths or outright falsehoods.

You know those real-time counters at the bottom of television screens that keep track of votes on a live poll? What would happen if you had something similar for truth-telling, but running right above the politicians’  heads where viewers couldn’t ignore it? What if they knew they were being fact-checked in real time as they were speaking and their audiences could see a dial move from “true” to “false”? Is it possible that most politicians might begin to be a lot more careful about what they said and would care a lot more about making sure that the meter stayed in the true to mostly true range? Perhaps they would work harder to make careful and reasonable cases for what they believe to be the right course of action.

Of course, there are objections:

  1. It isn’t practical and can’t be done, especially in real-time. Perhaps not, but wouldn’t it be great to try? Plus, a lot of falsehoods are perpetuated over and over again by the same people, even when they have been confronted with the facts. It seems like it wouldn’t take too long until at least some speakers would stop saying certain things that are demonstrably false and start being more careful to speak the truth. After all, who likes to be interrupted with loud dinging, and who wants to be shown up for lying on live TV?
  2. Debates and speeches could take forever, because they would be interrupted repeatedly with calls for truth-telling, and politicians would have to take the time from rehearsed soundbites to explain themselves some other way than with a particular falsehood. Eventually, however, we could hope that the incidence of lying would decrease. See #1.
  3. Fact-checking can’t be done impartially, and truth is often subjective because people see things so differently.  This objection is admittedly more difficult to address. Even in other settings besides politics, where disagreements and conflicts are inevitable, the truth is difficult to determine. Two people can sit in the same meeting, hear the same words being spoken, witness the same events, and still come away with a completely different description of what happened. One might be right and the other wrong about what really happened, but more likely they come to different conclusions about the truth of the event because of the preconceptions, experiences, beliefs, knowledge and biases they brought with them. These days, however, when there is so much video and documentary evidence of the facts of a situation, it’s often not too difficult to illustrate how certain versions of events simply don’t match what really happened.
  4. Some candidates wouldn’t be phased by any amount of fact-checking, but would shout down any attempt to get them to tell the truth. Perhaps, though, many people would eventually begin to recognize the truth themselves and stop accepting their repeated lies, half-truths, and misrepresentations.

I don’t expect that my modest proposal for truth will be implemented any time soon, and it likely isn’t really workable at all, but a girl can dream! In the meantime, I’ll maintain a healthy dose of skepticism when I listen to political speeches, do my own fact-checking (by going to primary sources whenever possible), and probably continue to yell at the TV.


The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect

The butterfly effect is a theory that suggests that the simple act of a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world can affect weather patterns somewhere else. Whether that is literally the case might be open to question (I don’t understand the science of chaos theory, which is apparently where this idea came from), but I believe it’s true that small acts can have large ripple effects that we can’t predict.

I’ve been thinking about the butterfly effect over the last few weeks while we’ve been raising monarch butterflies. Twenty-five years ago, the population of monarch butterflies was about one billion; according to scientists, there are now only 33 million left – a staggering loss of these exquisitely beautiful creatures. The monarch’s winter habitat in the oyamel fir trees in the mountains of Mexico is endangered for a variety of reasons. The amount of milkweed, on which monarch caterpillars exclusively feed, has significantly decreased largely due to the indiscriminate use of pesticides, and encroaching development threatens the loss of wildflowers on which the adult butterflies feed. Fortunately, after the population reached a new low in 2013, it is now rebounding. One reason for the rebound, I’d like to think, is that in addition to well-organized institutional efforts to save the monarch, ordinary people like us are also helping. (Find out about the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and about efforts to monitor and increase the monarch butterfly population).

A few years ago, when we hired someone to help us redo our landscaping, we specifically requested that butterfly-friendly plants be included in the plan. In addition, as we were hearing about the serious decline in the monarch population, Dale gathered some milkweed seed pods from the wild and planted them in the backyard. I’ll admit that I wasn’t enthusiastic about planting something as invasive as milkweed, which I don’t think is particularly beautiful. And the reality is that each spring and summer, Dale pulls out many milkweed plants to keep them from completely taking over our small garden where we also like to plant tomatoes and other vegetables. For the first few years, we didn’t see many monarch caterpillars on the milkweed; in fact, if I’m remembering correctly, we didn’t see any until last year when there were just a couple. This summer, Dale started seeing more, but then he also found a couple dead ones. That’s when the rescue plan kicked into high gear.

Languishing in our basement for many years has been a small aquarium with a screen cover that our kids used for a variety of small pets. Having seen those caterpillar casualties in the backyard, Dale brought in several live ones and helped them set up residence in the aquarium. He supplied them with fresh milkweed each day, while we watched and waited for their transformation into chrysalises. When each beautiful yellow, black, and white-ringed caterpillar was ready, it first made its way to the screen at the top of the aquarium, and then it created silk with which to attach itself to the screen. Once it was attached, it hung head down from the silk in a J shape.

Monarch caterpillar into chrysalis

The middle caterpillar splitting and transforming into chrysalis; another is still in J-mode, and the other is a fully-formed chrysalis.

We missed the actual transformation to chrysalis for the first few caterpillars – we’d check, see that nothing was happening, come back ten minutes later, and there was the chrysalis and we had missed it again. But with perseverance and patience (more on Dale’s part than mine), we were finally able to watch and photograph the process. It took just a couple minutes from when the caterpillar swelled up and his head split open to when the skin dropped to the floor of the aquarium and the chrysalis was fully formed. And then we waited again – this time for the transformation into a butterfly, during which time, as Dale described in a poem he wrote, “[e]nzymes digest much of what was a caterpillar into a nutrient soup/that’s used by embryonic cells to form wings, antennae, legs,/eyes, genitals, and all the other parts of an adult butterfly” form inside the chrysalis. This final process takes about 10 days. Watch the caterpillar transform into a chrysalis.

Again, it was easy to miss the metamorphosis of the chrysalis into a butterfly, even though you can tell when it is about ready to happen because gradually over the course of one day the chrysalis begins to darken, then it turns black and transparent, and you can see the butterfly’s wings folded up inside. But the actual moment is hard to predict. We’d check, walk away, come back and look again, and there was the butterfly, on its way out. Again, with perseverance and patience, we finally saw the whole process. The tissue-paper-thin shell of the chrysalis splits open and what appears to be a small wrinkled butterfly starts coming out. At first, the body seems huge compared to the wings because they are still folded and curled, but within minutes, the wings unfurl like a flag and flatten out, and there’s a full-size adult butterfly! Watch the butterfly emerge from the chrysalis.

Newly emerged monarch butterfly

Newly emerged butterfly, still with wrinkled wings

Monarch butterfly emerging

Newly emerged and soon-to-emerge butterflies

Of course, our plan all along has been to release the butterflies into our backyard when they seem ready to fly. That moment is also hard to determine. We don’t want to keep them inside too long, but we also don’t want to release them before they’re ready. We’ve now released 12 butterflies, hoping they’ll be okay. Some stayed for a long time on the butterfly bush where we placed them, while some flew off into the nearby sweet gum tree. Sometimes Dale helped them out of the aquarium, and sometimes I did.

Newly released monarch

Newly released monarch on butterfly bush

Newly released butterfly in sweet gum tree

Newly released butterfly in sweet gum tree

We’ve “raised” a baker’s dozen. Twelve have successfully emerged into full-grown monarch butterflies and been released, and one remains in chrysalis stage and will probably emerge late this week. We don’t know how many of them would have survived if we had left them outside, but besides ensuring their survival to the butterfly stage, we have enjoyed watching this amazing process of “death” and rebirth, metamorphosis and transformation, and reflecting on its significance in the great scheme of things.

The life cycle of monarch butterflies illustrates the fragility of life and of the earth’s ecosystem, and how important it is to protect both. There are at least four generations each year, the first generation starting in Mexico and migrating northward in the spring, laying eggs and beginning the cycle. First, second and third generation butterflies live two to six weeks, while the fourth generation lives about seven months. Fourth generation butterflies are the ones that fly back to Mexico, winter there, lay their eggs, and produce the first generation that starts the annual cycle all over again. We’re hoping “our” butterflies are those fourth generation ones, and we imagine them flying all the way from Pennsylvania to the mountains of Mexico and, if all goes well, perhaps seeing their offspring back in our yard again next year. At any point along the way, however, something could happen to interrupt the cycle – the winter habitat isn’t large enough to accommodate all the butterflies, eggs don’t hatch, there isn’t enough milkweed to sustain the caterpillars, predators zoom in to destroy, and so on.

I don’t know whether a butterfly flapping its wings in our backyard affects weather patterns or anything else, and I don’t know whether our small effort to help 13 monarch caterpillars on their journey toward becoming butterflies will have much effect on the world’s population of butterflies. It might be tempting to wonder why we should even care about butterflies, when there are so many much larger human problems in the world. While raising butterflies is fun, educational, and contributes to a healthy planet, perhaps there’s a larger point as well. So often we feel helpless to do anything that will really make a difference, when sometimes all it might take are a few small acts of kindness and generosity that will have ripple effects of transformation and rebirth. We do what we can, and let the butterfly effect take care of itself.

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!