My Dad, The Diplomat

Remembering a Hog Butcher Diplomat by Steve Clemens

Not many years had passed since the demagoguery of Senator Joe McCarthy when President Eisenhower embarked on what he called “People-to-People” diplomacy. I don’t know the details because it happened before my teenage years but my father set aside his butcher’s apron and knife to travel with a group of other business leaders to East and West Berlin and Moscow.

Dad returned home with photos and stories of the stark contrasts between grocery stores from “the East and the West” but what I remember most from that trip was not the bravery it must have taken for my Dad to travel to the capital city of our “national enemy” but rather the fact that he brought home seal-skin hats that we had seen many Russians wore in the winter in the National Geographic photos we looked at as kids.

I sit amazed nowadays at the courage he embodied to take such risks. We regularly read the virulent anti-Communist propaganda tracts put out by the John Birch Society so to be seen by others as one who would travel to meet “the enemy” was in reality, my Dad’s embodiment of the Jonah story. Nineveh was the Moscow for Jonah and I’m sure my Dad’s theology probably included Jonah’s “repent or risk divine destruction” message even though in those days I think it was forbidden for him to take his Bible “behind the Iron Curtain”.

I do remember our church supported some missionaries who “smuggled Bibles” to the people ruled by “godless Communists” but wonder now how my father’s friends and work colleagues reacted to his willingness to travel to the enemy’s home turf unarmed as a people-to-people diplomat. I wore that beautiful seal-skin hat with pride – after all, it was a novelty and it fit in well with the “coon-skin Davy Crockett” hats my brothers and I wore a few years before.

Dad left school after the tenth grade to help in the family butchering business. He was very proficient with the knife – from boning out hams at work to showing his sons how to skin a rabbit or gut a deer on our hunting adventures. It is easy to remember those typically “macho” scenes of a father and sons bonding together while fishing or hunting but from my vantage point now of fifty-five plus years later, it is his willingness to stretch out his hand to embrace an enemy is a memory I want to cherish.

Rest in Peace, Dad. Your lessons to me as we sighted-in our shotguns or rifles before going hunting in my teen years always came with your proviso: “never, ever, point your gun at a human being; never shoot anything you don’t wish to kill; and eat what you kill.”

It was those messages in the back of my mind when I turned 18 and registered for the military draft and fired the rifle assigned to me on the Wheaton College ROTC rifle range that caused me to declare I was a Conscientious Objector as it dawned on me that my targets were no longer pheasants, deer, or rabbits but rather “Viet Cong”.

You never bragged about your role as part of what our culture deems “the Greatest Generation” as you followed General Patton’s troops through France and into Germany trying to recover the bodies of dead and wounded GIs off the battlefield as German snipers aimed at the spotlight you operated. I never got the message from you about the heroism of going to war – even against the Nazis. Granted, you were only in your early 20s and I remember how invulnerable I felt at that age. But real courage was modeled for this son by your un-armed attempt at diplomacy to those you saw as “trapped behind the Iron Curtain.”


It is my prayer that I, too, have found ways to model such leadership for my own sons in some small way to help heal the wounds of war and division.

Remembering My Dad

The Passing of My Patriarch: Remembering Lester S. Clemens  
Dad at 95

I know - patriarchy is not in fashion these days- and rightfully so. But my father was the patriarch of our family. Actually, his father, my paternal grandfather, John C Clemens was more of a patriarch- having fathered 14 children, 10 surviving past infancy; my paternal Grandfather was the more classic model but I was only 9 years old when he passed and had only spent a few summers with him when he lived in our small basement apartment when he came north from his winter, spring, and fall home in Sarasota, Florida where he moved after retirement. He is the one who started the family business and provided the vision that was followed by 4 of his sons in what is now known as the Clemens Family Corporation but was merely Hatfield Packing Company in my childhood. 

My dad's patriarchy was over his 3 sons, 9 grandchildren, and 18 great grandchildren (with one on the way). His passing, at age 95, leaving only his youngest sister, my Aunt Betty, age 92, marks the end of that generation. He provided the spiritual leadership, the financial stability, and the discipline for our family. Although my mom co-parented- especially when he was away on business trips during my pre-teen years, we three sons knew who had the final word. 

Dad's faith and belief was a central core to his identity. Yes, he was also a veteran (having survived World War II as an Army infantryman), a quiet philanthropist, a businessman, and a community leader - but all of those identities were subordinated to his desire to be known as a disciple and follower of Jesus. 

My father was a Veteran. Dad never talked to me about his military service until I asked him direct questions after his 80th birthday celebration on the way back to the airport for my return trip to Minnesota. "I did some things I'm not proud of because I wasn't a Christian then. But I told the Lord, if I made it home [from Europe] safely, I'd go to church and change my life," he told me. And he did.  As a boy, I marveled at the German Mauser rifles, replete with removable bayonet bearing the  swastika,  and officer's Luger pistol, he had sent home from the battlefield.  We used the rifles for deer hunting in our earlier teenage years. Not once did he ever give me the impression that he was proud of his military service – he did it out of a sense of obligation.

Even though he and some of his generation eventually left his Mennonite tradition disagreeing with the ban on jewelry, musical instruments in worship, the need for women to wear head coverings, ... he still retained much from that pietist heritage. He identified as an "evangelical" because he felt he had an obligation to share his "good news" about his relationship with Jesus with others. His faith in and commitment to Jesus was the most important thing he wanted to pass on to others.

Yes, Dad was a philanthropist- he gave the bulk of his wealth away to many dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations, causes, or people. While never living extravagantly, he and my mom traveled to many distant places after his retirement at age 65, primarily to visit missionaries they supported in prayer and financially. Yes, a few organizations recognized Dad for his donations - including been given an honorary doctorate by a local seminary, despite having only a 10th grade formal education. But he was content not to make a show of his generosity- he was merely passing on "the blessings he had received from his 'Father in heaven'". I would be surprised as a young child to see someone from our church who had recently lost his job now working as an employee at the meat packing plant which was a mere 50-100 feet from our front door. He strongly insisted that his sons continue his practice of giving to others. Even his personal checks bore the scriptural verse, "For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his own soul?" That made a real impression on my brothers and me! 

Dad was a businessman - but here too, his ethics and values of his faith, also shared by his 3 brothers in the meat packing business, took priority over profit. Even though the plant employees were not unionized (unions were considered corrupt and too confrontational for my Dad and uncles), they instituted a "profit sharing" plan that eventually lead to a very comfortable retirement for many of the men I worked alongside of as a youth. [Dad had us working at the plant starting at age 7 before and after school. I started at 15 cents/hour and was elated when I turned 15 and could then command $1.15/hour.] Having grown up as "the boss' son - my Dad was Vice President to my Uncle John as the company President until I went off to college and he succeeded my uncle - I knew I was in a privileged position even though when I was assigned a job of bagging kidneys and livers, making scrapple, boxing frozen chitterlings, or assembling corrugated boxes I sometimes felt his desire to make us appreciate the work we had was trying to make us "too equal". I look back now on those days and lessons with deep gratitude and appreciation for his leadership and direction. 

Dad was a community leader. He regularly served on the church council and the missionary board. We often hosted missionaries in our home when they were on home leave as well as hosting special guest speakers who came to our church for the annual "Missionary Conference". Dad served on the Board of Directors for a Bible Conference, a local seminary, and other local businesses and organizations. 

But most of all, my Dad was an example of how to live a faithful life. Even though we have parted ways theologically, politically, and geographically, I still see my Dad as a role model. Sure I have some regrets: he wasn't very expressive emotionally as I was growing up but he was much more effusive as his health started failing him - maybe causing those stoic Mennonite genes to relax a little more. In his evangelical zeal, he was not affirming when I chose a different path - yet I knew he still loved me despite what he saw as my "rebellion". We certainly have some diverging philosophies when it comes to "charitable" giving with my predilection for social justice and his for evangelism but we both agree on direct service to the needy both at home and abroad. Without his generosity to me, I'd have a lot less to share with others as I've chosen to spend my vocational years with non-profit groups and organizations. 

He has left big shoes to fill. But he has blazed a path for his sons and their offspring. And he couldn't have done all this without his loving partner, my Mom - now slowly disappearing into her Alzheimer's. 


Waiting ... Waiting

Waiting, Waiting by Steve Clemens, March 12, 2017
“We are waiting, waiting, restless but waiting” was a refrain our faith community sang each week during Advent. It is not the kind of refrain one would normally sing during the season of Lent. But in my family, it has been now about 6 weeks of watching my father, 95 years old, slip closer and closer to his death. Having fallen and fractured both his pelvis and a hip socket, his decline health-wise seemed precipitous as he needed two blood transfusions and then increasing amounts of pain medications, slipping into signs of dementia or confusion.
Knowing his healthcare directive wishes expressed to my brother, I heeded his advice and flew into eastern Pennsylvania to say my goodbyes. He was very glad to see me and for the four days I spent there he was relatively responsive for part of each day but lapsing further downward as the day progressed. Phil told me dad called him “Frank” and he often made references to things or places that made no sense to us. Other times he responded gratefully to hearing my son Micah talk to him via Facetime from Afghanistan when I thought he might not survive that day.
It is difficult to admit to wishing for someone’s demise but seeing my dad’s continuing deterioration with virtually no medical hope of recovery, I don’t want to see his suffering prolonged. In the hospital just after he fell, when being positioned for x-rays or MRIs, my brother told me he screamed, “Jesus take me now!” When I visited several weeks ago, he tells me and my brothers of “seeing Jesus and his disciples” in his dreams and clearly expresses his desire to “be with Him”.
His hospice nurses have been puzzled by how he remains alive each of the past several mornings, having expected that he would pass over during the night. He stopped eating more than a week ago and doesn’t even accept a drink of water or juice when offered. It has been a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. My brothers, sister-in-laws, or nieces bring my mom upstairs to see him and sometimes he knows her but other times he just keeps his eyes closed. He hasn’t spoken in the past three days and my mom, despite her Alzheimer’s where she rarely initiates any conversation said to him, “Les, why won’t you talk to me?”
Dad has lived a full, productive life. Despite three strokes in the past few years which has confused some of his language – especially mixing up his pronouns – he has been relatively physically and mentally healthy for his age. To see him recently with his wrists so skinny that his watch goes almost to his elbow is painful for me to see. I feel his pain as he winces when he tried to sit up in his hospital-type bed. More than a week ago, along with his cessation of eating, he started removing all of his clothing. The hospice nurse reassured us that both of these behaviors were signs that he was ready to pass. Yet each morning since I’ve returned to Minnesota after telling him I loved him and that he should “rest in the arms of Jesus” and that we would “take care of mom for him”, I have received a text message from one or both of my brothers telling me that dad has survived the night and updated me on his continued status among the living.
I love you, Dad. Your work is done. Please go to your eternal reward and rest in the loving embrace of the Jesus you tried to follow and emulate for the past 70 years or so. Yes, we will miss you and mourn your passing but part of you lives on in all of those your life has touched.

Open Letter to St. Paul's Mayor and Police Chief After Arrests on Interstate 94

July 12, 2016
Mayor Chris Coleman
Police Chief Todd Axtell
City of St. Paul
St. Paul, MN 55406-1322

Dear Mayor Coleman and Chief Axtell,

I wish I was able to have been in the streets on Saturday night with some of my friends, standing in solidarity as a white ally to Black Lives Matter – alas, I couldn’t risk arrest because of a recent blood clot requires medicine twice a day for the next three months and I couldn’t take the risk of being unable to take that medicine. I, like many of those friends, have taken training in “militant nonviolence” as a way of working for social change which I think you also must recognize must happen quickly  - especially in the wake of the killing of Philando Castille – if we are to avoid even greater social disorder and disruption.

I think you’ve made a terrible mistake in judgment in “overcharging” most of those arrested on Interstate 94 with Third-degree Riot. Did you notice that most of those who were so-charged were white, middle-class activist-types who have been the bedrock of our communities for years? [Please note: the “overcharging” refers to a peaceful, nonviolent gathering –with the notable exception of some outsiders not affiliated with Black Lives Matter and/or Standing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) activists – rather than the fact that most were “white” or middle-class.]

Many of those arrested went there precisely for that purpose: to commit public civil disobedience as an act of solidarity with people of color to stay to them: as a white ally, I feel your pain, hurt, and suffering. I, too, want to end the silence in our state about the system of white silence which allows the continuation of policies of white supremacy to infect our police departments. [I say this with a deep sadness as someone who deeply loves and cares for my brother-in-law in western Pennsylvania who is both a retired Chief of Police and a retired Mayor of his hometown, the small city of New Kensington. While he an I have our friendly disagreements about the use and tactic of civil disobedience, I know he, like you, is fair-minded and full of distress at the racial chasm we have allowed to fester in our nation.]

I am one of the 25 white allies arrested for blocking the Light Rail tracks on the afternoon of the Twins Opener this April and will be in court to face those charges next week. I am ready and willing to go to jail as an act of solidarity with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis for it. I‘m grateful to hear that you, Chief Axtell, publicly stated yesterday that you will continue to work with the Black Lives Matter movement as Chief. I was present and grateful to first encounter you several weeks ago before your appointment as Chief of Police when you came to the event at a mosque/Islamic Center in Frogtown on Islamaphobia and stood side-by-side with the Imam and said how necessary it is to work together to better our community. I was there as a white Christian ally to show my Muslim brothers and sisters that they are a valued part of our community.

If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion to both of you for the next time such a confrontation occurs: give the mandated 3 warnings and then make the requisite arrests without the smoke bombs and pepper spray. Yes, keep your officers safe – I, too, like most of my friends absolutely denounce the handful of self-proclaimed “anarchists” who hide in the crowd and throw stones and invectives while covering their faces and their shameful acts. Just arrest those who are there who want to be arrested as an act of solidarity and want to be able to stand in Court to denounce our white supremist system which so devalues the lives of others – both Black Lives as well as Blue Lives. Those self-proclaimed “anarchists” want nothing more than a police over-reaction and the chaos it produces and gives many of my true anarchist friends who are committed to a thoroughgoing nonviolence a bad name.

I can say with certain assurance that my friend and neighbor, Linda Clare Breitag, along with her daughter Sophia Breitag, who were charged with “third-degree riot” and held in your jail for two nights acted with the best of intentions as white allies and their treatment and jailing brings disgrace and shame to your great city. Yes, I expect both of you to take a stand defending your police – especially when they are under physical attack – while not falling into the trap of those who seek more chaos into our seething racial cauldron.

I, too, question some of the tactics of some of the young leadership of the Black Lives Matter movement – especially in blocking interstate highways – but it is obvious (at least to me) that our previous nonviolent tactics have so far not brought about the justice and brotherhood (and sisterhood) that Dr. King died for almost 50 years ago. I am willing to suspend my own preferences of tactical style to allow this new generation of leadership to emerge as long as they continue to embrace nonviolence. We need to find a way to separate out those few actors (in both the ranks of the police as well as “protesters”) who seek violent confrontation rather than threat de-escalation.

I don’t covet your difficult jobs – but surely both of you could do better. Please, at the very least, drop the scurrilous charge of “riot” while leaving at appropriate change of “failure to obey a lawful order” or “impeding traffic on a highway” and recognize the important role that civil disobedience has always played in social change in our nation.


Steve Clemens
2912 E. 24th Street
Minneapolis, MN 55406-1322
Dan Berrigan: Mentor and Inspiration by Steve Clemens, May 3, 2016

I don’t think I heard about the draft file burning at Catonsville, MD until a year or two later. After all, our high school baseball team was hoping to win its second straight Ivy Prep League title (we fell one game short with me in the on-deck circle with bases-loaded and two outs) and I was caught up in Senior Weekend and my up-coming graduation. Even Dr. King’s assassination the month before didn’t register in my sheltered life at an all-boys college prep school on Long Island. My life of privilege allowed me to virtually ignore the increasing carnage of the Vietnam War because it was assumed all 41 of our graduating class of 1968 would be attending college and receive “student deferments” as long as we maintained a decent grade-point average.

I do remember thinking that the destruction of property, coupled with the fact that most of the actors of the Catonsville 9 were Roman Catholic, was not an appropriate act of dissent when I became aware of it about a year after the May 17, 1968 occurrence. At the time of their trial, I was wrestling with the momentous decision of registering for the military draft. A month earlier I was issued a rifle and a uniform as part of my registration at Wheaton College; all male students were required to enroll in U.S. Army ROTC unless they had an honorable discharge from military service or a 4-F (physically or morally unfit for service) or 1-O (conscientious objector) status from their draft board. I was scheduled to register for Selective Service on October 16 when I turned 18 years old.

It was not an easy decision; my father had left his Mennonite heritage and entered the U.S. Army when drafted in World War II. He never talked to me (or to my brothers, I assumed) about his experience in France and Germany as a radioman in the infantry as his unit followed General George Patton’s soldiers. Only after his 80th birthday did he share any details with us about this period of his life and then mostly to say he wasn’t proud of the things he had done but he had “promised the Lord that if he got home safely”, he’d return to the church and “follow the Lord.” Even though the Mennonite Church my Dad helped found in 1950 never affiliated with any of the Mennonite conferences and did not stress the traditional “peace witness” expected of Mennonites, I was aware that some of my relatives were pacifist or conscientious objectors even if my parents weren’t.

After prayer, reading scripture, and talking with a Resident Assistant on my college dorm wing, I decided that I must register as a conscientious objector – to all wars, not just the current one in Vietnam. But it was a personal decision – a moral stand as an individual – rather than a social or political decision at that point. I couldn’t in good conscience take up a gun to kill the Vietnamese but I also wasn’t sitting in judgment on those who did go or my government’s “foreign policy”. I knew little about what was happening in “the far East” other than what my parent’s copies of US News and World Report stressed: those “godless Communists” were killing our “Christian missionaries” and wanted to force their atheism on all of southeast Asia.

So Father Daniel Berrigan, his brother Phil Berrigan and the other actors of the drama at the Draft Board office in Catonsville, Maryland didn’t register. A year after becoming a conscientious objector, I started participating in anti-war marches on the Wheaton, Illinois Draft Board, led by “Father Tom”, a Maryknoll order priest from nearby Glen Ellyn. Sometime that fall or early winter I came across Dan’s book about their trial, The Trial of The Catonsville Nine. I was struck by Dan’s poetic description of the draft files – they were cast as “hunting licenses for human beings.” That made me re-think what was really going on. As I spent more time with Father Tom and other “radical Catholics” at anti-war marches or taking courses at the Maryknoll Seminary where he taught, I was struck by their vibrant Christian faith and was jolted from my anti-Catholic upbringing.

That was a good thing as the books of Dan Berrigan fed my soul and spirit in a way that few others did. No Bars to Manhood, The Dark Night of Resistance, Night Flight to Hanoi, They Call Us Dead Men, The Raft is Not the Shore, America is Hard To Find, To Dwell In Peace, We Die Before We Live,  …. The list could go on and on, especially his commentaries on the Psalms (Uncommon Prayer), the Prophets, Lamentations, Exodus, … Again, insight, challenge, humor, conviction. I didn’t understand probably half of his poetry – but what I did understand, wow! Especially “No and Yes and the Whole Damned Thing” that was published in Sojourners Magazine in 1976.

I only met Dan Berrigan a few times – the first being at my first arrest for civil disobedience a month before the Vietnam War ended. He was one of the 62 of us who refused to leave the grounds of the White House in March 1975, demanding that we meet with President Ford to reject the continued funding of the South Vietnamese military and in rejecting what we called his “punitive clemency” program for Vietnam War draft resisters. I was much closer to his brother Phil and his partner in resistance, Liz McAlister, having joined their Bible study group the year before. In 1980 I heard Dan speak at a national Fellowship of Reconciliation gathering at Berea College and then in the mid-1980s Dan came to our Georgia communities gathering at Koinonia Farm to lead a weekend Bible study on the book of Revelations. I saw him again briefly at larger gatherings or demonstrations but his inspiration and challenge to me was much greater than my personal contact with him.

What stands out most vividly was his claim that our [Christian] baptism is an embracing of the life and crucifixion of Jesus, and, when we are raised out of the water, our resurrection to new life means that there is nothing the state can do to threaten us if we’ve already chosen to “die with Christ”. The state has no power over us since it’s most harsh sanction, death, has already been embraced in our choosing to follow Jesus. The state can jail us – but we’ve already “died to Christ.” They Call Us Dead Men – if we can excuse the pre-feminist exclusionary language – was Dan’s call to me to act out of my faith rather than my fears. Dan didn’t just write about faith and resistance, he embodied it. He incarnated his faith by standing in the street, hammering warheads, ministering to other fellow prisoners, and sharing the Eucharist with all who gathered.

Dan, I love you, I thank you, I miss you. But I know your spirit is still with us every time we gather to say “No” and “Yes” – not too soon, not too quickly, not too easily, not too cheaply. Until our “No” is swallowed up in [Christ’s] “Yes”. We are called to continue on the path you trod for the past 50+ years.

No and yes and the whole damn thing … A poem by Daniel Berrigan. 1976

   What is the point in saying no,
What is the point in not saying no?
   The questions make sense as long as there is a point toward which the questions are moving.
   If I say no, and there is a point at distance, at which someone is saying yes, then it makes sense to say no; for my no is transfigured, hastening into that yes.
   If I do not say no, and there is a point at distance at which someone is saying yes, then my not saying no also makes sense, as long as I am attentive to that yes, and want my not naysaying to echo and be included in that yes.
   I may however say no in a void, just as I may refuse to say no, in a void. In which case my no saying and my non no saying are lost in a void.
   We look for land marks, we look for sea marks.
   “When we are seated in a moving vessel and our eyes are fixed upon an object on the same vessel, we do not notice that we are moving. But if we look further, upon something that is not moving along with us, for instance upon the coast, we notice immediately that we are moving. It is the same with life. When the whole world lives wrongly we fail to notice it, but should only one person awake spiritually, the life of all others becomes immediately apparent. And the others always persecute those who do not live like them.”
   We must come from somewhere if we are to go somewhere.
   We must go somewhere if we are to remember that we come from somewhere.
   There is only one word in all creation. ‘Jesus is the YES of God.’ (Paul)
   We however dwell on the other side of that yes; the grave side, the dark side, the death side, the underside.
   So it is important not to say yes too soon, too easily, too often, too cheaply. This would be to debase the currency of life itself which is not a money, but the blood of our brothers and sisters, the blood of Christ.
   Just as it is important not to say no in a void. This would be to join our voices to the despairing wail of the damned.
   It is important to say no in view of, in the direction of, a yes which is forever distant, forever nearing.
   Because we are hungry for fullness, for non death, for life, for non suffering.
   Because we cannot merely stand by  or bystand or spectate or grandstand or freeload or grimace.
   Because a because joins us, life to lifeline, to the cause of goodness, of love, of truth in deed.
   Because the distance between the no we insist on and the yes that insists on us, is constantly narrowing, reaching, almost touching.
   Therefore our word to all systems of this world, right, left, center, imperial, colonial, fascist, racist, capitalist, Marxist, maoist, castroist, reformist, is
   Not yet, not enough, not quite, not at all, not by a half, not by a long shot.
   Ours being an ethic of the promise, implying that we keep our promise; to say no until the day when our no is swallowed in His yes; until then we await and press forward and trust to His keeping of the promise which is to say a payment no power or form or arrangement of this world can estimate or hand over to mint or hoard or bribe us with
a war payment but more
a blood sacrifice and more
a livid stigma and more
   His payment coming due on His day; nothing less than the substance of his promise which is our rising from the ‘body of this death’
Life unimaginable
to the degree that our misery, our moral stagnation, our spiritual and corporal and social plague, is beyond healing
any healing but one; maranatha, come Lord Jesus.