Conversion in My Life -Jubilee Partners devotions – March 16,2009. Steve Clemens
With the passing of my friend, Millard Fuller, someone who embraced a radical change of direction in his own life, I thought I’d share a couple of my own “conversions”.
I have two older brothers. Both are conservative, Republican evangelicals who have never lived in a different town than my parents. I am the odd duck, the black sheep, the Prodigal Son. Why?
Clarence Jordan tells us John the Baptizer said: “Change your whole way of thinking ‘cause the power of God’s new movement in impinging upon ya”.
How are we converted? Someone said it is easier to act into a new way of thinking than to think one’s way into a new kind of acting. For me, conversion has been impacted by The power of personal encounter and modeling.
I’d like to talk about two areas of conversion for me:
I. Becoming a Conscientious Objector and the journey to resistance: from my 9th grade debate to becoming a convicted criminal
My Dad used to take me and my brothers hunting. Even though my Dad was in WWII and had brought home two German Mauser rifles complete with Nazi swastikas on the bayonets, he never talked about his war experiences with us. What he did say to us was: never, ever point your gun at a human being. Never ever aim at something you don’t wish to kill. And eat what you kill.
In Sunday School I learned Jesus said to love your enemies. But even though my Dad wouldn’t let us play “cops and robbers” or “cowboys and Indians”, we never talked about what Jesus might have meant in that specific area.
In 8th or 9th grade, 1962 or 63, we had a debate in Junior High over Vietnam. I was chosen to debate a brainy but wimpy Quaker kid. I came armed with facts and figures about how the Communists were killing Christian missionaries in Vietnam. We had to defend the faith against these godless hoards. I got my facts and figures from US News and World Report. I “won” the debate according to the poll of my classmates.
However, I went to a College Prep school for High School. All my 40 classmates were headed to college so there wasn’t any talk that I was aware of at school about the War. I graduated in 1968 - which was the height of the war as far as the number of US troops there. The war wasn’t even on my radar so I must have overlooked the fact that the College I chose had compulsory Army ROTC for all male students. I was issued a gun and a uniform when I registered for classes.
However, on my way to Wheaton College, my parents stopped to visit my Aunt and cousins in Indiana. My cousin, Jon Brandenburger was a couple of years older than me and had decided to register as a Conscientious Objector and was about to leave for Alternative Service at a hospital. This was important for me – in that he modeled another possibility. I personally knew someone – from my own family! – who was a CO.
So, when I started to question what I would do when 2 months later my 18th birthday arrived and I had to register for the military draft, I had some options. When I was on the firing range in my ROTC uniform, I began to realize that the circles on the target mysteriously morphed into human figures- they became Viet Cong. And then the words of my Dad came to mind: “Don’t ever aim at a human” and Jesus: “Love Your Enemy”.
Fortunately, once again I had a personal encounter to help me in this “conversion”. The Resident Assistant on my Dorm floor was a college senior who was a Mennonite. He knew I was turning 18 and offered to pray and do some Bible study with me as I made this decision.
However, becoming a Conscientious Objector hadn’t changed my conservative politics. The next summer I chose to live in the inner-city of Philadelphia to work with street gangs because I had my racism challenged a few months before at a Black Power Symposium. At Teen Haven, in Philly, I was mentored by this big, white Conservative Baptist minister who graduated from Toccoa Bible Institute just a long stone’s throw from here. This white, Southern boy, however, helped me navigate the streets and was calm as a cucumber when a Black Panther pointed his handgun at us. That summer I watched the moon landing while in a tenement slum apartment and my politics began to change. Conversion because of modeling and personal encounter.
Back at Wheaton College that fall, I started to march on the local Draft Board under the leadership of Father Tom, a priest who taught at the nearby Maryknoll Seminary. He taught me not to hide “my light under a bushel” by being public in my anti-war position.
After college, I entered Voluntary Service with the Mennonites. I met Ladon Sheats at my orientation and he became another mentor into going deeper in my commitment to practice nonviolence. While in Voluntary Service, I joined a Bible Study group led by Phil Berrigan and Liz Macalester. Again, the power of personal encounter and modeling. Ladon’s mentoring me in jail was especially helpful during my first extended stay as “a guest of the state. “
While engaged in public witness against the Nuclear “White Train”, I had the examples of Jim and Shelly Douglass as well as the accompaniment of Don, Robbie, Ryan, and Terry from Jubilee and Gail and Edwin from Koinonia.
Today the question is: how deep do I want to go? Once you begin to understand the nature of the Empire, where does your resistance begin? End? There is always room for conversion (again).
My second example of conversion:
II. Becoming more open and welcoming of “The Other”
There are four areas within this on-going conversion experience: with Catholics, people of color, people who are sexual minorities, and those of other faiths and religions.
1. Catholics – I secretly cheered at the death of President Kennedy. I was raised to believe that “Catholics worshipped Mary” and were going to hell. My parents told me “Don’t ever date a Catholic girl – you might fall in love and the Bible says “Don’t be unequally yoked together with unbelievers”.
At Wheaton, we in the evangelical movement knew who was “saved” and who wasn’t. Catholics and Jews weren’t.
But then I encountered Fr. Tom , the Maryknoll priest leading the protests against the war at the Draft Board. As I spent time with him, his passion for justice and peace was contagious. He suggested I take a couple of his courses at the Catholic Seminary, especially the one on the “Mission of the Church”. It was a course designed to explain the changes of Vatican II to other Catholics. I was the only Protestant in the class. It was exciting! I was amazed at how my own faith journey was lining up with what Fr. Tom has to say.
Then my Bible Study with Liz Macalester and Phil Berrigan. Except for my housemate who had introduced me too the group, all the others were Catholic. We met at the Community for Creative Nonviolence so I got to know the well-known homeless activist, Mitch Snyder, as well.
When I finally got to Koinonia, I discovered that living with others across denominational lines continued to force me to be “converted” about who was part of this “Kingdom of God Movement”. The Fousts, who some of you met yesterday, helped me in accepting Catholics as my brothers and sisters.
2. People of Color –challenging my racism
My upbringing in rural southeast Pennsylvania exposed me to very few “people of color”: “Eye-talians” and “Pollacks” provided the “diversity”. It wasn’t until Prep School that I finally had classmates of color and I experienced having an Asian-American as my roommate my junior year. However, Sun Bin Lee had been pretty “Americanized” by the time we shared a room.
It was in college, after I became a CO and a “student dissident” that I started hanging out with the other “rebels” on campus – the “student government leaders” and the few students of color. My junior year my roommate, Ron Potter, was the de facto leader of the Black students on campus and I spent a lot of time with a Puerto Rican friend, Aric Carillo. I saw an entirely different world than other Wheaton students had experienced! The Black Power symposium I had attended the end of my freshman year had catapulted me from being a conservative Republican to a political “radical”. I never stopped at that “liberal” stage.
In my Voluntary Service experience, an elderly African-American in the Mississippi Delta, Jake Ayers, a veteran from the Civil Rights battles, was my mentor. At Koinonia, I learned more at the feet of Ethel Dunning, Doris Pope, and especially her father-in-law, Deacon Ludrell Pope. “Miss Gussie” regaled Christine and me with her stories from the civil rights struggle.
This is an area of conversion and growth for me continually. Being part of a Sabbath Economics group in Minneapolis with a Native American pastor has richly blessed us with his perspective and advice. My recent sojourn to Federal Prison helped me better understand the plight of black males in our broken economy and fractured society.
3. Sexual Minorities – My own experience in 6th grade scarred my soul - having been sexually abused by a male teacher repeatedly, this blossomed for me into an unconscious homophobia. Not that anyone in this American culture would need that as an excuse – we’ve always treated minorities abysmally.
At Koinonia, it was predominately an academic/theoretical issue until an old friend, Bill, told Christine and me about his life-long struggle, coming out to himself – and then to us – as a gay man. After his recounting of all the therapy he endured, his self-loathing, his doubts, guilt, fear – it became very clear to us that his sexual orientation was not a “choice” at all. As he became more comfortable with who God had made him, he was determined to see if others could accept him for who he was as well. It was a humbling experience for us to be taken into his confidence and trust. It was only because we knew Bill as a friend and a committed disciple of Jesus before he came out as a gay man that forced us to re-think our previous judgments against homosexuals.
At our present community, The Community of St. Martin, it is a central tenant of our commitment that we be “open and welcoming” to all believers – regardless of sexual orientation. We are also blessed in Minneapolis with a dynamic presence of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities and Michael Bayly, it’s insightful leader.
We now have a number of LGBT friends. I look back and wonder how I could have been so judgmental in the past. My recent week of Bible Study with Ched Myers confirms this journey. Jesus rejection of the Purity Codes of the Pharisees means No one can be excluded because of who they are in their bodies. I’ve brought along a transcript of his session on Mark 7 if any of you are interested.
4. Recently I have been working on inter-religious dialog and learning a deeper appreciation for other religious traditions.
Part of this journey begins with cross-cultural experiences: urban Philadelphia, rural Mississippi & Georgia, Habitat trips to Guatemala, Egypt/Jordan; being part of the Iraq Peace Team, taking Jubilee bus trips with the Ano de Jubileo Program …
Taking some Bible study sessions with Rabbi Art Waskow at Sojourners and Word and World Schools has given me a deep appreciation for Talmudic wisdom and the power of Midrash in Jewish spirituality.
I’ve worked with Sami Rasouli and his Muslim Peacemaker Team in the Twin Cities – learning from his courage and compassion – which he learned and experienced with Tom Fox of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq.
The power of Native spirituality from Bob Two Bulls and Winona Laduke has also challenged me –especially in areas of honoring the creation.
As one begins to turn, to be converted, to have a whole new way of seeing, God reveals so much more to us. Why does it often take the personal encounter for us to change? It is the power of incarnation. When the “otherness” becomes flesh-and-blood, incarnated in bodily form for us, then we can begin to change how we act and how we believe. I certainly don’t need to recount how the experience with immigrants and refugees at Jubilee has changed many of our lives. As we begin to change, so does our perspective and we begin to see things/people we’ve previously over-looked. The old Shaker song reminds us :”Til by turning, turning, we come round right.” Does the turning ever stop? There might be one or two “big conversions” in our lives - but it seems many more will follow once we allow the defensive walls of our hearts (and heads) to be breached.
The Call of the Gospel is to Recognize the “Other” –those marginalized.
So, who is responsible for my “conversion”? Besides those already mentioned, I need to name:
Phil Brasfield and Bob Redd in understanding prisoners and those on Death Row
Many, many women helping me become a feminist – I have the gift of several radical Nuns in my life today.
Ed, Murphy, Tony, Ralph, Lauren and other Open Door folk who’ve opened my eyes to those on the streets
Catholic Workers who embody resistance and acts of mercy.
For Millard Fuller, conversion involved meeting Clarence Jordan. Many others have started on their own conversions after encountering Millard.
Abbott Francis Michael met Mother Theresa. It radically changed his life.
Who has touched your life?
Whose life has been touched and changed by yours?
I’m reminded in all of this of something I learned from Clarence Jordan: Jesus calls us not to Judge Others but rather to be Fruit Inspectors. “By their fruits you shall know them”. I’m so grateful for all the “fruits and nuts” God has sent my way so far.