Ladon Sheats, Presente! By Steve Clemens. August 2012
It is now 10 years that have gone by since my friend and mentor Ladon Sheats passed over to the other side after a brief but significant battle with an aggressive cancer at age 68. Shepherded through hospice care by my friends Ched, Catholic Workers, and many others, his body was buried in a simple hand-dug grave similar to his own mentor, Clarence Jordan. Ched told me how an eagle flew overhead during their service, a sign of welcome for this gentle peacemaker to the great cloud of witnesses.
My first encounter with Ladon Sheats was during my week of orientation in Akron, PA in September 1974 for my up-coming year of Voluntary Service with Mennonite Central Committee. After spending my summer in rural Mississippi with MCC and MDS (Mennonite Disaster Service), my friend and neighbor Walton Hackman asked me if I was willing and interested in spending a year volunteering at the MCC Peace Section's Washington, DC office on Capitol Hill. Just weeks earlier President Nixon had resigned in disgrace as the Watergate scandal exposed the rot at the center of our national government.
Ladon was on a speaking trip from his home at Koinonia Farm outside Americus, GA and he spoke with passion (and compassion) and conviction. He showed a multi-media presentation using two slide projectors, music by cassette tape, and his spoken narrative which contrasted the values of "The Kingdom of God" and that of America in the final years of the war against the people of Vietnam. Quoting liberally from Clarence's "Cotton Patch" translation of the New Testament, Ladon showed and told us that the American values of "rugged individualism" (exemplified by a photo of John Wayne and Simon & Garfunkel's song, “I Am A Rock"), materialism, and militarism were thoroughly contradicted by the values put forth my Jesus about the Kingdom of God. Interdependence, cooperation and sharing, and compassion with nonviolence were the marks of a radical follower or disciple of the Man From Nazareth – what a contrast with America’s values!
As the slide projector screen flashed pictures of Madison Avenue ads, lynchings of black men and boys, napalm and bombs being dropped from the skies over Indo-China, I could hear Ladon weeping as he told us we had to Choose which values we would live by. The song by Cat Stevens, "Father and Son" played in the background with the refrain "It's not time to make a change, just relax, take it easy; you're still young, it's not your fault, there's so much you have to go through" : the voice of the father trying to salvage for his son the remnants of the crumbling American Dream. But the son tells him, "I have to go away."
Ladon's passion was so great because of what he had given up when he left the corporate ladder-climbing as an up-and-coming executive of IBM (today we'd say he was punching his ticket to enter the 1%) to move to southwest Georgia to be part of a small, struggling inter-racial community committed to economic sharing, nonviolence, racial reconciliation, service to others, and "simple living" as an expression of Christian discipleship.
It was the first time I had heard about Koinonia Partners and the experiment in Christian intentional community that Ladon told us Clarence Jordan had described as a "demonstration plot" of what living out the values of God's Kingdom could look like. It created such a strong impression in this life of a young man about to turn 24 the next month that I moved there as soon as my 1-year commitment in Washington was complete.
I didn't encounter Ladon again until the following March when we shared a jail cell together for the 5-6 hours it took to book us for our arrest on the lawn of the White House in what was to be the last mass arrest of the Vietnam War. There were 61 of us including Liz Macalister, Dan Berrigan, Jim Peck, and Dick Gregory - but it was Ladon Sheats who helped bolster my courage that day in my first attempt to risk arrest for the sake of the Gospel and it's values.
What I discovered (and later re-discovered 6 years later when we spent a week together in a 6-person cell in a county jail in Amarillo, TX after praying inside the fence of the plant that was the final assembly point for all US nuclear weapons) was that Ladon's intensity as a nonviolent resister melted into a joking, hilarious cell mate who loved to relax and laugh.
Many of my friends told me they found Ladon too intense, too serious, always challenging himself and others to "take the next steps" in nonviolent resistance to the American way of death - but had they shared a cell with him, they could have discovered a whole different dimension to him. I think it was because he knew he was in the place where he knew he should be. He had learned from Clarence Jordan that if you hadn't been called a "communist" or had your life threatened, you probably weren't following the Jesus he experienced in the pages of the Bible.
After spending many 1-year sentences for nonviolent resistance in Federal Prison, Ladon would go to the monastery in Snowmass, CO to have time to pray, reflect, and gain strength for the next witness for peace. He often traveled around the country visiting friends and working odd jobs like house painting to earn some of the little money he needed. All his possessions were in his backpack.
One of my favorite memories was when he came through Minneapolis after our family had moved here and my sons were still quite young. I had a wordless children's story book called "The Great Escape" which showed a very determined prisoner escaping from his jail cell or prison over and over again. Ladon would have Zach sitting on his knee while Micah looked on from the side as Ladon turned the pages and together the three of them would make up the stories of this intrepid resister.
Ladon was a man of compassion. Gentle. Humble. With a clear vision of a call to be a Peacemaker. 10 years have passed. I miss him deeply, yet he is ever-present. Ladon Sheats, Presente!