A Time to Forgive or Forget?


Standing outside UN Development Program office in Baghdad Dec. 9, 2002

After 20 Years – Is It Time to Forgive? By Steve Clemens


March 20, 2003 marked the beginning of (another) US invasion of Iraq. It was based on lies and anti-Muslim fears and resentments, but average Americans often believed their national leaders and the corporate media which basically silenced those who opposed military intervention.


Having traveled to Baghdad in December 2002 as part of an ad-hoc “Peace Team”, with the intent to be present with the Iraqi people in the face of a threatened “Shock and Awe” bombardment, I returned back to Minnesota 3 months before the war actually began. I used those 3 months to speak to more than 60 groups at schools, colleges, community centers, and churches about what I saw and learned about Iraq – hoping to galvanize the vocal opposition to the war. I concentrated my pictures with the faces of children, noting that these are often the primary victims of the brutal sanctions regime placed on the country by the US and Britain since 1991, and photos of power plants and water treatment facilities in complete disrepair.


After the war and occupation dragged on -much beyond the “cakewalk” promised by Rumsfeld and others, and well beyond the “Mission Accomplished” photo op of our President decked out in a flight suit on the deck of a carrier off the coast of San Diego, the mood in our nation began to gradually turn as more US military, mercenary contractors, and even embedded journalists failed to return or returned with missing limbs, head traumas, and/or PTSD. Notions of “the long war” arose as the occupation past the length of the Vietnam fiasco. And Afghanistan continued to demand more military sacrifices as well.


A local restauranteur I hadn’t met yet, Sami Rasouli, decided to return to his native Iraq city of Najaf to see for himself. Some local friends approached me to ask if I would join their efforts to find ways to financially support him and to help “broaden” his voice by sharing some of the Iraqi art he brought back with him to dispel the myths about the land and culture we were destroying. Those efforts eventually coalesced into what became The Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project, an NGO based in Minneapolis which worked to educate and encourage and heal the toxic divides in our country over the war and between Americans and Iraqis.


At Sami’s behest, we worked to have Minneapolis become a Sister City with his home city of Najaf, and Sami brought numerous delegations of Iraqi professionals to the US when visas could be secured. Finally, after President Obama removed US troops out of the country (and before returning them to attack a rising ISIS a little more than a year or two later), IARP accepted an invitation by the governor of Najaf to visit our Sister City in November 2012. The governor had us stay in a “guest house” overlooking the Euphrates River – a former gaudy palace built by Saddam Hussein during his brutal reign. Despite the destruction wrought in their nation and homeland by US and British militaries and mercenary contractors, the Iraqi people we met welcomed us with smiles, tears, and embraces. It seemed to me that they were willing to forgive -if not forget- those of us who traveled a great distance to be with them.


But the governing system foisted on the Iraqi people by the Occupiers, and, at the encouragement of former exiled “elites” like Chalabi, emphasized sectarian divides and power and privileges given disproportionally to sectarian militia or tribal leaders mostly at the expense of the ordinary Iraqi citizens. Corruption was rampant – both by US
contractors who skimmed off much of the money allocated to rebuild schools, hospitals, power grids, water treatment plants, … - as well as sectarian “leaders” who saw their opportunity to regain what they claim Saddam “stole” from them. Tragically this continues today.


On the 20th anniversary much of the US media used the term “mistake” when describing the invasion, war, and occupation. There were few voices that really identified it as a “crime” even though that same media used that term to describe Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The irony of forgetting Abu Ghraib, “black sites” run by the CIA, Guantanamo prisoners, as well as the destruction of civilian infrastructure is not lost on other nations or Iraqis as we, as a nation, pivot to a Cold War with China as well as a proxy war with Russia.


We can’t ask the Iraqis to forgive us if we work diligently to forget what we did and fail to learn that military might cannot install either democracy or civility. Iraq continues be seen as still “unstable”. The US State Department lists Iraq as “Level 4: Do Not Travel” as of January 3 of 2023, adding, “Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism, kidnapping, armed conflict, civil unrest, and Mission Iraq’s limited capacity to provide support to U.S. citizens.


So, short of traveling back to Iraq – and, is there a government official there who would even invite us? – how can we work for healing and reconciliation today? At least one way is to get to know and welcome the Iraqis who have come here as immigrants, asylees, refugees, and visitors. Listen to their stories. Hear and learn from their experiences. Pay attention to the poets and artists, the playwrights and storytellers. Visit their mosques and attend iftar gatherings during the holy month of Ramadan. Ask questions. Have empathy. Open your arms. Welcome them to your homes. Say, “I’m sorry” without any expectations of hearing a word of forgiveness. How are individuals able to forgive what nations do to others? And read – start with A Stranger in Your Own City: Travels in the Middle East’s Long War by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad.

Reminiscing About Jimmy Carter

 Reflecting on Jimmy Carter by Steve Clemens


With word of former President Jimmy Carter entering hospice care, I thought back on my (limited) interactions with him and his family.


When I moved to Sumter County, GA in the fall of 1975, I became aware that a former Governor of the state had decided to enter the race to become the nominee of the Democratic Party for President of the US in the upcoming 1976 election. The former governor was not all that popular with a number of white residents of the county where he was born and now prided himself of being “from Plains, GA”. The intentional community I had joined (Koinonia Partners) was located midway between the county seat of Americus and the small town of Plains and the local children attended school in Plains.


Because my wife Christine was a nurse, she had a particular interest in a Plains resident who had worked at Koinonia in the 1950s and 60s (at great physical risk to herself) because she also labored as a midwife. Christine loved her work with new mothers and babies and sought out “Miss Gussie” Jackson who regaled us with her stories of all the babies she helped deliver. But one story stuck out for us when she told us about the time her home was firebombed by local racist white men because of her connections to Koinonia. Fortunately, only the porch was destroyed and she was not injured but she told us a “local white man”, a school board member, Jimmy Carter, publicly denounced the White Citizens Council for their racial violence. In the late 1950s in Plains, that took tremendous courage. She told us how proud she was that this man was now running for President! Later on, we found out that one of her daughters, Oculia, now worked as a cook for the Carter family.


So, when the local newspaper or radio station announced that the Carter family was inviting anyone to come to the old train depot in Plains on Tuesday nights in 1976 to watch the primary campaign returns, I decided to join in and sat with Chip, Billy, Gloria, Miss Lillian, or other family members in a rocking chair for several of the early primaries before many people believed Carter had any chance of winning. (I didn’t tell them that I really supported Governor Jerry Brown as my preferred candidate – a more progressive contender at the time.) The sign over the train depot read “Jimmy Carter Presidential Campaign Headquarters”.


When Jimmy came back home between campaign rallies, it was funny to see big men wearing new bib overalls and flannel shirts in the crowd. The Secret Service assigned to candidate Carter were told to “wear what the candidate was wearing” to better blend in – thus the new clothes. I approached one of the agents to ask how he liked this assignment and he was casual and friendly, taking time to answer my questions as he continued to scan the crowd for possible threats. As Carter began to win more and more primaries, the Secret Service agents assigned to him became much less friendly and more “business-like”. By the time he got the nomination, those agents were much less “friendly” – no bib overalls now and fewer smiles or conversation!


Again, in the early days of the campaign, TV networks or newspapers sent their top reporters to cover other candidates. But as Carter racked up more support, the likes of Sam Donaldson and Kenley Jones came to Sumter County to report on this unique candidate. Because there were no hotels in Plains, the reporters stayed in Americus. They had per-diem allowances for lodging and meals but there were no 5-Star restaurants nearby. A local woman opened up a double-wide trailer on the outskirts of Americus with a sign that read “Faye’s Bar-B-Que Villa”. When Christine and I went to eat there one Saturday evening when Carter was in town, we were surprised to see both Donaldson and Jones come in with several other reporters, carrying bottles in brown bags because Faye didn’t have a license to serve alcohol. We could overhear them complaining about the lack of any “nightlife” in Sumter County. Soon, I’m sure at their request, steaks were added to her menu!


As the campaign continued successfully, there was more and more interest in the candidate’s brother, Billy and his sister, “go-go” Gloria (she rode a motorcycle). Even more intriguing was Carter’s mother, “Miss Lillian”. She always had an opinion and freely shared it. Rosalynn’s family seemed a lot less memorable to the media.


My hesitancy in supporting Carter stemmed primarily to his embrace of his Naval service under Admiral Rickover with nuclear submarines. Having recently been part of a year-long Bible study group with Phil Berrigan and Liz Macalister before moving to Koinonia, I had been mentored into the anti-nuke movement by some of the best activists. Carter didn’t emphasize cutting the military budget, didn’t eschew nuclear energy plants, and was not known for taking a strong stance against the debacle of our war and policy on Vietnam in comparison to other candidates. Senator George McGovern was my candidate just four years prior and I still had hopes for that kind of political courage.


But there was an incident that made me realize that Carter did have some guts. Right in the middle of the campaign, July 4, 1976 was the Bicentennial of the Declaration of US Independence. But it also fell on a Sunday and many “Christian” churches unfortunately got swept up in a celebration of civil religion. Carter was in Plains that weekend and attended the services at his Plains Baptist Church. He was asked to give the opening prayer – and to be honest, it was the only redeeming part of a service which devolved into a “God Bless America” rally which assumed the “Prince of Peace” was now a cheerleader for the American way of life. (Soon after his inauguration, the Carters joined a new church down the road, Maranatha Baptist, founded specifically on a principle of racial inclusion as an expression of the gospel. Plains Baptist had quietly voted to continue its policy of “discouraging”, if not preventing the attendance of people of color at its services.)


During the campaign, Playboy Magazine ran an interview with Carter where he famously admitted to having “lusted in his heart”. What particularly interested us at Koinonia was the assertion of Carter’s support for the interracial community down the road, Koinonia Farm, during the racial tensions in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, … By the time the interview came out, Clarence Jordan, the co-founder of our community had been dead almost 7 years. Florence, his surviving widow was asked by reporters about details. She told them he didn’t make a public defense of the embattled community during the time of the attacks against it by the Klan and other white racists. However, it became clear a year later when the Ku Klux Klan held a rally just outside of Plains city limit in protest of Carter’s policies. (I was called to testify at a trial of the man who drove his car into the speaker’s platform to protest the KKK. Before taking the stand, I was sequestered in a room with the Imperial Wizard of the Klan, Bill Wilkinson. He was joking with the sheriff deputies and handing out his business cards to them.)


In December 1976, the President-elect welcomed many dignitaries to his modest home in Plains while he interviewed potential Cabinet members. Two of my friends, Phil Berrigan and Ladon Sheats traveled from their Catholic Worker House in Baltimore to outside his house in Plains to protest against Carter’s lack of opposition to nuclear weapons. I didn’t join them.


Soon after taking office, with Plains now becoming a destination on the map, a newspaper was started called The Plains Monitor to cover the news in Carter’s home county. Besides local news and news about the Carter family, it became an avenue for me to publish Letters to The Editor, commenting on national and international policy. They printed my open letter to President Carter on why I was withholding part of my income tax as a conscientious objector to our military budget. When Rosalynn Carter was asked to attend the keel laying of a new nuclear ballistic submarine carrying nuclear weapons in April 1979, I wrote a letter to the editor of why I was driving to Connecticut to risk arrest in protest. The paper later printed an article and photo about some school children from Plains school who traveled with me to the protest. (They and their parents were members of our community at Koinonia).


During Carter’s presidency, I got to know Miss Lillian better when we both attended Fellowship Baptist Church in Americus. When Plains Baptist refused to integrate, Miss Lillian sought out a local Baptist church which welcomed all and this small congregation (compared to the First Baptist Church of Americus) fit the bill for her. In Sunday School class she was often outspoken and clearly had a deep commitment to her faith. The church also tolerated my statements during announcement time when I asked for prayers before getting arrested at the submarine dedication or when I refused to pay war taxes. The fact that the pastor and his wife and several other members of the church attended my wedding in 1978 at Koinonia showed their willingness to be public about their witness for racial inclusion.


Because of all the attention now being paid to the small town of barely 650 people that was home to a US President, and possibly due to the efforts of the new First Lady, Plains opened the Plains Primary Healthcare Clinic just across the street from the train depot, the former campaign headquarters. It was a welcome addition to this small town where healthcare resources particularly for many of the local Black residents was sorely lacking. And they were looking to hire a local nurse as part of the staff. Christine jumped at the opportunity and worked there for several years. Big crowds often developed when the President was in town, so any extra infrastructure was welcome. The local gas station now hawked cans of “Billy Beer”, named after Jimmy’s brother who was well known for his love of that beverage.  


As the end of his first term approached, several crises loomed: a Soviet invasion into Afghanistan to prop up a failing socialist-leaning government, the Americans held hostage by a revolutionary movement in Iran after Carter allowed the former Shah to receive medical treatment in the US, inflation, gas shortages, … Then an intra-party struggle led by Senator Ted Kennedy to challenge him for the nomination of the Democratic Party found the President looking for ways to shore up his standing. He called for a boycott of the summer Olympics scheduled for Moscow, and to appear less weak against his militaristic Republican opponent, he reinstated mandatory registration for the US Military draft for all males ages 18-26 who had not previously served in the military. As a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, I decided to write President Carter a letter refusing to register. I did not include in the letter the fact that I was past the age of requirement, only that for reasons of religious belief and conscience I was publicly refusing. It wasn’t until after he was soundly defeated by Ronald Reagan that I received a formal reply – a letter from the Department of Justice stating the consequences if my refusal continued: I think it was 5 years in jail and a fine. I received several other letters the next year or two before two FBI agents showed up at the Koinonia office asking to interview me. I told them I would continue to refuse to register and politely declined to tell them my Social Security number, my mother’s maiden name, or my birthdate. After about ½ hour, the one agent said to the other, “he appears to be older than 26 to me so I think we needn’t continue [with pursuing a prosecution for draft evasion].”


But it was in his post-presidency where I met him outside his role as a candidate. Our intentional community, Koinonia, was also the birthplace for Habitat for Humanity. After he was out of office, whenever he was in Plains, Jimmy taught Sunday School at his Maranatha Baptist Church. Christine was close friends of a Hutterite couple, having spent a month at their community in North Dakota in the early 70’s. When Solomon and Sarah Maendel came to Americus to lend their skills and labor to the growing Habitat movement, they chose to attend Jimmy’s Sunday School sessions. After several weeks, and noticing their peculiar dress, the former president invited them to join him and Rosalynn for lunch after church. Jimmy remarked that as President, he found Quakers and Mennonites who served overseas to be some of the best sources for information about what the people thought about US foreign policy. Hutterites, being cousins of Mennonites (and more easily identified because of their distinctive dress), intrigued him. Solomon told Jimmy about his work with Habitat, and, as only someone who eschewed voting, scolded the former president for not being involved with Habitat and its work. The next day Jimmy called Millard Fuller to ask how he might be involved.


In 1983 when the Carters became “involved” with Habitat, they were quite generous with both their time and talents. They even joined an awareness and fundraising walk for Habitat’s 10th anniversary from Americus to Kansas City in 1986. Christine and I only walked the first 8 miles to Plains – but we had a friend, Carolyn Schurr who walked all 1000 miles with the Carters and others, staying in churches en route overnight. Ten years later, on the 20th anniversary, I helped build the house next to the one the Carter’s worked on during a “blitz build” in Americus. Jimmy was always one of the first workers on site in the morning and didn’t quit early. When reporters came by to talk with them, he suggested they talk to the new homebuyers so he could continue to work. He was skilled and dedicated and used his “star-power” to bring many others to worksites as volunteers.


In the mid-1980s he often came by our farm community to give greetings to Florence Jordan and have tea with her. It was hard to miss the Secret Service agents milling about as he visited. He even detoured on a planned trip to China to stop by to pay his respects to the co-founder of Koinonia when she died in 1986. At the request of some Partners who regularly attended his Sunday School class, Jimmy agreed to speak at one of Koinonia’s worship services which always took place on Sunday evenings. While I admired all that he had done for Habitat and other projects in his post-presidency, I couldn’t help but reflect that this man had also threatened to use nuclear weapons against the Soviets. So, after he spoke, I wrote him a letter describing the tensions I felt. I addressed him as “a brother in Christ” and shared my discomfort on this particular issue. He sent me a card back suggesting I read his recent book where he described how he tried to put his faith into action during his presidency. I had already read that book and noticed how his chapter on standing up to the Russians was devoid of references to Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies. We also had strong disagreement about his acceptance of the Death Penalty at that time but over the years, he came to agree with Rosalynn and began to call for its abolition.


One thing I was grateful for was his willingness to use his “celebrity” status to help even “minor” causes. The public school system in Sumter County was woefully underfunded as many of the white citizens send their children to a private, segregated “Christian” school and then elected school board members who tried to keep taxes low. In the mid-80s, the local school in Plains decided to have a Festival to raise funds for classrooms, supplies, and other needs. Koinonia was invited to have a stand to sell our organic strawberries with fresh whipped cream. But the big attraction was a free concert Jimmy initiated on the school grounds featuring his friend Willy Nelson. At the end of the wonderful event, Jimmy and Rosalynn joined Willy on the stage to sing “Amazing Grace”.


Jimmy was proud of his hometown and often joined events to support it. One event that sticks out in my mind included a 5K run for children out of town and then circling back to a finish line right by the train depot. Our oldest son was encouraged to run by the son of a friend from Habitat who loved running. Micah was not known (at that time) as a distance runner but we were shocked when he placed third, ahead of his friend Josh and was awarded a trophy by the former president. When he got off the stage, we remarked that we were surprised he did better than his friend. Micah told us, “Well I got tired and stopped running once we got out of town and just ran back to the finish when the others returned.” Needless to say, we asked him to go back to the stage and return the trophy so the proper kid could receive it!


I never did vote for Jimmy Carter. In the primary I supported Jerry Brown. In the general elections of 1976 and 1980, I wrote in Daniel Berrigan for President. But, reflecting back after all these years, Jimmy Carter did more good as President than any others in my lifetime. As he passes on to become one of our ancestors, I’m grateful for his life and witness, warts and all.



Moving From Conscientious Objector to War Resister


The Day I Moved from Conscientious Objector to War Resister by Steve Clemens 9/15/22


I’m not sure which Nixon speech it was. It happened near the end of 1971 or early in 1972. Once again, the President called for an escalation of the war on Vietnam. That day I had received in the mail a letter from the Selective Service Administration (my draft board) asking me, I assume, to update my mailing address since I had just graduated early from Wheaton College and my II-S Student deferment had just expired. I looked at the letter, remembered Nixon’s speech and took it into the bathroom of my parents’ home.


Three years earlier, when I turned 18 in the fall of 1968, I chose to register as a Conscientious Objector. Looking back on that time, it wasn’t a political statement against the War on Vietnam; rather, it was a religious statement that my commitment to the words of Jesus to “love my enemies” took precedence over the demands of my government. For almost a year after filing my claim as a CO, I took no part in anti-war demonstrations in my college town just outside of Chicago. However, in the Spring of 1969 I was invited to attend a “Black Power Symposium” at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL and my carefully constructed conservative white world was turned upside down. That weekend was followed by a week of (compulsory) chapel services at Wheaton led by a former NY street gang member who “got saved, turned his life over to Jesus” and became one of a minuscule few Black, evangelical evangelists, Tom Skinner (https://www.skinnerleaders.org/our-history). Tom recommended that I spend my summer break working in the inner city (aka the Black community) of Philadelphia, just 30 miles south of my childhood home.


That summer introduced me to how the predominately white Philadelphia Police Force (under the direction of a very racist Frank Rizzo) responded to both Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. It was a wake-up call which forced me to consider the intersections between my religious identity and my political and social views. When I returned to my Illinois campus that fall, I joined a local Maryknoll priest in his weekly demonstrations outside the DuPage County Draft Board office in Wheaton. I started attending the weekly Operation Breadbasket services led by Jesse Jackson in Chicago. I chose an African American roommate. And I started reading Ramparts and other “leftist” magazines which were stridently against the war. I helped lead a campus anti-war group named after the pacifist, abolitionist founder of the college, the Jonathan Blanchard Association. I learned about my Anabaptist ancestors in a Bible History course. I met Jim Wallis as he was founding The Post American – which was re-named a few years later, Sojourners Magazine and was reading John Howard Yoder, Daniel Berrigan, and other faith-based peacemaking activists.


I knew there were people in these movements who were “draft resisters” and/or “draft card burners” – but I didn’t know any of them personally. But I also knew the consequences faced by those prosecuted for such: often 2-5 years in prison. So, when I went into my parents’ bathroom after the Nixon speech, I took the Draft Card from my wallet (we were required by law to carry them) and burned it, letting the ashes go down the drain. I knew doing so privately was a bit cowardly, so I then decided to up the risk level. I crossed my name and address off my un-opened Selective Service letter and wrote above it – “Refused, obscene material! - Return to Sender” and put it back in the mailbox.


[Fast-forward 8 years later when President Carter, trying to win re-election against Ronald Reagan, re-instated mandatory draft registration for males between the ages of 18-26. Never mind that I was 30 at the time. I wrote to the President, telling him I refused to resister for reasons of conscience. After numerous threatening letters over the next year, finally two FBI agents showed up at my workplace to inquire about my act of resistance. After politely refusing to tell them my Social Security number, my mother’s maiden name, or my birthplace and age, they decided amongst themselves that I was probably “older than 26” so they said they were closing my case.]


It still took me another 3 years after my burnt draft card for me to embrace “active” nonviolent resistance rather than just reacting to what our government was doing after the fact. Liz McAlister became a friend and mentor along with Phil Berrigan, her husband. She gently pushed me to embrace active nonviolence and see war resistance as a logical outcome if one takes conscientious objection seriously. Then she got arrested with me and 59 others at the White House in the last major demonstration against the Vietnam War in late March 1975. Dan Berrigan, the author who had inspired me and Dick Gregory who challenged me at the Black Power Symposium, were placed in handcuffs alongside me.

Remarks given at Mennonite Heritage Center on my Peacemaking Journey


Peacemaking Journey Story for Mennonite Heritage Center Gathering- Steve Clemens – June 17, 2022


I was Born in October 1950, the third of three sons to Lester Stauffer Clemens and Kathryn Hockman Clemens and lived for the first 15 years of my life in a farmhouse by the entrance to Hatfield Packing Company in Hatfield Township. For those first 7 years we shared the house with my cousin Butch, his wife Arlayne, and the first 3 of their children. Across the street was the Arthur Hackman family dairy farm and I later connected with the oldest son, Walton, who had a pivotal role in my faith journey.


Our family was one of the founding members of what was then called “Calvary Mennonite Church” and I understood that I was the first infant to be “dedicated” in their new church building on Route 113 on the outskirts of Souderton. Bill Anders was the pastor for my first 10 years or so; followed by Art Malles for the following five years. I knew Bill was from a Mennonite background and I came to understand Art was from a Baptist background who came with at least some appreciation for the Anabaptist heritage. It never dawned on me that we were not affiliated with any of the Mennonite Conferences – Franconia, Eastern Board, or General Conference – but I was aware that we were “different” in that our church emphasized “missions” and expressed ourselves in more “evangelical” terms. I remember my mom wore a head covering in worship at least until I was about 7 and then it kind of disappeared. I also believed our church taught the “Truth” and only a few other churches did so – none of them being “Mennonite”.


The two centers of my life were Calvary Mennonite and Hatfield Packing. Virtually all my friends were connected with one or the other, including most of our relatives. On the Clemens side, only 6 of the surviving 10 children of my father’s generation remained “Mennonite” with 4 of them initially or eventually ending up at Calvary (“Mennonite”). We never missed a service (as I recall), even being sure we attended a church service on Sunday mornings while away on vacation. Most of our vacations were to Highland Lake Bible Conference in upstate New York. “Christian Service Brigade” was our replacement for Boy Scouts. We attended Sunday School, worship, and Sunday evening services, Boys Brigade on Monday evening, Wednesday evening prayer meeting, and “evangelistic” services or “missionary conferences” whenever they were held in our area – or we traveled to Philadelphia or New York if someone like Billy Graham was holding services.


I “accepted Jesus as my Personal Savior” at age 7 when my mom convinced me that I didn’t want to “go to Hell” and later was baptized as an “adult” at age 12 at Calvary. I identified as a “Bible-believing, born-again Christian” -clearly distinguishing myself from my peers at public school and/or the workers at the meat packing plant. However, that neat world began falling apart in 6th grade when I was sexually molested repeatedly by my male teacher. I never told my parents about this on-going trauma, believing this happened to me because I was guilty of some sin – after all, “All things work together for good to them that love God” – was one of many Bible verses I had memorized as a young child. So, when my parents presented me with the opportunity to choose to go to a “Christian school” for grades 10-12, I jumped at the prospect. Note: Christopher Dock was NOT one of the options presented to me.


At the Stony Brook School For Boys on Long Island, NY, I was now away from the very narrow understanding of who was a “true Christian” since the school’s chaplain came from an Anglican background and the Headmaster was
Presbyterian (and I even later learned he was a Democrat!). I learned the Apostles’ Creed, saw others “reading” their prayers, and even had classmates who were Jewish or certainly not “born again”. However, I was so convinced by my upbringing that I needed to choose the “straight and narrow way” and that “secular education” could tempt me to “drink, dance, smoke, and play cards”, I choose the safe option of going to the “evangelical Harvard”, Wheaton College after my Christian Prep School. I was only 17 when I graduated in June of 1968, mostly oblivious to world events – especially the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. All my classmates were going on to college, so the military draft wasn’t even on my radar.


In September 1968, en route to Wheaton, we stopped in Fort Wayne, IN to visit my dad’s youngest sister, Betty, who had been widowed several years before. My cousin Jon was home that weekend from his Alternative Service (1-W) assignment as an orderly at a local hospital and I was somewhat stunned to realize he was a Conscientious Objector. I knew there were some who chose that route but didn’t personally know them. My dad and his older brother, Ezra were drafted and both participated in WWII. My oldest brother, Jerry was drafted in 1967 into the Army and served in Korea.) Two days later, when registering for my classes at Wheaton, I was handed a rifle, military uniform, and was told I was now enrolled in the compulsory Army ROTC classes for all freshman and sophomore male students. We had military drill at 7AM two days a week and Military Science classes three days a week. It wasn’t until I took my rifle up to the 3rd floor of a women’s dormitory for our shooting practice on the campus rifle range that the cognitive dissonance began: the targets were round circles with a bull’s eye but subconsciously I realized that, in reality, they were Vietnamese soldiers.


My dad would take my brothers and me hunting each fall since I was at least 10, always instructing us as we were “sighting in” our guns that “we were never to point our guns at something we didn’t wish to shoot, we ate what we killed, and we were never, ever, to point our guns at a human being.” The gun my dad gave me at age 12 for deer hunting was a German Mauser rifle he had picked up on a European battlefield when he was in the US Army infantry and had disassembled it and mailed it home. Although he had the bayonet with the swastika on it, we didn’t attach it to the rifle for deer hunting. My dad never talked about the war or his “service” in it – only telling us “I did some things I wasn’t proud of, and I promised the Lord that if I made it home safely, I’d turn my life around and go to church.”


So, a month later as I was approaching my 18th birthday and was required to register for the Military Draft, I was approached by the Resident Assistant for my dormitory floor, and he asked me if I would like to pray and/or talk with him before I registered for the Draft. He was one of only a handful of Mennonites at Wheaton. We talked, prayed, and I decided that Jesus really meant what he said when he told us to “love our enemies” and I decided that I would register as a Conscientious Objector. My Draft Board wouldn’t rule on my application right away since I had an educational deferment as a college student, but I knew this decision to choose a different path might have some consequences.


Briefly, demanding that I be released from the ROTC requirement put me at odds with the Wheaton administration and I quickly began associating with the campus “rebels” – members of the Student Government and the few Black and LatinX students on campus. It led me to attend a Black Power Symposium that Spring at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL followed by a summer working with street gangs in Philadelphia with the evangelical organization, Teen Haven. When I returned to Wheaton in the fall, I started participating in peace marches led by a local Catholic priest at the Wheaton Draft Board. I travelled many Saturday mornings to the southside of Chicago to attend Operation Breadbasket services led by Jesse Jackson. Later I took a few courses at the nearby Maryknoll Seminary and helped lead a campus peace group at Wheaton named after its founder, Jonathan Blanchard who was a pacifist and abolitionist. It took longer for my theology to change than my politics but a Church History course my junior year (led by a dissident professor) educated me about the Anabaptist movement I never learned at Calvary; and then John Howard Yoder was (surprisingly) allowed to preach in chapel (but only once!). Just before graduating early in December 1971, I met Jim Wallis as he was just beginning as editor of The Post American, later to be re-named Sojourners Magazine) and we began a long friendship. He introduced me to Art Gish and Ron Sider in the coming year and I devoured The Politics of Jesus and The New Left and Christian Radicalism.  


After a year of grad school in Social Work at Temple University School of Social Administration, I decided to drop out and do my “voluntary service”. In December 1969, the Military Draft switched to a lottery system as a way to tone down a lot of the growing anti-war sentiment. My birthdate gave me the lottery number 254 so I was almost certainly not going to be drafted in 1970 or whenever I left college but I felt a moral obligation to “serve my country” as a conscientious objector. I called up my former neighbor, Walton Hackman, who I discovered was now the Secretary of the MCC Peace Section in Akron, PA to inquire about doing service. He recommended that I consider going to the deep South with a joint MDS/MCC project in rural Mississippi. (He didn’t tell me then about his own experience there during Freedom Summer.) Just before leaving for Glen Allan, Mississippi, he invited me to supper and after discussing with him my excitement about The Politics of Jesus, he handed me a copy of William Stringfellow’s An Ethic For Christians and Other Aliens In A Strange Land. After some adventures in Mississippi, including 2 weekends in Philadelphia, MS, Walton asked if I would be willing to serve a year in Washington, DC at the Peace Section DC office.


At our MCC VS orientation in Akron for that assignment I met Ladon Sheats and heard about Koinonia Farm for the first time. Ladon showed a multi-media presentation on “Values” – comparing and contrasting the values of our American culture and the values of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed by Jesus - and that planted seeds for me to travel to south Georgia after that year. Meanwhile, in Washington, DC I lived in the home of a former VS couple, John Swarr and Eva Beidler, because there was no VS house for MCC volunteers. John invited me to be part of a Monday Night Bible Study Group at the Community For Creative Nonviolence where I was blessed to be part of a group led by Phil Berrigan and Liz Macalister. I was now a long way from my anti-Catholic youth at Calvary Mennonite! We studied Abraham Heschel’s The Prophets and I was further initiated in the growing anti-nuclear movement after the Vietnam War ended. After several forays into quasi-legal protest at the White House, Liz encouraged me to take the next step and risk arrest more directly during the last major demonstration against the Vietnam War in March 1975. I told Delton Franz at the Peace Section office that I felt called to do this and he (somewhat reluctantly -as we were only an office of 3) agreed that I could act on my conscience.


It was my letter to the editor of the Souderton Independent about my arrest that caused John Ruth to call Walton to inquire about me. Walton later told me John was somewhat chagrined that I was someone from a break-away group rather than one of the Mennonites who remained in that tradition. My visits with Walton after moving to Koinonia in the fall of 1975 often led to discussions about my own family history with the Mennonites that I never knew. While only in jail for 6 hours at that first arrest, I was shocked to learn that a few of my 61 fellow arrestees refused release “on their own recognizance” because, they said, it wouldn’t have been offered to them if they were Black, uneducated, or poor. I thought I had taken a major step – only to realize there were many harder and deeper challenges ahead.   


At Koinonia I learned about active peacemaking in the context of a residential community. One could choose to act as a “lone wolf” but if you wanted to last for the long haul, you needed others to challenge and support you. After a week of risky protests inside the Pentagon at the beginning of September 1980, Ladon Sheats approached me in about a possible Prayer Pilgrimage to the plant where all US nuclear weapons are assembled - it took me a while before saying “yes”. (I did not know at that time about the plans for the first Plowshares witness which would occur in the next few days but Ladon, now living at Jonah House, did.)


Fortunately, Christine and two other Koinonia friends were able to join me in the trip to Amarillo and the Pantex Plant in early February 1981. Gail, 8 months pregnant, and Christine chose to watch from a ½ mile away in case we were shot by the armed guards, but Edwin rode in the car with me and helped me get out the folding ladder we constructed to get over the first 12’ fence. As we entered the grounds of the huge Pantex plant, I definitely noticed the increase of adrenaline – but surprisingly I didn’t feel fear. Our group had spent the previous 3 days talking, praying, and even practicing climbing the ladders. Christine and I talked about the possibility of being shot at this heavily guarded facility. But when my faith overcame my fear, I felt truly free! I was moved to tears when a Resident Partner from Koinonia mailed me a photo of the whole community standing behind a banner reading, “Hang in there!” that they took on Easter Sunday morning as they prayed for me in jail. I felt a lot of support from my community over the 6 months during arraignment, trial, sentencing, while remaining in the county jail and then on to Federal prison.


After release from the Texarkana Federal Prison, I took the Greyhound bus back to Georgia and my waiting community. Four years later, and with quite a lot of discussion, 2 other community members joined me as we sat on the railroad tracks when the White Train loaded with nuclear warheads destined for the submarine base in Charleston, SC came through a town that was about 20 minutes from Koinonia. We realized we faced a possible 1-year sentence (assuming the train would stop – and we took precautions to clearly inform both law enforcement and the railroad security personnel of our intent) but ended up with only 5 days in jail before public pressure forced our judge to have a hearing on our unusual charges- contempt of court! While we fasted in jail, the Resident Partners of our community skipped their weekly Partners Meeting on Sunday night to travel to the jail and sing to us from outside its walls!


I now see as providential that my parents had a huge, bound copy of The Martyr’s Mirror in our home. We didn’t have a TV until I was 13 so I spent a lot of time exploring what books we had. I learned at an early age that following my faith could have serious consequences.  I owe much of my peacemaking desires to the nurturing I received from the Anabaptist tradition: The history of conscientious objection, taking the Scriptures seriously about loving ones enemies, books and stories of Peace Church people challenging the war machine and injustice, Walton, the Sojourners folk, Ladon Sheats and the teaching and witness of Clarence Jordan, Vincent Harding and his influence on Martin King, Mary Sprunger-Froese and her husband Peter who were part of the Pantex 6, Walter Wink, Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, … the list goes on. Some identified as Mennonites, others as Anabaptists, still others as “disciples” or “followers of the way”. It is somewhat ironic that it took a Church History course at an evangelical college to help guide me back to my own (squandered) heritage. 


Being part of Peace Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan and later returning to Iraq were rare privileges to stretch my peacemaking skills and muscles. Many friends have helped me broaden my peacemaking to recognize the intersections with climate justice, racial reconciliation, interfaith cooperation, correcting economic disparities, re-learning history from the view of the underclass, marginalized, and oppressed, … When I first declared myself a conscientious objector, it was primarily a personal position – what I wouldn’t do. It hadn’t affected my politics, my lifestyle, or my theology. I was primarily a passivist. It took me a while to learn that to be a pacifist, one had to address the root causes that created the conflicts – one had to actively engage the issues and struggles of others – not be content in remaining “pure” (I wouldn’t do that!). And so, my journey into peacemaking continues … 


Christine and I were married in May of 1978 and our sons, Micah and Zach, were born in 1983 and 1986.

[discussion followed].

Remembering Ryan Karis

 Remembering Ryan Neal Delp Karis - by Steve Clemens

I knew him first as Ryan Delp, the quiet Quaker from rural Indiana who was one of the mainstays of the Koinonia Partners Construction Crew when we first met in 1975 in rural southwestern Georgia. A “gentle giant” – he was taller than any of the other construction crew – Ryan, trained as an engineer at Purdue, laid out the corners of the lots and helped direct the design and construction of the single-family homes they helped build, first in what became known as Koinonia Village and then Forest Park for families who became homeowners for the first time. Some of them were former tenant farmers and these houses became their first opportunity to actually own a home and begin to build generational stability.

I was there when Karen West was in my volunteer group in 1975 and as their relationship blossomed into a marriage, they chose a new name, Karis, a word from the Greek New Testament meaning Grace of God, as their identity of this partnership which has blessed many others these past 45 years.

Ryan was one of the first three or four Habitat for Humanity international “volunteers”, surveying Ntondo, a small village in Zaire at the invitation/encouragement of Millard Fuller. How about that for a honeymoon?

He helped design and build the first passive solar house for Koinonia and then he and Karen invited Christine and I to move in with them as its first residents. If memory serves me correctly, we ate popcorn every night! It also marked the beginning of our long tradition of playing cards and telling stories.

He and Karen were two of the six inaugural members of Jubilee Partners, pioneers – helping build the first structures of this community in northwest Georgia through which thousands of refugees have come. Their living in tents while the first houses were built are warm memories Christine and I share with them.

Ryan and Karen regaled us with stories of their living in a refugee camp in Thailand to better understand the refugees coming from southeast Asia in the aftermath of the US War on Vietnam; then going to Cuernavaca, Mexico to learn Spanish to better work with a growing flood of refugees and asylum seekers from Central America; and then helping coordinate the Ano de Jubileo program that helped hundreds if not thousands of families and individuals find a new home and safety in Canada after the US shut the doors of compassion in the 1980s. He and I shared many bus trips to the southeast Texas border with Mexico and returning to Jubilee in north Georgia with a bus-load of refugees – or trips from Jubilee to Winnipeg, Manitoba, or to London and/or Toronto, Ontario to their new asylum homes.

But refugees were not Ryan’s only concern. As the Reagan White House years “progressed”, Ryan and his fellow Jubilee members decided to find ways to track and protest the shipment of nuclear weapons through our state and the southeastern part of the country as, what was then known as the “White Train” carried nuclear warheads from the assembly plant, Pantex, outside of Amarillo, Texas to the submarine base at Charleston, South Carolina and later to a new Trident submarine base built at Kings Bay, Georgia. I remember more than once Ryan called me in the middle of the night to tell me a train-load of nukes was headed our way – it had just left Memphis, or Anniston, or some other point and would soon be coming down Main Street in Montezuma, GA so we could gather our signs, candles, and banner to vigil along the tracks. That banner, a full-size sheet was emblazoned with the Scripture passage: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.” So Ryan’s passion for nonviolence was one of influences that warmed my heart as I sat in a cold jail cell after blocking that train.

As work and ministry continued to evolve at Jubilee, so did a family grow. Ryan and Karen invited us to join them at the Atlanta airport as they met their new son, Andrew, as he was carried off the airplane after arriving from his native Korea. We also celebrated with them as Rebecka joined their family.

Christine and I made numerous weekend (and occasionally months-long) trips to north Georgia to help build more structures at Jubilee for the growing community as well as the refugee ministry. With a mutual friend, Robbie, we would drive into nearby Athens for a dinner or to go to the food bank and end up in the parking lot of the discount grocery store with a ½ gallon of ice cream and 6 spoons. We’d sit, laugh, tell stories, and enjoy being together. Later, as Robbie fell in love and married a refugee from Cambodia who had come through Jubilee with her family, Chou also joined us when we’d visit.

Ryan’s birthday, December 28 th , always fell on what is called in the Christian calendar, The Feast of the Holy Innocents – when the church remembers the story of Jesus fleeing with his family to Egypt as a refugee to escape the murderous intent of King Herod. We would often have a public witness against nuclear weapons (which threatened children all over the world) or for immigrants and refugees or those on death row on that day. So, after a solemn vigil (or occasional acts of civil disobedience) during the day, we switched gears and celebrated Ryan’s birth in the evening – usually with ice cream, occasionally with cake too..

After 10 years of service at Jubilee, they moved to the Twin Cities just prior to the birth of Emily, their third child, in 1988. They joined a growing, fairly-new, faith community, the Community of St. Martin, that embraced their convictions of nonviolence, service to others, and simpler or compassionate living. When Christine and I were ready to take a Sabbatical year away from Koinonia, Ryan and Karen asked us to join them in the Twin Cities where the Community of St. Martin could provide us space in a hospitality house and help us find work and be part of their worship group. Ryan was already continuing his former construction work with a local Habitat for Humanity affiliate and when that organization decided to grow its capacity, he asked me if I’d like to consider coming to work with him. Christine and I decided the community and the employment prospects were a good change for us and we decided to put down roots in the neighborhood where many of the faith community lived – and I went to work at Habitat with Ryan as my new supervisor.

Ever since I’ve known Ryan and Karen, they have had a special passion for the mountains, streams, and beauty of Karen’s home state of Montana. When they returned from a road trip to the Bozeman/Livingston area, Ryan would haul out the slide projector and give us a report on their adventures. Karen relished the wonders of nature and the creatures, especially the birds, they encountered, and Ryan often had the visual record made with his camera. Those adventures would include not just hacking out a village site in central Africa near the Congo River, or the stark challenges of a refugee camp in Thailand, but also trips to South Korea they took as each of their three adopted children traveled with them to see their own homeland; then a trip to Iceland, taking Christine with them.

Since Karen finally retired from teaching in the Minneapolis Public Schools, and with a brief (apparent) lull in the Covid crisis, we planned to finally take them with us for a week in Cancun, Mexico at the end of January. Alas, it was not to be.

Ryan embodied the Quaker roots he had - comfortable with silence, looking for consensus, committed to nonviolent actions and solutions. People relied on his dependability and, when he shared his thoughts, others realized how engaged he was in the decision-making process.

I love you, Ryan. Thanks for being a valued friend, companion, example, accompaniment, and leader. You were often a calming present in a storm while also providing direction for not only surviving it but finding a way out. As you transition to that “great cloud of witnesses”, may your gentle spirit guide your way home. Rest in that grace of our Creator.

After 50 Years, Still Recovering From My PTSD

December of 1971 was the time I completed my academic requirements to graduate several months early fromWheaton College. 50 years is a long time in looking back at that part of my journey - especially in trying to heal from the religious and theological abuse heaped upon my 21-year-old self from the "evangelical" movement as expressed by the school that prided itself as being the "Harvard" of such. I've come to realize in the passing years the damage wrought by what I now see as a form of Post Theological Salvation Disorder (or Delusion) - PTSD.

Wheaton College proclaimed its motto: For Christ and His Kingdom and even had that motto emblazoned on the military uniforms the male students were required to wear twice a week for drill while carrying a rifle, marching in formation, with spit-polished shoes and polished brass buttons. All of this during the years of increasing slaughter occurring in South East Asia in Vietnam and then Cambodia. Only a few of us were also gradually becoming aware as well of the "secret" bombing of Laos - although it was hardly a "secret" to those recipients of US-made cluster bombs which continue to wreak havoc and destruction still today as farmers plow their fields or children find unexploded metal devices which often explode destroying limbs and lives. 

The theology espoused by that evangelical movement was smug and self-assured: "we" - and I was raised to embrace it - knew who was "saved" and who was "lost".  Amazingly, the saved looked a lot like us: overwhelmingly white, middle class, good American citizens on a mission to "save" others by "sharing" the "good news" (the meaning behind the term evangelical) in a way that perpetuated the mythology of American (or Christian) Exceptionalism. 

So much of the theology I embraced came from a place of fear: if I didn't believe it, or practice it correctly, I was doomed to an "eternal lake of fire" (hell) by a God who "loved me". But, if I just believed the correct things and did the required acts (confession of sins, "acceptance" of Jesus as my "saviour" -note the old English spelling because of the King James version of the Bible made it the norm -, and baptism), I could be "assured" of my personal salvation and an eternity in heaven. "I've got a mansion just over the hilltop, in that bright land where we'll never grow old", we sang with pride and confidence in my formative years. 

Oh, but there were cracks widening within that smug assurance which grew wider, especially during my 3 1/2 years at that college. Maybe it was the Psychology professor who lamented the tendency of evangelicals' failure to understand and embrace ambiguity. Or definitely my Bible prof who rocked our compulsory chapel requirement when Dr. Webber preached my junior year about his experience of "the silence of God" which created a crisis-of-confidence among many students and caused a quite a few discussions on campus for at least the next week.

One of those cracks was initiated when I chose to become a Conscientious Objector when I registered for the military draft early in my freshman year only to discover that the college administration was loath to follow its own guidelines in allowing me to be excused from the mandatory US Army ROTC requirements. 

Another crack developed when I asked a fellow Black student to be my roommate and began to learn from him a very different perspective than my own upbringing. Then, between my junior and senior year, I signed up to go to Europe for the inaugural International Study Abroad program for Wheaton. Part of the 10-week experience included a visit to the Dachau Nazi concentration camp outside Munich. Although at that time it was easy for me to reject any association with Nazi horrors, it later became clearer to me how quickly one "righteous" group could turn on another and commit (or acquiesce to) unspeakable deeds. 31 years later, I would walk among the rusty ruins of Iraqi vehicles destroyed by US A-10 Warthog-fired depleted uranium bullets in the 1991 war and then visit a children's hospital in Basra to see Iraqi children dying of cancers most likely caused by exposure to radiation left by those weapons fired by my own nation's military. 

By the time of the fall of 1971, my senior year, I had recognized the "cracks" in my religious and theological beliefs had now become crevasses or even canyons. Thanks to my freshman Geology course, I learned much about glaciers, river erosion, and other acts of nature which radically change the surface of our planet. Looking back the past 50 years, it seems like it took me years to recover from that old self and my rigid beliefs - a change that sometimes now appears to be at a glacier's pace. 

I got an invitation to attend my 50th Wheaton College class of '72 reunion in the mail this week. I'd love to sit down with a few of those classmates and hear where their journeys had led them - but, having witnessed from afar the past 5 years how the evangelical movement embraced the Trumpian worldview, I'm not sure I want to subject myself to more theological trauma. If I go to the reunion, will there be buttons we can wear that proclaim, "I survived my years at Wheaton"?

To Begin a Day of Reckoning

 To Begin A Day Of Reckoning by Steve Clemens. May 5, 2021

In the wake of the guilty verdict for the slow-motion murder of George Floyd, voices around the nation have been raised for a day of reckoning and police accountability. Such a day and time, however, must begin at the top: the nation's top law enforcement building must be re-named.

J. Edgar Hoover embodied a pathological racism and his obsessive harassment of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements thoroughly disqualify him from having the FBI Building named after him. This is not a fashionable "cancel culture" whim; it is a necessary step in accountability and an end to the white-washing of the history of the US in the 1950s until present day.

Hoover specifically targeted Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and countless others in making the FBI under his control one of the most lawless institutions (along with the CIA) disguised under the rubric of "national security". Hoover threatened to unleash secrets about various US Presidents in order to retain his authoritarian grip on power as the longest serving director of the FBI. 

If President Biden and/or Congress wish to end the era of police impunity, a clear signal they could send would be to remove the Hoover name from the building which should stand for justice. If not for the courage of the US Senate committee headed by Frank Church, we might never have known the lengths US government agencies went to in order to discredit both the Civil Rights and anti-war movements in this country - as well as the destabilization efforts for many progressive movements around the globe that threatened corporate profit-making. 

This should be a day of reckoning, repentance, and re-evaluation. This era of white supremacy, American imperialism, police impunity, and other symptoms of a system of domination must end and be replaced by a culture of hospitality, inclusion, and humility.