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. 






Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child



Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child … by Steve Clemens. September 2020

 

Losing one’s Mom would normally be hard; during a time of Covid-19, it is magnified because I wasn’t able to be with her for the past 6 months as she continued to descend further into her Alzheimer’s demise where she would rarely speak to us over the phone (if she answered it at all).

 

In today’s parlance, we are urged to “say her name”. To me, she was always Mom, to cousin Johnny, just a few years her junior, she was “Hockey” because of her “maiden name”, Kathryn Hockman. To other younger cousins she was Aunt Kay or Aunt Kas. I don’t know if she was ever a Katie or other derivatives, most just called her Kay. And, of course, she was “Grandma” or “Great Grandma” to a large group of offspring.

 

It’s been three and a half years since my Dad passed at age 95 and with Mom’s dementia it was hard to get a handle on how she was doing since then when I made my visits back to Pennsylvania two or three times a year. Each visit was bittersweet in that she would sleep in her reclining chair most of the time I went to her Personal Care apartment, getting up (most of the times) only for a walk down the hallway for her meals. Some visits she would only say a word or two to me (and only if I asked her a direct question) during the 2 or 3 hours I sat with her. Then she would have a “good day” and she’d smile, even chuckle occasionally, and we could reminisce a little about things 50 years in the rearview mirror. On those days she often could recall the names of her grandchildren and would even sing along to hymns that Christine had picked out of the hymnal she had in her room.  

 

Having left home to go to boarding school (by choice) just before turning 15, most of my memories date before 1965 with notable exceptions when I would return home (with longer – and facial - hair) during college years or during annual visits back “home” after moving to the intentional Christian community where I lived for 16 years, married, and started our family.

 

Although trained as a Registered Nurse, Mom left hospital work in 1947 after my oldest brother, Jerry, was born 10 ½ months after she married my Dad in January of that year.  Having recently gotten out of the Army after serving in Europe during WWII, my Dad met my Mom on the recommendation of my Aunt Betty who was a nursing student one year ahead of Mom. Les and Kay shared a large house next to the meat packing plant my Dad bought with three of his brothers in 1946. It was shared by Dad’s cousins, Arlene (married to Harry) and Butch (married to Arlayne) as all three couples started their families. Phil was the next to arrive in 1949 on Mom’s 24th birthday and I followed 10 months after Phil.

 

Mom served as the de facto plant nurse when we lived less than a baseball’s throw from the front entrance. Early memories of employees with cuts or other injuries still remind me of Mom’s nursing skills. When each of us boys reached age 7, our parents had us work before and after school, as well as the summers at the “plant”. It was Hatfield Packing Company for many of my early years before becoming Hatfield Quality Meats with a new logo and a “Smiling Porker” as its symbol.

 

Dad saw his role as the enforcer of discipline; I guess Mom was the “nurturer” but the roles didn’t seem to be rigid even though their theology reinforced by our church had clear roles calling for the husband to be the “head of the household”. Mom seemed content with that arrangement. Because both parents were raised in conservative Mennonite homes, Mom took to wearing a white, mesh head-covering – at least to church – when I was too young to go to school. I don’t remember exactly when she discarded that practice but it must have been by 1956 or 7.

 

My Dad was the Vice President of the meat packing company and my memories are that he travelled for business but not too frequently. “Your Mom is in charge while I’m gone; behave yourselves!” is a memory I carry. Less than an hour after leaving on one of his trips, I remember falling down the basement stairs without too much damage other than bruises. Mom seemed rather unflappable. Then the day before I turned 14, while working at the plant before school, I fell down another flight of stairs, broke my jaw, a tooth, knocked 4 other teeth loose, and cut my lip. When I walked home to get medical attention, Mom said she needed to get Jerry and Phil off to school first and then drove me to the dentist and the doctor to be stitched up. I think her calmness during my panic helped sooth my fears. She told me afterwards she was more concerned I’d get injured playing junior high football than working at the plant and that injury kept me benched for the rest of that football season after only one game!

 

I don’t know how Mom felt about me going away to boarding school for 10th thru 12th grade because it is what I chose after my Dad offered each of us the opportunity to go to a “Christian” school. Neither of my brothers chose to do so. Subconsciously I wanted to get out of the area so I jumped at the opportunity even though it meant going to Long Island with only fall break weekend, Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas-New Years weeks, and Spring break over Easter for trips home. When I came home, it was with my dirty underwear, white shirts, and black trousers for Mom to wash before putting me back on the train to New York. So, I think some of the difficult years of “teenage rebellion” were at least delayed by not being around much. One of the summers of high school years was spent as a teenage staff member of the Bible Conference Camp in upstate New York that my parents took us to every summer all during those pre-college years. But it wasn’t until I left for college in the fall of 1968 that my politics and theology sharply veered from the “straight and narrow” path I was shepherded into while living at home.

 

As a family, we were expected to attend Sunday School, Sunday morning worship, Sunday evening worship, and Wednesday evening prayer meetings. When school age, we boys were enrolled in Christian Stockade and Christian Service Brigade as an evangelical substitute for Cub or Boy Scouts. That took care of Monday evenings. My memory of those years was that my entire social life centered around the church and the meat packing plant. My relatives who were not part of either group were definitely secondary. Given the age spread of siblings in my Dad’s family (22 years between oldest and youngest- with Dad the second youngest) and Mom’s (16 years, with Mom the third of 5), it was hard for me to keep straight who was a cousin and who was an aunt or uncle if they weren’t part of the plant or church.

 

The church we attended – not the right word – we “belonged to”, was a new spin-off from the conservative Mennonite churches of the area. The pastor, a recent graduate of a Mennonite Seminary, wanted to shuck off some of the old traditions while embracing a newer, evangelical style. My parents were part of the founders of the congregation which maintained the name “Mennonite” but never joined any of the local conferences but kept their independence. Wearing a “covering” for women became optional; wedding rings and other jewelry was now permitted; and musical instruments could accompany the voices while singing! While all of that appealed to my parents, their claim was the emphasis on evangelism and missionary zeal for conversions to their faith were more prominent reasons for them to join. Also, there was less emphasis on the traditional rejection of military service and the expectation that one would be a “conscientious objector” to war that probably seemed more welcoming to my Dad who had just returned from his participation in the US Army during World War II.

 

Gender roles back in the 1950s when I was growing up remained fairly traditional with an emphasis on a husband as “head of the household” and mom seemed to embrace her subordinate role with its “scriptural” justifications. At least as I perceived it. I can never recall any verbal or non-verbal dissent from my mom. When I returned from college having embraced much more liberal or radical “politics”, including pacifism and anti-war activism, I also had been strongly influenced by the rise of feminism and gender equality and a rejection of patriarchy. I remember a rather passionate “discussion/argument” with both parents over the Vietnam War, racism, and women’s roles one evening before my parents headed off to bed. [Actually they headed off to their bedroom where they always knelt on the floor by the bed to pray (usually together -but not always) before “retiring” for the night.] That was when I started perusing the extensive bookshelves they kept in the family room. It was there and then that I discovered hard-bound books: The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan and Fascinating Womanhood by a less well-known woman author. Both books were part of the backlash against the Equal Rights Amendment movement and the especially vehement rejection of it by evangelicals led by Phyllis Schlafly. I had no idea how strongly my mom had embraced this movement until I opened Morgan’s book to see it was not only autographed by the author but also included a personal note of thanks to “Kay” for organizing the group of women that had apparently met the author in our home!

 

My parents understood my “long hair” (it barely touched my shoulders but was very long compared to the crew cut I wore until my junior year in high school) and my “politics” (anti-war, no longer Republican, supported George McGovern in 1972, the first year I was able to vote) as signs of teenage or youthful “rebellion”. I remember a heated (for me) conversation with both parents about Billy Graham’s support (or at least silence) over the Vietnam War and, knowing of their longtime support for him and his evangelism “crusades”, I told them I wanted nothing more to do with Graham because of his complicity with that moral horror. [It was about that time that I had burned my Selective Service (draft) card in the bathroom sink and mailed the ashes back to the Draft Board]. My parents didn’t raise their voices but strongly disagreed – and then, most likely, retired to their bedroom to pray for me.

 

It presented a theological conundrum for them in that they knew I was “saved” at age 7, baptized at age 12, and “recommitted my life to Christ” several times at Highland Lake Bible Conference and/or at many of the annual missionary conferences held at our church every year. We always had missionaries staying at our home or other guest speakers for these conferences. Yet here was I rejecting much of the “straight and narrow” theology of my upbringing! They strongly urged me to attend a rather costly week of meetings called “Basic Youth Conflicts” led by Bill Gothard which was a strategy conservative parents used to keep their offspring inside that gospel tent. (This was years before Gothard  stepped down after numerous allegations of sexual molestation became known.) I told my parents I would not attend them even though they offered to pay the more than $600 fee for the course.

 

After these (and other) conversations/confrontations, my parents seemed convinced that I had “lost the faith”. And I had – at least what I saw as a very narrow and skewed version of Christianity. I still identified myself as a follower of Jesus and, at that time, even an “evangelical” but that was at a time pre-Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s Moral Majority.

 

I understood that with my “education” and my various cultural experiences (living in the “inner city” while working with teenage street gangs, attending a “Black Power symposium”, having an African-American roommate at college and an Asian American roommate at prep school, taking two college courses at a Catholic seminary, and traveling to western Europe for a study abroad semester which included a visit to the Nazi Dachau concentration camp) would naturally give me a broader (and different) perspective than the typical rural/suburban evangelical upbringing that my brothers experienced. Learning more about the Anabaptist movement helped me better understand my nominal Mennonite heritage which was greatly enhanced with conversations with a farmer neighbor who lived across the road from us in my first 15 years. We didn’t talk theology and heritage until I was in grad school after my graduation from Wheaton College and Walton Hackman, that neighbor, introduced me to the thought and writing of William Stringfellow after we discussed John Howard Yoder and other Anabaptist theologians and writers. My conversations with Walton greatly helped me understand my own heritage and some of why my parents chose a different path for themselves; ironically, my path was one that instead tried to re-appreciate the tradition they left behind.

 

I don’t ever recall seeing either of my parents cry. Or get so angry that they seemed out of control. Even when my Dad gave me a “lickin’”, he seemed to do it out of obligation [“spare the rod and spoil the child”] rather than out of anger. I do recall my parents laughing at times; they appreciated a good chuckle but overall, they held their emotions in check – at least in front of me. Because of the three years spent at boarding school, I probably missed a lot of the interactions my brothers had with them – or, maybe, being the third of three active boys, they were worn out by the parenting prospects. It was clear they cared about my “soul”. It was less clear to me, in retrospect, that they celebrated me for who I was rather than what they hoped I would be. I think my striving to show them my more “radical” understanding of Jesus and Christianity was an attempt to allow them to embrace the real “me” despite my desire to break out of the “straight and narrow” pathway prescribed for good evangelicals.

 

In some sense I was really saddened by Mom’s Alzheimer’s – particularly her deepening into that “fog” after Dad died 3 ½ years before she did. It would have been a good time to get to know her separately from my Dad’s more dominate personality. Whenever we discussed theology, political perspectives, or even social norms, it was usually Dad speaking for both of them so I had difficulty hearing Mom as a different voice. Dad seemed to make most of the decisions and I seldom recall any strong disagreements from Mom – except in the latter years when Mom would often “scold” Les when he wanted dessert and she wanted to keep his figure away from that displayed by her three sons.

 

Mom and Dad were very committed to missions – especially, but not exclusively, those overseas. Besides hosting numerous missionary families at our house for meals during their state-side furloughs, my parents loved to plan their travels, especially after Dad’s retirement (at about age 65), around visits to see foreign “mission fields”. They kept a world map in the basement with pins stuck in, marking places they had visited over the 20-30 years of those travels.  I was happy to see their willingness to explore other places and escape the “bubble” of a relatively monolithic culture of their evangelical church. However, I’ve also come to view much of the more traditional missionary thrust as a continuing of a colonized form of Christianity which often fits hand-in-glove with US imperialistic foreign policy – both governmental as well as corporate. Also, as a counter-point to a boring monoculture was the choice of both a nephew and a niece to adopt non-Caucasian children into their families.

 

Living so far away from my parents for the past 46 years caused me to miss out on changes they made in their lives as I was changing as well. It also put our sons at a disadvantage in that they missed a lot of the “grandparent” outings that seemed to bring great joy and memories to my nieces and nephews and later their kids as well. They did take Micah and Zaq to the requisite trip to Alaska which was very appreciated by both parents and kids. Growing up so far away from, and in different settings (rural then urban vs suburban), left little of the close interaction with each other that their cousins on both sides of our families experienced.   

 

But that distance also provided a cushion against the tensions of diverging preferences of culture, politics, and expressions of faith (or lack thereof). When we gathered together, it was always easier to avoid certain areas for discussion.

 

Looking back, now a month shy of 70 years, and, having been robbed of the past eight years of Mom’s failing memory or ability to reflect, I wish I had treated both parents with more love, respect, and grace rather than the determination to assert my own independence with the ability of “speaking the ‘truth’ in love”. I needed to express more love, coupled with humility than the “truth” I had/have embraced. It is of less importance than my conveyance of love for them. Mom was only 24 years old when I showed up, a month premature with a collapsed lung, needing to be in an incubator initially, with one son a month and a half shy of 3 and the other only 10 months my senior! While at age 24 I was headed off to rural Mississippi with Mennonite Disaster Service and then to Washington, DC with Mennonite Central Committee – two destinations which helped continue to further the gap between my conservative upbringing and my desire to spread my wings with the help of my “radical” identity. I was 24 when first arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience against the Vietnam War. I was 24 when I dropped out of Social Work graduate school to do “voluntary service” since I hadn’t been drafted into the military. I didn’t marry until I was 27 and started a family only after reaching 32. Now, approaching 70 in less than a month, I have much better appreciation and love for my parents -especially my Mom.

 

When I was “speaking the ‘truth’ in love” to my parents, it was because I wanted them to accept me for who I truly was, not an identity of who I was and what I had believed as a child. Now I can see those two separate identities were one-and-the-same. But living at a distance, I wanted them to love who I had become rather than the ideal of who I had been. Because I understood their theology as so dualistic - heaven or hell, saved or lost, faithful to orthodoxy or heretic, lost or found – I wanted them to be assured I had still “kept the faith” but chose to express it in some very different ways. I hope they grew to understand that before their final days. Thank you, Mom. Thank you, Dad. I love and miss you. You are now my ancestors who my Catholic friends have taught me will be “praying and interceding for me and on my behalf”. And my indigenous friends have taught me you will continue to be my elders and guides. Yes, and even my evangelical friends have taught me I will be reunited with them in “glory”. Rest in Peace.