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 ( 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.