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.