Journey to Here

Several years ago, Roz – a beloved college friend – and I toured the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. It was a first trip for both of us. We were impressed by the ways curators had organized materials to tell so many riveting stories, and we agreed that the architectural design added to our experience of the collections. But what truly mesmerized us was a section focused on resisters, the people who refused to cooperate with the Nazi regime. They often gave up their lives, even when they, themselves, would not otherwise have been targets of Hitler’s Reich.

As we exited the museum into the freezing winter afternoon, we were deep in conversation. Why, we asked each other, were some people more inclined to stand up to power than others? Did they get their convictions from their families? Their innate character? We ignored what I have only recently come to understand as possibly the most important factor in nurturing resistance: liberal religious ecumenism. What follows is a brief personal history explaining my oversight as well as my determination to bring “In the Midst” to you.

Questions of ethics and morality had occupied Roz and me in the early 1980s, when we were both students at Pomona College. We shared convictions and idealism, believing that individual choice and action can have wide-reaching effects. We also shared a loose commitment to our own religions, though we didn’t share the same faiths. But our liberal political views prevented us from connecting our commitments to our respective religious affiliations. We were disturbed by a conflation of evangelical Christianity and right-wing political certainty that it was America’s duty to export its influence abroad. The early 1980s were, in some ways, the last of the 1960s, a time of vital dialogue before the “me” generation anesthetized college campuses. We were influenced as much by the end of the Vietnam War as we were by TV sitcom Family Ties, trickle-down economics, and Reagan Republicanism. Students at Pomona hotly debated issues having to do with language, politics, sexuality, and gender. Topics having to do with religion almost never entered the fray.

There was but one exception to this absolute, and it reveals much about the spirit of the times and about my inability to understand the importance of liberal Christian theology. Students at Pomona began a campaign to change the college’s logo. Pomona’s founders were Congregationalists from New England. They crafted a seal in 1887. “Pomona College,” it read, “Our Tribute to Christian Civilization.”

To most at Pomona, the seal seemed outdated and even discriminatory. I counted myself in that group, which prevailed in its call for a new logo. As far as I was concerned there were but three kinds of Christians: Baptists, Catholics, and Unitarians. Two of the three were convinced I was going to hell, and the third – well, they didn’t count because they weren’t really Christians. As a Jew from Dallas, I’d been “evangelized” most of my life by well- and not-so-well-meaning friends intent on saving my soul. Roz’s husband Jim, a liberal who hailed from Massachusetts, had grown up in the Congregationalist Church. He and Roz argued for the preservation of the founders’ seal or at least for some way to honor it, pointing out that there was much to be proud of in the legacy it represented. It would take me decades before I began to grasp that “liberal” and “Christian” belonged in the same sentence.

I developed a somewhat better understanding of the differences between branches of Christianity over the years between college graduation and that visit to the Holocaust Museum. I married a man whose father, Klaus Penzel, is an ordained Lutheran minister born in Germany between the two world wars. Klaus was for many years a professor at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. Through our relationship, I came to know more about liberal Christian thinking – but still not enough to understand Roz and Jim’s defense of Congregationalism.

In graduate school in Yale’s Program in American Studies, professors emphasized power relations, encouraging us grad students to think about gender, race, and class. When we looked at religion, we did not focus on the importance of religious teaching or ethical training, itself, in fostering self-reliance or self-determination. Instead, we looked at tools – such as literacy — that slaves and people oppressed by imperialism and colonialism might’ve picked up to further their own struggles. Some of us wondered whether the conquered could have adopted aspects of their conquerors’ cultures without sacrificing identity and power. The topic of my dissertation – Native Americans and their relationships with the written word during the time of Indian Removal – included relationships between Indians and Christian missionaries, but my interest was in the ways literacy and resistance were linked, not in theology or politics, per se.

These are some of the then cutting-edge works I remember as pushing me to think about religion and culture in new ways. Robert Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street was the kind of monographic study held up as a model. Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, Vicente Rafael’s Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule, Inga Clendinnen’s Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570 and Marie-Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation inspired me because they emphasized the ways people from different cultures and classes influenced each other through, rather than in spite of, imperial and colonial relationships.

During these academic explorations, I gave birth to triplets – mostly irrelevant to this essay, except that in my need for help, I came to know Barbara Beach Alter, whose life is at the center of “In the Midst.” I’ll share the story of our friendship in a future post. What I need you to understand here is that my first reaction to Barry’s application to hold a baby a few nights a week was, “Absolutely not.” Barry, 72 in 1992 – when my children were born — had been a missionary in India for 40+ years. I imagined a right-wing zealot barging into my home, trying to convert me and my family. I could not have been more off-base. In my defense, I think my childhood experiences and – maybe more important – my generational positioning and graduate training — informed my gut reaction. I overcame my reservations upon meeting Barry. Hiring her is one of the most significant decisions I ever made.

As we came to know each other more fully, I was astonished to learn of her and her husband’s conviction that they would never convert anyone, not in America and not in India. As I began recording Barry’s autobiographical stories, I thought of Barry as singular. She and her husband, it seemed to me, were rebels. They had likeminded friends, who also struck me as extraordinary, but I viewed their work as encapsulated, atomistic. Even as I recorded Barry’s deepest memories and heard her many references to the New England Student Christian Movement and the World Council of Churches, my sense was that they were relevant because they stood as exceptions to most everything I knew about imperialism and mission work. I had sympathy for Barry’s wish to have her history preserved, not so much because I thought it had international significance but because I had such admiration for Barry as a person and because I understood what she was telling me as an important corrective to present-day evangelical Christians’ claims.

And then, as is so often the case with the best projects, a chance encounter changed my frame of reference, and, at last, the many pieces fell into place. I made a trip to New Haven in September to read some of Barry’s husband’s papers, which are catalogued in Yale’s Divinity School library. Archivist Martha Smalley suggested I contact Professor Dana Robert at BU, whose work, she thought, would resonate with my inquiry. Professor Robert put me in touch with BU graduate student Ada Focer, who shared with me her brilliant work on the Student Christian Movement in the United States. Neurons synced and sang. I very quickly came to understand that, though their work was in every way extraordinary, the experiences of Barry and her husband fit into a powerful but largely ignored movement. And it was that movement, stretching from the 1890s through the farthest reaches of the Cold War and the rise of Ronald Reagan, that provided the planet with some of its most interesting, dynamic, ecumenical resisters. Here was the locus of voices arguing against nationalism, fascism, and imperialism that Roz and I had remarked upon in our visit to the Holocaust museum.

Roz and I could not have made the connections between the Holocaust resisters and the Student Christian Movement, because we didn’t know enough about this overlooked chapter in history. I couldn’t have understood Roz and Jim’s take on Pomona’s logo change in the 1980s, because I had not yet learned to respect the heritage of Christian advocacy for international human rights. Focer’s scholarship will give us all a much clearer sense of this legacy. I hope the audio pieces of “In the Midst” that I’ll be sharing here on the CGCM website will help you appreciate, by attending to one couple’s story, the impact a religious movement had on individuals who believed that spreading the gospel allowed them to stand up to power – rather than impose it — to work for social justice around the world.

Filed by Catherine Corman, December 21, 2012

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