Frontier Internship in Mission: Researcher Statement by Ada Focer, PhD

in Alumni/ae News, News
September 17th, 2018

THE BACKSTORY, by Ada Focer, PhD

My Visiting Researcher statement at the Center for Global Christianity and Mission describes my dissertation project, Frontier Internship in Mission, 1961-1974: Young Christians Abroad in a Post-colonial and Cold War World, and states I’m exploring ways to bring the stories I tell there to a wider audience. An article in the September 26, 2018Christian Century magazine begins to do that. What follows below is the backstory about the project generally, and the Christian Century article specifically.


There are, of course, different kinds of calls. For a number of years I worked as an investigative journalist and loved it. I won numerous awards and it felt then like it was work I was called to do. By the turn of the new millennium, however, the industry was in shambles and I simply could no longer do that work. I returned to school at BU, not in response to a new call but rather what Quakers would call a “leading” that there I would find a new call. It came in 2006 while reading Journeys that Opened up the World: Women, Student Christian Movements, and Social Justice, 1955-1975, a 2003 book edited by Sara Evans.  Four of the sixteen chapters were contributed by women who had participated in an experimental Protestant program called Frontier Internship in Mission (FIM) for two years between 1961 and 1974. An internet search quickly turned up the program archives at Yale Divinity School. They included a list of the 160 new college or seminary graduates who had participated. Another internet search quickly made it clear that I would be able to find a lot of them. A “reporter’s hunch” told me that here was a new story and one that needed to be told. My call was to tell it.

Reporter’s hunches, not unlike scholar’s hunches, while often inchoate, usually don’t come out of the blue. So what was there about FIM as its outlines became clear to me that suggested its participants had an important story to tell?

First, FIM was an experimental mission program. In 2006, missionaries were generally condemned in liberal society as having been part of the colonial project and often denounced as plain evil, yet I had known missionaries who were powerful advocates for the places where they served. Some are among the finest people I have ever known. I also knew in a general way that totalizing narratives like the “evil missionary” one, are often told by winners in cultural and political struggles because of superior power, not a superior claim to virtue or truth. Was that the case here? If so what stories were suppressed? Might the Frontier Interns (FIs) tell them?

Second, I suspected there was a generational story buried in the FIM story. FIs were born in the 1930s and 1940s. All but the oldest were part of the “Sixties Generation.” We know the Flower Child stereotype of that cohort because we see it in every TV special on The Sixties. But would it apply to the FIs?

Third, I thought the FIM story might help explain the decline of Mainline Protestant churches over the last fifty years. Participants were selected for FIM because they were demonstrated leaders in student Christian organizations. Churches that funded the program did so, at least in part, because they wanted these future church leaders to get overseas experience. Even before the interviewing began, my internet searches revealed that FIs had become powerful and effective leaders in many different realms of life, many with global organizations, but only a handful had held leadership positions in the churches at the national or international level. None were seminary professors. Why?

Finally, even if the impact on the churches was not what founders and funders hoped for, what was the broader impact, if any, on society, particularly one as historically insular as the United States?

At the very front end of this project I also had the good fortune to be able to interview the founder of the FIM program, Margaret Flory, who beginning in 1951 headed student ministries for the United Presbyterian Church. By the time I met with her, she was in her early 90s and functionally blind, but absolutely nothing impaired her mind or memory. In hours of in-person interviews, she brought to life for me the centrality of the World’s Student Christian Federal (WSCF), an organization going back to Dwight Moody, to this story. By the 1930s, when she attended Ohio University one-sixth of the world’s college students were members of one of the WSCF’s national member movements. By 1961, when FIM began, the ecumenical community successive generations of WSCF participants had spawned encircled the globe. This was her context and the context for the FIM. I had heard of it, but until speaking with Margaret Flory, I had had no idea of its scope or significance. The University Christian Movement, the American branch of the WSCF, voted itself out of existence in 1969 and disappeared. But as Margaret spoke, names of her friends in the movement rolled off her tongue who I immediately recognized as important historical figures. New dimensions of this untold story opened up.

By late 2008, I had completed my doctoral coursework and qualifying examinations. I had visited and done preliminary interviews with six very different Frontier Interns in Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois to get a sense of the kinds of things people might tell me. I proposed a dissertation that would use oral history methodology to address largely sociological questions. Dr. Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist, and Dr. Dana Robert, a historian, signed onto the project as advisors. What was then the Division of Religious and Theological Studies in BU’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences approved the proposal.

So in April 2009, I left Boston on a very long road trip that took me on a zig-zag route south to Florida, west to California, north to Vancouver, then east again to Boston, with a stop in Toronto, to do the interviews, in-person, mostly in people’s homes.  In 2010, with a grant from BUSTH, I went to Europe and interviewed eight FIs who had made permanent homes there. Interviews with FIs who had made permanent homes in Asia, Africa, and Central America were done via Skype. Eventually, 122 interviews were completed; 114 of them were with Americans.

It is a powerful and humbling experience to contact someone, out of the blue, wanting to hear their life history, and have them welcome you, a stranger, into their home and trust you to not only listen to their story but to honor it. On these trips, this happened over and over again, broken only by long stretches of travel getting from one place to another when I replayed interview recordings to more deeply absorb what I had been told. Most difficult was the deep well of grief that my questions tapped for so many, and the buckets of tears that flowed from it. Sometimes I felt like my heart was full, that I couldn’t do one more interview. But those times not just came in like the tide but also went out like the tide. I really, really liked the people I was meeting and I wanted to meet more of them. And those painful stories were important. I kept going.

There also were times, such as during the interviews with the three FIs profiled in the Christian Century article, when I was simply blown away in amazement by what I was hearing. During the 2009 interview with FIs Anna and Jerry Bedford in Little Rock, Arkansas, when it became clear the major role they had played in the growth of Heifer, International, an organization I have admired for years, and the direct influence their Frontier Internship had on that work, was one of those moments. Another was when I interviewed Tom Haller in Davis, California. Not until I drove across country on this trip did I learn that industrial agriculture had created huge food deserts in a part of the country I thought was America’s breadbasket. But California! The weekend before I interviewed Tom, I visited the Oakland farmers’ market. I had simply never seen anything like its abundance! With my friends and hosts, we went stall to stall, chatting with the farm representatives, learning about produce entirely new to me, and buying up some of it to create a fantastic meal later. And then I interviewed Tom and heard about his life’s work saving small and family farms in California and the role that his Frontier Internship had played in shaping a vision of how farm systems should work that was dramatically different from the industrial agriculture model he had learned in graduate school. “It’s not just words,” he said, “but the spirit of love can really affect how you farm, how you do a lot of things.”

Imagine being me, sitting on the sofa in the Haller living room, listening to Tom’s story with the memory of the Oakland Farmer’s Market from a few days earlier fresh in my mind thinking: If it wasn’t for the FIM program, small farms and the alternative to industrial agriculture they represent might not exist today. Wow! Over all the interviews, there were a staggering number of moments like that.

The least enjoyable phase of the project began afterward: transcribing all those hundreds of hours of interviews. Thank goodness my adult daughter, Grace Marlier helped or I would still be transcribing today! Actually, if my adult son, Ian Marlier, hadn’t figured out a foolproof backup system to make sure I didn’t lose any audio files while I was on the road, there might not have been anything to transcribe! It is pretty common that dissertation authors apologize to their young children for neglecting them for several years. If they’d waited to do their degrees until the kids were older, they could have pressed them into service! In any case, I’m grateful. I was deeply moved when Grace, at a celebration after I’d completed my degree, demurred that she and Ian had only done what her dad—my late husband John Marlier, whose dissertation I typed in 1976—would have done.

But it was up to me to analyze this material myself. That involved diving very deeply into the particularities of the global upheaval taking place in the 1961-1974 period. Every country was affected by it in one way or the other and FIs had served in forty-eight different ones. At the end of that process, it was clear that I had vastly more material than could ever be contained in a single dissertation, or even a single book or perhaps even several books. Before I wrote anything, I had to decide how I was going to handle this treasure trove of material.

First, I got written permission from everyone I interviewed to donate the audio file of their interview and the written transcript to Yale to be added to the existing FIM files donated by Margaret Flory a number of years ago. They will be embargoed until 2030, but afterward be open to scholars. I decided to simply trust that what I was unable to use, other scholars would at some future time.

Second, I decided on a dissertation structure that would not collapse the individual internships and draw general conclusions about them. Rather, every internship was written up as a case, undisguised in any way and organized geographically and chronologically in order to preserve particularities unique to those times and places. I hope this will enhance their usefulness, particularly to area studies scholars. These core chapters were bookended by chapters on Margaret Flory and the program, the personal backgrounds of the FIs, and their career trajectories after their internships ended. I did include a basic analytical chapter to guide future scholars in the event I was unable to continue the work.

Third, the book based on this material that I am writing right now presents a more probing analysis and wider argument addressing the questions listed earlier and others. I want this book to be accessible to a general audience. That gave me the idea of first writing an article for Christian Century which has a diverse readership to facilitate my own transition from the scholarly writing required for the dissertation. This came with a challenge of its own. After writing a sprawling 700+ page dissertation packed with detail about scores of people, how was I going to write something meaningful in 3000 words? I decided to focus on a few internships that all took place in the same country in the early 1960s and directed by the same person.

The decision which internships to choose to profile in the article was, in part, made by circumstance. In October 2017, I was headed to Berkeley, CA for a workshop hosted by Dr. David Hollinger for scholars working on issues related to the ecumenical Protestant tradition. His most recent book, Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, had just been published. He had grant funding to pay my travel expenses and kindly told me he didn’t mind if I extended my the trip in order to visit Pilgrim Place, a community for retired missionaries in Claremont, CA where five FIs currently live, and Davis, CA where Tom Haller still lives. Anna and Jerry Bedford, who moved to Pilgrim Place after my earlier interview with them in Little Rock, and Tom Haller all were FIs in Kenya under Rev. Dr. John Gatu in the early 1960s, right after Kenyan independence. I could visit them, update my interviews from 2009. An additional bonus was that Tom’s wife, Joanne, although not an FI, flew to Kenya to join him. They were married by Rev. Gatu. The wedding photos were wonderful! Anna Bedford was matron of honor and Jerry Bedford gave away the bride. I thought readers would enjoy that romantic twist! Another bonus was that John Gatu, the first African president of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, is an important figure in ecumenical church history and central to these internships. He passed away in May 2017. It was a good, concise package for the Christian Century article. It was a joy to visit all of them and the other FIs at Pilgrim Place, and to craft this article. I am incredibly glad David Heim, editor of Christian Century, agreed to publish it.

But there is some measure of regret as well. I am in touch with the FIs; some of them have become dear friends. Each of them got a copy of the dissertation in PDF form so they know specifically how their interview was used. There were a few instances where FIs disagreed with how I portrayed their experiences but not many. They also know that David Hollinger, in his recent book, used some of the dissertation in one of the chapters. And they also know my book is in progress and will add to advancing a new narrative that takes their experience seriously. But this is slow work. I know there will be inevitable disappointment that this Christian Century article does not present more of the FI internships and experiences now. I am sorry about that.

There was a time that I was sad to be too old to carve out a full academic career. Now, the research appointment that I have at the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at BUSTH seems entirely well-suited given the immensity of the task that is still in front of me. These stories are enormously important; they deserve my full attention. I am grateful to Dean Mary Elizabeth Moore who has been a stalwart supporter of this project from the beginning, and to Dr. Dana Robert, the director of the Center, for her ongoing support. Dr. Nancy Ammerman, who retired recently, remains a valuable conversation partner. A project of this scope would be inconceivable without that kind of institutional support. I am grateful to them, and to all those of you who support BUSTH, for it. Together, I believe we are doing good, important work.


Black and white photos courtesy of Joanne and Tom Haller. Color photos by Ada Focer.

The author, Ada Focer, PhD

Joanne and Tom were married in Kenya in 1965. Standing behind them is the Rev. Dr. John Gatu, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa at the time, who married them. Photo courtesy of Joanne and Tom.

The Haller wedding.

Anna and Jerry Bedford, taken at the Haller wedding in Kenya in 1965.

Joanne and Tom Haller, 2009.

Anna and Jerry Bedford, 2017.

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