Monday, May 28, 2007

John Elex Best

Finally. Memorial Day weekend. The unofficial start of summer. The Indy 500. Preparations and celebrations for high school graduations. A day off work. Gatherings with family and friends. Cookouts. Campouts. Decorating graves. Memorial Day was actually decreed to be a day to remember those who died fighting in wars throughout the history of our nation. And as if this weekend wasn’t busy enough, congress sent to President Truman in 1950 a proclamation to make Memorial Day a day to pray for peace. One more thing to do this weekend. This should be a very busy holiday weekend indeed.

For many reasons, this week my attention turned to Ed and Bashia Best. Ed and Bashia were married in 1920 when Ed was 39 years old and Bashia was 36. Five years after their marriage when Ed was 44 and Bashia 41, John Elex Best, their only child was born. John grew up here in Winchester, helping his parents in the Best Grocery store, attended meeting for worship here occasionally, and was an outstanding trumpet player. He graduated from Winchester High School in May of 1943.

In December of 1943, towards the end of World War II, John decided to join the army. I don’t know what his parents thought of this decision, but it had to be an incredibly difficult thing for them to see their only son go off to war. In January of 1944, John left for basic training in Camp Croft in South Carolina, then went on to Camp Shelby in Mississippi and finished his training at Camp Atterbury.

In November of 1944 John left for Europe, and within a month was in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest battle American forces experienced in WWII. There were almost 20,000 Americans killed in the battle, almost 50,000 wounded, and Johnny Best was one of the 23,000 who were captured or went missing during the battle. The Battle lasted from the middle of December until the 25th of January 1945, 5 weeks. On January 16, 1945, almost exactly a year after their son went off to war, Ed and Bashia were notified Johnny was missing in action. I can’t imagine the grief experienced by this 64 and 61 year old couple. After seven weeks of not knowing what happened to their son, they received a letter from Johnny, written from a prisoner of war camp in Germany.

While Johnny was in that prisoner of war camp, the Yalta Conference took place. Shortly afterwards the fire bombing of Germany began. On March 31, 1945, thirty six British aircraft led by a Major Taylor bombed Halle, Germany from an altitude of 25,000 ft. Flak was meager and inaccurate and all the aircraft returned safely to base with no casualties.

Except that Johnny Best was in a prisoner of war camp in Halle, Germany and unbeknownst to Ed and Bashia, Johnny died that day in the allied bombing. He died one month before Hitler’s death. He died two months before the end of the war. When Johnny did not come home at the end of the war, Ed and Bashia went to post-war Germany and spent 2 months searching for him. They were not able to find his body and Ed and Bashia never really gave up hope that he might still be alive. Five years after the end of the war, the remains of Johnny Best were finally identified and brought back to Winchester. Ed and Bashia buried their only son at Fountain Park Cemetery in September of 1950. Ed and Bashia discovered that only five or six of the group of Americans with Johnny that day in 1945 made it out of Halle alive.

I am sure that when Johnny Best graduated from high school, Ed and Bashia did not anticipate their time with their son would be so short. I am painfully aware that some of our most important relationships in life are shorter than we desire. In remembering the life of Johnny Best, I’ve thought a lot about the stewardship of life and the stewardship of relationships.

Winchester Friends is now a steward of the life of Johnny Best. When Ed died in 1968 and Bashia in 1972, they left a third of their estate to Winchester Friends. For the last 7 years, almost $90,000 of the surplus of the annual distribution has been given away outside of the walls of this church to make a difference in our world. I believe that Ed, Bashia and John would be at peace knowing their legacy, their love for their son, is still active and still touching hundreds, and hundreds of people all around the world.

Here at Winchester Friends, we are again celebrating the graduation from High School of more young adults. Yet again, our nation is at war. We don’t know what the future holds for them, neither do their parents, but we all are too aware of how short our time with them has been, we are all too aware of the shortcomings of the world we are sending them into. I would like to remind you that we are also stewards of their lives.

When the apostle Paul wrote to his friends at Philippi, he reminded them that he thanked God every time he thought of or remembered them. Stewardship requires that we continually give thanks every time we think of these lives and relationships entrusted to Winchester Friends for these short years. We should continually pray for them. And I suggest pray that God will grant wisdom and strength to face the shortcomings in our world, to help them in their short lifetimes to leave our world a better place, and to make a difference in our world for Christ.

This will be a busy weekend. There are a lot of things for all of us to do. I somehow think in light of the life and death of Johnny Best, in light of all men and women throughout the world today who are dying in wars and violence, we would be good stewards of life, good stewards of these young lives before us today, to pray for peace on this Memorial day.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Peace Lesson from Susan Ubima

Remarks to begin Worship at the FCNL Annual Board Meeting in Washington DC on Nov. 12, 2006

Twenty some years ago, Ron and I sold everything we owned and flew off to Africa. We landed in Southern Sudan in the middle of a civil war and worked with refugees from another war in Uganda. Motivations for changing our lives at the ripe old age of 30 were many. One was we thought we could help change Africa. Instead, Africa changed us. After nine years in Southern Sudan and Uganda our African friends taught us that our Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality are not just good things to believe in or just something we do, but our testimonies must define how we live. We must be these testimonies to our world.

A petite Ugandan woman named Susan Ubima taught me about being peace in our world. I met her shortly after Northern Ugandan rebels killed her husband in an ambush. I admired her grace in the face of tragedy. Several years after the death of her husband, Susan was traveling on the same road where he was killed when her bus was attacked by rebels. In the rain of bullets, many on the bus died and Susan was shot in the arm and a bullet grazed her scalp. She and several other survivors managed to crawl out of the bus and were taken hostage by a large group of rebels, most of them barely teenagers.

Susan knew what she faced: possible death at the hands of men who killed her husband or being forced into being a sex slave to this group of rebels. For six hours Susan and the captives were marched deep into the Ugandan bush where they witnessed the murder of one of the captives who tried to escape. In those hours facing the unknown, Susan felt a leading to pray for the young men guarding her. They were close to the same age as her son. She began to engage them in conversation and to reach out to them as she knew their mothers would want of her. Slowly they began to respond to Susan. They talked a bit about playing soccer, about their homes and their families. She watched as their demeanor changed: they began to look her in the eye and spoke to her in kinder tones. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the rebels released Susan and the other hostages and they walked back to safety.

When Susan told us her story several days after the capture, she spoke about the peace studies she and her husband did under the tutelage of Quaker Peace and Service volunteers years before. The inner work of preparing for peace gave her a foundation to stand on when she found herself face to face with her husband killers. In the moments when she feared for life, she was drawn to look for that of God in her captors instead of seeing them only as rebels and killers. She was in the process of traveling a path towards forgiveness when this incident happened. She knew in those moments that somehow, someway the cycle of violence, revenge, and killing had to stop and she could choose to be a part of that plan through forgiveness and mercy. God made it possible for Susan in those moments to see the rebels as children of a mother just like her and she chose to forgive them.

Susan’s witness prepared me for life back in America. After years in the war zones of Africa, we moved to a safe home in the middle of America where there were no landmines or civil wars. On a spring afternoon three years ago, a prisoner from the county jail a block from our home beat up a guard, escaped, ran down the alley, found our back door, and broke into our home. I was home alone and found myself face to face with an angry, violent and broken young man. I was held hostage for 20 minutes while policemen searched our neighborhood in vain for this escaped prisoner.

In those moments, my commitment to peace made a difference. Because I knew I did not want to harm this young man, I was able to respond calmly to him. My husband and my commitment to peace meant we owned no guns. He searched our home for a weapon to use against me and the policemen outside my home. He found nothing. In the moments alone with this young man in our home, he broke down and cried on my shoulder, he told me about his children for whom he broke out of jail to see, and he told me of the 20 year sentence he’d just received. I was able to give him a cup of cold water and I told him that I was praying for him. In the end, he still tied me up and stole our car. But the few scrapes and bruises I had were incredibly minor to what this encounter could have been. I continue to pray and to write to him in prison.

Face to face with this young man in my home, I did not know how things would turn out. But I discovered I did not fear harm or death. God’s presence was tangible and real and I faced the unknown with peace and confidence that God would help me through whatever was to happen. My relationship with God does not mean I am protected from pain, suffering, or death. Susan’s husband, the Amish school children in Pennsylvania, and the many men, women and children who are the victims of violence and war in our world each day remind few escape violent encounters unscathed. Those who do are visible witnesses of the power of peace. For those who do not survive violence, the peace community can remind our world that it is possible for those who live in peace, to face harm or death in God’s peace.

The peace community - my faith community – works daily on Capital Hill for a world free of war and the threat of war. For over six decades the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) has brought the spiritual experience of Friends to bear on federal legislative processes and public policy decisions. FCNL is the oldest ecumenical lobby and the largest peace lobby in Washington DC. In mid-November 250 Friends from across the United States met in Washington DC for the annual board meeting of FCNL. For three days, representatives of Yearly Meetings and Monthly Meetings came to consensus on a list of priorities of FCNL’s lobby work with the 110th congress.* Meetings for worship centered on the theme “Building a living peace: Beyond the absence of war.” The encouragement to integrate the inward life of devotion with the outward life of social change sets a foundation for FCNL’s work in lobbying for a society with equity and justice for all, for communities where every person’s potential may be fulfilled, and for an earth restored.

The peace community – my faith community – can be a living witness the cycle of war and violence can end. The peace community – my faith community - is a living witness that peace is possible, as is forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. The peace community – my faith community – is active in building a just and peaceful society. I can think of no better community for which to be a part.

*Please see the FCNL website for this document and information on how to lobby your congressional representative.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

I believe in the power of fear......

On Saturday morning I sat with a cup of coffee and enjoyed a rare, peaceful morning listening to National Public Radio. I was blindsided by two interviews that forced the anniversary of September 11, 2001 into the peaceful day. Not that I ever forget that day. It is a day that changed everything in our world. But sometimes on a peaceful Saturday morning I am tempted to pretend it never happened.

The first interview was with a 9 year old Iraqi girl, Guffran. Her father was killed in a carjacking in Baghdad. Her anger and fear over this event in her life and the heartbreak over the loss of her father devastated me. The second interview was with a California man whose wife was on the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center. His life without his soul mate and the mother of his children was equally devastating. In both cases, lives were forever changed in the blink of an eye, at the whim of a stranger.

Fear contaminates our whole world. There is the fear of a 9 year old Iraqi girl who must face a future without the care and love of a father. There is the fear of another attack that could kill her mother. There is the fear of a husband who must raise children without their mother. There is the fear of an unknown and uncertain future without a spouse. There is the fear of flying. But fear did not enter our world on September 11, 2001.

I believe in the power of fear. I fear having my home invaded again. I fear being held hostage and tied up again by an escaped prisoner: a stranger. The young man who created this fear must now face the fear of being attacked and stabbed in prison on his way to lunch. Fear is everywhere. In the life of a friend who fears the loss of his job. In a friend who faces heart failure. In the life of a child who is abused. Fear haunts the life of a young single mother with no job, no future, and another baby on the way. Our world is full of people who face the fear of pain, a hopeless future, or hunger and disease. As we face the 5th anniversary of September 11, 2001, we are reminded of the devastation that can happen at the hands of a few individuals. Fear births anger, pain, loss and revenge.

Fear knows no boundaries, no nationality, no class, no sex, nor no age. The power of fear drives many from community and trust of neighbors. Fear has the power to blind us to that of God in our fellow human beings. Fear has the power to suck our lives dry of peace and contentment. Fear has the power to change our lives forever.

I believe in the power of fear. Fear has the power to change our lives but it does not have the power to define who we are or how we respond to its presence. Fear does not need to define how we live or how we die. Fear can transform our world and our lives for good. We can choose to face fear; to respect, cherish and protect all humanity in spite of our fear. We can choose to see every life we encounter as precious and each relationship a gift. The fear of the loss of those relationships should not blind us to what time we do have together. We can choose to look through fear to cherish each moment we have alive, to cherish each moment with have with those we love and to see each of those moments as sacred. I believe in the power of fear to inspire us to make a difference and to engage and change our world for good.

That seems to be the only way remember September 11, 2001 and those who died, those who suffered great loss and those of us who must now live in a different world.