Author Archives: Margaret

The Missionary as Change Agent

Richard Poethig as a fraternal worker in the 1950s in the Philippines

Richard Poethig as a fraternal worker in the 1950s in the Philippines

by Richard Poethig

A recent Wall Street Journal item caught my attention.

The title “Christian Missionaries Against Colonialism” set my mind in motion. Part of my life had been dedicated to work overseas within the context of what had been called Christian mission. The WSJ article writer David A. Hollinger was making the case that the old image of missionary as a carrier of colonial imperialism had taken a sharp turn in the 20th century.

His recent book “Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America” tells the story of the changes in the mission experience which brought a new brand of missionary into being.

I respond to Hollinger’s thesis from within our family’s overseas experience. We served in the church overseas in the mid-20th century when the post-World War II period was bringing dramatic global changes. The global conflict was a challenge to the colonialism which had dominated the history of the previous four centuries. Our family spent fifteen years in the Philippines, a nation which had been within the Spanish orbit since 1517. The United States began its own colonial experience in its victory over Spain in 1898 and its colonial administration of the Philippines in the 20th century.

The change in mission thinking came with the political and social upheaval at the end of the war in the Asian arena. The global conflict, especially in Asia, challenged the Western presence in former colonial nations. Mission churches had become national churches. Nationals had become leaders in the churches and in the schools, hospitals and other structures begun during the missionary presence. National leadership within the churches in Asia was called to deal with the post-war rebuilding in their nations.

The churches in Asia renewed their relationship with the counterpart Western church bodies. The leadership in the Asian church bodies chose the fields in which they needed special help. The leadership in the Presbyterian Church, USA was especially aware of the new day in its overseas mission. Charles Leber, the leader in the Board of Foreign Missions, was the initiator for change in the 1950s.

In twenty three years from 1936 to 1959, Charles Leber visited 58 churches in fifty-eight countries. Dr. Andrew Thakur Das memoralized the work of Leber in changing church thinking: “Of these 18 journies, perhaps the eleventh in 1953, was the most significant. On this trip he visited Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Malaya, Indonesia, Philippines and Germany. Somewhere on his way to Bangkok, he wrote to his colleagues at “156.”

“Let us change the name of the Board; let us eliminate the term ‘home base’; let us change the name ‘missionary’ into ‘fraternal worker’; let us invite fraternal workers from other lands into the United States of America.”

Thus began the reality of the new day which had come to mission. Action was taken by the PCUSA for a name change from “foreign missions” to The Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations, A person in overseas work was no longer a missionary but a fraternal worker. A person was no longer sent, but was called by the overseas church to a special work which that church saw as their need. The fraternal worker was linked with a national who was the primary partner and the supervisor.

As a case in point, my work to which I was called by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines was in the field of industrial evangelism. Across Asia and in other “so called” developing countries, the emphasis was upon the growth in urban centers and in the industrialization process. The term ultimately developed for the field of work was urban-industrial mission. Our minds were on the social changes taking place in the developing world. The emphasis was on justice ministries.

Cross cultural friendships developed out of this cooperative work. This brought changes in the way the work was carried out and the way this change was communicated to the those in the congregations in the United States. It is here that Hollinger’s thesis carries weight. The message and the engagement in the overseas work changed the thinking on mission within the U.S. churches. It dramatically changed the “colonial” view which had been part of the mission message in previous generations.

These changes in the Western churches overseas mission took on a global meaning with the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The representation of the churches in one global organization opened the door for the leadership of the former overseas mission churches on the world scene.

Within the Asian region the ecumenical process had been underway with the creation of the East Asia Conference of Churches in 1956, later renamed the Christian Council of Asia. The organization of regional council of churches had a direct impact on how work among the regional churches was to be organized and supported. One case in point was the immediate recognition within the churches in the region of the growth of urban centers and the force of industrial development upon the people and culture of their nations.

The changes in urban and industrial development hastened the cooperation of the churches globally in the field of urban-industrial mission. The regional councils in Asia, Africa and Latin America each had their counterparts in this area of social change. At the global level a desk was created at the World Council of Churches in the 1960s in Geneva, Switzerland which gathered the stories, the work and the issues of urban-industrial in these global regions. Those who worked in these regions became change agents both in the work of urban industrial mission and in the consciousness of the countries in which they were citizens. In his writing Hollinger touches upon the ecumenical churches reconsideration of the meaning of mission in this current age and how it strengthened the sense of globalization within the congregations in the United States.

Hollinger makes the case that in the 20th century the attitudes of the missionary community, by their commitment to the people and the work in overseas communities, had opened a cross-cultural understanding. The acceptance of the traditions and the history of the nations in which they lived and worked provided a new framework for their own lives. It was this view which they brought back to their own country. The missionary and especially their children became among the strongest opponents of racism and the colonialism formerly associated with Christian mission.

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Out A Hospital Window

by Richard Poethig

Photo of mural Ang Lipi Ni Lapu Lapu (The Descendants of Lapu Lapu) by Johanna Poethig


Ang Lipi Ni Lapu Lapu (The Descendants of Lapu Lapu), mural by Johanna Poethig

My thoughts were on the health of my wife this afternoon as she lay asleep in a Weiss hospital bed in Uptown Chicago. My eyes wandered from her face to the scene outside her 3rd floor window. Through the branches of a tree I caught the sight of a bronze statue and behind that two flags hanging at half-mast. The massacre in Las Vegas was being remembered by the Stars and Stripes and the flag of the Philippines. The Philippine flag suddenly awoke me to the fact that the statue was of the Filipino revolutionary hero Jose Rizal.

Many images came to mind as I remembered our family’s fifteen years’ residence in the Philippines. We learned much Philippine history in those years, both past and present. In fact our growing children learned more Philippine history than U.S. history. They learned of Jose Rizal, a Philippine patriot, and his execution by the Spanish colonial government, which saw him as a threat to their presence in the Philippines. We became aware of the fact that the U.S. occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war in 1898 was met with opposition from a Philippine revolutionary army, which wanted Philippine independence. The victory of U.S. forces brought the Philippines into the American orbit and, along with the U.S. presence, an effort to build a democratic form of government. Our presence in the Philippines over the next half-century provided a road for the immigration of many Filipinos to the United States for study, work, and, ultimately, citizenship.

Cover of book titled Empire of Care.

“Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History” by Catherine Ceniza Choy

As I thought of our family’s good years in the Philippines, and of our learning experience, I found this reality coming to fruition in our presence at Weiss Hospital. Among the Filipinos who had joined the stream of immigrants coming to the United States, many had provided their skills in the health system of their newfound home. This was apparent as my wife received dedicated care from nurses and hospital attendants of Filipino background. Currently, as a resident of a Chicago retirement community, there is evidence that those of Philippine heritage provide a strong contribution to the U.S. health support system. We found in our health care experience that the presence and the skills upon which our medical system depends has brought peoples of many different overseas regions to the U.S.—from Asia, from Africa, from the Middle East, from Eastern Europe, and from Central and South America. A recent article in the New York Times, “Why America Needs Foreign Medical Graduates,” explains that almost a quarter of all doctors and residents across all fields, and more than a third of residents in subspecialist programs, are foreign medical graduates.

This fact our daughter Margaret responded to with this comment: “I can’t stop thinking about the fact that about 98% of the doctors, residents, therapists, medical students, nurses, patient care technicians, caregivers and housekeeping staff at my mom’s hospital were people of color and 70-80% were immigrants. And they were awesome. When are the Republicans going to wake up to this reality?” The New York Times article confirms Margaret’s observation, pointing to recent studies showing that “patients with congestive heart failure or myocardial infarction had lower mortality rates when treated by doctors who were foreign medical graduates….and that older patients who were treated by foreign medical graduates had lower mortality as well, even though they seemed to be sicker in general.”

Postcard of Johanna Poethig's mural, "Ang Lipi ni Lapu Lapu."

Postcard of Johanna Poethig’s mural, “Ang Lipi ni Lapu Lapu.”

Daughter Johanna, a visual artist, captured the reality of the Philippine immigrant experience in a mural in San Francisco that depicted the history of the Philippines and the Philippine immigrant impact upon the United States. The mural is on a 90-foot wall of Dimasalang House, a Filipino retirement community located behind the Moscone Convention Center.

The upper section of the mural tells the story of those who participated in the struggle to bring independence from colonial control. In the middle section are the Filipinos who immigrated to the U.S. and added their various professional and work roles to the history of the United States. In the lower corner of the mural is seated Lapu-Lapu, the Malay chieftain who thwarted the earliest attempt to colonize the Islands by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. The title of the mural “Ang Lipi ni Lapu-Lapu” tells the story of the descendants of Lapu-Lapu.

There is much history for us to learn from all of those who have made their way to our shores. We should cherish this history and add it to our own national heritage.

 

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A Word to Guide Life

by Richard Paul Poethig

This October 2017 we celebrate an event which changed the course of religious history 500 years ago. Martin Luther challenged the practices and belief of the Roman Catholic Church in which he was an active priest. His thinking established a new road to travel in abiding by the life and teaching of Jesus. Among Luther’s teachings he provided words to guide one’s life.

Luther was an Augustinian monk. One of the words crucial to Luther changed the role of the priest in the life of the faith. His awakening came when he confronted the status of the religious orders in the light of the Scripture. In his reading of Scripture, religious orders were not superior to the common folk. The word Luther saw as describing the faith of all believers was the German word “Beruf.” In English this meant “calling.” For Luther the same religious calling was open to the dairy maid as it was to the monk. From this understanding came the major breakthrough of the Reformation – the priesthood of all believers.

If Luther’s word had moved to it ultimate conclusion it would have dramatically changed the institutional Church. If all people were “called” there would have been no separation between those in church orders and ordinary believers, the “laity.” The church would have been an equally called and blessed community – there would have been no hierarchical order.

In a deepening and widening understanding of “calling,” individuals would have not only a place in God’s community, but also a revelation of the special talent with which their genetic inheritance had endowed them. This genetic inheritance was also written into their sexual orientation. It was a responsibility of both the individual and the community to encourage and to enhance the fulfillment of this genetic inheritance.

The word “calling” had meaning in the thinking of the Reformer John Calvin. Calvin expanded on the word “Beruf” used by Luther and provided a word which had impact in the outcome of the Reformed movement. Calvin used the Latin word “vocatio” to describe the relation of the believer to the world. “ Vocatio” translates in the English to “vocation.”

For Calvin the sense of vocation engaged people directly in the events of their world. This was the center of Reformed theology. To be called was not just within the church community, but to be called was to live the faith in the midst of your daily encounters in the community. A believer’s vocation was to pay attention to what was happening in the world. They were to be actors for justice and fairness in the conducting of community affairs.

This was true in the governing of the community of which they were citizens. If a magistrate governing a community was unjust in office it was in the citizen’s vocation, or calling, to bring the magistrate to justice or to see him/her removed from their position of authority.

This is the heart of the social message of the Reformed faith.

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Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr in the Era of Trump

by Richard Poethig

This past season a PBS documentary titled “An American Conscience” lifted up the life and work of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is remembered for the crucial role that he played in mid-20th century international affairs. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, who saw the dimension of Niebuhr’s understanding of power in politics, have kept his influence alive in their own political thinking through these latter years.

This week as James Comey, former director of the FBI, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on his conversations with President Trump, the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr in his thinking will come to bear. A June 4, 2017, article in The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, relates Comey’s attention to Niebuhr’s theology of power. The Guardian quotes Karen Greenberg, of Fordham University, on how Niebuhr’s influence on Comey will play out in the upcoming Congressional inquiry: “If you think of moral man caught in an immoral society, for someone who truly understands Niebuhr and the inherent conflicts between power and justice, this all has an aura of destiny to it.”

Niebuhr’s strength was in his ability to speak an incisive and prophetic word to the power politics of his day. I was fortunate to have sat under Niebuhr when he was a professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. My years at Union—1949 to 1952—coincided with a crucial period in Niebuhr’s teaching and political influence.

It was the period of the Cold War. Niebuhr was invited by George Kennan, the U.S. Secretary of State, to participate in the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.   Out of these policy discussions was borne the Cold War policy of containment. In this period Niebuhr wrote one of his most influential works on international politics, “The Irony of American History,” which showcases the maintenance of the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States in a nuclear age.

Niebuhr’s understanding of the way power is used in society was the strength of one of his first books: “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” It was written in the depths of the Depression in 1932 and after a ministry in Detroit, in which he faced off against Henry Ford and his domination of the automotive industry and the workers under his control. “Power,” Niebuhr wrote, “has become the significant coercive force of modern society. Either it defies the authority of the state or it bends the institutions to its own purposes. Political power has been made responsible, but economic power has become irresponsible in society. The net result is that political power has been made more responsible to economic power. It is, in other words, again the man of power or the dominant class which binds society together, regulates its processes, always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors.”

Niebuhr wrote this in 1932 at the depths of the Depression. It has a ring for us today when we realize that what is happening to us is a replay of the economic power, in the hands of political power, which is calling the shots, rewarding itself, and telling us this is all in the cause of “making America great again.” Niebuhr’s words ring true today and we hope that there will be those who will give leadership in bringing justice to the work of our government agencies, in the deliberations of our courts, in the freedom of our media in support of the truth, in the health of our unions on behalf of worker rights and in the voice of our people to be heard in the preservation our democratic processes and pursuit of human rights.

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Parks I Have Known

Aerial photo of the Highline Park in New York City

The Highline Park in New York City

A recent PBS/TV documentary on the impact of parks on life in U.S. cities opened a page in my growing up in New York City. The documentary showed the importance which the natural world had on the lives of urban dwellers. City life, it said in a loud voice, cannot survive without providing the blessings of the green and open environment which the natural world provides.

The images of the parks which the urban planners set in motion within expanding American cities often put immigrant urban settlers in touch with the countryside of the lands they left behind. For young people being born into these cities the only touch of green they might see was in the parks which planners like Frederick Olmsted and Daniel Burnham envisioned and planned for New York City and Chicago. Having lived in both cities, my life has been touched by the inheritance they left us.

The New York old law five story tenement where I spent my first nine years was a closed-in experience. The earliest pictures I had of green space were trips with my mother to Central Park and Carl Schurz Park on the East River. My next ten years I lived in a railroad flat where 83rd Street between First and York Avenues was my improvised ball park. Our gang played four varieties of ball games with our “spaldeen” in the street and off the walls of Yorkville tenements. (You can listen to the tale of these games in chapter four of www.onthesidewalksofnewyork.com.) Our one venture away from 83rd Street was a trip to Carl Schurz Park to play stick ball in a long and open space set up for volley ball. Our Carl Schurz excursion ended dramatically when I ran into a pole set up for volley ball trying to catch a long fly ball. My friends hustled me to Misericordia Hospital on 86th Street and York Avenue where the doctor marveled, after stitching my forehead, that no glass from my shattered eyeglasses had entered my eye.

My other park venture was the journey five high school mates made from Yorkville on the East Side to the High School of Commerce on the West Side through Central Park. We entered the Park every morning at 79th Street on the East Side and exited at the Tavern on the Green on West Central Park. The five of us made this round trip every school day morning for three years, even in the snows of New York. We only took the cross town bus to high school in torrential rains. The journey through Central Park was our touch with the epic work of Frederick Olmsted who had brought green life to Manhattan.

One New York park experience which came late in life was a return trip to Manhattan with two friends from my Yorkville days. Now in our eighties, we agreed to journey to New York with our wives to visit our old haunts. We returned in the Fall of 2009 and found lodging at The Leo House on West 23rd Street, a former 19th century convent of a German Roman Catholic women’s order which now was a Hotel and Guesthouse.

The Leo House was conveniently located for our jaunts around New York and back to our old Yorkville neighborhood. The location of the House was a short walk to 11th Avenue where we discovered the rehabilitation of the High Line. The work on the High Line was a plan to turn a 1934 built elevated line into a 21st century urban park. For strong urban environmentalists, we were encouraged to witness the conversion of a 20th century remnant of city transportation into an imaginative pedestrian experiment. The exceptional urban renewal character of the High Line was in its grass roots origins. A community based group, Friends of the High Line, were the initiators and promoters in carrying out a campaign to save the 11th Avenue elevated line from destruction to see to its resurrection into a pedestrian friendly and attractive example of the new urban spirit. The three old New Yorkers left their city inspired to the urban park experience in a 21st century version.

Richard P. Poethig

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Lessons From Life on Earth Day 2016

Photo of acacia treeEarth Day was jogged into my consciousness this past week when a National Geographic photo essay on Ancient Trees popped up on Facebook. The photographic collection by Beth Moon was of ancient trees from many lands. Each had their own story to tell in the history of the land in which they had grown. A yew tree with a girth of 31 feet in Surrey, England with an age of 1500 years was found to have a cannon ball buried in her from the English Civil War. A baobab tree shaped in the form of a teapot whose trunk is 41 feet in circumference has grown on the west coast of Madagascar for 1200 years.

The trees in the essay stirred in my mind all the trees I have come to know in my history. As a New Yorker my first acquaintance with trees was in Central Park. As a high schooler, five of us walked across Manhattan from the East Side to Commerce High on the West Side through Central Park for three years. This was our encounter with the natural world. In adulthood there were the hemlocks on a lake island where we vacationed in northern Wisconsin. The acacia tree pictured in this blog stood in front of our house in central Manila. Son Scott, a plant geneticist, tells me there are 1200 species of acacias in Australia. Then there were the trees in our backyard in Louisville, Kentucky which were visited by at least twenty-five different species of birds. For an old New Yorker, who know only pigeons and sparrows, this was a new slice of life.

So it is that trees play a special role in our lives. A cousin wrote me recently about what the loss of trees meant to her in her Minnesota home. “Three times when I had some part of the woods cleaned up, I lost a species of birds that never came back: an old log…was the favorite pecking place for the brown thrasher, the brush pile…was home to chattering blue jays and the tall thin oaks…were where the rose breasted grosbeaks perched before gliding down to the feeder outside the kitchen window.” She goes on to tell about the grove of trees her father had planted as a wind break on the farm and a cottonwood tree in which a redheaded woodpecker lived. “One day a woodsman…offered to take down the old trees free for wood. When I demurred because of the woodpecker, he said: ‘So you are one of those!!'”

On this upcoming Earth Day we need more people “who are one of those” in the world. We need people who think twice about the loss of our natural habitat. Trees have a special place in the preservation of life on this plant. They have been with us a long time. They keep us alive in the process of osmosis and photosynthesis, which were among the first things we learned in school. These are the processes that plant life uses to change carbon dioxide in the air into the oxygen we breathe. Without plant life, e.g. trees, life on this planet would have a hard time surviving. So on this Earth Day take up the cause of our planet so we can breathe more freely and look forward to a green future.

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Chapter 15 – A Turning Point

podcast artworkRichard’s leadership of the Student League for Industrial Democracy on the Wooster campus has not gone unnoticed. Dr. Ver Steeg of the Geology Department, one of the faculty’s conservative members, confronts Richard about information he has received from the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Congress about the Student League in the 1930s. Richard deflects Dr. Ver Steeg’s finding, pointing to the collapse of the Student League at that time and its rebirth in the post-War period. Leading up to the 1948 Presidential election, the Student League leverages the mock Republican Convention on campus to promote its agenda by nominating a liberal Republican, Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, as a candidate. Although derided as a non-candidate by the conservative Republican student participants, Morse becomes a contender in the mock convention and runs second to Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. On a trip to Washington, D.C., to lobby against the peace time draft, Richard meets with Senator Morse, who commends the Wooster students’ efforts.

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Chapter 14 – A Union Summer

podcast artworkDuring the summer of 1947, Richard works for the Dress Joint Board in New York City’s Garment District. The experience heightens his liberal sensitivities toward the issues of working people. His fellow student summer workers clue him in on the ideological struggles within the union, including the affiliation between some garment manufacturers and the mob in an effort to control the union. Richard listens to the stories of hardship of the garment workers applying for unemployment benefits.  The stream of people he interviews resembles the cast of characters  in Leo Rosten’s  The Education of  H*Y*M*A*N  K*A*P*L*A*N, with their unique accents and their creative and amusing way of speaking the English language. Richard also learns more about the the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) from his co-workers. The summer experience affirms his growing support for organizing a liberal  student movement.

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Chapter 13 – Reclaiming A Heritage

Richard returns to Wooster after his mother’s death emotionally drained. With the encouragement of his friends, he runs successfully for the Student Senate, wraps up the school year, and returns to New York. Richard’s job as director of  a Y.M.C.A. summer camp for 12- year-old boys keeps him busy; nevertheless, he witnesses one of his father’s epileptic seizures. Richard remembers the fun times he had with his father going to Giants games and “crabbing” on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. They had gotten along well, but Ernest would never understand Richard’s aspirations or his decision to go away to college. Back at Wooster in the fall of 1946, Richard throws himself into his academic work, four jobs, and campus political and social activities. He helps organize a chapter of the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which heats up criticism of his “socialist” leanings. He runs for president of the student body and loses in a run-off election. Moving on, Richard is elected as president of  “the Big Four,” representing the four major religious organizations on campus. Richard returns to New York where his leadership in the Student League earns him a job with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

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Chapter 12 – A Time to Live, A Time to Die

Henrietta Schoelzel Poethig, 1901-1946

Henrietta Schoelzel Poethig, 1901-1946

In September 1945, the war is over and former students, now veterans, return to the dynamics of rebuilding the post-war world. Richard learns the value of a liberal education at the College of Wooster, where the study of science and religion are complementary. He holds down three jobs on campus to cover expenses. In December, his father, Ernest, falls from a ladder at work and fractures his skull; the accident causes epileptic seizures. Henny, Richard’s mother, leaves St. Francis Tuberculosis Hospital to care for Ernie at home. Richard rushes back to New York to help. He takes his mother back to St. Francis, and, believing the situation at home to be stabilized, makes the decision to return to Wooster. During Easter break, Richard is urgently summoned back to New York.

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