For a pictoral version of this testimony, go to my personal website, The Spiritual Pilgrim. It has its own very special merits.
This includes a vast number of pictures covering the national and international events going on at the same time as my own spiritual pilgrimage ... just a reminder that all lives have their larger context!
My own confusing start. I grew up in a small town in Illinois and went off to Hanover College (Indiana) in September of 1959 to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry – something pretty generally expected of me, having been a very active leader during my high school years in the Presbyterian youth organization locally, regionally and state-wide (Illinois). But at Hanover I was deeply challenged by a professor who felt that the Bible would be strengthened by eliminating all the superstitious miracle stories – and then rattled in my religious faith even further when the same professor committed suicide the next semester.
Discovering a much larger world. Recoiling from the shock, I enrolled at the University of Illinois in the College of Architectural Engineering for the next fall semester. But beforehand, a summer in Europe (June to September 1960) with my family prior to that transfer changed completely the direction I would then take in life. There in Europe I had a whole new world that I previously knew absolutely nothing about now open up to me. It was startling. The American world I had grown up in had been so secure, so complete, so accomplished, so well put together that I had no idea that there were other valid – even very appealing – ways of going at life!
I now returned to the States hungry to know more about this larger world I had just encountered. Thus upon arrival at Champaign-Urbana that fall I immediately transferred out of the School of Engineering and into the College of Arts and Sciences, instead taking up the study of history and continuing my study of French (and starting up German as well) – to get myself ready to spend my junior year abroad in Europe (1961-1962).
Geneva: the junior year abroad. At first I was greatly disappointed when the Presbyterian program placed me at the University of Geneva, because I wanted to study in France, not Switzerland. But once in Geneva it took me no time to realized that I had been posted to the most international of all European cities – where numerous young and vibrant people from all around the world were easily befriended. Here I also had the opportunity not only to study international politics and economics in French (as well as courses on diplomacy in both English and French at the Graduate Institute of International Studies) but also to vastly improve my German by not only meeting my first best-friend ever, Adam, an English-speaking German, but also his German buddies whom I spent most of my free time with and who spoke virtually no English at all.
This taught me not only how to move back and forth from one language to another, but also how to quickly move from one cultural context to another, American, French and German perspectives on life varying rather widely. Also having suite-mates from Hungary and Bulgaria added to this perspective. And in March and April I took a Vespa scooter trip through Communist Eastern and Southeastern Europe all the way to Greece and Turkey and back through Italy, and got to encounter yet other worlds vastly different from my American world.
Also, that year in Geneva brought me face to face with the philosophy of Political Realism – or Realpolitik, the German term I like to use because it was the brilliant German political leader Bismarck that refined the concept of Realpolitik to a point of incredible purpose and effectiveness. Realpolitik would be something that would become foundational in how I understood and approached life from that point on.
At the end of that school year in Geneva, I returned to the States, a confirmed internationalist as well as a student of Realpolitik.
Graduate study and work in D.C. After completing my senior year at Illinois the following year (1963), I took up graduate study (political science) at Georgetown University. But I also engaged myself deeply (half-time work in various parts of the Washington bureaucracy) in an up-close study of the way that power actually worked in Washington. I also hung out with the "junior-dip-set" (sons and daughters of the foreign diplomats posted to Washington) but ended up with a law student at George Washington University, Courtney (that was a guy's name back then!), as my best friend – and a Texas girl, Martha, working for her Congressman, as my girlfriend.
Meanwhile, I wrote my master's thesis on the political dynamics of South Africa – at a time (the mid-1960s) when Africa was securing "national" independence everywhere. But on the basis of substantial research – and also on the basis of my sense of Realpolitik – I ended up predicting instead (to the shock of some) that political control of South Africa would remain in White hands for the foreseeable future, certainly at least for another full generation (which indeed turned out to be the case).
Entering fully into that larger world. Martha and I would marry a couple of years later and soon thereafter I would finish my course work and comprehensive exams for the Ph.D. – just in time to be able to "escape" from America (August of 1968). It had been terrifying to watch America (up close) go through the political and social horrors earlier that year – two assassinations of national leaders and rioting, sacking and torching of American cities (including D.C. where the destruction came within two blocks of our home on Dupont Circle).
It was such a disastrous end-product resulting from what was supposed to have been the beautifully conceived "Great Society." But again, based on my sense of Realpolitik, none of that was a matter of great surprise to me. Nonetheless it hurt deeply to watch America reap the whirlwind instead of the grand social harvest that the D.C. social planners had been expecting.
In late August, Martha and I gladly headed off to Europe, bought a VW and took off eastward from Brussels (where we expected eventually to settle), across Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal (we actually flew to Nepal from India) – before heading back six months later. It was quite an adventure, not only seeing awesome sights, but meeting awesome people along the way (including major civic leaders of Afghanistan, who treated us to an American Thanksgiving dinner and who escorted us to a fashion show put on by the Afghan Queen!)
Brussels: doctoral research. Upon our return to Brussels I went to work for IBM-Belgium as a computer systems analyst (I had taken up the study of main-frame computing while in D.C.) and Martha got a job teaching at the NATO American school. Here I would also gain another set of best-friends, Victor (a Fleming from Halle) and Pierre and his wife Anne (Walloons from Liège). But I finally came to realize that my work at IBM left me no time to work on my dissertation: namely, how Belgian political leadership sought to manage national unity in the face of a deep social cleavage existing between the Dutch and French-speaking halves of the country.
But thankfully, Martha's teaching job put us in a position to be able to live comfortably off of her salary, so that we eventually decided that I could and should devote myself full-time to my Belgian research. In this too I picked up a new friend, Newt Gingrich, who was also there at the same library doing doctoral research. We spent many very long lunches together (along with another grad student, Bob Sanders, also from Tulane) discussing the confused state of the American nation (and the general direction of the world). Then finally in July of 1970, Martha and I returned to the States for me to write up my research.
Mobile: the young professor. The year after that (1971) we moved to Mobile, Alabama, for me to take up a position as an assistant professor in the political science department at the University of South Alabama (teaching world politics, international relations, American diplomacy, and regional area studies of Europe, the Middle East and East Asia) – and then soon thereafter as the founder and director of the university's international studies program.
And I took up the role as sponsor of a Model United Nations organization that brought in university students from all across the South, to play the role of diplomats from the widest array of nations – to give these students the understanding of not only the complexities of international diplomacy but also how "political reason" could take many forms, always sound very compelling, yet at the same time make it very hard to find the path to a workable truth. I wanted my students to be able to avoid falling into an easy social-intellectual bubble that awaited them as they stepped from their comfortable lives as teenagers into the adult world. I was hoping to make that transition easier for them than it had been for me – yet also as thrilling as it had been for me – in discovering that larger world!
Also, as head of the international studies program, I worked hard to place my majors in internships in the actual occupational fields (finance, law, diplomacy, etc.) they were studying, so that their learning experience would not just come from a book!
Life outside the academic bubble. But beyond my classroom teaching, my natural instinct was to engage myself in the actual world of social dynamics itself. And although I remained active in academic life at the university and around the state of Alabama, Martha and I quickly left the academic neighborhood surrounding the university and moved downtown, where our closest friends were the young businessmen, bankers, lawyers, etc. that directed the life of the city of Mobile itself. Also I did contract work for an international organization seeking a diplomatic solution between the U.S. and France over the politics of town-twinning. And I soon expanded research operations as a consultant with banks and businesses in the American South on the matter of "political risk" (actually, mostly economics!) – that is, the risk involved in overseas lending and investment. I even had the occasion to offer a contract course on this subject held over the summer of 1983 at the London School of Economics.
At the same time, a business partner, Tony, and I became deeply involved in the renewing of historic homes in downtown Mobile, classic beauties that had fallen on hard times (my love of architecture still being a big matter to me). And I spent many weekends (for seven years) crewing for a Dutchman (Tony's father, whom actually I crewed for well before meeting Tony himself) during the region's rather constant run of sailing regattas. Then Martha and I finally purchased our own 30' sailboat and began cruising the Gulf Coast.
During this time I also took up the study of Arabic (to deepen my study of the world of Islam) – and town planning (in particular the political side of the issue), offering a graduate course at the university on the subject.
Observing "Watergate." Of course I was as interested in American domestic politics as I was in matters of foreign diplomacy – and like the rest of America, found myself following the Watergate scandal focused on the Nixon presidency. Very interestingly, my old friend Courtney had worked for Nixon as legal liaison between the Department of Defense and the White House, but had decided to come away from the D.C. political scene just prior to the 1972 election campaign. By doing so he avoided getting caught up himself in that scandal! Anyway, knowing Washington politics first-hand, I realized that I was looking at political interest rather than national law as being at the heart of the matter. Nixon's huge electoral win in November of 1972 (based in part not only on his successful removal of American ground troops from Johnson's disaster in Vietnam but also his relaxing of Cold War tensions with his diplomatic openings to China and Russia) had stung the Democratic Party greatly. Nonetheless despite the huge loss in the presidential election, they still commanded a large majority in both houses of Congress. Therefore I knew that Nixon would still have a hard time dealing with Congress. I just had no idea of how much that would be the case!
What bothered me most was the way that the Democrats and the increasingly Liberal press corps were determined to connect the scandal of the Watergate break-in by zealous campaign workers (as I knew well campaign workers to be) by discovering a trail of evidence (or just speculative but fully newsworthy possibilities) that might potentially (and hopefully) lead all the way to the White House. What was particularly frightening to me was the readiness of Congress and the press to use the frightful impeachment process to finally get rid of their "enemy in the White House." The hypocrisy of "Chappaquiddick Ted" Kennedy (who had avoided all moral accountability in his involvement in the tragic death of a young political intern) leading this attack on Nixon from behind the scenes gave me the shivers. I was well aware of how seedy Washington politics could get. But how Congress was going at the Watergate matter seemed to me to be very scary, with Congress's self-justified willingness to use the impeachment process as a fully partisan weapon in the Washington political playbook.
Impeachment was intended only to be used in the most horrible case of presidential misbehavior, something bordering on dictatorship or treason. Congress had used this tool once before in an attempt to get rid of the man who replaced Lincoln as president when Lincoln was assassinated – and when his Vice-President (but now President) Johnson attempted simply to move the country on past the war and its material and spiritual ravages through the same process of "forgiveness," exactly as Lincoln himself had planned to do.
But Radicals dominating the post-Civil-War Congress wanted revenge, not forgiveness. And the country thus would pay a huge price in failing to get the country (North and South) back together on a healthy basis. And most tragically, Congress's crippling of Johnson's political leadership and throwing out the policy of forgiveness succeeded merely in stirring ever-deeper desire of Southern Whites for their own revenge against their hapless Black neighbors (whom these Northern agents of revenge soon abandoned anyway).
All of this was directed by a spirit of revenge, not reconciliation. And that was exactly what I was feeling was coming out of Washington, now a full century later, with Congress's Watergate hearings. This was not good.
Worse, I was deeply grieved by the move of Congress to undercut the powers of the "imperialist" White House by not only taking away a long-standing presidential power to curb out-of-control Congressional "pork-barrel" spending – but also by Congress's move to cut off not only further military support but also all financial support of the pro-American regime in South Vietnam. Congress so badly wanted to undercut Nixon's considerable diplomatic achievement of bringing the Southeast Asian situation to a fairly favorable conclusion – favorable to America certainly ... and to all those young Americans who had already sacrificed so much to support a pro-American Saigon government.
Congress simply did not care what horrible chaos would result for the Vietnamese people themselves with their move to undercut the power structure that Nixon was trying to hold in place. And worse, by doing so, Congress would also bring on even more horrifying chaos next door in Cambodia, where the murder of a million (or more) Cambodians by Khmer Rouge Marxist or Maoist "idealists" was made possible by this Congressional undercutting of the American-based political status quo that Nixon had been trying to maintain in that part of the world.
Tragically, it was so important to Congress (and the press) to "get Nixon" that nothing else seemed to matter. Millions of people would lose their lives because of nothing more than personal political ambitions on the part of Americans in high places.
All of this made my natural cynicism as a political Realist even deeper and darker.
Personal crisis. Then as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, my own seemingly well-constructed world came crashing down. Martha and I (and in several instances also my friend Tony and his wife) were heavily invested in historic-home restoration (Martha and I were holding several properties ready for resale at the time) financed by constantly-renewable 90-day construction loans, now abruptly running almost overnight from 6 percent to the horrible rate of 22 percent in interest. Worse, purchasers quite understandably proved to be most unwilling to take on our finished work at a time that mortgages were also running at astronomically high rates – thanks to the monetarist policies (a radical tightening of the nation's money supply) of the Federal Reserve Chief Paul Volcker. Thus it was that we found ourselves being slowly driven towards the brink of bankruptcy.
Even a sailing trip Martha and I planned to take us from Mobile to the Bahamas and back (the summer of 1981) ended up aground in South Florida – and we had to make our way back to Mobile with yet another feature of our lives not going as planned, spinning me into ever-deeper depression. Even our beautiful home got broken into by thieves – repeatedly – until there was nothing of value left in our home to attract local thieves looking for easy drug money (we lived next to a public park where gangs were beginning to hang out).
Neither of us at that point looked to God or anything else other than our own well-cultivated abilities to direct our lives – abilities which however were now failing us terribly. This spun me into an existential darkness, one lasting month after month until it became year after year, a time period in which we could find no exit out of this darkness.
Then, strangely enough, in late 1982, someone came to us wanting to purchase our home ... and the sale was enough that we were able to buy our way out of deep indebtedness. We were free ... financially anyway. But the feeling of personal freedom was so powerful ... that it pushed me to want to be free in all areas of my life ... especially in the realm of the expectations of high performance that had followed me most of my life.
Thus it was that I woke up in early January of 1983, fully resolved to abandon my marriage and my teaching job. I simply wanted to escape to some place where there would be no high expectations, no great responsibilities that I was forced to live up to. At this point, accepting social "insignificance" seemed far easier than constantly grasping for success – only to see things repeatedly fail, no matter how much effort was put into the struggle. I was emotionally and spiritually exhausted.
This decision was a complete shock to everyone. As cruel as it was to Martha, she nonetheless agreed to the divorce (we had no children, making the matter actually quite simple) – and by the end of the same month the divorce was finalized, and she immediately moved back to Texas. But the university dean, when confronted with the decision, requested that I simply plan to take a year's leave of absence rather than just quitting ... which I agreed to – however quite convinced at the time that I was unlikely ever to return to my teaching duties.
A photo given me at the time by a friend who said that she and her husband were praying for me. She would also inform me that God had shown her that I would become a minister of his gospel. I tried not to laugh at her totally absurd prediction. She was so sweet ... but so misinformed (oh really?!!!) I would keep that picture on my desk for years.
A slow recovery. But that next year brought deep changes to my very emptied-out soul – but also to Martha, already returning (well ahead of me) to her earlier Christian faith, and who upon her return to Texas immediately met the man she would marry a year later. It would take me a bit longer to go down the Christian trail than was the case for Martha.
But others, out of a deep concern for the darkness that hung over me, began to invite me down bits and pieces of that Christian path. And indeed, by those same bits and pieces, I began to take deeper note of the very different journey that these dear souls so easily embraced – one not particularly directed towards social status and material success.
In the meantime I spent that off-year working quietly for a friend simply as an import-export clerk, happy to be fairly unnoticed in his back office. However, before the year was out I found myself enjoying enormously the opportunity to computerize his entire business operation!
Central America. I did indeed return the next year to the University (the fall of 1984), although now life was conducted much more simply – except for the project I began to put together to bring various authorities (Kissinger and Carter, among others, quickly accepting my invitation) to try to work out some kind of negotiated settlement or truce among the warring parties that were tearing Central America apart. I added Spanish to my repertoire of languages and the next summer (1985) headed to Central America to meet with the local authorities that I wanted to involve in these discussions.
But most importantly, the Archbishop of El Salvador assigned a young priest to help me with the interviews in his country – and soon we two found ourselves relating to each other about our lives and the journeys we had made thus far. The young priest, Father Jose Maria, was the last man standing in his family – his father, uncles, cousins and a brother-in-law killed in this on-going civil war, some by the guerrilla fighters of the political "Left" and some by the regular army soldiers of the political "Right" ... and some they were not sure who was responsible. But Jose was a person of amazing peace and awesome love, which struck me deeply when I accompanied him to a mountain village accessible only by foot, to deliver communion and a sermon. In Jose, I saw a living Jesus when the villagers came out to greet the young priest, the power of the love that flowed back and forth between Jose and the villagers standing in such sharp contrast to the darkness (the same kind of darkness that I was well familiar with) that otherwise hung over El Salvador.
Ultimately I had other Central American countries to visit, but cut my last week in Honduras short to return to El Salvador, to meet again with Jose before heading back to the U.S. A deep friendship was thus formed (I would visit El Salvador two more times in the years ahead).
Finding Jesus in others. At the same time I had experienced something of a similar nature in finding myself drawn to my assigned spiritual director while undergoing a Cursillo Christian renewal conference – an ex-alcoholic Episcopal priest (no more sipping even the communion wine) of rather humble looks, who regularly served as a minister to the throw-away kids who lived under the boardwalks of Pensacola Beach. He too gave off a Jesus spirit simply in the way he so easily and profoundly connected with the world around him ... including me as well. And likewise I saw Jesus in a former plumber (dyslexic and attaining only a 6th grade education) who ran the rather charismatic operations of an inner-city / prison and jail ministry – also a person of that same bright and caring spirit as he made his way through the darker world of the homeless and the imprisoned. And thus it was that I became drawn into that world, looking to find that same Jesus in others, regardless of their social rank or situation, wherever I could.
Facing failure more easily. Two things developed for me on my return from Central America. One was that the university president confronted me with the news that I was going to have to call off the conference – because just the expense alone of providing the necessary security for this peace conference was way beyond the university's financial capacity. It was agreed that the event could be cut down simply to a visit by Kissinger, but no more than that.
But what was surprising to me was my own reaction to the news. Ordinarily, after working so hard on the project, I would have been furious at such a setback and would have worked hard to find ways to get around this resistance. But instead, I simply took the matter as it stood, and decided to move on to other things. Anyway, at that point, the quest for Christ seemed to be more important than the quest for success in carrying off a major international conference. But my own calm reaction spoke volumes to me about a new world that was opening up not only around me but in me!
Street and prison/jail ministry. The other thing was that that with the start of school again that fall I could no longer attend the daily gatherings at the street ministry. And the director refused to work in the evenings when I was available, because that was family time (and rightly so!). So I decided to head out and do some jail ministry on my own. That happened only once – when I immediately decided that I much preferred working as part of a team, and invited members of the Presbyterian Church I was now attending (and even leading a Sunday School class in gospel evangelism!) to join me in my jail and street ministry. Within short order I had a huge team drawn from numerous churches (from Episcopal to independent evangelical or charismatic churches) to accompany me in this ministry.
But the best part of the whole project was my discovery that Jesus could be found at any point, anytime, anywhere, and by anybody, whenever this spirit of spreading the light of Christ was to be found. It was all in the secret of human relationship, not in some accomplished project or program (such as had always directed my life previously). It was found just simply in showing up for others and letting some kind of natural bond, arising from some kind of true interest in the life of others, take prayerful command of the situation. It was awesome ... just letting the Spirit of God take command of these events.
Seminary study. But all this presented a major problem: I was being drawn between two worlds, both of which I now loved very much: teaching and ministering. One night I was awakened by a very compelling vision, one which clearly brought me to the decision that it would be the ministerial route I would continue to take. But what that exactly meant was not clear. I supposed that it would simply be a continuation of my Mobile ministry. But at the urging and support of others, I applied to and was accepted at several seminaries ... and finally took the Princeton route when I discovered that the pastor of the Presbyterian Church had actively opposed my application to Princeton, because he had grown bitter about my hanging out with charismatics who, as he saw things, were "church destroyers" (there had been an ugly church split at a nearby Presbyterian church over this issue). But I took his failure in his considerable effort to block me as God's intervention – and thus a sign as to what God's choice in this matter happened to be. As things ultimately worked out, this proved to be a correct reading on my part.
I arrived in Princeton in June (1986) to begin intensive summer Hebrew, just to get an early jump on things (Greek and Hebrew were academic requirements for the Presbyterian ministry). But after two weeks of very little sleep, I decided that I needed to keep myself from getting drowned in this huge academic tsunami. I took myself to the placement office and found a perfect summer internship (20 hours a week) in nearby Trenton. When I told my classmates my decision, they thought I had lost my mind (actually, by God's grace alone, I ended up with A's for both summer sessions!). But with this Trenton involvement, I not only kept my hands on active ministry, I met a number of practicing Christians, including the pastor-scholar Scoti (Hughes Oliphant Old!), who would become a very close friend. But the pastor of the Trenton Church, John, (only a year older than me) and I also drew close, and I even dragged him off to El Salvador at the end of the summer, to witness first-hand Christianity in a war zone.
A crisis in ministry. When we returned to the States John and I were greeted with the news that the police had shut down an aid-to-the-homeless program run out of a storefront behind his church and owned by the church, but directed by an assistant pastor from the very prestigious Nassau Presbyterian church in Princeton (the university itself was built around it) and also supported by an equally prestigious Episcopal church also in Princeton. It was a huge embarrassment to all three churches, but especially to the Nassau church, because their "street cool" assistant pastor had been supplementing his income by running drugs out of the ministry.
At a crisis meeting held over the matter, I made the mistake of speaking up about what I knew to be true from my own experience with street ministry. Having well-meaning Princeton volunteers conducting a back-office program of finding rentals and jobs for the homeless was a program destined to failure in the first place. I was quite aware that street guys were not likely to remember to show up on a regular basis for their new jobs or remember to pay their rent or utilities – because they were in fact street guys, not budding candidates for middle-class American life. Nearly all of them had grown up without fathers, and had no idea of how to "do adult." That's why they were on the streets in the first place.
I did not bother to add the fact that I had avoided that particular part of the Trenton church's multi-ministry (food, clothing, recovery group programs, etc., run from different buildings along that back street) because of a dark spirit that seemed to hover over the front-office of that ministry, where the guys just hung out. There was no particular "Christian" character to what what was going on there – a spiritually dangerous shortcoming in such a dark setting (thus I was in no ways surprised as to what had developed with their street ministry).
Needless to say, I soon found out from John that the Nassau pastor (who was a close friend of John's) disliked intensely my "uppity" observations. But I was also not surprised at that because by this time I had become well aware of the fact that not only professors but very often pastors were quite capable of secluding themselves inside polite "bubbles" – where it might more easily appear that the world was under better human control. The only problem with this (which even the Pharisees never seemed to figure out) was that life outside the bubble, where Jesus himself had chosen to operate, didn't function according to well-designed human plans!
Here in the streets of Trenton I encountered again another example of "reality versus the bubble."
Adding street ministry to my Princeton days. That first fall semester of 1986, I supplemented my Princeton study and Trenton internship by also serving as a volunteer chaplain at the Trenton State Prison – assigned "One-Left," the jail within the prison where they placed misbehaving prisoners for a week or two just to get them to cool down. I simply spent my time in prayer with these guys ... Black Muslims mostly. And I was entirely surprised to get Christmas cards from some of my guys when Christmas season rolled around! Just how Muslim were they really?
But I would not be able to keep up this ministry – because I had become fully involved in a new street ministry as the focus of my work at the Trenton church.
It had all started that October when I noticed the street guys just hanging around the church, put back on the streets in the early morning after spending the night at the Rescue Mission – streets that were getting colder and colder with the development of the fall weather. Thus I put the idea forward at a gathering of local Presbyterian pastors (mostly my age and just friends at this point) of opening the basement of the church for breakfast and Bible-study, just to help give the guys something of a better start for the day. One of the pastors, who supposed himself very street-wise, told me that the moment I opened the Bible, these street guys would be a streak out the door. But I insisted that I would do it no other way. Anyway, John gave me the approval to go ahead with this idea. And Scoti even said he would join me to get things up and running. And so it was that I put the word out on the street of what I was going to be doing.
At first only a handful of guys showed up. And no, they did not head for the door when the matter of the Bible came up, but were in fact quite willing to talk about how such matters touched on their own lives. For them to find someone willing to listen to their stories was quite unprecedented. Otherwise they were just "cases" in the files of one or another government welfare program – as even it had been with the ministry that the police had just shut down. Soon others joined them, until we had about two dozen guys who would show up each morning for coffee (with lots of sugar!), peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (lots of them, which they helped prepare) and Bible "study" – and wide-ranging discussion.
I returned "home" to Mobile for Christmas vacation. A very close friend, Bill, who was part of my Mobile ministry team from its very first days, let me store my furniture at his place and return there during vacation time while at seminary. But upon returning to Princeton after Christmas, I learned that a problem had developed at the Trenton church during my absence and that I would have to move my ministry out of the church – possibly to the same building that had housed the previous homeless ministry. This was exactly what I did. And thus the "Hanover Street Ministry" was born. The police watched us closely for a while – but soon surmised that this was a very different operation than the previous one.
And indeed it was. Soon the ministry began to expand in operation, not just with breakfast items but also Bible reading (those that could read) and prayer, lots of prayer. Within a fairly short order, we had the place packed. In essence I now had my own congregation of a hundred or more street guys. I soon got a couple of guys from the seminary to help out, most notably Tom, who would work with me until he graduated the year ahead of me and move on to a pastoral call elsewhere. And a local Black church linked up with the ministry, bringing in quite lavish breakfasts and some top preaching one Sunday a month. And thus it was that the Hanover Street Ministry took up a well-founded place in the life of the local community.
Kathleen. And thus it was also that eventually (August of 1987) I met Kathleen. I had been invited by a friend, Michael, to bring my guys out to a Full Gospel Businessmen's Breakfast held monthly at a restaurant just outside of Trenton – because one of the officers had felt that God was about to do a mighty work of revival, starting with the homeless. Actually, what God seemingly had intended instead in all this was for me to meet Kathleen, who with her mother and friends also attended the Breakfasts. Michael actually had been assigned a prayer request from Kathleen for God to bring a Christian man into her life – and (he later confessed) I kept coming to mind as he prayed over her prayer card. He wanted me to meet her, and pointed her out as she passed by that day of the gathering. I was immediately sold on that idea! Then as the speaker finally got into his message, I found myself writing my name on a card that I intended to pass on to her at the end of the meeting – when I saw her get up from her table, look around, and head my way. She sat down right next to me! And the rest was absolutely easy. I invited her to come to the ministry to see what went on there – not really thinking straight, for where I worked was a very dangerous place for any young woman to come on her own.
Anyway, the summer was about over and I rather immediately had to get back to Mobile for a bit before the fall semester started up, and so I didn't see her for a while. But when I returned, Michael told me he had talked to Kathleen, and she informed him that she sat next to me to escape the air conditioning she was sitting under, and the only available seating at the time (my street guys tended to wander about rather than remain seated for the talk!) was next to me. My only reaction to the teasing was to thank God for air conditioning! But soon another Breakfast was coming up and again I was to bring my guys out to the restaurant with me. And there she was, waiting for me – to explain that there was no seating at her table, but that we could talk afterwards. And sure enough, she agreed to be picked up the next day to come join me at the ministry and church afterwards, plus have lunch together before she had to head off to work at the McCarter Theater in Princeton. And thus it was, with absolutely no effort, the woman who would become my wife the next year (1988) came into my life.
God's directing this key matter in my life was awesome!
Marriage – and South Africa. For reasons never clear to me, the man who headed up an international program at the seminary took it upon himself to offer me a tremendous scholarship, one that would allow me to conduct my senior thesis research the upcoming summer, no matter where or how much (within reason) it cost. At this point an old interest in South Africa had been strongly on my mind – as I suspected that something very peculiar was going on in that country, "peculiar" in that it in no ways conformed to what Americans typically understood as standard political dynamics. I sensed that things were about to shift politically in that country, but not along lines such as revolution or even a racial holocaust as many indeed were expecting. As it turned out not only was my airfare to and from South Africa to be paid for but all living arrangements would be provided for me during a two-month stay in the country, allowing me to do my typical political interviewing (a procedure I had used extensively since my days in Belgium and in my political risk studies) in order to come to my own observations about what was unfolding in South Africa.
The only problem was that Kathleen and I had already become engaged, and had planned to get married in late June. But I was now scheduled to leave for South Africa at the beginning of July. Should we wait until September? But finally we stayed with the June date. We could get participation from John as pastor, Tom as assistant, and Scoti as best man only in June ... as September would bring scheduling problems.
We both had households of furniture and thus asked for no wedding gifts, but instead contributions to help fund the Hanover Street ministry. And indeed, people were generous. But some of our friends proposed the idea of an additional fund to help purchase air tickets ($1400 at the time) for Kathleen to be able to join me in South Africa. Once in South Africa, she could easily then just join me in my arranged accommodations. But she had no passport, and a visa for South Africa was well-known to take months, even as long as a year. Acquiring the passport took no time. But then, by the grace of God, a South African consul that I had become friends with, Sommie, agreed to walk the visa process through himself. So Kathleen could join me in my second month in South Africa. And wouldn't you know, the funding that the friends assembled came exactly to the price of the airline ticket! God was clearly playing this out for us!
Once in South Africa it became clear to me how much ideological inclinations (or just plain ignorance) on the part of Americans had created in the American mind a picture that was in no ways related to the reality of South Africa. First of all, the level of racial segregation seemed no worse in South Africa than it was in most American cities. Blacks and Whites could be found together in shops and restaurants, in the streets ... and most importantly for me at a major Christian mission station (Kwasizabantu) where pastors and elders of all of South Africa's races and ethnic groups gathered from all around the country to worship and pray for the country. I stayed there a week just trying to get a picture of what was actually going on among them ... and then returned to the mission for another long stay with Kathleen with me on this second visit. And we stayed with English-speaking South Africans in Pretoria and Capetown as well as Afrikaners (Dutch-speakers) in both places, plus a Christian evangelist in the Indian community of Durban (in Natal Province where Gandhi had practiced law for 21 years before heading off to India to "save" the latter country from the British!). And we met with Black pastors and local leaders along the way. And I met with voices (such as officials of the South African Council of Churches - the SACC) that had made it their business to go abroad selling the worst picture of South Africa possible, knowing that this was exactly what the world outside of South Africa wanted and expected to hear (and was thus quite willing to contribute lavishly financially to the cause of "liberation"). But hey, politics is politics.
What we found in South Africa was an amazing hunger for racial reconciliation coming from all directions, a mood conveniently overlooked outside of the country by Liberal Westerners who preferred to hold an anti-White racist bias that seemed to gratify their sense of moral superiority – in short, sort of a moral bubble that people loved to place themselves in, but one which ultimately served no one very well, and often quite tragically.
In any case I was impressed by the moral-spiritual energy going into this effort to move South Africa away from the racial tensions that others were expecting (probably even hoping) would tear the country apart. Thus when I returned to the States, I set myself to the task of writing about "Racial Reconciliation in South Africa."
Allan Boesak. One incident stands out strongly in my memory of that last year: Allan Boesak's evening appearance at the Nassau Presbyterian church in Princeton in October. He was out of the country when I was in Cape Town (as was also Archbishop Tutu) so I hadn't had the opportunity to interview him in South Africa. But I was very curious about what he saw in the numerous changes taking place in his country. So I was looking forward to this event.
Actually hundreds of people turned out and the church was packed. I recognized a lot of people from the seminary – most of them from among what I styled as the "peace and social justice" group.
Unfortunately, as the talk proceeded, I quickly recognized that we were simply going to be treated that evening to a repetition of the SACC "true story" – the unbearable pain of life in South Africa and the evil dimensions of those who governed the country – a litany which I (and I guess most everybody else there) knew by heart. But then I guess that that was what most people had come for. I was disappointed – for the talk provided no real insight into what SACC leadership was thinking concerning what was presently unfolding within the country.
Then we went to a question and answer period – and as I was pondering whether or not to disturb the evening's peace and social justice ritual with a question about his views on some of the positive recent developments – a man stood up in the balcony to pose just that question. He announced himself as a minister who had returned from the country after a long stay there and had noticed a number of hopeful developments going on within the country – and would Rev. Boesak be willing to elaborate for the benefit of us all about those.
Whew! I was glad I was not the poor soul who posed that question, for Boesak lit into him as if he were some kind of demented soul who had somehow gotten himself ensnared by the propaganda of the White racist government – for "obviously" he knew nothing about what was really going on in South Africa. There was "nothing" in the unfolding situation within South Africa – past, present or future – that pointed to hope. The only hope was for outside help in crushing the fascism that gripped the country.
The crowd went wild! These Princetonian peace and social justice "sophisticates" hooted, they hollered, they set up a rhythmic stamping of their feet in wild support, as if they were in a basketball gymnasium rather than a church. This went on and on – with Boesak beaming, and with the people finally rising to their feet in wild approval. After several minutes of this, Kathleen and I quietly made our way up the aisle through the frenzy and out the door into a calmer and more refreshing evening.
The whole thing reminded me of how Hitler had so easily mesmerized the masses with his inflammatory (but otherwise rather banal) rhetoric. He gave the masses what they wanted to hear. And that became for him his definition of "Truth" (which even he himself finally got swallowed up in).
Unpleasant drama arising from my senior thesis. I had chosen a Christian-ethics professor at the seminary to serve as my thesis supervisor, a young man who confessed that he really did not know much about South Africa. He was more into "Liberation Theology" (I called it, "Jesus with a submachine gun") focused on events going on in Central America. And although he did not like my thesis title, he admitted that he enjoyed the first 100 pages that I had submitted, a detailed section simply outlining the cultural-political backgrounds of the various racial groups making up the country. Then I had no other conversation with him before submitting towards the end of the semester the last part of what turned out to be a 260-page work. But eventually we found ourselves coming up on graduation day, and I still hadn't heard back from him about his final evaluation of my thesis.
Finally on the Friday before the graduation day on the following Tuesday I got a call from the Registrar. She had finally received his grade: an "F!" The kind soul that she was, on her own initiative she had already shifted things around so that my major was no longer in the area of Christian ethics but instead was now Biblical studies. I had taken multitudes of extra courses (mostly Biblical), and in fact in terms of course load, I could have graduated at the end of two years – except that Princeton had a 3-year residency requirement no matter how many credits a student had earned. And the senior thesis was merely optional and thus my F would not block my graduation. But the professor himself did not know that I had all these extra courses, and clearly his intention was that in failing my senior thesis (worth 8 credit-hours) he would be keeping me from graduating. Was he ever surprised to see me at commencement the next Tuesday!
But he had nothing to say to me, he was so angry at my thesis. In finally getting to see his annotated copy, it was clear that he was accusing me of having been taken in by South African "Fascism," so much so that he was totally convinced that I was blind to the reality of the deep racial oppression going on in that country ... and the fact that only violent revolution could cleanse that country of its racial evil. Wow! For someone who knew absolutely nothing first-hand about South Africa, he was equally absolutely certain that he had the "Truth" of South Africa all figured out.
"Reason" and "Truth" are not the same thing. But I had run into this kind of "Reasoning" before – rather frequently, sadly to say. I had learned all the way back in my days studying and working in D.C. that reason and truth were not the same things. I well understood how lawyers argued their cases, wielding "Reason" like a sword. Then juries were forced somehow to find the truth in all the reasoning that competing lawyers threw at them in these court cases. How the juries actually found truth in the face of clever but opposing legal reasoning was always a mystery to me. Everyone knew that the cleverer the lawyer, the better the outcome of a court case for his or her client. "Truth" itself actually had very little to do with this.
The French Revolution as an example. I actually began to learn this key Truth even earlier during my year in Geneva. Europeans were as well versed on the French Revolution as Americans were on our own "Revolution" [the latter which I actually insist on calling the "War of Independence" because in terms of real "revolution," nothing changed or "revolved." Instead we had simply fought off the British in order to preserve what was already well in place in our country – and had been well in place for a century and a half – by way of political dynamics and personal freedoms].
I learned that the French Revolution, occurring at about the same time as similar events in America (the late 1700s) was indeed a real revolution, a massive attempt to change deeply the very way French society worked – a revolution supposedly led according to new, more "enlightened," social principles, ones dreamed up by the political philosophers in this "Age of Reason." And although it was directed by the supposedly brightest of those French intellectuals (or philosophes: the Girondins and the Jacobins) the French Revolution ended up savagely disastrous – in the absolutely worst way possible. In the name of Reason, thousands of leading French citizens were executed via the famous French guillotine. Finally the Jacobins turned on the Girondins, before even turning on each other. Little wonder this time period is known as the French "Reign of Terror" (1792-1794). So much for human Reason!
History taught me that intellectuals living in their academic bubbles of perfect plans and grand ideas (usually designed to put other people under their command) could be said to be perfectly "Rational." But Human Reason is merely clever self-justification, the ability to convince others that what you are or what you want is completely correct – and that others should bow before such intellectual correctness. Even six-year-olds are perfectly able to answer a scolding parent with a perfectly "reasonable" response as to why they did the thing that has the parent so upset (and in fact are quick to employ this clever tool ... hopefully not successfully however!)
Anyway, when I ran into the same young professor sometime later, when things had worked out in South Africa exactly as I had predicted they would, he was not interested in pursuing the subject!
Moving on. As the end of my studies approached I naturally faced the question of "what next?" I tried very hard to turn the Hanover Street Ministry into a full-time call, but got only one Presbyterian Church in the Presbytery to promise some support ($2,000 a year). When I approached the pastor of the Nassau Church for some support, he told me outright that he had grown up in the South and had come to dislike intensely Christians with my approach to ministry (whatever that meant, because other than leading Bible study and prayer at the Hanover Street Ministry there was no other "style" to what I did!) I guess he must have liked the style better of his "cool" assistant pastor who got hauled off from that same place by the Trenton police for selling drugs. Anyway, no door opened there ... although I would continue my work at the ministry for the next year and a half while I was still in the Princeton area.
I got a post-graduate "scholarship" (thanks to my previous experience in house-restoration in Mobile) that paid a bit for a three-month job as supervisor of a five-house Habitat for Humanity project in Trenton. I also got an offer as a university chaplain/political science professor at a college in North Dakota. And I got an offer to do mission work in French-speaking Zaire (Africa). But Kathleen had just given birth to our daughter, Rachel, and she really was not ready to leave her world of extensive family (Irish-Catholic, although she herself was Protestant Evangelical) all located in the Princeton area. And then a young English architect, for whom Kathleen's brothers worked, offered me a job in construction. So that's what I would be doing for the next year and a half ... not exactly what I expected, but okay work nonetheless (actually lots of fancy work at businesses and homes in the Princeton area).
I applied everywhere for a Presbyterian pastor's position, but just could not seem to interest any church in the East. Was my resume too, too much academically, or was it too, too much in the realm of street and prison ministry? But somehow I just couldn't get any interest once I was out on my own. As mentioned, this dragged on for a year and a half.
The Garfield, New Jersey, pastorate. Then one morning returning from the ministry I was told by Kathleen that I had earlier received a call from a church in Garfield (New Jersey), interested in interviewing me. She told me that she was somewhat familiar with the area ... and that it was in a tough neighborhood, formerly industrial, and now just immigrants and poverty. Wow!
And yes, wouldn't you know, it was here at the bottom-ranking church in the presbytery in terms of membership and church finances that God finally opened a door for me to take charge as a full-fledged minister. It would be a very tough assignment.
But things almost blew up for me when I was presented before the full presbytery (the Palisades Presbytery) for acceptance and ordination. In my Statement of Faith, I had mentioned God in the masculine (using the highly taboo word "he" in reference to God's work in my life) and a strong reaction erupted from some of the women pastors. One was almost in tears that I should be so insensitive as to use a male reference to God, because of all the suffering she had experienced from men.
Wow ... it was just like being back at seminary where the same anti-male atmosphere dominated strongly (some poor student from Thailand, who had not yet figured out the subtleties of Princeton cultural politics had inadvertently used masculine language during a chapel sermon, and the women gathered a petition to have him expelled from the seminary)!
And these women called men "sexist!"
Anyway, with the strong support of the Garfield pulpit committee, I was (barely) approved for acceptance and ordination. And I would be immediately recognized as the sole "conservative" voice in this very Liberal Presbytery – just across the Hudson River from New York City, with some of the Presbytery members working at the "God Box" (the Presbyterian Church national headquarters on Riverside Drive in the city).
In the end this status as a "conservative" would work to my favor, because the presbytery was (once again) "reorganizing" (always looking for programmatic improvement!) and had restructured its working committees or "units." I was asked to serve on the new and most-sought-after Spiritual Development and Theology Unit, in order to give it "balance" as the unit's sole "conservative" voice!
Actually, much to their surprise, they found out that I had a brain, and soon I was asked to take the lead in a number of projects (such as helping to design and organize the annual pastors' retreat). Then within a couple of years they even asked me to head up the Unit itself! This is when I began to bring in speakers for presbytery conferences and retreats on the subject of science and theology, one of my favorite subjects – and a key part of what would soon be my very first website!
Richard Tarnas. Always the teacher as well as the preacher, I started up a class for the half of the Garfield congregation that supported me (the other, the mostly older half, in constant opposition because I just didn't fit in to their expectations of what a new and "inexperienced" pastor should be all about!). Over the next year I led this group (making up most of my Board of Elders or "Session") on a long cultural history of Western Civilization, using a book by Esalen Institute's Richard Tarnas The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View (1993) which I absolutely loved (and so did a number of my parishioners, until I had a dozen or so of the 30+ active members of the congregation participating).
Then I got the bright idea of inviting Tarnas out to New Jersey to do a seminar for the Presbytery. Since he was headed for New York City on business, he agreed to give us a full afternoon and evening of his insights. I just supposed that the members of the Presbytery would jump at this chance to spend some time with an outstanding young historian, but made the terrible mistake of scheduling the event at the Garfield Church. We really busied ourselves for this big event. But in the end only a couple of people outside of my little group showed up for the event. At that point I realized what a huge mistake it had been hosting this event at the lowest-status church in the Presbytery. I should have scheduled it a one of the prestige churches instead.
But Tarnas was very gracious in all this, proving to be very humble in the company of our own very humble little group. In fact, he decided then and there to extend an offer for me to come out to California to an event (very "New Age" in spirituality) focused heavily on the Transpersonal Psychology school of thought and such individuals as Stanislav Grof and Ken Wilbur... and he would see that the conference fee was waived for me. And since my sister's boyfriend (eventually to be her husband) lived not far from where the event was to be hosted, I would even have a place to stay.
I was aware of what I was getting into. In fact that's why I chose to buy the airline tickets to do this little venture ... just to see where the Boomers were at in their more recent thinking. Considering the fact that the conference was supposed to focus on all the various worldviews and philosophies of our world (some 50 different sessions available), it was typical of Boomer anti-Christian prejudice that Tarnas (a Roman Catholic) was the only one to present the Western or Christian viewpoint at the conference. A recently defrocked Catholic monk (at that time now an Episcopal priest), Matthew Fox, was also speaking. So I made my way to his session ... only to find out that he was talking about the Seven Chakras of Hinduism! He had nothing to say about Christianity. In fact former-governor Jerry Brown (who would be California governor again 2011-2019!) spoke at the conference. And when he mockingly mentioned something about Christianity, the boos went up rather widely. Ah well. The Boomers were still Boomers!
A growing family. Several months after arriving in Garfield, our son Paul was born. Then we were four: Rachel, now Paul, and Kathleen and me. Then a year and a half later another daughter, Elizabeth, was born. Then there was a gap in time. It was very close to the end of our seven-years in Garfield that then our second son, John, was born. Wow! Now we were a family of six.
How I loved it all. I had no idea that "family" could be such a fabulous blessing. Our "manse" ("parsonage" in other denominations) was only 15 feet from the church and thus there was not really any kind of break between professional and family life. The two just blended into a single life experience. And it made the toughness of the Garfield challenge doable.
Trying to grow the church's ministry. When I first interviewed with the Presbytery's Committee on Ministry for the Garfield position, I was told that given the church's financial condition (and the Polish and Italian cultural character of the town), I would probably be able to carry the church no longer than two years, at which point its cash reserves, built up from hiring only weekly supply pastors for the last couple of years, would run out. But I was sure that with God's hand on my life I could turn that dynamic around.
Actually I never turned the dynamic around – but did manage to hold off the inevitable for seven very hard years.
A very strong Catholic church next door in Lodi (with even services in Italian) I came to love working with closely (food and clothing ministry mostly, but also just town events that were fun to get involved in). For the more recent Polish portion of Garfield (found also in huge numbers just across the river in Passaic), the best I could do for them was eventually to offer a Polish breakfast-Bible study for the large number of homeless among them. Many of them had turned to the heavy use of alcohol when they came to America (after the Soviet Empire collapsed in 1989) and found that there was no Socialism in this country able to carry them even marginally, as had been the case back in Poland. Thus a couple of Polish AA (and Al-Anon) recovery groups – including one just for Polish youth – would meet in our church. But I eventually decided to add the breakfast when I came upon one of them sleeping at the bottom of the steps leading to the basement. I had to conduct the program in Polish (I had one young man who could speak English and translate for me, and I had purchased a number of Polish Bibles we could work together from) – also substituting oatmeal cereal with raisins for the peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches used when I did this ministry back in Trenton (the Poles did not like peanut butter at all!)
I also had put my youngish Session members (my board of elders) through Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship training, and we then proceeded to undertake a number of the Prison Fellowship programs at the Middlesex County Prison. It was an eye-opener for my Session members, who responded nobly to the challenge (when an individual goes out into the world in the name of Jesus, how wonderful is the light and love that goes with that person, rewarding both the giver and the receiver of that light/love!)
At one point along the way, the Executive Presbyter (something like a CEO) of the presbytery asked me to attend the denomination's first New Church Development (NCD) training program, held in Atlanta (Georgia). She thought that I had just the spirit and background to be able to take the lead on such a program our presbytery was hoping to attempt – with the hope of starting up a more "contemporary" church in the rising city of Hoboken (just across the Hudson river from downtown New York City). As far as the Atlanta training went, it was modeled after some kind of market-feasibility study program, which I don't think any of the dozen of young (much younger than me, anyway!) attendees found very helpful. Almost all of us understood NCD work to be a matter of Spiritual direction, not religious marketing!
But try as we might, the presbytery was just not in a position to be able to afford to rent, much less purchase, property in fast-rising Hoboken. We finally looked at a movie theater more central to the Presbytery to possibly rent.
Interim ministry. But by that time a new line of ministry seemed to be coming my way: interim ministry. I had also undergone training for this role, which I found to be much more dynamic ... because it involved basically helping churches get past all their old and precious religious habits established under a previous long-serving pastor so that a new pastor taking over the pulpit does not get crushed by a congregation that simply wants the new pastor to be exactly like the former one. Typically churches do not do well making such a transition, and go through a rapid pastoral turnover ("eating up pastors") as new pastors simply tire of the deeply-cherished and tightly-held atmosphere they are expected to maintain – and the constant trouble they get into with irate parishioners when they cannot meet these expectations – and thus simply move on.
An interim pastor is actually some kind of "church doctor" – one who takes hits by purposefully changing as much as possible of the "old ways." People will tend to put up with the dismantling of their old habits more easily by an interim pastor, simply because they know that he will be moving on in a year or two. But because of all these changes brought on during the interim period, the new permanent pastor will have a congregation to work with that has managed to put the "glorious" past behind it and readied itself for the new things that will be coming from their new spiritual leader.
I was warned that interim ministry is not good for a pastor with children because of the impermanence of their postings. But I had every confidence that my four kids (John, our fourth, had just been born) would adapt easily to such change – because they were already growing up in a family that was quite used to a wide-ranging social-cultural variety in its life. In fact, the kids, it would turn out, did very well through all of the changes.
Moving on. It was increasingly time to move on. For several years my strongest supporters had moved on to other parts of the country (Garfield was a kind of desperate place, one that people would move on from when they had the chance) – but continued to support my ministry from afar as if it were a mission station (a mission to the hurting, which it in fact was) rather than just another pastorate. But even then, the more success I had in helping move people on with their lives, the harder it was to meet the costs of running the ministry and supporting my family, even at the most basic level. The Presbytery finally swung in to subsidize the church's finances. But we all knew that this was not a permanent solution. Finally I simply had to go to "part-time status" (although the only thing part-time about it was the salary, not the work load, which remained the same!)
Dunellen, New Jersey. The husband of our executive presbyter happened to be the interim executive presbyter of another presbytery close by, Elizabeth Presbytery, closer to the center of the state. She passed my name on to him when the Presbyterian church in Dunellen had a horrible church split between the pastor and the associate pastor, (both of whom left the church within a week of each other, without either knowing of the plans of the other to do so!). They would be needing an interim pastor to go in and heal things. An interview with a Dunellen search committee proved most positive, and suddenly Kathleen and I knew that we and the family would be moving to Dunellen, although only after the upcoming Christmas holiday, which I wanted to finish out in Garfield.
The interview before the full membership (pastors and elder-representatives) of the Elizabeth Presbytery proved to be very different than had been the one with the Palisades Presbytery seven years earlier. During the question-and-answer period, one of the pastors, whom I had known in seminary, spoke up: "Miles, we know you are coming to us only as a short-term pastor for interim duties. We would love to have you stay on as one of our permanent pastors. What are your plans?"
I answered laughingly, "Plans? Plans? I have had no plans since I put myself full-time in the hands of the Lord!" Indeed, there was great truth in that statement ... one that would be reaffirmed over and over again. That fundamental truth about how I now went at life would come into play in a very, very big way several years later.
I was warned that given the depth of the hurt caused by the split in the church, I was facing a tough challenge. But as it turned out, all I actually had to do was to step into place and take up where both pastors had left off – and whatever hurt there was previously never showed up. The next two years as interim pastor at the church would, in fact, be one of the most blissful times of the Hodges' lives. We loved them and they loved us. And Dunellen was right in the heartland of Middle America, with great places to eat, shop and just find things to do. And it was less than a half hour away from the Princeton area where Kathleen's family could be found, so the get-togethers would be frequent, including the huge family Thanksgiving dinners hosted at our very nice manse.
The "New Geneva" idea is birthed. But the educator in me still played very big. Thus as a side activity I began to put together detailed plans to build a special learning center, a place of retreat for pastors and elders with its own campus of classrooms, worship center, dorms, playing fields and even homes for the staff (to be built on some 25 acres). I called it "New Geneva" in honor of the city I had studied in and which centuries earlier had birthed the religious Reform Movement that Presbyterianism (among other Protestant denominations) had been formed from. I wanted to be something of a new John Calvin, helping church leaders catch a vision of Christian renewal, formed from an ever-deeper sense of the Biblical and historical legacy behind the Calvinism that inspired the Puritans and early Founding Fathers ... and many American leaders over the generations since then.
I was concerned about the cloud that seemed presently to darken America's spiritual life, and wanted to bring the bright light of renewal to America's national soul. The Secular path that America seemed so excited to head down I was well aware (having taken that path before myself) was not only undercutting the spiritual unity of the country, it was offering only political, social and cultural confusion instead of the kind of clarity in those same areas that a great country like America would need to remain as a "City on a Hill" or a "Light to the Nations" – as the Puritans of New England had once understood their new experiment in America to be (by God's own calling).
Thus New Geneva.
Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Almost two years had gone by and the Dunellen church had just issued a call for its permanent pastor and everyone wondered what was next for the Hodges family. In December (1999) I was called for an interview in Pennsylvania to a church that had been running through pastors rapidly since the retirement of the FBP (Former Beloved Pastor), who had remained in the area (not usually a good thing for a church). I warned the search committee to expect deep changes if I took the position. But at this point they either did not believe that I could be that serious, or that things were so bad that they were willing to put up with deep change. But the deal was closed and so in January of 2000 we made our move to Pottsville.
But once again things worked out very nicely with the congregation. I put a 12-foot drop-down projector screen in their very traditional sanctuary on which to project music, scripture and sermon points and illustrations (it's still there!) ... and then that coming summer, moved them out of the heat and humidity of that sanctuary to a fellowship hall downstairs that volunteers had joined me in repainting, adding comfortable cushioned seats, air conditioning and a very fancy sound system – and of course also a projection screen. And I got rid of the dungeon doors at the front of the church – and had clear glass doors replace them, making the church much more inviting to the outside world.
As it turned out, nearly all of the congregation was very accepting of all this change. And over those two years at that church a deep spirit of mutual affection linked the Hodges family with the parishioners. Those would be another two wonderful years for us.
The New Geneva idea actually takes form. When I was interviewed by the executive presbyter of the Lehigh Presbytery, the one that I would be joining in my new call, he took a strong interest in my New Geneva idea and asked me why not put that project together right there in the Lehigh Presbytery. The presbytery owned 17 acres of land just to the south of the twin cities of Allentown and Bethlehem and it would be a perfect siting, being easily reached from New Jersey and other eastern states. His offer certainly sounded like an excellent opportunity to actually start up this project I had been working on, and so I agreed.
So I assembled a New Geneva team of four other Presbyterian pastors, a young and adventuresome group – including my friend Tom, who had moved back from the West Coast to take a church in nearby Western New Jersey. The team also included the young owner of a huge car dealership, who had been part of my call to Pennsylvania in the first place and a leading supporter in all the physical changes in the Pottsville church. He was interested in turning his business over to a young manager and becoming the full-time business director of New Geneva. The whole thing was perfect.
And so for the next year and a half we all met in Allentown at the presbytery offices to plan the details of this huge project.
New Geneva is blocked. Then just three days before we were scheduled in early July (2001) to hold a meeting with a number of potential financial backers for the project, I got a call from the executive presbyter to tell me to call off the event. His excuse was that we had not brought this project forward through proper channels – which I knew was a complete fabrication because we had long been working through proper committee channels (one of which I myself was chairman) to get the presbytery solidly behind the project. And the executive presbyter himself had been closely involved in the program from the very start.
But it did not take us long to figure out that the real problem was coming from the formidable Presbyterian church of Bethlehem, which had originally granted that land to the presbytery, and which alone contributed one-fourth of the presbytery's operating budget (out of the 50+ churches comprising the presbytery!). But with the closing of the mammoth Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the church had lost a lot of corporate executives, and the church was running a half-million dollar deficit in its own budget for that year. And New Geneva's meeting with financial sponsors appeared to the Bethlehem church to constitute something of a "sheep raid" on its flock (some of the potential supporters came from some of the major Bethlehem contributors, although they gave no indication that supporting New Geneva would cut into their support of the Bethlehem church).
So it was that the Bethlehem church threw a full body block at our project, one which there was no way to get past. I and one of my team members, whose father had long ago actually pastored that same church, met lengthily with that church's Session. But we still got nowhere in our explanation as to what New Geneva's goals were: training and support of pastoral leadership, not the building up some kind of new church community. But they pointed out that since we would indeed be offering worship (of course!), this qualified us potentially as a new church. That was just not going to happen, New Geneva being located so close to the Bethlehem church's own recruiting territory. Thus the Bethlehem session simply refused to end the blocking of our effort.
Realizing that if God were in full support of our project, no one – not even the wealthy Bethlehem church – could have ever successfully stood in New Geneva's way. We prayed one last time over the matter ... and came to the realization that each of us simply had to move on. God wanted us elsewhere.
But what once again surprised me greatly was the calm by which we greeted this failed project. It was like the closing down years ago of my Central American peace project by the university president. We had put almost two years into this New Geneva project (as for me personally, almost four years). And we simply shrugged our shoulders – and very soon moved on to new calls, or simply remained in place where we already were.
The King's Academy. At the time, I was in the process of finishing up my interim position in Pottsville (actually as it would turn out, not until the new pastor arrived in Pottsville some five months later!) and had no other position lined up. Then one of my parishioners suggested that I call the director of a new Christian school that recently had started up in the area – because she could easily see me as a teacher there. I followed up the suggestion and phoned the school. And sure enough, they needed someone to teach high school history and I certainly had the qualifications for the position. The only catch was that the salary was half what I was making as a pastor, and there would be no health benefits offered by the school (or pension benefits either).
I knew immediately that God was behind this! I learned long ago how God likes to "show off" – by putting us in impossible situations, and then working out beautifully the issues and details himself. All we had to do in life was "show up," do what was expected of us, and he would then work out the rest, which was the biggest portion of the whole deal! As one of my friends put it frequently: "God's got it." Thus it was that the life of Christian faith was always something of a rather thrilling adventure!
But there were other important features to this new assignment. Our oldest, Rachel, would be entering 7th grade, and I would have the chance to be her history teacher – and then eventually also her social studies and French teacher as she went through high school. And Paul was soon behind her, and Elizabeth also just after him (it would be a while for John, who was just entering kindergarten before he would come my way!). In essence, I would have the opportunity to "home school" my children right there at TKA (The King's Academy)! And through them, I would come to have a very special relationship with their classmates. It was more like "family development" at TKA than just academic or classroom teaching.
March 2005 - Along the Seine River in Paris with some of my students ... Rachel barely visible in the background (4th on the left of me) ... the first of five such trips I would make with my students
My "introduction" to my students. As classes got up and running in early September (2001), I swung into my "preaching" (moral instruction) which always accompanied my teaching. One Friday early in the month I mentioned to my classes about how America could no longer rely on being simply "Fortress America," safe behind the wall of two oceans – and supposedly able to be selective about if, when, or how it chose to engage the larger world beyond our borders. It was a new world now, and whether we liked it or not, we were intimately involved in the dynamics of the larger world, with no way of escaping from that relationship – wanted or unwanted.
In fact, I pointed out how the world of Islam was on a mission to destroy exactly the very things we stood for most importantly, wanting to bring down our culture – just as much as we certainly would like to see Islamic culture come down (freeing up women, giving all people more personal freedom, and just in general joining us in the "democratic" West). I in fact pointed out how much they wanted to bring down the Twin Towers of New York City (they attempted to do so back in 1993) because of the fact that it was a most notable symbol of what America exemplified – and what they hated.
For some reason I repeated that same example the next Monday ... and on Tuesday those Twin Towers did indeed come down. 9/11 had just occurred. My students were not only shocked (as we all were) at the sheer horror of the event – but also that somehow I had "called" the event just before it occurred ... something that seemed a bit like prophecy. Actually, I had intended no such thing. But it certainly caught the attention of my students. From then on, they would take very seriously the material I put in front of them.
This success at "prophecy" was not something that pleased me at all. Two of the people who died in that event had been former Dunellen parishioners of mine (one of them the church treasurer) and the whole thing gave me chills to think about. But Reality was something I was quite familiar with – though since the restoration of my Christian faith something I was ready to face rather than to go into cynical retreat from ... no matter how ugly that "Reality" could be. And it could at times get to be very ugly. Such was the case of 9/11.
More "Political Realism." I watched in deep concern as President Bush (Jr.) decided to take his quest for justice against the al-Qaeda perpetrators and expand it as a new "Bush Doctrine," announcing how he intended to take down all supporters of such Islamic terrorist instincts, such as the Taliban, an extremely radical Muslim organization that had just terrorized Afghanistan into submission – and had offered their country as training territory for such terrorist organizations as al-Qaeda.
I was quite aware, however, that this huge expansion of our foreign policy goals would engage us in something much more than just dealing with the criminals of 9/11. It would throw us into a cultural-moral quicksand of Afghanistan, something that potentially had all of the same features as our involvement in Vietnam.
I knew the Muslim world quite well (including Afghanistan itself personally). For instance, although outrage was what registered with me (and virtually everyone else in the "Westernized" world) over 9/11, I was hardly surprised in seeing so much of the Muslim world actually cheering over the "success" of the al-Qaeda terrorists' actions. I understood that almost every key "democratic" cultural value America stood for or symbolized (especially its emphasis on personal freedom for all), Islam stood adamantly opposed to. Islam sees submission – from women and children all the way up to tribal leaders and kings – as what Allah required of the faithful ... not the "do your own thing" that America seems to represent as the ideal the world should live by.
I was quite aware that America was not likely to make much of an advance in Afghanistan (or even the rest of the Muslim world) trying to eradicate the Islamic mentality that saw heroism and divine reward in taking down the evil that America naturally represented in the thinking of the typical Muslim.
In any case, what Bush was proposing to do in the Middle East would easily pit us against most of the Muslim world – and merely strengthen the view of America by the growing Muslim world as indeed the "Great Satan." Our former ally Pakistan was already pulling away from us. And our NATO ally Turkey was beginning to show similar tendencies.
And Afghanistan was well known as the cemetery where proud Empires found their demise – Soviet Russia being the most recent example, an event that just took place right before the eyes of every living American adult. What Bush was about to put America through in Afghanistan was destined only to end in very expensive "nothingness" – just as it had for the Soviets.
Then to add further folly on top of Bush's Afghanistan folly, Bush got it in his head that he was called on (by God?) also to bring down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. What possessed him to add Iraq to American difficulties in the Middle East I could not fathom. Saddam was a bastion of secularism – something of a resisting force against expansive Islam. We had actually backed him extensively in his war against militantly Islamic Iran (Saddam's Iraq being the third largest recipient of American foreign aid at the time) and he had absolutely nothing to do with the events of 9/11. But as time progressed, it became increasingly clear that Bush was totally intent on bring Saddam down, even when most of our natural allies backed away from us on this matter. Bush thrashed around for excuses for attacking Iraq, and failed to come up with any convincing reasons – but went ahead anyway and ordered the destruction of the Saddam regime in Iraq.
I couldn't believe I was seeing what was coming out of the White House. What was Bush and his cabinet thinking? Iraq was a multi-cultural collection of religious and ethnic groups that historically disliked each other intensely. This mess of a society that Britain had thrown together several generations earlier – solely to benefit British oil interests in the region – was held together only by the dictatorial hand of Saddam. If we took him out, we would have a huge mess to deal with in Iraq. And "fixing" Iraq would end up being a task that would bring us no rewards in the Middle East even if we should, by some miracle, succeed. In the end it would also worsen further our rapidly mounting national debt. This was clearly a lose-lose endeavor. What was the man thinking?
I was so vocal in this matter that finally the school's new director, who behind it all largely agreed with me on this matter, nonetheless asked me to tone down my commentaries. Some of the kids' parents felt that I was being very unpatriotic in not supporting our president. Not patriotic? Really! It was out of the very deep love I have for my country that I was distressed in watching Bush lead this dear country into massive calamity.
And Cheney...it was he who answered the press some years earlier in explaining why Bush Sr., for whom he served as Secretary of Defense at the time of the Gulf war, had not gone into Iraq in pursuit of Saddam Hussein. As he himself put things, it would not have been worth the price that it would have cost America to undertake to collapse and then have to rebuild Iraq. In fact, it would amount to falling into a "quagmire," (his term). So obviously Cheney understood quite well the deal at one time. Why had he changed his tune? Nothing had changed in the Iraqi dynamic. Was it just to please the younger Bush? If so, that would have amounted to a horrible betrayal of all political integrity.
Teaching economics. Then before the end of the Bush presidency at the beginning of 2009 I would have the grand opportunity to do an in-depth teaching about American capitalism and the workings of the financial markets.
Bush had encouraged a grand "stimulation" of the American economy, in part through a lifting of some of the federal restrictions designed to block very risky banking practices, restrictions that reached back to the New Deal days of the early 1930s, restrictions which had put some necessary boundaries on economic activities, ones designed to avoid the development of another financial bubble, the kind that burst in 1929 and sent the country spinning into a deep and ongoing economic crisis of the 1930s Great Depression.
And now here we were, years later, believing that we no longer needed such refereeing of the financial game. Without that refereeing however, we had put ourselves in another unsustainable bubble. And the bubble finally burst ... starting with the home-mortgage banking system, with banks foolishly offering "subprime mortgages" to customers truly unable to meet the repayment requirements in paying off their bank loans – loans undertaken to purchase houses they truly could not afford. And the banks knew that – but greedily wanted to increase their "assets" (money owed by people to a bank are considered the bank's "assets") in the race to be the biggest bank around. The bubble finally burst as builders overbuilt homes in the frenzy of home-buying (supposedly people purchasing houses they could not afford before the price of housing reached even higher). But now, new houses were beginning to sit there unsold. So the builders had to start lowering their prices in order to find buyers. Quickly this turned into a massive drop in the value of the American real estate market, causing financial panic as people found themselves holding financial obligations (mortgages) that were pricier than the rapidly declining market value of their homes. Soon banks were ending up with homes that had been abandoned by the financially desperate homeowners. Here also, no one was in a hurry to buy these homes from the banks, even when offered at much lower prices (tragically, lower than the amounts that banks themselves had originally invested in them in the form of those subprime mortgages offered to questionably qualified customers).
Now the banks began to fall into deep distress. This in turn distressed greatly the country's stock markets and soon the major investment banks, insurance companies, and finally even manufacturers – such as General Motors and Chrysler, when hard hit consumers decided to hold off buying a new car. Massive bankruptcy threatened the world of American capitalism.
Now Bush and the Republicans (who dominated Congress) had to come to the rescue of these huge corporations as they faced bankruptcy ... something the Republicans found extremely distasteful. Billions of dollars would have to be issued by the government (and ultimately the American taxpayer) to rescue these "troubled assets." Thus it was that the American financial picture looked completely depressing as Bush left office in January of 2009.
We took an old farmhouse (which a newer subdivision had been built around) which had been converted into five apartments ... redesigned room structure and usage and stripped down the walls to the studs. Then the rebuilding began ... the whole family involved.
We built from scratch ... everything: electrical, plumbing, cabinetry, floors, etc. Most of the work was done in the 2005-2007 period, though it would take me all the way up to 2009 to put the finishing touches on things.
The kitchen ... and the see-through (living room / dining room) fireplace
Here's Paul helping me with the floor sanding on the second floor
I even built the cabinet doors from mere oak planking ... enjoying it all (the architect in me loving this challenge)
The house as it neared completion (lots of outside as well as inside work)
Obama takes command (2009). For the Republicans, having been the party in power, the 2008 national elections were a grand disaster, both presidentially and congressionally. A long-term Republican public servant and war hero, McCain, was easily defeated by a young man with virtually no serious public leadership experience and his only claim to fame being that he was a "minority" American – supposedly more in tune with the "hurt" Americans who were feeling very unhappy about things.
Obama offered the country "change." And everybody certainly at this point wanted change. But they probably had no idea that the "change" Obama had in mind was more than just economic recovery. For very personal reasons of his own, he did not like the social structure of America such as he found it (and as it had been for centuries) and wanted it changed – changed deeply.
Having worked closely with the Black community, I understood well what it was that he had in mind. Besides, he was a Democrat, and Democrats always loved to put into play social "improvements" ("Progressives" they termed themselves) dreamed up by social designers. Obama fit that category perfectly.
Some of the larger world also recognized that same characteristic in the one now entering the White House, and in February of 2009, before Obama had been American president even for a month, the very Liberal Nobel committee of Norway decided to nominate Obama as the one to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year. But he hadn't done a single thing yet! Of course not. It is not what he had done, but what it was what they expected that he would do that mattered. He was the perfect candidate for their kind of "peace and social justice" action, a candidate certain to try to take the country down the road that they themselves found so dear. And in this they were quite insightful.
I was worried, because I knew who exactly would end up being the "enemies" he would be wanting to take on in this battle he was planning to wage in order to bring about deep "change" in America.
All this was quickly confirmed in his two Supreme Court appointments, two unmarried women who would soon be passing judgment as to whether or not the idea of the all-important American family (the very foundation of America's strong grass-roots democracy) would follow the lines it always had, or whether "progressive change" would be brought to that matter as well. In fact, in a mere five-to-four Supreme Court decision (including those two women in that tiny majority) the law formerly passed by a large majority of Congress and signed into law by the U.S. president making marriage strictly a matter between a man and a woman, was now set aside by the verdict of the Supreme Court.
Such traditional structuring was no longer considered vital in this supposedly very "free" social-cultural world. This version of "freedom" that rising generations of younger Americans had been taught to love above all else was a "freedom" set against all of America's old social norms, ones that had brought America forward to great social strength, but ones which now they were taught to despise as "unprogressive" – even illegal, or at least "unconstitutional."
And as for the Supreme Court itself, it was another affirmation that America had fallen into the hands of unelected, irremovable "enlightened" government officials, ones posing as the protectors of a "democracy" in which the common people no longer had a say in the way their own society was to be shaped or directed. The Supreme Court had forbidden their religious foundations (Biblical, prayerful Christianity) to be passed on in the schooling of new generations of post-"Vet" (post World War Two Veteran) Americans: the Boomers, Gen-Xers and more recently the Millennials. And now America's middle-class marriage had also been dismissed by the Supreme Court as being no longer important to America's health and strength ... all of this strictly in accordance with the ideological loyalties of the nine lawyers in black robes (or at least five of them anyway) sitting on the Supreme Court bench. Wow! What happened to democracy (government by the people themselves)?
Having studied social history so long, and so broadly – pretty much across the entire span of the various human cultures of the world, past as well as present – I was well aware of how this was going to play out in the long run ... or more particularly, how it was going to impact American society. I also had already spent years working among struggling Black communities, where the once-strong family system – one that protected and sustained Black life during its hardest days – had more recently been undercut by the welfare programs offered to single Black mothers by political "progressives," programs that left multitudes of Black men socially powerless – and the Black world in a state of political dependency on governmental offerings ("Socialism"), thus generally unable by its own power to lift itself out of its social calamity. And I knew also what else was coming in the political world: a turning up of the volume in blaming Whites for such Black troubles. But I also knew that this was not likely to improve the situation for anyone, any more than it ever had.
So it was that I anticipated a new social "orthodoxy" that was going to be put in place by our new president and his "progressive" supporters. I had a pretty good idea that it was simply going to reopen old social wounds – and in the end benefit no one in particular. But symbols (as they always have) would prove to be satisfying emotional blankets thrown over the complexities of hard Reality, so I also knew how all of this was going to take shape as "political correctness," the kind that warmed human hearts (or conversely, in their misdirected simplicity, made those hearts angry enough to burn down whole neighborhoods) ... without providing any true social progress – material or spiritual.
The "Arab Spring" of 2011 – and the American response. In the meantime, part of my political-social focus switched to the Middle East where I saw massive social explosion spread widely across the region. Youthful discontent was shaking the foundations of these societies. This upheaval began in Tunisia, growing out of a protest movement in reaction to the country's rising unemployment. Street protests eventually resulted in the departure of Tunisia's long-ruling president Ben Ali.
But this event and its "successful" result would inspire – and thus spread – such political action (the "revolution of rising expectations") to other Arab countries around the Middle East. It seemed in early 2011 that young people were taking to the streets everywhere in the Arab world, in protest against social-economic conditions in their countries.
Actually, young people elsewhere seemed to want to get into the action and such youthful rebelliousness spread to other places such as Athens, Tokyo, Rome, London ... and even Wall Street in New York City! In Egypt, the rebellion dragged on as the young took over Tahrir Square in Cairo, bringing about the arrest of long-time Egyptian President Mubarak. But even with his arrest the protests continued all the same. In the meanwhile, the rebellion had also been taken up in Syria – as the pro-Assad and anti-Assad groups come out violently against each other (Syria is a very complex mixture of all sorts of sectarian groups, held together only by the firm hand of President Assad). Something of a similar nature also came to Libya, where the pro-Gaddafi and anti-Gaddafi groups came out against each other, turning the country (like Syria) into something that was more a civil war than simply a "democratic" protest movement.
I was hoping (praying even) that Obama would not try to make himself the Savior of Democracy amidst all this turmoil – a rather typical approach that American leaders have repeatedly undertaken in response to international situations that they personally had absolutely no understanding of the dynamics involved – from President Woodrow Wilson, down to Lyndon Johnson, briefly Jimmy Carter (before we wised up and backed away from this tendency – although a bit too late for Iran's Shah), and Bush, Jr.
Actually, with respect to Libya, Obama proceeded somewhat cautiously, merely offering American air support for Europe's (in particular France's) intervention on the anti-Gaddafi side of the Libyan civil war – a disaster-waiting-to-happen for the West nonetheless. Even my son Paul, off in Germany and Italy for the semester, while in Europe put together a study paper on the Libyan situation, recognizing the perils of getting involved in a Libyan civil war. If my son Paul could figure this out, why could the leaders of NATO not do so?
Kathleen and I stressed upon our children the importance of coming to know personally the different ways that other cultures go about life! And in support of that idea, I had the wonderful opportunity to help them build a strong working knowledge of French ... which they had numerous opportunities to put to good use.
February-July 2010 - Rachel in Kosovo with Rimi learning first-hand about serious spiritual warfare ... from a young man who had been through the hell of ethnic cleansing (Serbian "Christians" had slaughtered numerous members of his nominally Muslim family) ... but who nonetheless was led to the Lord Jesus Christ by an American history teacher at the University of Pristina (Rimi was a philosophy major there). Rimi and Rachel would marry that same August. And Rimi would begin his journey to the Christian pastorate (YWAM Master's degree at Hawaii's University of the Nations; M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Seminary; and ultimately Ph.D. in theology from the University of Birmingham, England ... his dissertation focused on the "signs and wonders" that accompanied the ministry of the Methodist circuit riders as they brought the gospel to the American frontier families in the early 1800s (soon to be published by Wipf & Stock as The Supernatural and the Circuit Riders: The Rise of Early American Methodism)
June 2012 - LOVE! - Elizabeth (right) joins Paul in Florence ... before the two of them travel together around Europe that summer. Elizabeth would return the next spring to a semester of her own in Florence, studying sculpture as well as the Italian language.
Tragically, America itself would pay a big price for having helped sponsor this political disaster, when the next year the American ambassador to Libya and several other American officials were killed as a result of actions of Muslim radicals inspired by this breakdown of Libya's political order.
With respect to Syria, Obama's response turned out to be a major embarrassment to America and its president. Obama threatened Assad, announcing most boldly that if Assad used weapons (chemical and biological) illegal under the rules of international law, Assad would be crossing a "Red Line" that Obama would ..., would ..., would ... Actually Obama never explained what it exactly was that he would do. And when Assad proceeded to use just such weapons to force rebellious provinces back under his authority, Obama ultimately did nothing – because he had failed to put America in a position to do anything constructive in Syria in the first place.
It then became even more embarrassing for Obama when Russian President Putin offered to come to America's "assistance" by stepping into the situation in order to bring Assad under some kind of reasonable control. Actually what Putin ended up doing was making Russia very helpful in providing Assad much needed assistance in his effort to bring Syria back under his control. And as for America, all the "or else" talk of Obama merely drove Assad away from America – and into Putin's arms.
At the same time, Obama began to direct aid in vital military supplies to one of the Syrian rebel groups, thus ensuring that the civil war in Syria would grow deeper and bloodier. Soon thousands – then even millions – of Syrians began to flee to refugee camps outside of Syria, even flooding Europe (Germany alone took in millions of Syrian refugees driven to Europe to escape the ongoing carnage.) And poor Turkey next door became swamped by Syrian (and Iraqi) refugees.
Into this mess stepped a group of Sunnis (Assad and his Alawi supporters were Shi'ites – the Sunnis' natural enemies) to set up a "Caliphate" (an "Islamic State" under Islam's ultimate ruler, the Caliph or "Successor" to Muhammad) in war-ravaged northeastern Syria ... reaching also into northwestern Iraq. (Yes, sadly the civil war started with the dumping of Saddam was still going on years later in northwestern Iraq.) All this simply deepened the problems for Syria ... and much of the rest of the world.
A rising China. Meanwhile off on the other side of the globe, a China coming under the tightening grip of the country's president, Xi Jinping, was moving boldly to challenge the American-defended high-sea rights of the South China Sea. Xi claimed that the sea was not in fact international high-seas but instead was very much a part of Chinese territory. But this "Chinese" territory that he defined, literally ran right up to the shores of the other nations that bordered on the Sea, or depended on it for their economic livelihood: Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei (Malaysia) – and of course Taiwan, whose existence as a separate nation China did not recognize anyway.
Obama made a move to demonstrate America's policing rights in the high-seas of the South China sea by sending American ships to cruise those waters. But Xi countered with an even bolder move: to start dredging the coral reefs to the west of the Philippines in order to produce a number of islands on which Chinese air and sea power could be based.
In 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration located in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled that China had no right to claim the sea as Chinese territory. But of course China dismissed the ruling. China is interested in real power, not legal ideas. Thus it was that they had built up those islands as military positions from which to enforce their claim to territorial ownership.
Oh, how I was praying that Obama would order an American dredging and island-building of a similar nature in the same region, maybe only 50 miles distant from the Chinese bases, as a way of enforcing the high-sea rights of the other nations needing to pass that way to trade with much of the rest of the world. Their economies depended on that in order for the South China Sea not to become "Chinese territory."
But ultimately, Obama did no such thing. Employing real power was just not his thing. He liked ideas better than action.
Trump arrives on the scene. The 2016 elections were coming up, and I was hoping so much that Dr. Ben Carson would be the nominee that Americans would have a chance to vote for as U.S. President. I know that he had no political experience whatsoever. But Obama's political experience upon entering the White House had not been all that great either.
To me, the president is one who sees, understands and the inspires others. I liked Carson's vision for America – not racial, not class-based, not Humanist or Secular like Obama's had been. He was in fact a man with a very strong Christian vision before him, one that brought him American-style from tough circumstances growing up to true personal greatness, going at life the way all people should, by doing the hard work rather than standing around complaining about how others were holding you back. He moved upward in life by studying hard, learning as much as possible about the challenges in front of him, and then taking on some hard decisions. And he certainly was a strong team player, knowing how to draw the abilities of others to support a task they shared in common (success in the face of very difficult surgery). And he inspired, rather than dominated those around him. In this he rather reminded me of Dr. Martin Luther King, whom I respected greatly.
But most important, he knew how to work closely with God in the face of all the challenges that came his way. He was a mighty man of God. And America desperately needed a mighty man of God.
But sadly, he simply got "driven over" at the televised debates conducted by the Republican presidential candidates, and was largely ignored by a press which had no idea of how to measure Carson. And the person that did the driving over of Carson was none other than the hotel and casino builder and TV host Donald Trump (also with no experience as a political office-holder either).
In many ways Trump was a very impressive individual. Simply the way he ventured into a huge variety of investment challenges – not only hotels and casinos, but a sports team, ice rink in central New York City, and an airline, among other enterprises. And most impressive of all was the way he came back from an economic catastrophe (huge risks come with such high-reaching entrepreneurship) that would have broken the will of most people – even other high-powered investors. Trump was not a quitter. In fact he loved challenges. And he seemed to take them on gladly, no matter what they seemed to be. And gaining the White House was for Trump the ultimate challenge that he wanted to take on as the grandest of all Trump adventures.
Unfortunately he seemed to be lacking in the most important quality of all in a president: the ability to pull a divided people (such as Obama had left America) together so as to be able to move the nation as a truly unified people towards higher social goals. Trump set out his own goals – and moved towards them personally. He liked victories that he himself could carry off.
He certainly was able to bring his family along with him on these journeys. But otherwise he tended, when presented with the world of "other," to instinctively knock others out of his way. As he put things in the TV show he hosted, "You're Fired" – making these words the very identifier of that widely-watched program.
And indeed, the rapid turnover of his cabinet members and advisers would quickly come to move at a speed that was absolutely unprecedented in American history. Inspiring loyalty in others was just not one of his great talents – a leadership talent however needed deeply at this point by the American people.
But his Democratic Party opponents did not help themselves any by jumping to the opportunity to find grounds to impeach Trump – even before he took office! They were determined to reverse the unexpected results of the 2016 elections through immediate calls for impeachment. But ultimately thrashing around to find justifiable causes for impeachment made the Democrats look politically shallow.
Meanwhile, American youth have gone berserk, believing that plundering and burning town centers and demanding the dismantling of the police force is a noble cause, one that justifies such brutal behavior. There seems to be no moral boundaries or sense of honest better and worse that apply in their collective reasoning.
And so I write. Finally I felt led to try to get out this three-volume work, in the hopes that it might put some serious vision back into the heart of American politics. I have no idea who (if any) will ultimately pick up these writings. But I have done what I believe it is that God called me to be and to do. And I leave the larger results of this work to him.
Indeed, in all this, I can say only what so many others have said before me: "To God be the Glory"