November 22, 1963

JFK in DallasSometimes it seems like yesterday, but it’s been fifty-six years. Nearly everyone near my age (I’m 66) can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing . . .

I was a fifth-grader at Washington Elementary School in Prescott, Arizona. We lived in a duplex at 125 North Alarcon Street, just across the alley from the school, so I walked home for lunch as I usually did. We were eating around the kitchen table when a news bulletin came on the radio: President John F, Kennedy had been shot in Dallas Texas. There were no further details to announce before I headed back to school.

There was no one playing on the playground, just clumps of students standing around and talking. I found my friend Mike Boyd near the front gate–two ten-year-olds trying to deal with the incomprehensible news that our President had just been shot. Mike was a member of the Church of Christ, a very conservative evangelical church which was on offshoot of my own denomination, the Christian Church. I asked Mike if it was okay to pray for President Kennedy, even though he was a Catholic. The question embarrasses me now, but that’s who I was at ten years old–our people were very anti-Catholic and they poisoned their children with their bias. Mike thought it was okay for us to pray for JFK, and we bowed our heads and prayed silently until the bell rang.

Back in class, my teacher, Mr. DeSpain suggested we put our heads down on our desks and pray ‘in our own way’ for our President. A few minute later, Mr. Slausser, the principal, entered our classroom and announced that President John F. Kennedy was dead and that school was dismissed.

I didn’t know it, but JFK was already dead by the time I first heard the news bulletin on the radio or prayed with Mike Boyd in the school yard. The next few days are a blur. I was standing outside after church on Willis Street when Debbie Bidding, a high schooler, drove up and got out of her car sobbing. She had been at home watching television and witnessed the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who had been arrested for and accused of shooting the President. Murder on live TV–how grim can you get?

Mrs, Hickey, who lived with her son in  the other half of the duplex, died that weekend. She was also a Catholic, and her funeral was scheduled on the morning of the President’s funeral. We went down to Sacred Heart church for Mrs. Hickey’s funeral–my first time inside a Catholic Church, but no one had horns and the sky didn’t fall because I was there. The rituals were strange to me–lots of bell ringing and incense, but the parishioners were all just people like me,

We didn’t have a television set, so we went over to the Frakes’ home to watch JFK’s funeral from Washington D.C.–my second Catholic funeral in one day. It is interesting that from that day on I have always had good Catholic friends in my life. I think Mike Boyd broke the chains, chains that should have never been forged in the first place and chains which should have been broken in church . . .

The 1960s were turbulent times. I tell people I spent the early 1960s under my desk during (useless) nuclear attack drills–knowing what I know now I would have stood in the window and enjoyed the flash! John F. Kennedy was murdered in public. If they could kill the President of the United States, how safe were any of us? I was eyewitness to the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles. Black civil rights leader Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis in 1967. Robert Kennedy, the slain President’s brother, who was himself running for President, was murdered in Los Angeles  in 1968. The Viet Nam war provided a constant backdrop of violent death on the six o’clock news, accompanied by ever more violent protests against the war, culminating in the murder of four college students by national guardsmen at Kent State University in 1970. It was a hell of a time to come of age.

Nothing in my subsequent life has matched the societal turmoil I witnessed during the 1960s and early 1970s. In a perverse way, upheaval became normal. It took a long time to realize how damaged I was by all that happened as I grew toward adulthood. To this day I am wary and prone to suspicion of others–what are they thinking, and what may they do? Peace of mind is hard to come by and relaxation is nearly impossible. The cumulative effects of all that I have witnessed, along with a great deal of personal trauma over the years have left me with the classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though I have never been formally diagnosed.

If you ask me what I value most in life, I will tell you ‘Peace.’ Since none of us will truly know a peaceful existence, this peace must exist within us. A long time ago, a man named Jesus  said, ‘Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.‘ (Gospel of John 14:27 NASB). Today I deeply desire the Peace that was denied me during the latter part of my childhood. The healing of my damaged psyche is a work in progress. Sometimes it seems I take two steps back for every step forward, but at least I am facing the correct direction.

–Being Stephen W. Smith (November 22, 2019)

 

 

This Business of U-Turns

The following is from a sermon I preached at Scio Christian Church on October 6, 2019. It took four hours to write and edit after several days of contemplation. It took only twenty minutes to preach. Since I speak without notes, the live presentation differed in some ways from the written version. I was proud of myself–I didn’t cry!

Scio Christian Church

The Book of Acts, also known as the Acts of the Apostles, describes the birth and early growth of the church of Jesus Christ. The only reason we are looking at the history of the early church is to learn lessons which we can use in our lives now.

The events in chapter 9, which we are looking at today, probably happened three to five years after the resurrection of Jesus. These were both exciting and troubling times for the infant church. Thousands had declared their belief in and allegiance to the risen Christ. Wholesale miracles accompanied the preaching of the good news by the followers of Jesus. The success of the new movement, however, caused a violent reaction by the conservative and reactionary leaders of the Jewish faith who were determined to eradicate this new movement by whatever means were necessary.

The church was reeling in the aftermath of the murder of Stephen by Jewish extremists because he preached about Jesus. One man was particularly zealous in his hatred of the church, a man named Saul of Tarsus. Though Saul hadn’t been directly involved in the killing of Stephen, he had heartily approved, guarding the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death.

Saul went to the leaders of the Jews and requested authority to carry his inquisition against the church to the city of Damascus, receiving permission to seek out the followers of Jesus and bring them to Jerusalem in chains to be tried and punished for their heresy.

Where were the Romans while all of this was going on? After all, these events were happening in a Roman province. The ruling authorities were doubtless overjoyed to watch two sects of the Jews fighting with each other, even killing each other—they wouldn’t have time to rebel against Roman rule. The only reason the Romans had bothered to kill Jesus was the misguided fear he might lead an insurrection against their rule.

It was while traveling to Damascus to persecute the church that Saul was blinded by his encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ, which Leon talked about last week. Seldom has anyone undergone such as radical transformation as Saul of Tarsus. Saul’s sight was restored when a man named Ananias came to minister to him. He was baptized and suddenly completed one of the most radical U-turns ever seen.

It is probably safe to say that no transformation so radical and rapid ever took place. Saul immediately began to preach good news of Jesus Christ, whose followers he had been trying to imprison only three days earlier. This threw everyone into turmoil, followers of Jesus and Jewish leaders both. The followers of Jesus were understandably suspicious that this was some sort of trick. The Jews were angered by his traitorous behavior and wanted to have him killed.

In Nazi Germany in the 1940s one of the leaders of the plot to kill all of the Jews in Europe was a man named Adolph Eichmann. Can you imagine the violent reaction of Hitler and the Nazi party if Adolph Eichmann had been circumcised and become a rabbi? He would not have lived very long. So it was with Saul. Some followers of Jesus, convinced he was real, lowered him over the city wall of Damascus in a basket one night so he could escape his pursuers.

Saul went to Jerusalem to seek out the followers of Jesus—to join them, not imprison them. After initial skepticism they realized that Saul had indeed met the living Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus and they all joined together in preaching the good news of Jesus all over the area. Meanwhile, the Jewish leaders continued to pursue him with the intention of having him killed.

The man who would become known as The Apostle Paul was a polarizing figure. He attracted attention wherever he went and whatever he did—no one had to ask if Saul was in the house. The believers finally spirited Paul away to his home town of Tarsus for his own safety. At this point in time it’s probably safe to say the leaders of the Jerusalem church heaved a huge sigh of relief. While they undoubtedly rejoiced at the miraculous conversion of their chief antagonist, the mayhem that constantly surrounded the man had to be trying.

It is probably safe to say that none of us has found Jesus like Saul did. In his book ‘Varieties of Religious Experience’ William James explains that while some may experience enlightenment by sudden revelation, others grow to enlightenment in a slower educational process. God meets us where we need to be met. He uses whatever means are necessary to gain our attention.

My own experience is very different from Saul’s:

In the wee hours of May 1, 2014 I struck what I hope was the bottom of my life. I was in despair over how my life was going. I had been drinking whiskey all night and decided I was going to kill myself. When day came my intention was to buy ahalf gallon of Jim Beam, a length of garden hose and a roll of black duct tape and drive to Iowa to kill myself. Long before I was born my paternal grandfather had taken his own life by asphyxiating himself in his automobile beside a deserted and frozen corn field in central Iowa. Having a flair for the dramatic, I had decided that what was good enough for Grandpa . . . My plan was to drive from my home in Indiana to Iowa several hours away—that’s why I needed the Jim Beam. I knew within a half mile or so where Grandpa died. My plan was to arrive after dark, park beside a corn field, place the hose in the exhaust pipe of my car and run it into the passenger compartment, then start the motor and wait for carbon monoxide to take me away. The black duct tape was to cover my headlights (which are always on if the engine is running) so no one would come to investigate before I was dead.

Then, a funny thing happened. At three in the morning I decided to do a load of laundry because I didn’t want to be found dead wearing dirty clothes. When daylight came, and it was time for the stores selling the things I would need to open for business, I climbed into my car. Somehow, instead of buying the supplies I needed, I decided to find help. I spent the next nine days in a psychiatric ward.

I was raised in the church. My father was a preacher for fifty-nine years. For the first thirty years of my life the church was the center of my life. Then, at the age of thirty, I walked away for reasons I don’t fully understand to this day. My break down and stay in the hospital did not produce a full-blown spiritual experience, but planted the seed for a spiritual experience which has been very gradual.

When I got out of the hospital I knew I wanted my life to count for something. I had no idea what form that meaning would take. Essentially, I remained an unbeliever for another eighteen months or so. Then I became acquainted with a woman who had undergone dramatic and traumatic changes in her life, changes which removed her from the life she had known and caused most of her friends and her church to reject her. Yet, she somehow retained her faith in Jesus. Her faith saved her from insanity and death. I heard her story and realized if she could have faith in Jesus, so could I.

If anyone had told me five years ago I would be standing in a church preaching about Jesus I would have told them they were nuts, probably with a stream of profanity. Like I said, the changes in my life have been very gradual. It wasn’t until I returned to Oregon from Indiana three years ago that I went to church because Iwanted it and valued it. For a couple of years after leaving the hospital I lived with my family and I attended church with them just to be polite.

Anyway, one thing lead to another and on the last Sunday of 2018 I walked through the doors of Scio Christian Church for the first time in more than forty-one years. My first visit was something of an accident, but I felt at home and kept coming back. So, here I am—who could have predicted it? I’m part of the way through a very slow U-turn. That’s my story. What is your story?

All of us have a story to tell that can help others to know Jesus. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve known the Lord for fifty years or fifty days. When we tell others what Jesus has done for us we aren’t being sales people—we’re sharing good news. When I was in the nut house the people who helped me most in my recovery were not the doctors and nurse, but my fellow patients—people who had arrived only a little bit before me. We are surrounded by hurting people who could use a little bit of good news. Any small thing we have may be more than what they have at the moment.

When I walked into Scio Christian Church last December I was immediately welcomed by Pat and Ned and Lisa and Marcus, among others. It was obvious from to me from the start that his church was a place of refuge for some people who don’t necessarily fit in other places. People find love and acceptance here. People’s lives have been changed here. We have been a light to the community of Scio.

In recent weeks some serious problems have arisen in our church. A few months ago the church brought in Pastor Dan to share the ministry with Pastor Mike and Pastor Leon. Sadly, disagreements arose over what direction the church should take and who should lead it in the future. Pastor Mike felt he needed to leave for the peace of the fellowship. However, the disagreements intensified and came to a head back in August. When the dust settled Pastor Dan and several other church members chose to leave us.

I was not involved in the dispute that rocked the church. I am not sure exactly what happened or why it happened. I am not pointing fingers. I do not believe that anyone involved had evil intentions. However the peace of the church has been harmed by these recent events. Church members have been hurt and are upset. Scio is a small community and word of our problems has gotten out and the church has received something of a black eye.

All churches experience problems. The body of Christ is made up of very imperfect humans. That’s why we are here. We know we are imperfect and we are here to become more like Jesus. The mark of a successful church is how it deals with problems that arise. Scio Christian Church has been here for 165 years, so the church has weathered a few storms in its past.

The recent happenings here have created an opportunity for us to grow. Going back to Acts chapter 9, where we began, we find a church which had been hounded by the Jewish religious leaders and rocked by the murder of Stephen, one of its best preachers. Then, hard on the heels of the murder of Stephen, came the mayhem surrounding the conversion of Saul. The church badly needed to take a deep breath, regroup and head into an uncertain future.

Acts 9:31 tells us how the Lord provided: The church knew peace for a while. It was made strong and comforted by the Holy Spirit. It honored the Lord and more people were attracted to the church. The church had made a bit of a U-turn, sailed out of a storm and into calm waters. It had survived a crisis and became better for it.

By the power of the Holy Spirit Scio Christian Church can grow from the things that have happened here recently—do its own U-turn. Denial of recent troubles is not an option—what has happened has happened.

Please pray for those who have been damaged and for those who have felt they needed to leave. In a town this small it is inevitable that you will run into these brothers and sisters. Let them know you love them. They may not return. Perhaps they shouldn’t return. Love them. Let the Lord do the rest.

When people are brought into contact with Scio Christian Church, let them say ‘See how they love one another!’ Amen—let it be so.

— Being Stephen W. Smith (October 7, 2019)

The Reverend Steve Rides Again!?!

Grab your ice skates, because hell has finally frozen over! This Sunday, October 6th, I will be preaching at Scio Christian Church.

Excuse me, Steve, but what have you been smoking? No need to blink your eyes or clean your glasses: The Reverend Steve will appear live and in Technicolor, and work without a net.

Reverend Jim 2

Back Story (for those who don’t know it): In December 1976 I became the preacher at Scio Christian Church. That’s SIGH-oh, Oregon, population (then) 500. I was twenty-three and newly graduated from Pacific Christian College (now Hope International University) in Fullerton, California. I was full of great plans and had high hopes for my new ministry.

Long Story Short: It didn’t work out. My California Jesus Freak persona collided head-on with small country church leaders who were set in their ways and saw no reason to change much of anything about the way they did things. The church leaders were unhappy. I wasn’t willing or able to change enough to make them happy. Therefore, I agreed to resign.

So, my preaching career at Scio Christian Church was over in a scant thirteen months. My last sermon was preached in mid-January 1978.

After leaving Scio Christian Church I worked in the printing business for over thirty-five years. I occasionally preached in various churches in the early years after leaving SCC. In the mid-1980s I abandoned all Christian churches entirely for about thirty years (but, that’s another story for some other time).

In late 2016 I decided to return to Oregon after living for many years in Indiana. I wanted to move back to Scio (I had left the area in 1979). In spite of my negative experience with the church, I had always loved the the town, the area and most of the people. I could not locate affordable housing in Scio, so I settled in Stayton, about eight miles away. I would still like to live in Scio again,

I began to attend the Mt. Pleasant community church, located out in the hills between Scio and Stayton.  The little one room church was built in 1854 and I preached there about half the time in 1978 and 1979.

It had never occurred to me to return to Scio Christian Church, other than perhaps a visit out of semi-morbid curiosity–much as one might visit the site of a train wreck or a tornado. I lived in Stayton for more than two years without needing to exercise that curiosity.

On the last Sunday of 2018 I was running too late to make it to Mt. Pleasant by 10:00 am (my peritoneal dialysis cycle drained too slowly while I was asleep) so I decided to visit Scio Christian Church (which started at 10:45).

I decided to enter the place with an open mind–no grudges or expectations. I was immediately welcomed by several people, and before the service had even begun I had reconnected with the handful of people who I had actually known in 1978 who were still there or back again themselves. I liked the spirit of the place. It was immediately obvious that a lot of the people were ‘misfits’ who were finding their way as followers of Jesus. The pastor was a loving man in his seventies. I decided to come again.

Against all odds, Scio Christian Church has become my home. I have helped in the church’s free lunch program that serves about 100 high school students every Wednesday, and with the annual 9/11 First Responders Appreciation Banquet which served prime rib to over 60 police officers, fire fighters and paramedics. I have also delivered three minute communion meditations on a couple of occasions. Recently I have been asked to join the worship (leaders) team each Sunday.

The church, in general, is a place where love and acceptance are practiced. I’m not the only long-haired old man at SCC! There are two or three dogs (service or companions) in church every Sunday, hence occasional barking during the service. This past Sunday a young lady with Asperger syndrome was honored during the service for completing high school in a home school program. Every Sunday there is a woman with an oxygen tank in attendance and a man who suffers from dementia (he’s an old dear friend of mine) who is gently directed toward the restroom by those who know and love him. There’s a lady whose addiction problems have cost her custody of her son, with who she is just now slowly reconnecting. There is a man who’s father was recent ly incarcerated and suffers from various addictions. I have watched people endure severe medical difficulties with the loving support of the church.

Our church is a bit of a zoo sometimes! Rachel Held Evans (who sadly passed away in May 2019) used to deliver a talk called ‘Keep The Church Weird.’ Amen! She could have been talking about Scio Christian Church. Here’s the deal: Hurting people are being healed. What more can a church do?

The church isn’t perfect. Recently the church underwent some upheaval when a man who had been brought in to share preaching and pastoral duties with the pastor who was semi-retiring, and with the youth pastor, proved unable to cooperate with those men. He became involved in a power struggle in which he and a handful of other church members tried to remove his co-pastors. When the dust cleared he and his co-conspirators were gone. The church has some healing to do. The whole thing gave me a sick feeling, but I didn’t walk away. I feel called to help in this healing process, to be a peacemaker. I have let both pastors know I am there for them and the church.

So now, incredibly, I have been asked to preach a sermon at the church which kicked me to the curb more than forty years ago. I let go of my resentments and anger a long time ago, and the people who did that are all dead now, anyway. Still, the pain has remained. I was young and idealistic and I got my ass kicked. Ouch! I never thought I would ever go to church in Scio again, let alone preach there–I never even had the desire.

And so . . . The Reverend Steve rides again! We’ll see what happens . . .

–Being Stephen W. Smith (September 30, 2019)

The photo above is of The Reverend Jim from the TV comedy ‘Taxi.’ I have always considered The Reverend Jim to be my doppelgänger (not to mention my spiritual role model!).

 

Whatever happened to Diana?

Do you ever wonder what happened to your first love. I was seventeen and headed for college in the the summer of 1971 when I met Diana C. at church camp. Her youth group was visiting for the day and she caught my eye. Later that fall Diana attended a weekend retreat and I fell for her and we began ‘going steady.’

Diana lived in Sanger, a small farming community east of Fresno, California. My parents lived in Lindsay, about an hour to the south, but I was going to college in Long Beach, more than three hours farther to the south. When I came home for the weekend I’d hand Mom my laundry, grab the keys to our Chevy Nova and head for Sanger.

We had some wonderful times. Diana’s grandma lived in a cottage behind the main farm house and we’d watch TV until Grandma (conveniently!) turned in early. I remember necking with Diana–a lot! One night we were out in the barn when a horse interrupted a lip lock when he nudged me in the rear end. We went to the movies. We went bowling. Two of my favorite days were when we went to the Fresno Zoo and a trip we made to King’s Canyon National Park. On perhaps our most unusual date, we attended the Bill Glass Crusade held at Sanger High School–Bill Glass was an ex-NFL lineman turned evangelist who was kind of a poor man’s Billy Graham.

Our relationship was innocent and a lot of fun. Diana was still a junior in high school, so marriage wasn’t really on the table. I loved her, but I sensed that life’s circumstances would  in separate us some day. She had plans to go to college in Fresno and I felt committed to my college in Long Beach. In the summer of 1972 I got a summer job as a youth minister in Farmington, New Mexico–no summer trips to Sanger! The last night before I left for New Mexico we went to see ‘Fiddler on the Roof’–one of my all time favorite movies. In the movie there is a scene where Tevye is sitting at a lonely railroad stop waiting for the train with his daughter, who he suspects he may never see again. I looked over at Diana, and she was crying. Maybe she sensed the future…

While in New Mexico I met a young lady I was very attracted to who was visiting her brother for a few days. I spent quite a bit of time with her before she returned to Oregon. I was eighteen and didn’t know what to do. I reasoned that if I could be so attracted to Sue that my feelings for Diana must not be real, so I sent her a letter letting her know that we needed to put our relationship on the back burner, at least until I sorted out my own feelings. That letter finished us… I made a final trip to Sanger that fall to try to talk about things, but she was hurt and our time together was uncomfortable–we were done.

It has been almost forty-seven years since Diana. I don’t think we had a future together, but the way I ended things represents one of the biggest ‘Do-Over’s of my life. At eighteen I didn’t understand that I would always find other women attractive, even if I was in love–even if I was in a committed monogamous relationship. However, that didn’t mean I had to act upon my attraction. I’m sorry to say this attraction would bite me again, with tragic results, before I really learned that lesson…

So, whatever happened to Diana? Does she ever think of me and wonder where I am and what I’m doing. Diana was a strong person, so I doubt she spent many sleepless nights over the demise of our relationship. Still, I wonder what ever became of her.

It is highly unlikely that Diana will ever read this blog. Still..Diana, I am very sorry for the way we ended. I hope that you are happily married with loving children and grandchildren. And…I hope that your memories of us make you smile, at least a little bit.

–being Stephen W. Smith (May 10, 2019)

Having your cake and refusing it too (concerning those who refuse to serve queers and other sinners)

Jack PhillipsThe United States Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who refused to provide a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing his Christian beliefs*. However, the decision fails to truly settle the issue of whether businesses can refuse service to customers based upon their religious scruples—the Court found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had exhibited hostility toward Phillips, and thus violated his First Amendment rights. So, the whole issue is really still up in the air.

I’ll confess that I believe the Supreme Court’s decision is wrong. Mostly, however, I am tired of listening to Evangelical Christians whine about this issue. In my opinion, the moral stance which has led Jack Phillips and others like him to refuse service to gays is wrong-headed and at odds with the teachings of Jesus.

For the moment, let’s assume that homosexuality is wrong—a sin. We, as Christians, have not been appointed as moral policemen, enforcing our standards on other people. If Jack Phillips has been making wedding cakes for very long, he has certainly provided cakes for couples ‘living in sin’—cohabiting outside of wedlock (fornication!) as the majority of straight (and gay) couples are doing when they get married. Jack Phillips has likely made wedding cakes for alcoholics, drug addicts, liars and thieves. Why single out homosexuals for (supposedly) violating God’s laws?

Now I’m going to appear to get completely off the track, but bear with me—I’m coming back.

One day, in a farmhouse just east of Nevada, Iowa, a teen-aged Donald Smith (that’s my father) found a dusty Holy Bible in the attic and began to read it. As he devoured the contents of the holy book he came to the conclusion he should become a preacher. He visited a local minister to ask how he could become a preacher. The minister asked, ‘Are you a Christian?’ Dad asked, ‘What’s that?’ So began the process which led my father to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to anyone who would listen for the next nearly seventy years. In the early years Dad didn’t call himself a minister, a pastor, or even a preacher, but an evangelist—that’s one who proclaims the good news.

Fast forward more than forty years: A man in Dad’s congregation was arrested for being a pedophile in a case that rocked the small Oregon coastal town where Dad ministered. Now, being a pedophile is the most reprehensible behavior I can think of, so when I found out my dad had gone to visit this man in jail I was very angry (I had two children who were very young at the time). ‘Why in the world would you go see that man in jail?’ I asked him. Dad thought about it a moment, then replied quietly, “I think that’s what Jesus would have done.’ ‘Nuf sed. . .

As Christians, we are called to spread the good news of the love of God—not to force our views of morality on those around us. Would my father have made a wedding cake for a gay couple? I don’t know, but I do know that whatever he did would have4 been done with love. Would Jesus have made the wedding cake? I believe so, but he would have certainly found a way to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to his customers.

For many years I worked in the printing business. There were many customers I didn’t like very much. There were some whose opinions and behaviors I found to be despicable, but as one of the owners once said, ‘Their money is green.’ This view may sound cynical, but those who operate businesses are there to serve the needs of their customers, or they cease to exist. A business owner cannot afford to turn away many customers.

As for the couple who sued and began the process which led Jack Phillips to his day of reckoning in the Supreme Court, I wish they had let the whole thing slide and dealt with it in a different way. Where there are adversaries there are only losers. In the Jack Phillips case everyone was ultimately a loser.

The bottom line for Christians, the lowest common denominator, is love—not judgement. What about the Good News?

*Ironically, the majority opinion was written by the same Justice Kennedy who wrote the majority opinion in the case which legalized gay marriage, which underscores the fact this is not a simple legal (or moral) issue.

–Being Stephen W. Smith (June 23, 2018)

 

 

My journey is one step at a time . . .

Lately I’ve been living in the Wreckage of the Future. I’m good at it, because I’ve been there a lot. My recent days have been unpleasant. I have enough Zen in me to withhold judgement about whether recent events are actually bad—so suffice it to say it’s been unpleasant—really unpleasant.

As many of my readers know I am currently undergoing kidney dialysis. This process has been going well and my recent switch to use of a cycler at night gives me a lot of freedom by day. The ultimate for a kidney dialysis patient—at least for me—is to obtain a kidney transplant. To be considered for the list I had to give up smoking cigars (bummer!) and have to meet certain other requirements. One of those requirements is freedom from dental disease/infection.

DentistOn Wednesday I met with the dentist, and as I suspected, my teeth are a mess. I have no dental insurance and the estimated cost of bringing my teeth into compliance for the transplant list is several thousand dollars. This news was a terrible blow—it would take several years to get the work done. Here comes the Wreckage of the Future: By the time I get my teeth fixed I’ll probably be too old for transplant surgery. However, I could still put a somewhat positive spin on the news: The worst thing that could happen is that I’d be on dialysis for the rest of my life—and I could live with that.

This weekend I had some kind of intestinal virus. Just for fun, my blood sugar has been way out of control and my doctor had emergency surgery and could not see me to try and correct my medication. I’ve been suffering from depression anyway—like I said, it’s been unpleasant—really unpleasant. For two days inn a row I spent about fourteen hours per day in bed.

Today I was scheduled to visit the dentist for a cleaning. In my mood I was thinking, ‘Why am I bothering?’ It’s like putting a band-aid on a severed limb or something. The other day, in the midst of my grandiose self-pity, I heard a voice that said, ‘Maybe you’re right where you’re supposed to be.’ My reply was, ‘Fuck you!’ but I’d heard the voice before . . . and the voice had been right. So, I’m sitting in the dentist’s waiting room and I hear the damned voice again, ‘Just take this step (the teeth cleaning). Somehow, I relaxed a bit in spite of my dour mood.

The hygienist seated me in the chair, put a bib on me and gave me a pair of Ray Charles sunglasses to protect my eyes during the cleaning. Then she said, ‘One of the owners wants to see you for a moment.’ I thought, ‘What the hell is this—he’s probably gonna tell me I’m wasting my time being here today . . ., Then the doctor introduced himself and said, ‘Dr. Matt told me about your situation with the transplant list, and I’ve decided to do the work pro bono if we can do it this week.’ I was flabbergasted! The hygienist did the cleaning, and they put my dental work on the schedule—for tomorrow!

When I got to my car I cried all the way home, sometimes sobbing. I had to stop at the grocery for a couple of items and was able to share the news with my friend Bob, who works there. I’m still stunned. This doesn’t guarantee a transplant will happen, but it’s the NEXT step. I wish I could say this is because of my great faith, but that would be a lie. Some will see the hand of God in this. Some will see coincidence. Some will see nothing at all. I am just the story-teller—and I’ll continue making my journey ONE STEP AT A TIME.

–Being Stephen W. Smith (November 13,  2017)

Joe and Orrie: A love Story

FTA 71My favorite high school teacher was Joe Ippolito. He was my journalism teacher at Lindsay (California) High School from 1969, when I arrived at LHS, until 1971, when I graduated. As you can tell from his name, Joe Ippolito was of Italian descent. He was in his early thirties and originally from New Jersey. Mr. Ippolito was warm, funny and caring—simply a marvelous teacher. I also took classes from him in Science Fiction, Literary Heritage of the Minorities and The Humanities in addition to journalism. He was advisor to Future Teachers of America, of which I was a member for two years. During my senior year, especially, I spent most of my study hall periods working in the journalism room, just off Mr. I’s classroom. To my teenaged eyes, and to my adult eyes nearly fifty years later, Joe Ippolito was the consummate teacher. During my sixteen years of formal education I had only three teaches I considered outstanding, and ‘Mr. I’ is at the pinnacle of that pyramid.

And oh . . . uh . . . one more thing—Joe Ippolito was gay. I was probably well into my thirties before I figured that out. I must have been living on the Planet Naïve all that time. Let’s see—’Mr. I’ had a ‘housemate’ named Orrie Feitsma, also a teacher at LHS (though I never took any of his classes), with whom he seemed to spend most of his time away from school. Duh! How could I have missed that? What was my reaction when I finally figured it out? No change. ‘Mr. I’ was still hands-down the best teacher I ever had.

In my teens I had no real thoughts, one way or another, about homosexuality. I knew it existed and I knew a couple of guys who were ‘that way’ (the common use of the term ‘gay’ was a long way away in 1969). My church certainly taught that homosexuality was wrong and society seemed dead set against ‘queers,’ but the whole thing was a non-issue with me. Well before I was forty I simply accepted gays and lesbians as they were and didn’t think much about it. In later life I have become a vocal advocate of LGBTQ (Lesbian Gay Bi-Sexual Transgender Queer) equal rights and was very pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision to sanction same-sex marriage. I am hoping that pending legal cases in which businesses have refused services to gay couples (wedding cakes and flowers) will be settled in similar fashion.

But, back to Joe Ippolito and Orrie Feitsma: How in the world did two gay high school teachers survive—let alone flourish—in the 1960s culture of California’s San Joaquin Valley? Among other things, Joe and Orrie were members in good standing of the Presbyterian Church, one of many denominations still torn over LGBTQ issues fifty year later. Lindsay, California in the 1960s was not exactly a bastion of liberalism. My own introduction to the culture in 1969 is illustrative: I was listening to the news on a radio station from Tulare (twelve miles to Lindsay’s west) when the announcer intoned, ‘Cesar Chavez has announced he is running for governor—Oh brother!’ Chavez, in 1969, was head of the controversial United Farm Workers, who were leading area Latinos in strikes against lettuce growers, grape growers, etc. Lindsay was a conservative place, an agricultural community of about 5,000 dominated by orange and olive growers and packers. On the surface, at least, Lindsay didn’t seem like a very tolerant place for people who were different.

When I moved to Lindsay in the summer of 1969 there were no blacks living there, but the place had as very large population of Mexican-Americans (nearly half of my graduating class in 1971 had Latino surnames). There was a constant undercurrent of racial tension—a lot of bias on the part of the Anglo community, in spite of the fact they were just barely in the majority (though they certainly controlled the local economy). Lindsay was a typical agricultural community—‘Lindsay, where men are men and sheep are nervous.’ It did not seem like a particularly nurturing environment for a gay couple . . . or anyone else who was different, for that matter.

And yet, Joe Ippolito and Orrie Feitsma moved to Lindsay, California in 1962 and taught school and lived together openly for seventeen years. The two met (and fell in love) when both were teaching in New Jersey. They decided they wanted to move to California, went to a teacher fair in the Los Angeles area, met with the head of the Lindsay school district and were both hired. It must have become apparent to someone in Lindsay that their sharing of a house was more than just a convenience, yet there is no evidence of questions being raised, or a problem brought up. Were Joe and Orrie ever ‘out?’ No. It was apparently ‘Don’t ask, Don’t tell’ for seventeen years. How did that happen? I’m guessing that two gay teachers living together in 2017 Lindsay might encounter troubles—but 1962?

Some of the information I have used comes from a September 2015 article in the Fresno Bee, ‘Conrad Birdie, high schools and the Valley’ by George Hostetter (link below). Hostetter asked the same question I did: How was this possible? Even after interviewing Orrie Feitsma (Joe Ippolito passed way in 2001) and a lot of different people from Lindsay, Hostetter could offer no definitive answer to how a gay couple survived (and seemingly thrived) in this corner of red-neck rural America of the 1960s.

I have a proposition: Joe Ippolito and Orrie Feitsma were both decent, likable men and wonderful teachers.  Because of this, they won over students, parents, fellow-teachers and administrators. Because they were such outstanding men and teachers (just thinking about ‘Mr. I’ still brings a smile to my face) their choice of life-style was rendered a non-issue. People wouldn’t have cared if they were Republicans or Democrats, Yankee fans or Dodger fans, Catholics or Presbyterians, vegetarians or meat-eaters, Italian or Dutch, etc. Joe and Orrie—it’s a great love story, not just about two men, but about a little redneck town and two men. And this is how change and tolerance will continue to happen in this imperfect society of ours—good people will win over good people. That’s the REAL love story.

–Being Stephen W. Smith (October 21, 2017)

http://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/city-beat/article38997810.html

Wanting what I’ve got . . .

Phil Ready for BusinessThe photo at left is of Phil, all ready for another night of work. Phil is a Liberty Recycler, the machine that performs Peritoneal Dialysis on me for nine hours and twenty-five minutes each night, pumping in ten liters of fluid in four equal segments, then draining it—all this while I try to sleep. Phil hums and buzzes and wheezes all while casting an eerie glow over my bedroom, a glow which makes my dogs look not quite human . . . well, I guess they wouldn’t now, would they? It takes about forty-five minutes to set Phil up for business each night, then another fifteen or so to start him up and hook myself up at bedtime.

Trust me, there has never been a time in my life when I’ve said, ‘Gee, I’d like to be on kidney dialysis for the rest of my life.’ I didn’t ask to have kidney disease that is severe enough to kill me if left untreated. When the doctor told me I would require dialysis in order to remain alive I took a real emotional nosedive and attempted to go into denial. I arrived at my orientation meeting with the dialysis people in a hostile mood, provocatively carrying a grande Starbuck’s cold brew (with two shots of espresso!) in my hand—coffee, you see, is high in potassium, which is bad news for chronic kidney disease. The nurse duly noted I was a bad boy, then began to educate me about what was going to happen . . .

I was pleasantly surprised to learn about peritoneal dialysis, which does NOT involve cleansing the blood and CAN be performed at home—eventually by a machine at night. The information didn’t exactly cause me to rise up and do a Happy Dance, but I began to perk up a bit.

On July 24th I had a catheter surgically implanted in my belly and on August 28th I began to actual process of peritoneal dialysis. For the next five-plus weeks I performed four ‘exchanges’ each day, at least four hours apart, so even though I was at home the treatment pretty well dictated my schedule and it was a real challenge to cook, eat, do laundry, feed the dogs, go to doctor appointments, transport Mom, report for dialysis exams/training and somehow sleep. The good news is the dialysis is extraordinarily effective! And, now I can do most of it while I sleep.

Tonight I was playing my favorite Sheryl Crow song, ‘I’m Gonna Soak Up The Sun.’ In one line she sings, “It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you’ve got.’ She touched the essence of true spirituality with that line. My definition of spirituality is this: Spirituality is the system of thought which makes one able to deal successfully with life on life’s terms.’

It doesn’t much matter how I ended up with chronic kidney disease. It doesn’t matter that I’ll be on dialysis for the rest of my life, unless I receive a kidney transplant. I don’t believe this is something God willed for me. However, this IS my reality. Is there a difference? I can bitch and moan for the rest of my life, or I can choose to LIVE.

Hey Sheryl Crow: I WANT WHAT I HAVE! I only have to do this one day at a time, after all. I’m determined to do more than just ‘muddle through,’ as the English put it. Yes, my life has required some huge adjustments, the most profound of which has been ‘an entire psychic change.’ What I’m going through isn’t every easy, but it cannot destroy me spiritually unless I so choose. Meanwhile, excuse me: ‘I’m gonna soak up the sun!’

–Being Stephen W. Smith (October 8, 2017)

The church of General Custer

‘Hubris’ is defined by Wikipedia as ‘a personality quality of extreme or foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence …’

Custer HillThe Little Bighorn battlefield was peaceful the day I visited. The place where George Armstrong Custer died is on a hill in southern Montana, not far from the Wyoming border. Aside from the grave markers dotting the hillside, there is nothing to suggest that this is the site of one of the most infamous events in the history of the United States of America. In July of 1876 Colonel George Custer and more than two hundred troopers of the Seventh Cavalry were wiped out by a coalition of Native American warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

It was hubris that sealed the doom of the Seventh Cavalry on that long-ago day. George Custer, he of the long flowing blonde locks is still known as General Custer, after the rank he had attained as a very young, and very brave man during the American Civil War, but on that fateful day he was actually just a Colonel. He was handsome, dashing and brave, but also foolishly overconfident–a legend in his own mind. When scouts located a large body of Native Americans he was so certain he could defeat them that he led a dash to the west and didn’t even bother to bring his artillery. To further compound his rash action, he divided his already small command. Thousands of armed warriors were waiting for him and Custer and his men never had a chance. A rational man would have ridden away and come back to fight another day—with artillery and massive re-enforcements. Or, better yet, he might have just kept an eye on all those ‘Indians’ and let them go about their business, which is all they ever wanted in the first place…

Somehow, many of today’s evangelical churches have morphed into the spiritual descendants of the Seventh Cav. They are ready to attack the supposed enemies of Christendom, or stand and fight against the foes who are attacking them—Onward Christian Soldiers! The world is chock full of dangerous enemies: Secular Humanists, Gays, Muslims, Liberals, Abortionists, Socialists, ad infinitum. They see bogeymen everywhere! The world is a dangerous place and everyone is out to get the Christians and destroy the church.

One of the saddest things going on today is the ongoing court battles involving the church and the gay rights movement. What ever happened to turning the other cheek, going the second mile—and staying out of the courts? What will it prove if the Supreme Court upholds the rights of bakers and florists to refuse service to gays? If the Supreme Court rules against the bakers and florists it will only confirm the paranoia of the church. Even if the bakers and florist are right, what did Jesus teach about how to respond? Love your enemies–take your ass-kicking and go home.

Jesus never intended the church to attack its enemies, or defend against them either. Many years ago, I heard the late Ron Mehl (pastor of Beaverton (Oregon) Foursquare Church) preach a great sermon about a defensive church. A church which stakes out its territory and stands to defend it has lost its purpose, Mehl preached, and ceased to grow. How true! The Church of Jesus Christ is dynamic, not static.

The mission of the church is to minister grace and love to the poor, the downtrodden and the broken-hearted. This mission cannot be fulfilled in the halls of Congress, or in the Supreme Court. We cannot love and spread the gospel to people we are fighting. The people whom the church is fighting are the people Jesus loves and came to save.

Read again the definition of hubris above. Extreme or foolish pride. Dangerous overconfidence. The church somehow thinks it should be in charge—that the Kingdom of God should be a United States of America ruled by the church and the Bible. Jesus is going to come back and kick ass and take names! That is the church of General Custer. That is the kind of church which will die and cease to exist, marked only by windswept stone markers,  like the hill along the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Or, the church can love, forgive, spread grace and serve society rather than fight society. Only that kind of church can rise triumphant…

–Being Stephen W. Smith (October 1, 2017)

The tale of ‘Swamp Adair’

Most Americans, even most Oregonians, have never heard of Camp Adair. One would have to be more than eighty years old to have an actual memory of the place, and the troops who were stationed there during World War II are almost all gone now. But, in the years 1942 to 1944 in Oregon, only the city of Portland had more inhabitants than Camp Adair.

CA History 3Camp Adair was established in early 1942 in the mid-Willamette Valley as a ‘cantonment’ for the training of U.S. Army combat infantry troops. During the war as many as 100,000 army personnel were stationed at Camp Adair at one time or another in the two years of its halcyon existence. Even before Pearl Harbor the U.S. government was eyeing locations in the Willamette Valley to train soldiers for a war which seemed certain to engulf the nation in the near future.

Americans, it seems, don’t do anything at half speed. Suddenly, within a very few months after the Pearl Harbor attack, more than 1,800 buildings had been constructed in what had been a rather sparsely populated farming area just west of the Willamette River and located in an area bounded by Monmouth and Independence to the north and Albany and Corvallis to the south. By the fall of 1942 some 40,000 members of the U.S. Army were living and training at the brand new Camp Adair.

CA HistoryThe building of this vast training facility was both a boon and a curse for the area. The construction of the camp created hundreds of jobs in an area, which like the rest of the United States, was still suffering from the economic disaster of the Great Depression. On the other hand, hundreds of people were displaced from their homes and farms with almost no warning and forced to relocate. Mostly, they had to accept the compensation the government considered fair, though some challenged the prices offered and received more money for their lost property. It was a time of intense patriotism, so very few people challenged the right of the U.S. government to create the huge army camp in their back yards. If Uncle Sam needed their houses and farms, Uncle Sam got their houses and farms.

Coffin Butte 1The main entrance to the camp was located just across Highway 99W from a local landmark ironically (and perhaps prophetically) known as Coffin Butte.  The land upon which the main camp was built was low-lying and wet to the point the soldiers gave the camp the sobriquet ‘Swamp Adair.’ Those soldiers who ended up fighting in the Pacific were well prepared Airlie 1941for dealing with the damp! The rest of Camp Adair, to the west of 99W was good farmland located in the rolling hills that form a buffer between the valley and the coastal mountains. This land was utilized for troop maneuvers, featuring live-fire exercises. Abandoned homes and farm buildings became targets for mortar and artillery fire. A small town called Airlie, which once had a store, gas station,  church and a railroad terminal disappeared forever, gobbled up by Camp Adair.

Adair troops were sometimes shipped to the coastal mountains or to an area near Bend for large-scale maneuvers. More than 70 years later, given the state of the road networks connecting these places with the mid-Willamette Valley, the transportation of thousands of men and their equipment for such exercises would still be a monumental task. In 1942 there were probably still horses and mules involved!

CampAdair1943Thousands of men, many of whom had never even left their home counties, descended upon Camp Adair. They befriended the locals who opened their arms and their homes to the lonely troops who were far from their homes and families. There were dinners, dance, concerts, movies and church services where civilians and soldiers mingled freely. Hundreds of soldiers ended up marrying local girls and many of those men, and others as well, fell in love with the area settled permanently in the Willamette Valley following the war.

Camp Adair was a beehive of activities, self-contained in every way. In addition to necessary cooking, laundry and medical facilities, there were movie theaters, five huge gymnasium complexes and twelve chapels. Hundreds of local people were employed alongside service personnel to keep the huge camp functioning.

70th DivDuring the war four different infantry divisions, along with associated units, received their training at Camp Adair. The 96th Division ended up fighting in the Pacific. The 104th, the 70th and the 91st divisions all fought in Europe. More than 5,000 troops from these four divisions died in combat and more than 25,000 more were wounded. This means that a staggering total of between 30% and 40% of the men trained in Oregon became battle casualties. In this way, the war became very personal to the Oregonians who had become friends and family members of these men.

Then it was all over. By late 1944 the war in both Europe and the Pacific (though many tough battles remained) was considered well enough in hand that Camp Adair was unneeded as a training facility, and the camp began to demobilize. Part of the camp was used as a naval hospital in the latter days of the war. Then the facility was used for a time for both German and Italian prisoners-of-war (some of whom fell in love with Oregon and eventually emigrated). And then Camp Adair was empty.

The government issued contracts for dismantling the huge base, again a boon to the local economy, both in terms of jobs and the sudden available of huge amounts of Old CA Chapelinexpensive, only slightly used, building materials. The land itself was put up for sale, though most of those displaced by the war chose not to return. Many returning soldiers found cheap land and housing as they began (or resumed) their civilian lives. Several of the base chapels were purchased by local churches, moved and in some cases are still in use today. By 1947, only five years after its birth, Camp Adair was largely gone.

Today an Oregon Fish and Wildlife game preserve (including a public archery range) are located near the former front (west) end of the camp. In a small park along the camp’s CA Chimney 2former main road are four small monuments, one each for the 96th Infantry Division, the 104th Infantry Division, the 70th Infantry Division and the 91st Infantry Division. The monuments honor the service of these American soldiers and memorialize those who fell. The place is quiet, but for the flapping of bird wings from the game preserve. There are a few old building foundations, and there are a chimney or two, but one would never guess that this was once the second largest city in Oregon . . .

–Being Stephen W. Smith (July 25, 2017)