SermonsMennonite Weekly Review

Hearing about Pete Seeger in Palestine

I was imagining Pete Seeger’s death almost four decades before his mortality finally caught up withindex him.  Given as I was to melodrama and pathos in my teenage years, I imagined myself making a pilgrimage to his grave, via a freight train box car with my guitar, and then laying on top of his final resting place, weeping, at which point some like-minded devotees and possible family members would take me in and I would begin a new life as a folk musician/activist.

Why did I think such a scenario was likely to happen? Well apart from my being delusional, I’m sure part of it came from the Seeger persona arising from the albums I listened to until the grooves had worn thin.  I remember staring at the cover of The Children’s Concert at Town Hall album on which he is serenading a little girl in a pinafore on high stool and wishing with all my heart that I were that girl.  That he was singing to me.  I’m sure many children and adults felt that he was doing exactly that.  When he performed, when he led singing, he gave of himself in a way that eliminated the distance between performer and audience.  And when you read about his relationships with the various people he met as part of activism for civil rights and the environment, it wasn’t a far stretch to imagine that if you stopped by to see him while he was chopping wood, he might very well treat you as a friend. (And I guess my teenage delusions extended that to friends and family members.)

Many years later, after I started working for Christian Peacemaker Teams, I was listening to a tribute album put out by Appleseed Records in which various recording artists sang songs he had written or made famous.  One of them “Those three are on my mind,” about the murders of civil rights activists Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman I found particularly haunting.  He wrote in the liner notes about what it was like to be performing in a small southern church when news arrived that the bodies had been found.  And it hit me that at that time, no one in that church knew that the struggle for voting rights and an end to segregation would be successful.  In fact, it probably looked very far away.  But Seeger and the people in that church chose to keep moving forward anyway, even though they didn’t know how the struggle would end.

I wrote a column about this experience for the Mennonite Weekly Review and sent it to Appleseed records.  Months later, I received in the mail his songbook, where have All the Flowers Gone: A Sing-a-long Memoir, autographed with a message “Keep on…”  (And I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember the rest.)

My husband, knowing my affection for Seeger, bought tickets for the annual Western New York Peace Center banquet at which Seeger performed this fall.  He looked very frail, and his memory gave out a couple times when he was singing some of his old standards.  One delightful thing he remembered and sang as a tribute to his late wife, Toshi Seeger were the additional verses to “Turn, Turn, Turn” she had added for their children:

A time for work, a time for play
A time for night, a time for day
A time to sleep, a time to wake
A time for candles on the cake.

A time to dress, a time to eat
A time to sit and rest your feet
A timer to teach, a time to learn
A time for all to take their turn.

A time to cry and make a fuss
A time to leave and catch the bus
A time for quiet, a time for talk
A time to run, a time to walk.

A time to get, a time to give
A time to remember, a time to forgive
A time to hug, a time to kiss
A time to close your eyes and wish.

A time for dirt, a time for soap
A time for tears, a time for hope
A time for fall, a time for spring
A time to hear the robins sing.

It was Pete Seeger’s time to die; it was his time for peace.  I am writing from the Israeli-Occupied Palestinian Territories, and I do not see an end to the daily assaults on human dignity this occupation imposes happening any time soon.  But I choose to believe that those who care about justice and peace will overcome the efforts of short-sighted politicians who think only in terms of control and personal gain. I choose to “keep on. . .”

And I will remember that singing helps.

(Oh and just when you thought you couldn’t love him any more, you should know he donated royalties from “Turn, turn, turn” to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.)

Goodbye to my column

In 1998, Paul Schrag from the Mennonite Weekly Review called me and asked if I would be interested in taking over the “World Neighbors” column from Willard Unruh.  Every month since that time, I have written a column about countries on five different continents.


I think doing so made me a better writer.  I found that I actually liked it when I was about twenty to thirty words over the limit, because cutting out those words invariably made the column tighter and stronger (Paul told me once that my columns were hard to cut, because I didn’t leave surplus words.)  I also enjoyed doing deeper research into regions that were in the news, and liked to look for the “behind the scenes” stories.  Once I had easy access to the internet (I take it for granted now, but I began this column at a time when I needed to go to the library to do web research) I would google “Mennonite” and the country involved to find out what Mennonite missionaries and aid and development workers were saying about political crises on the ground.  Then, I would look for other alternative news sources that were covering aspects of the story that the mainstream media was not.  (I remember once, in the buildup to the Iraq War, writing my column on Donald Rumsfeld’s friendly relations with Saddam Hussein in the 1980s.  After I sent it in, it turned out to be Newsweek’s cover story for the week.  When I wrote that I was bummed Newsweek had scooped me to assistant editor, Robert Rhodes, he said something along the lines of, “Don’t worry; no one reads that rag.”)

During the first week in December, I was at Evangelicals for Social Action conference, where I learned that Israeli authorities had just denied entry to one of my colleagues into Palestine.  I was also feeling anxious about my own entry, wondering whether Israeli authorities would give me a hard time because I had just left the country six weeks earlier in October.  And I was agonizing over a contest I had entered my novel, The Price We Paid, in, hoping in an almost sickening way that it would bring the manuscript to the attention of an agent.

Then I got the e-mail.  When the Mennonite Weekly Review had become the Mennonite World Review, I had been informed that my column would now be shared with two other people and I would thus be writing only three times a year.  This e-mail informed me that some plural entity had decided that World Neighbors needed a more “consistent voice” and they were asking another person to write it.

My first reaction was more annoyance than anything else.  My column had been taken from Willard Unruh and given to me (and I could tell from his final column that he had been a little hurt by it.) The editor could have just told me that he thought it was time for someone else to write it.  In a follow-up e-mail, he told me that he was trying to be diplomatic and that at fifteen years, I had been the longest running columnist in the history of the Mennonite Weekly/World Review.  And although I thought “diplomatic” was not the right word at all, the follow-up e-mail did make me feel better.ada91b0e4a970a7f023524.L._SX80_

The Mennonite Weekly Review giveth and the Mennonite World Review taketh away. Blessed be the Mennonite World Review.