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