Monday, March 25, 2019

Meet Fran Heldt with Michigan Women Forward, HERStory

Fran Heldt
Fran Heldt has earned a bachelor’s degree in History and German Studies from Kalamazoo College. She focused heavily on women’s history in the United States.

She is currently working on a Master’s of Library and Information Science and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration from Wayne State University. 

Fran is a Museum Administrator for  Michigan Women Forward, HERStory (formerly Michigan Women's Historical Center) in Lansing, MI.

Could you tell us a bit about the Michigan Women Forward, HERStory organization? It’s mission and vision?

The Michigan Women’s Historical Center was founded by the Michigan Women’s Studies Association in 1987 at the Cooley-Haze House in Lansing. It was the first museum in the country dedicated to women’s history (even pre-dating the National Women’s History Museum!) and remains the only museum of its kind in Michigan today. The Historical Center housed rotating exhibits on various topics in Michigan women’s history, cared for a robust donated artifact collection, and was the home of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, which has inducted a new class of incredible Michigan women every year since 1983.

In March of 2018 the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame merged with the Michigan Women’s Foundation of Detroit. Together the two organizations rebranded to become Michigan Women Forward, the museum’s official title becoming Michigan Women Forward, HERStory. The mission and vision of MWF is to accelerate Michigan’s progress by advancing equality and opportunity for women and girls, striving towards a Michigan where women are recognized leaders who thrive, contribute and uplift the state’s future. HERStory’s role in this is to honor the achievements of Michigan women past and present through our exhibits, educational programs, and Hall of Fame.

Over the years Michigan Women Forward/HERStory has developed several resources, including How the Suffragists Changed Michigan and Historic Women of Michigan. Could you tell us a bit about these resources?

One of the main focuses of this organization has always been educating about women’s history. How the Suffragists Changed Michigan was a packet of curated educational materials perfect for classroom or educational program use. The packet included written histories, copies of primary documents, and posters related to the suffrage movement in Michigan. The materials encouraged engagement with the primary resources and included fliers on different ways to teach historical interpretation skills. We continue to use this wonderful resource in our own educational programs on suffrage here at the museum.

Historic Women of Michigan was an anthology intended to shed light on some of the most influential women in Michigan’s history, published by the Michigan Women’s Studies Association at a time when women’s history was not something taught in schools, or even commonly heard about. Continuing in this educational vein, the museum’s gift shop currently stocks a plethora of books on topics in Michigan women’s history, ranging from academic monographs to commercial histories and children’s books.

Michigan Women Forward, HERStory
In 1983 Sojourner Truth (who lived the last portion of her life in Battle Creek, MI) was the first official inductee into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Could you give us a sense of why she was chosen? 

One of the stated qualifications for entrance into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame is “contributions made of an enduring nature to the social, cultural, economic, or political wellbeing of the community, state, or nation.” If ever a woman comes to mind who fits this bill, it is Sojourner Truth. The power of her enduring legacy makes her just as much of an influential figure now as she was over a century ago when she was alive. Born into slavery in New York, Truth later embarked on an unrelenting national campaign in support of both abolition and women’s rights, becoming a leading influential figure in both movements. Her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” masterfully presents the intersectionality of sexism and racism inherent to the identity of black women that is still relevant today. It was this enduring legacy of her activism for human rights that caused her to be included among the inaugural class of Hall of Fame inductees.

Would you name a few other inductees into the Michigan Hall of Fame that particularly resonate with you? How about other women from Michigan who have been influential in the civil rights movement?

There are dozens of incredible women in the Hall of Fame who were influential figures in the civil rights movement. A few that particularly resonate with me are Rosa Slade Gragg, who was presented with the pen used by President Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for her contributions to the civil rights movement; Nellie Cuellar, who was an incredibly influential activist and organizer for local African-American communities in Michigan; and Grace Lee Boggs, who was active in the Black Power and Rebuilding Detroit movements.

Two women from the 2018 Hall of Fame class, who were inducted just this past October, were/are influential in civil rights. Clara Stanton Jones, the first woman and first African American to serve as director of a major public library system, the Detroit Public Library, worked throughout her career to desegregate public libraries, and encouraged the American Library Association to pass the “Resolution on Racism and Sexism Awareness.” Kym L. Worthy is the current Wayne County prosecutor, the first woman and first African American to hold the position. She spearheaded the Detroit Rape Kit Project, in which 11,000 previously forgotten rape kits have now been tested.

Michigan Women Forward, HERStory
Name one woman from Michigan who you feel deserves more attention and tell us why!

I have a soft spot for libraries. Harriet A. Tenney was the first woman to serve as the State Librarian of Michigan, as well as the first woman to work as a professional in the State Capitol building. The governor appointed her to this position in 1869, which she held for the next 22 years. Harriet obviously wasn’t allowed to vote, and yet she was the head of an entire state department! That’s rock star status to me! During her tenure she opened up the State Library to the public, grew the library’s collection six-fold, and was instrumental in the collection of Michigan artifacts that would later become the Michigan History Museum. Harriet has been nominated to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame multiple times, but has yet to be chosen. Maybe this year!

What would you say to help convince readers to visit Michigan Women Forward/HERStory?

We try to get women’s history out there in as many fun and engaging ways as we can!

1. Exhibits! Our current exhibit is on Michigan women in the STEM fields and features some of our Hall of Fame inductees. We also have traveling exhibits covering various topics in Michigan women’s history available for rent, which you can check out on our website,

2. Gift shop! The museum gift shop is stocked with women’s history books, Fair Trade jewelry, and feminist swag.

3. Events! We host various free events throughout the year, including speakers and public education programs. We also offer private group tours, presentations, and girl scout programs.

How about your staff position at the Michigan Women Forward/HERStory? What do you do in that capacity?

I first started with this organization as an intern in 2015. Over the next few years as I finished up college I continued to volunteer here whenever I found myself back in Lansing. I became a permanent staff member in early 2018, working as a guest assistant. Since the museum’s move back to downtown Lansing in January 2019, Riley Hubbard and I have taken on co-directorial Museum Administrator roles. My work for HERStory includes management of the collections, fielding research requests, designing and installing exhibits, event planning, outreach, and handling the Hall of Fame nomination process. A little bit of everything!

Would you share your academic background/previous experience and how it helped you in your current position?

I have my bachelor’s in History and German Studies from Kalamazoo College. Within my degree I focused heavily on women’s history in the United States, and wrote my senior thesis on the history of women’s baseball in the Midwest. I’m incredibly grateful for the background I have in academic women’s history and historical research, as it informs almost everything I do here in terms of understanding historical context and being able to answer questions.

I’m currently working on a Master’s of Library and Information Science and a Graduate Certificate in Archival Administration from Wayne State University. I’ve always loved historical objects and archival collections. I started out with a collections internship at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, then switched gears slightly to focus on archives after an internship at the Hoover Institution Library & Archives at Stanford University. Working with HERStory’s museum collection has been fascinating. It spans the suffrage movement, second-wave feminism, and the everyday lives of Michigan women in the past two centuries. I’m always trying to find a way to get more of our objects on exhibit for people to see. That’s always the best part of a museum in my opinion.

Why is archival work important? 

Archival work is so important, and yet always gets undervalued. When I tell people I am in graduate school to become an archivist, I usually get blank looks and the question, “what’s an archivist?” Archives are the documentation of the human experience – our shared history, society, and culture. Without dedicated archivists and museum collections professionals working to seek out, preserve, and provide access to these materials, the historical record would be essentially wiped out. It is important to know history and be able to evaluate it. Our history is what shapes our futures.

What motivates your love of history?

I find history endlessly fascinating, women’s history especially so. Women had for so long been excluded from the historical narrative. Whether they have been told or not, women’s experiences make up half of American history. Here at HERStory our daily goal is to unearth these hidden stories and educate the public about the other half of history that they probably were not taught in school.

What’s your dream job? 

I’m not sure if I have a singular dream job, but my dream field is the conglomerate Archives/Museums/Libraries/Cultural Institutions field. In addition to my position at Michigan Women Forward, HERStory, I also work part-time for the Michigan History Museum and the Archives of Michigan. So I guess you could say I’m already living the dream!

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Come visit us at Michigan Women Forward. HERStory! Our regular open hours are 12-5pm Monday through Friday. We’re located at 105 W. Allegan St. in downtown Lansing underneath Grand Traverse Pie Company. There is elevator access to the lower level.

I would also like to give a couple plugs. The Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame inductee database on our website,, lists our over 300 inductees with a printable biography and photograph available for each. A great resource for reference and research! And if you know an inspiring Michigan woman, nominate her to the Hall of Fame! Nomination forms and applications to become a judge in the nomination process are also on the website.

Monday, March 18, 2019

What is True Religon?

Church Leaders
Christians are now into the second week of the Lenten season.

Traditionally, it's been a time of personal introspection, but I'd like to take a moment to turn the tables and ask a very basic, but necessary question: What is True Religion?

According to Micah (6:8 ESV) the answer to what does God require of us is: "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." 

So, for starters, true religion seems to be inclusive, very much connected to others. Each one of the attributes listed by Micah have an outward focus (justice, kindness and humility). And they are each presented in an active way - that is, religion by definition asks us to move outside of ourselves to find a deeper relationship with our true self and with God.

Even before Micah, the author of Deuteronomy (possibly Moses) had insight. "What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all God's ways, to love God, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statues of the Lord." (Deut. 10:11-13 ESV).

We now have a call to fear (have reverance for) the Lord, follow God's ways and interestingly there's another virtue added - namely, to love and serve God deeply and completely. It's interesting that the call to obedience (keeping the commandments) is listed last. Almost as if adherence to discipline is embedded in a love that is intense and intimate. 

Centuries after Moses and Micah, James had insight, writing: "Pure and genuine religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: caring for orphans and widows in their distress and to refusing to let the world corrupt you." (James 1:27 NLT)

Here comes another call to serve, to care. But note the specific groups that James mentions: orphans and widows. It's common knowledge that in the First Century, these were the two most marginalized groups. In the culture within which James was writing, orphans and widows had no advocates. No social status. No economic security. A widow as completely at the mercy of finding someone who would marry her. If not, she was reduced to begging. Orphans only had the option of begging.

James was making the point that without active love, mercy and service, widows and orphans faced lives of misery. And true religion consisted of helping them.
In Old Testament times those fasting typically did so with sackcloth and ashes, as a visible sign that they were right with God. It was, for the most part, a fasting predicated on one's standing with God and, ironically, showing others where you stood within the spiritual hierarcy of the day. However, Isaiah had some pretty forceful language to these people who asked: Why hasn't God answered our prayers! Don't you notice how good we are? To these folks, God answers: 

Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.

God, through Isaiah, seems to be saying that God's kind of fast isn't for show. It's not doing without. It's active service, aimed at supporting the oppressed, the broken, the hungry, the poor and the stranger (foreigner).

In fact, God seems to love this kind of fasting so much that God encourages it with several promises:
“If you take away the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,

10 If you extend your soul to the hungry
And satisfy the afflicted soul,
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness,
And your darkness shall be as the noonday.

11 The Lord will guide you continually,
And satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. (Isaiah 58 NKJ)

So how about those of us living in the 21st Century? What's the application?

It might be that the Lenten call to fasting isn't one of giving up stuff (although if it's appropriate, there's no harm there). 

It might be that the Lenten call is a call to go beyond  giving up to letting go. 

Letting go of pride (to follow God humbly), letting go of self (to serve) and most of all, simply to open our eyes and see the God in those suffering around us. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

Meet Ahmed Tofiq, Director of Orchestra Rouh

Ahmed Tofiq (center) with Orchestra Rouh/ Photo by Fran Dwight
Ahmed Tofiq is the director of Orchestra Rouh, an education initiative of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, serving children of refugee families. We recently attended a concert of Orchestra Rouch and wanted to interview Ahmed to get a deeper sense of the Orchestra and its mission.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Orchestra Rouh?

The idea of Orchestra Rouh started when my wife and I started to help refugee families settle in Kalamazoo in 2016. Most of the families did not speak English and it wasn't easy for the kids to communicate and have friends. The kids felt left out, especially at school. We felt that the kids needed an actively to help them to adjust smoothly in the community. Music seemed like the best choice and something I could help them with.

What is the mission of Orchestra Rouch?

The mission of the orchestra is to help the kids to learn both eastern and western music so they can keep their heritage alive. 

How often do the members of Orchestra Rouch get together to practice?

The program is in session five days a week. Each student comes on two days for group lessons in violin or cello and a percussion class. We have two groups, beginners and advanced students.

What is your musical background? 

I started studying music when I was a teenager in Iraqi Kurdistan, where I grew up. I play the violin. Before I came to the United States I was a Violin Professor at Suleimaniyah Institute and Koya Institute of Fine Arts in Iraq. I taught and conducted Sulaimaniyah Children's Orchestra for an organization called Kurdistan Save the Children. I performed and toured with the Youth Orchestra of Iraq and Sulaimaniyah String Orchestra. I have a master’s degree in violin performance from Western Michigan University.

Why is musical education important, especially in the lives of refugee and immigrant families?
Music is important to bring together this group of children and help them share their cultural heritage with each other and the community. Our audiences are so supportive and love hearing the music we play. We believe giving the children a role in which they in turn are giving something special to the community is really important.

Our students go to many different schools during the day, so having a common place to spend time together is something they look forward to. But this is also a learning space for them, because even among the Syrian students there are some big differences in culture and language depending on where they came from and what their journeys looked like between Syria and the US. The music is a unifying factor.

Ahmed Tofiq (left) with Orchestra Rouh/Photo by RosaLee Ward
Are there any challenges with having an orchestra composed mostly of children?

With a wide age range, the multiple languages and other factors it has been challenging but very rewarding to see the orchestra take shape. After two years I can see how much progress the kids have made as players, and also when it comes to being organized and focused. You know…kids are kids!

How about the connection that Orchestra Rouh has with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra? Can you tell us how that partnership began?

It’s started after I graduated from WMU and I was trying to find a way that I could use my musical abilities and interests to help the refugee kids who were settling in Kalamazoo. I spoke to several people in the community and ultimately got in touch with Liz Youker, the Vice President of Education for the KSO. Liz responded and she was very exited and supportive to the idea. Orchestra Rouh would never have happened without the KSO’s enthusiasm and amazing support.

Now Orchestra Rouh is one of KSO’s education programs, and they support the program through fundraising and administration. We have three faculty members. I am the Project Director and I teach violin, conduct the orchestra, guide the curriculum and create arrangements of Middle Eastern music. Rebecca Spurbeck, a WMU student, is our cello instructor. Dede Alder leads a traditional percussion class.

And the partnership Orchestra Rouch has with The Suzuki Academy of Kalamazoo, how did that come about?

As we started the program, we needed to find a location that was convenient for families and volunteer drivers. We also wanted to set up an environment where students would be able to connect with American kids through music. The Suzuki Academy of Kalamazoo was the perfect choice for both of those reasons. We’re grateful that the Executive Director, Jacob Olbrot, shared our enthusiasm for the program and offered space in the SAK studios. Orchestra Rouh students perform often alongside and together with SAK students on community recitals.

What is the biggest challenge to running Orchestra Rouch? The biggest joy?

In the beginning we had to solve some logistical problems, but the support of the community has been great and helped us overcome them. Many of our students don’t have transportation to the program, but there is an amazing network of volunteers and cosponsors who are supporting Kalamazoo refugee families in many ways. They work together to create driving schedules and make sure the kids can be at rehearsals and performances.

Instruments can be expensive, but Meyer Music has stepped in, offering to lend instruments that we need for the program. And we can exchange them as kids grow and need larger instruments.

Funding is a challenge as well, but Orchestra Rouh has received support and recognition through KSO grant applications, including to the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Okun Foundation, Stryker-Johnston Foundation, and Carnegie Hall’s PlayUSA program. We accept donations from individuals as well and many people have contributed in the past two years.

How about the Bayati Ensemble? How did the Ensemble come about?

Even before the Bayati Ensemble was formed, we had the Bahar Ensemble. It's a group of five professional members. We play Middle Eastern music and perform frequently at events in Kalamazoo. 

We wanted to extend the opportunity to play this music to more people in the community. Liz and I talked to Dr. Beau Bothwell, a K-College music professor who specializes in Middle Eastern studies. Together we developed the Bayati Ensemble, which is open to K-College and WMU students for course credit and to community musicians. It’s a great opportunity for musicians to come together and play new music for Kalamazoo. This is the first ensemble of its kind in our community. There is a huge variety of music from the Middle East and we draw from many different traditions. We hope to add more traditional instruments as the ensemble grows.

The only requirement to join the ensemble is to have basic proficiency on an instrument. We can take string players, winds, percussion, keyboard, and are looking for oud, saz, sagat, and qanun players and vocalists with experience in Middle Eastern traditions.

Rehearsal schedules follow the K-College academic calendar. Interested musicians can email Dr. Beau Bothwell at

What is the mission of the Bayati Ensemble?

The Bayati Ensemble is intended to engage Kalamazoo student and community musicians in the study and performance of Middle Eastern music, and to create greater awareness and appreciation of Middle Eastern music and culture through concerts.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention? 

Facebook pages are available for Bahar Ensemble and Orchestra Rouh. We welcome interested listeners to follow us to hear about upcoming performances.

            Bayati Ensemble

Tuesday, March 12, 6:30pm

Kalamazoo College Light Fine Arts Center, Lecture Hall

Orchestra Rouh

Monday, April 8, 6:30pm

KPL Oshtemo Branch Library

Orchestra Rouh and Bahar Ensemble

Sunday, April 14, 3:00pm

Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1515 Helen Ave, Portage, MI 49002, USA

Those interested in supporting Orchestra Rouh can send a donation to the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, c/o Liz Youker, at 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall, Ste. 100, Kalamazoo, MI 49007. Gifts can also be made online at

Many thanks to Liz Youker, Vice-President of Education & Community Partnerships with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, for making this interview possible!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Review: Out of Many Faiths by Eboo Patel

"America's promise is to guarantee equal rights for all identities. This framework of rights facilitates the contributions of these many communities to this single country. That is America's genius. The idea is simple: people whose nation gives them dignity will build up that society."

This is one of the themes behind Eboo Patel's OUT OF MANY FAITHS.

It is a powerful premise. It is also extremely complicated.

Patel continues on from the quote above: "When we say we are an immigrant nation, we mean more than just that various religious and ethnic groups settled here in America, bringing with them their Hebrew prayers and Hindu chants. We are recognizing the fact that the institutions they built benefited not just their own communities but also the common good of this country. The space between Jewish and American or Christian and American is not a barrier; it's a bridge."

Patel explores the development of the phrase "Judeo-Christian," and the roots of religious diversity in America - starting with Benjamin Franklin and George Washington's actively reaching out to include all faiths.

Overall Patel's book is thoughtful and deep.

As an added bonus three authors offer their own takes on Patel's work.

One (written by Robert Jones) includes a wonderful example of the challenge of pluralism in today's increasingly diverse America. "In my family's dining room is an antique table from the 1940s with six chairs. But one of the chairs is constructed differently from the rest. It is broader than the other chairs, and it is the only one with armrests. Sometimes called the 'captain's chair,' it was designed for the head of the table. Historically, that chair was meant to architecturally reinforce hierarchical family relationships, with the father occupying that throne-like seat, from which he could control the flow of the meal and the topics of conversation.

"If we imagine America gathered around a dining room table, until very recently, white Christians, and particularly white Protestants, felt like they owned the table and were entitled to the patriarch's position. Others might be invited to pull up a chair, either as subordinate family members or as guests, but the power relationships and expectations were understood by all. If we are going to make progress toward fulfilling our nation's promise of religious liberty for all, we have to be clear about the problem. The chief impediment for pluralism today is not that we have run out of chairs. Rather, it is that many white Christians have been reluctant to relinquish the privileged seat of power."

The wonderful thing about Eboo Patel's book is that there is a strong thread of hope for the future that runs through it. Especially when the waves of civil discourse seem to be increasingly choppy, we need such hope!

For more information on Eboo Patel click here.

it was amazin

Monday, March 4, 2019

Who's Your Shepherd?

Jesus Good Shepherd
Jesus the Good Shepherd/Monastery Icons
The past few weeks haven't been good ones for followers of organized religion.

Crises in the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptist and United Methodist Church have all taken up a lot of news-space.

And while this was going on, last week we had an opportunity to watch live-streamed coverage of Michael Cohen's testimony before a Congressional committee, where he referred to the current president as, "a racist, a con-man and a cheat."

Which leads me to ask the question: Who's Your Shepherd?

In the olden days, a shepherd was the person who looked after their sheep. Sheep are not the brightest animals on the block. Given to their own whims, they are prone to getting lost, trapped in bushes and eaten by wolves.

The Bible contains multiple references to shepherds, chief among them Jesus referring to himself as the "good shepherd." In fact, in the tenth chapter of John's gospel, Jesus gives a lengthy description of the job of a shepherd. He says, "The gatekeeper opens the gate for him [the shepherd] and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name..." (John 10:3)

Interestingly, Jesus goes on to mention that "After he [the shepherd] has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow because they know his voice. They won't follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don't know his voice." (John 10:4-5)

Jesus continues, talking about how his sheep "will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief's purpose is to kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them [the sheep] a rich and satisfying life." (John 10:10).

So, Biblically speaking, you could say that the evidence of a good shepherd is the condition of the sheep.

If the sheep are healthy and safe, that's evidence of a good shepherd.

But it's important to note Jesus begins his description of a good shepherd by describing the relationship that the shepherd has with the sheep being tended.

The sheep follow the shepherd out of the gate because they know the shepherd's voice and are very familiar with it. You can even say there is a relationship that exists between the shepherd and the sheep.

Contrast that with the coverage that some religious organizations are currently receiving. It's not indicative of any sort of healthy relationship that exists between leaders and congregations at all.

Ditto what Cohen's testimony showed about the current president.

Elijah Cummings
Rep. Elijah Cummings/BlackPressUSA
While members of the republican party seemed hell-bent on discrediting Cohen, the remarkable thing is that none of them could offer an iota of defense for the current president's actions that Cohen was describing.

Cohen admitted, several times, that he was guilty of wrongdoing and was paying the price.

Recall that the current president called Cohen "a rat," right after Cohen was sentenced in December.

A rat, used in this context is a code term, related to the Costa Nostra and the infamous law of omerta. Under the Mafia's worldview, a "rat" or "snitch" is someone who points the finger at another member of the organization, particularly when questioned by law enforcement officials. It's implication is that "if you snitch on us, we'll get you." 

Is this the kind of person we want as the nation's shepherd? Someone who, instead of shepherding the sheep, offers vailed but very real and alarmingly mafia-esque threats?

I would suggest not.

Which brings us to Representative Elijah Cummings' summary statement at the end of seven hours' worth of testimony and cross-examination. Mr. Cummings is Chair of the House Committee on Oversight & Reform. In his eight minutes Mr. Cummings offered a father-to-son like take. Mr. Cummings called on Cohen, members of the Committee and the nation. "Come on now," he said, encouraging us towards our better selves. "We're better than this!"

That's what a good shepherd does.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Meet Carolyn Kurtz, Writer, Researcher, Member of Bruderhof Community

Carolyn Kurtz
Carolyn Kurtz is a researcher, writer and editor for Plough Publishers. Plough Publishing House is the publishing branch of the Bruderhof Community. Carolyn has edited two anthologies of writings by Dorothy Day and Bishop Oscar Romero. She lives with the Bruderhof community in England.

What was it like growing up in community?

My parents joined the Bruderhof community in Rifton, New York, before I was born. I had a rich childhood with a large family, a group of peers who were my friends from kindergarten through college, and caring teachers who taught us not only academics but also fair play, team spirit, and appreciation for culture and nature. My parents, my teachers, and my friends’ parents were all members of our church community and had a cohesive approach to raising and educating us.

Describe your thought processes/experiences that resulted in your decision to join the Bruderhof community.

I made my lifetime commitment to God, to Jesus, and to my fellow members through adult believer’s baptism when I was 23 years old. Since I was about fourteen, I knew I wanted to pledge my life to Christ. In ninth grade, someone asked me, “Are you a Christian?” I hedged, thinking of violent atrocities committed by Christians in the history I’d been studying: “What do you mean by Christian?” She rephrased her question: “Do you believe in Jesus?” I looked her in the eye and exclaimed, “Oh, yes, I believe in Jesus!” I was still a headstrong teenager, growing into maturity, but I already had a clear trajectory.

Commuting to college for four years, I saw fellow students striving for education to land a high-paying job. I took a class in Victorian literature, where the poet’s question what comes after earthly life and often seem to despair of life. Tennyson, in “The Holy Grail,” has Lancelot groan: “’…But for all my madness and my sin, / And then my swooning, I had sworn I saw / That which I saw; but what I saw was veil’d / And cover’d; and this Quest was not for me.’”[1] Wordsworth laments in “Song”: “Day and night my toils redouble, / Never nearer to the goal; / Night and day, I feel the trouble / Of the Wanderer in my soul.”[2] As he appreciates the joyous freedom of a sky-lark, he mourns, “I have walked through wildernesses dreary / And today my heart is weary; / …I, with my fate contented, will plod on, / And hope for higher raptures, when life’s day is done.”[3] I found myself applying these doubts and questions to my own life.

Simultaneously, during that spring, Annemarie Arnold, the wife of my pastor, was dying of cancer. Despite her suffering, she radiated love and trust in God, pointing children and adults alike to Jesus. I read the letters she wrote as a twenty-year-old: “Conflicts and difficult situations never find a solution; you just drag them around with you. There must be people who have an inner kinship with you, and it can’t be just anyone. Surely there must be people like that. It is so difficult to find a heart-to-heart friendship. The more complex a person is, the harder it will surely be.” Later, visiting the first Bruderhof community, she wrote: “Eberhard [Arnold] told us that the way of Jesus is a bitter way, the way of the Cross. This real sacrifice and complete surrender that Christ demands spoke to me very much. I wanted to join this life.” (You can find more about her search in Anni : Letters and Writings of Annemarie W├Ąchter.) Experiencing Annemarie’s dying, I found my own positive answer to the Victorians poets’ despairing, timeless questions. I wanted to follow Jesus, as Annemarie had chosen to do.

Bruderhof Community, England
Annemarie’s final days had a great impact on my faith and understanding of community life. But looking back on my childhood and teen years, I also remember all the weekend visitors, interested in or curious about Christian community. They’d spend hours in deep discussion with my dad as we kids listened. An often-asked question was, “Do you believe community is the only way for people to live?” My dad would reply: “It’s the only honest way I can live. Each person must live his own calling from God.” My own future became more focused. God gave me these parents in this community; would I find a truer expression of my faith anywhere else? Our church meetings, communal mealtimes, and youth gatherings all contributed to my growing conviction that I was called to commit to this church community.

What lessons can we learn from the community’s 1937 expulsion from Germany by the Nazis?

By 1937, Bruderhof members resisted the Nazi regime on many issues. Their young men refused to join Hitler’s army, and the members refused to accept a Nazi educator for their children. They refused to give the mandatory “Heil Hitler” greeting, insisting that “Heil”—salvation—comes only from Christ. Knowing that these objections would incite conflict with the German state, they chose to uphold their convictions rather than compromise their faith. Their witness remains a challenge to me. There are many Christians currently suffering for their faith, refusing the alternative of compromise. I pray for this courage if I ever encounter persecution.

How are nonviolence and unconditional forgiveness encouraged in real life?

Nonviolence and unconditional forgiveness are pillars of Bruderhof life. Our members are all conscientious objectors to military service, and we strive to educate our children and youth in nonviolent conflict resolution on a daily basis. Both parents and teachers know and are frequently reminded that children need to begin every day fresh. Mistakes and misdemeanors from one “bad” day must be dealt with then and not carried into a new day. Also, we committed members promise to speak directly to each other if we feel negatively towards someone, or when we know that we were wrong or unkind. Then the quickest way to peace is simply to say, “I am sorry.” When a member recognizes faults, our church helps that person to find peace with God and make peace with all members. Then the wrong is past, forgiven, and we continue life on a clean page.

Bruderhoff Community, England
What do you see as the major differences between living in community and not?

Our commitment is to God, to Christ, and to each other. Taken seriously, this commitment means I own nothing: time, talents, material possessions. I work where I’m needed, share kitchen space, and attend all communal events unless I’m baby-sitting. Visitors occasionally ask, “Do you have to do that?” For me this is not even an issue. I am here free-willingly! The motive for Christian community must be love to Christ and love to one’s neighbor. The commitment can only be made out of the joy of one’s soul, never out of coercion.

Bruderhof living may seem materially simple to a passing visitor. We don’t own our own cars, relying on a community fleet. We don’t have the latest entertainment technology in our homes, and we strive to live simply, without too many possessions. But community life based on love and mutual caring is rich. Fellow members shop, cook, keep accounts, do my laundry, teach my children, and earn money in our communal factory to keep us all fed, housed, and clothed. Truly, I do not worry about basic human needs. In fact, I think that only in community is it possible to fully live out the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Chapters 5, 6, and 7. In Christian community, God provides and each member is given what he or she needs.

What might be some practical solutions to the current lack of civil discourse in the US and England and other places worldwide?

Dorothy Day quotes Saint John of the Cross: “Where there is no love, put love and you will take out love”  (The Reckless Way of Love, p. 86). Apply the Golden Rule; start small, with your neighbor. How can you help each other, encourage each other, enjoy life together—an hour’s visit, a child’s birthday party, or any other excuse for a celebration? Reach out to give to people right around you. “Do the little things each day as well as we can,” Dorothy Day says (The Reckless Way of Love, p. 67).

How did you decide to work with Plough? How did you decide to highlight the works of Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero?

Plough is the publishing branch of the Bruderhof Communities. Four years ago, I was spending two hours a day in the apartment of an elderly woman who napped for one and a half hours of that time. Plough was looking for freelance editors to compile anthologies for its Plough Spiritual Guides series, small book of excerpts with the tagline “backpack classics for modern pilgrims.” So I launched into Dorothy Day, and realized I was researching my own roots. When I was six, a young single woman, Julie Lien, had joined my family. My parents became her community family and she helped my mom to care for us children for the next fifteen years. I consider Julie my aunt. Dorothy Day had visited the Bruderhof in 1955, bringing Julie, then twenty, along with her. Julie eventually joined the Bruderhof. While compiling this book, I had the chance to deepen my understanding of who Dorothy Day was, this woman whom Julie had respected so much.

Discovering Dorothy Day’s love for the poor and, ultimately, her longing for community, I was eager to delve into another spiritual guide. Plough suggested Oscar Romero. Oscar Romero? I knew he had been martyred in 1980, but like most people I had never read more than a few famous quotes. Reading his newly translated homilies, I began to “hear” him speaking directly to his people. He urges them to resist violence, to choose love, to live in hope. I am sorry I never met this man of God face to face.

Are there other individuals in the series you’d like to highlight?

I’m in conversation with Plough editors on further subjects for this series. I’m happy to have found a constructive outlet for my twin loves: reading and research. This work enables me to introduce young people to trustworthy spiritual guides from the past, and to encourage today’s seekers that they are not alone. Others have journeyed before us on this path of discipleship. Right now I’m working on a selection of the writings of Amy Carmichael.

Meet Fran Heldt with Michigan Women Forward, HERStory

Fran Heldt Fran Heldt has earned a bachelor’s degree in History and German Studies from Kalamazoo College. She focused heavily on women...