The Words of the Pople Family

Mending the rifts in my family and the world

Joy Pople
December 2013

I took up the traditional Mennonite art of quilting. Here's one of my quilts.

Eloping was scandalous in the Mennonite community in Virginia where I grew up... along with following someone other than Jesus who claimed to be the Messiah. I didn't have the guts to go home alone and show my relatives, former neighbors and friends the photo of my new husband, John. But I felt I owed it to John to introduce myself to his family before I left to travel.

To my surprise, my new mother-in-law received me with graciousness and an unconditional welcome. I was her first daughter-in-law and she was my first mother-in-law, so we were trying on new roles for size. As if this was an everyday social occasion, she drove me around and showed me the farms where she and her husband grew up, where John went to school, where he worked during school breaks in the summers, and introduced me to some relatives and family friends. "This is where he would take you if he were here," she explained. It didn't seem strange to them that John would be too devoted to his work to take time off for visiting. She gave me her favorite photo of him, at age 5, with ears sticking out like his father, uncle, and grandfather.

Me finding a "corner of heaven" in Mexico.

My parents-in-law invited John's grandparents and the families of his sister and uncle who lived nearby for a little reception and asked me to put on my wedding dress for a photo in their living room. Maybe I should have mustered up the guts to visit my parents.

My mother had gotten a lot of sympathy on account of her wayward daughters who had joined "the Moonies." She had prayer groups praying for the salvation of my soul and that of my sister, Louise. At one point, John did visit my parents' home near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My dad said he was a fine person hut, unfortunately, an Unificationist.

A family gathering in 1981 at the World Mission Center in New York: our brother Wayne is standing behind Louise and me.

Nine years after becoming an Unificationist, I began a new phase of life together with John in San Francisco. I became pregnant but miscarried. When I called my mom with word of the loss of the one who would have been her first grandchild, she said, "It's better for a child not to be born than to be raised an Unificationist."

Eventually I did get pregnant again, and before returning to San Francisco to prepare for giving birth, I visited my hometown in Virginia, where my parents had moved after their retirement. The pastor of the church we attended when I was growing up joined us for a meal to help reduce the tensions of conversations.

Our wedding photo in Su Taek Ri. Korea. February 1975

Grandchildren didn't soften my mom's heart, and she passed away after our second child was born without reconciling with her two daughters. John and I relocated to central New York to live close to his family and my sister. Living a more settled life that people could relate to, we could visit Virginia, where my dad was still living, and try to reconnect with our extended family.

A new era of blessing opened up. In a moving gesture of generosity and creativity, our dad designed a cradle for Louise's children and his brother made it.

Dad holding Louise with Wayne on his right and me on his left, at our home near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where all three of us were born.

At the annual family reunion on my mother's side, a cousin asked me what I was doing, and I replied that I was a social worker with a case load of families in which children were at risk of foster care because of abuse and/or neglect. This seemed to give her an opening, and she started talking about how her dad (my mother's brother) had molested her over the years. Growing up, I hadn't even known what incest was and had never heard a sermon warning people against it. I was shocked to learn that at least two of my mother's brothers had molested their daughters. These conversations at the reunions from year to year revealed that many of the 43 first cousins on my mother's side had chafed under parents who considered themselves exemplars of righteousness.

Perhaps heaven had arranged for the ones who married them or married their children to soften the blows and heal some of the wounds. My dad, for instance, could listen with empathy to my cousin refer to being molested as a child and assure her that this was not her fault. Her dad never acknowledged that he did anything wrong, but being able to confide in an uncle and be reassured that such a violation was inexcusable was somehow comforting. Learning more of the family history helped Louise and myself view our mom with more compassion, and it was heartwarming to see our dad in an empathetic role.

Mom holding me in a photo probably taken by her brother James.

In the midst of all these revelations my journey continued. I think of myself as a global citizen and want to understand the heart and experiences of people in far-off places. When Father Moon announced an international exchange program in the early 1990s, I volunteered and was paired with the Central African Republic. After a year of saving money and getting shots and pills to ward off tropical diseases, I set out for three weeks in Africa. Driving me to the airport, my husband suggested I keep a diary. Each evening I sat down and wrote about my experiences as a housewife from central New York State visiting families in central Africa, exchanging stories about how we draw on spiritual resources to face life's challenges.

Returning home I edited and typed up my notes and sent them to my dad. He read them and made copies for relatives and friends. Then he started making tapes of his memoirs growing up in the Depression era in Kansas and spending the World War II years in Paraguay, a land-locked nation in South America, on a volunteer assignment with the Mennonite Central Committee helping people fleeing from Stalin's religious persecution in the Soviet Union. He was part of a church program that the US government accepted as an alternative to military service.

Louise's daughter Lana in a crib designed by Dad and made by his brother Earl.

I transcribed, edited, and organized his recollections. Somehow, our experiences began to resonate and I could provide the missing impetus and skills to help him tell his story, which he had long wanted to do. Thus, one of our church's overseas service programs and my skills and interests combined to mend bridges with my dad.

Maybe it also gave my dad something his daughter had done that he could share with pride. When my photographs of my husband's home town were accepted into an amateur art show at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, my father traveled up to admire them and congratulate me. Later, when I was directing the Volunteer Center in the town where we live, I would send him clippings of my articles, commentaries, and features published in the newspaper, and he was tickled to receive them. I took up the traditional Mennonite art of quilting, and he would admire my handiwork and the patterns I invented to interweave the heritage of my family and my husband's family.

A rare opportunity in 1974, as editor of our international church's magazine Way of the World, to join headquarters tour staff on the Day of Hope tour in San Francisco. I am third from the left on the floor. Mother Moon is holding a sculpture of an American eagle we gave to her when she and Father Moon invited us to share dinner with them.

One year my dad happened to send me his Christmas card list of family, friends, and neighbors with no explanation. In the spirit of honoring True Parents on their landmark birthdays, I wrote everyone on the list and asked them to send me stories about him as a surprise 80th birthday present. I received more than 30 responses. They revealed aspects of him I never knew and helped open my heart to him and his relatives in deeper ways. With the addition of anecdotes from us three children, I compiled excerpts into a life narrative, humorous at times, and read it at a birthday party hosted by a cousin. He was stunned and afterwards carefully read each card and letter in the collection. At his funeral three years later, excerpts of this life narrative were read.

The most spiritually nourishing programs of the Unification Church may have been the pilgrimages to Israel and neighboring areas under the auspices of the Middle East Peace Initiative (MEPI). By that time my father had passed away, but this opened the door for more healing with my mom's relatives. One year I was given the floor for the first time at our family reunion and invited to speak about these visits to the Holy Land.

My dad looking at the first quill I made, a nine-fool square sampler with symbols relating to my family, my husband's family, and the life we were stitching together.

I related the following story: "Your mom threw my mom out of the house," said a Palestinian youth to a visiting American Jew. In a land where 3,000 years of history are so readily collapsed into one generation, the prospects for improved relationships often seem dismal. Our era needs peace-builders who can reopen the doors of locked hearts and homes to welcome the "other."

Several dozen relatives were sitting around the tables and benches in the middle of the bunk house. There was silence. I looked around the faces, seeing people who had been kicked out of their home or had kicked their children out of their home. I continued, not quite knowing how this would end.

Dad enjoys the companionship of his grandson. Louise's son Randy as her daughter Lana looks on.

For those who ask what dent an individual can make in a conflict that goes back for generations and millennia, consider this account. As a group of participants in a Middle East Peace Initiative trip headed by bus from Jordan down to the Israeli border at the Dead Sea in April 2007.1 wanted to share with them the orientation we received on my first trip from Amman to Jerusalem three years earlier: "We are going to the border with Israel, the kind of checkpoint where people have been killed by a suicide bomber. We will meet young Israeli soldiers with machine guns." I warned them against taking photos, joking, or responding aggressively.

"We are on a peace mission," we reminded people each time we arrived at a checkpoint. "Every encounter is an opportunity for insight and building relationships. Pray, meditate, or do whatever is meaningful to you in order to draw on spiritual resources that can promote understanding and goodwill."

A party in early 1984 for moms and babies of the Unification Church in the San Francisco area.

Furthermore, the guards were 18 and 19 years old, fulfilling their compulsory military service. They were someone's son, someone's daughter, someone's niece, someone's nephew. "Suppose you were their parent, aunt or uncle," I added. "Would you sleep easily at night knowing that they are on the front line to protect their country? Think of this when we meet them."

One person on our bus had an American passport listing his birthplace as Damascus, Syria. There is no peace treaty between Israel and its neighbor to the northeast and not much goodwill. At the checkpoint, everyone in our group was admitted except him. Two people stayed behind with him while the rest of us went to a restaurant in nearby Jericho for lunch. We filled our trays with various dishes, sat down to eat, looked over the glittering array of souvenirs for sale, and took turns climbing on top of a disinterested-looking camel for a stroll around the parking lot. My mind was with the three people we left behind at the Allenby Bridge checkpoint.

My parents visit us in our first home near San Francisco.

After a couple of hours, they arrived at the restaurant with beaming faces. "What happened?" I asked.

"Until I heard about this peace trip, it seemed like an impossible dream for me to come to Israel and visit the holy places," the Damascus-born Muslim explained. "I was so upset at the way I was treated by the soldiers. Then I remembered your voice on the bus telling us to think of these border guards as if they were our son or daughter, our niece or nephew. Something melted in my heart, and I looked at the young people and I saw them as my family." They stamped his visa and said, "Welcome to Israel."

A gathering of upstate New York families at our home near Syracuse, 1990.

Cousin Bob's wife, Sara Ellen, jumped to her feet. "This reminds me of an old Sunday school chorus." she announced. She started to sing and waved for everyone to join in: "Father Abraham had many sons; many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you. So let's just praise the Lord.

Louise and I stared with amazement at our hostess, who had grown up in a large Amish family. We don't remember such all-embracing kinds of songs at Sunday school when we were growing up. But it exemplified the welcoming spirit that as a nervous bride I had experienced from my parents-in-law (who have recently passed on), the transformational sense of family that the Damascus-born pilgrim received at the Israeli checkpoint, and the spirit that was awash among our relatives.

My parents were married in a Mennonite church in Bragado, Argentina in 1944. My dad was sent by the Mennonite Central Committee in 1941 to the Paraguayan Chaco region to help resettle refugees fleeing Stalinist religious persecution in the Soviet Union. He had met my mom while volunteering with Civilian Public Service, corresponded with her, and invited her to come to South America and marry him. She boarded a ship in Philadelphia and he traveled to Buenos Aires to meet her. A missionary couple on the same boat with Mom was charmed by the romanticism of the adventure and offered to marry them before they headed upriver to Paraguay.

My life experiences that worked toward mending the rift in my family taught me several things: For one thing, theology needs to be fleshed out with stories, and if your people's minds aren't open to your theology, live out some stories you can tell them to touch their hearts.

Mom outside their first home in Filadelfia, Paraguay, a 50-kilometer oxcart ride from the nearest railroad.

Embrace Reverend and Mrs. Moon's vision of building one global human family under God, respond to providential calls because they can have unexpected benefits not only for yourself but others, make a meaningful contribution in your community, find some creative expressions, develop your God-given talents, seek to weave together the strands of your family of origin and the family you marry into, help others achieve their dreams, and offer to others the unconditional welcome you long for.

They may not all respond, but some will. 

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