Category Archives: Personal Reflection

My Bonhoeffer Story

The following is a reflection given by Alice Bond in San Antonio, Texas, at the Annual Bonhoeffer Dinner (2016).alicebond

I’m standing here because of a casual question from Mark Brocker, during lunch in Basel last July, asking how I got involved in the Bonhoeffer Society. After I told my story, he asked if I would consider sharing it with you tonight. I agreed, but said there are more like me, a Non, who have stories to tell too, and that I’d like to share them as well. I didn’t know what to title this little talk, but decided to co-opt the term Mark used when he asked me to be a part of the strategic planning event, because I have a Unique Perspective. So…We are the Nons…non academic theologians or pastors, the Non-Professional theologians.

But, I’m really here because I made a B in my Philosophy 101 course when I returned to college in my 40s, and was determined not to take my scheduled philosophy of medicine course from the same professor, since not only did I get that B, but didn’t get my money’s worth in knowledge. He didn’t seem to care for people in the healthcare professions in general, and my healthcare facility in particular. My faculty advisor said I could take Philosophy of Religion instead.  Problem solved.  My Philosophy of Religion professor just happens to be in this room. One of the first things Pat Kelley said was that he was a Bonhoeffer scholar, so there was the opportunity I’d been hoping for since I heard Bonhoeffer’s name from pastors at my church through the years. So we started down the alphabet toward Kierkegaard, starting with Acquinas, Anselm, Augustine, then we dipped into the Bs, and the paper I wrote for that class had the title: Is Christianity a Religion of Redemption?, based on Bonhoeffer’s letter to Eberhard on 27 June, 1944. We did get to Kierkegaard, and beyond, but my interest in Bonhoeffer had intensified.  

I had entered a world I knew not of, and kept a running list of questions for Dr. Kelley, such as “What’s a deus ex machina, what’s a Brown synod, what’s the confessing church, what does he mean by…”. Incidentally, I found one of those lists not too long ago when I was moving some books, and the list fell to the floor.  My guess is that your path with Bonhoeffer charted a similar course, wherever you encountered him, and wherever you landed in your own studies. I graduated from Lynchburg College two years later with a double major, one of which was Religious Studies. I joined the Bonhoeffer Society a couple of years later, and have rarely missed a gathering since then.

The one aspect of Bonhoeffer’s theology that has resonated with me the most over the years is The View from Below. My nursing practice has placed me with poverty stricken, poorly educated rural and urban residents, both black and white. Meeting them where they were was applied theology at a basic level.  I appreciate Reggie’s research about Bonhoeffer’s participation in African-American life in Harlem, and not only at Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was remarkable that the residents of Harlem accepted him. It had to have been because it was obvious that he cared about them. He hurt for what they had to contend with.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer left Harlem with more than a stack of records, precious though they were.  When he returned to Berlin and worked with teenagers in Wedding, he drew on that significant experience of seeing the world through the eyes of those far from the world of his upper class upbringing. An elderly German woman I met in Poland in 2006 challenged me with this question: “I know why I’m here, but why are you here?” I have no idea what I said to her, but I hope it was something about his clarity of vision, his authenticity, and his courage, all of which were evident in everything he said and wrote. When I looked back at her, there were tears in her eyes. For me, as one with no aspirations involving scholarship, encounters like that one are enough to keep me involved in the Bonhoeffer Society. And of course, meeting and getting to know the people whose stories follow.

Mary Glazener’s introduction to Bonhoeffer was similar to mine, taking place in the early ‘70s, when she returned to college in her mid-forties. She decided a novel needed to be written that would introduce the general public to Bonhoeffer. Mary had writing skills, so she figured she could do it. But she wanted to get the facts right, and to place them in the proper historical context, and to do that she knew she needed to interview Bonhoeffer’s family, friends, and colleagues. Some, but not all of them spoke English, so she would need to conduct the interviews in German. Problem was, Mary didn’t know any German. So she learned German. Over the next 5 years she spent weeks and even months at a time in Germany interviewing his former students and colleagues, all his living relatives, Maria von Wedemeyer in Boston, and her family in Germany. She tracked down and found everyone she wanted to interview, in their homes. Once she began the writing process, she sent chapters to Eberhard and Renate, and Franz Hildebrand for corrections. The writing and editing process took 17 years. The result was her book The Cup of Wrath, published in 1992. It is still available as a used book from amazon.com, by the way, and would be a great addition to your church libraries. Mary died recently at the age of 94. Her obituary mentioned her “wonderful sense of adventure”, and her life bore that out. The Bethges were very helpful to her, because though she certainly had a sense of adventure, she needed considerable help with making necessary appointments and travel arrangements. Their support of her efforts never wavered.

Eleanor Neel returned to college a bit younger than Mary and I did. Her encounter with Bonhoeffer was not at McCormick Theological Seminary while she was a student there, but in 1970 while browsing in a bookstore on Wabash Avenue in Chicago. She noticed an intriguing book cover, with a large bird flying between prison bars, so she picked that book up, and saw the title “Letters and Papers from Prison”. That struck a chord because she had recently become involved with Amnesty International, which works to release prisoners of conscience. Bonhoeffer’s phrase Being There for Others was what she had found in Amnesty International, but had not found in organized religion. After reading Letters and Papers, she began her personal study of Bonhoeffer at the beginning with Sanctorum Communio, and went straight through everything available in English at the time. She has now read every page of the Bonhoeffer Works and most of the books written by the people in this room.  She learned about the Bonhoeffer Society through an article written by Ruth Zerner, and joined immediately, attending her first Bonhoeffer Congress in 1980, at Oxford, and presented a paper at the next Congress in the DDR. I’ve known Eleanor since 1996, when we roomed together in Capetown, and have long been amazed at her knowledge and critical reading and listening skills.  When she attends the AAR, she remembers everything she hears in Bonhoeffer sessions and analyses it all, comparing it to her vast repository of knowledge. In her own words, “My interest in Bonhoeffer has never waned, as I see how what he said grows ever more relevant to the times in which we live today.”

Pat Kelley said of Eleanor and Mary, that though neither of them are or were professional scholars, they have the same skills, honed over decades of serious study. In Mary’s case, Pat categorized her efforts as obsession. Perhaps he’s right, but if so, it was a magnificent obsession.  

I met two brothers in Waklau, Poland in 2006. Walter and Piet Klemeyer practice law together in Bremerhaven, Germany. While he was a law student, Walter picked up a copy of Letters and Papers From Prison, and dropped it on the hall table at home. His father, who had been a German soldier during WW11, picked it up and read it. When he finished it, he handed it to Walter with these words, “You need to read this. If we would have heard this voice then, things might have developed differently. But I knew nothing of Bonhoeffer then”.  Read it he did. That was 35 years ago. Walter’s father later gave him a copy of Eberhard’s biography, and a Bonhoeffer reader, both of which he credits with giving his interest a “huge boost”. His law practice focuses on mediation and conflict resolution. He is also a conflict and peace trainer and coach and gives workshops on conflict resolution. He says Bonhoeffer was not the only influence in his choice of concentration, but that the Fano address and writings on acting responsibly were very influential.

 Gary Blount was captivated during college 50 years ago, the mid sixties. He and 2000 of his peers listened to a series of lectures by a religious studies professor on Bonhoeffer. He told me that if he had heard more about the historical and political situation during Bonhoeffer’s life, he would have gone to grad school for history. His primary interest has been the historical setting, and the intersection of history and theology in Bonhoeffer’s life. He says his continuous search for the “back story approaches obsession”. Trips to Germany, the Czech Republic, conferring with Ferdinand Schlingensiepen in Europe and the US stirred his desire to produce a film about Bonhoeffer’s last days. Gary showed us the film in Basel in July. It is nearing distribution, is so very well done, and you will surely want a copy. Keith Clements helped with the script, and got an advance DVD to show at his church in Bristol, England, since that church and congregation is in the DVD. At the end, he said the congregation sat in stunned silence for several long seconds, then broke out in enthusiastic applause.

Then there’s David Krause. David encountered Bonhoeffer in his last year of college, also during the mid-sixties, studying Creation and Fall. That book, you will recall, is a compilation of sermons delivered in Berlin over the 1932-33 winter semester, and an interesting choice for the professor in an undergraduate course. Those sermons were delivered during fateful months in Germany, and especially in Berlin.  Imagine being a young college student in the mid-sixties in America, during the buildup of the war in Vietnam, studying those words spoken by a 26 year old man watching his beloved country succumb to the rhetoric of a demagogue. David would have been the same age as Bonhoeffer’s students hearing what John de Gruchy described in the introduction to the DBWE translation of Creation and Fall as “Listening to the Word of God in a Winter of Discontent. The mid-sixties in the U.S certainly met that description.  David went on to seminary at Seminex Lutheran Seminary, and in 1974 he participated in a protest with a number of other students, likening their situation to an underground seminary, but without the Nazis. Although David was eventually ordained as a Lutheran pastor, his life’s work has been in fund-raising for non-profit organizations. Because of his ordination, we would have to qualify David as a “semi-Non”.  

So here we are, “the Nons”, a motley crew of semi-theologians. Mary Glazener was a dramatist, who wrote and directed plays for her church, and even directed a musical for the Clemson drama department. I mentioned the Klemeyer brothers are lawyers. Gary Blount is a child psychiatrist, Eleanor Neel is an opera singer, David Krause a fund-raiser, and I’m a nurse.

I seriously doubt there are people like us in the Tillich Society, or the Schleirmacher Society, or even the Barth group.  I believe the total package of what Bonhoeffer represents is what attracts such a diverse group of enthusiasts, including the high drama of the Nazi era, the attraction of the Bonhoeffer family, their political involvement from the beginning of the Nazi era, their resistance, added to Bonhoeffer’s theology, his pacifism, his involvement in the ecumenical movement, all of which were heavily influenced by his times.  It was that total package that attracted me in 1987, and continues to this day.

There’s one Non I haven’t mentioned. When I asked Dean Skelley if I could tell his story, he very quickly sent me the following remarks, and I think you’ll know why I saved his story for last. Dean gave me permission to edit his remarks, but I decided to read you what he wrote straight from his heart, as though these words had long been waiting to be expressed.

I first became interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer when Heinrich Eiler was hosting a discussion of The Cost of Discipleship at the local Presbyterian Church which I attended for a few years in this city (San Antonio). He pointed out to those in the group that one often had to reread the long sentences, because the translation from German was often convoluted and that the important verb was usually at the end of the sentence. But in any event, I found the writings of Bonhoeffer personal and very challenging, not only to comprehend, but to accept.

I became a subscriber to the Bonhoeffer newsletter and volunteered to edit the publication when the society was looking for a new editor. I felt that this would be one way for me to learn more about Bonhoeffer. In so doing, I found my experience editing the Newsletter extremely enriching, and for that experience I am truly grateful.

I spent quite some time on each issue, but I found it to be a joyful experience. The quality of each issue was very much improved with the help of John Matthews and Clifford Green. Before I sent the newsletter to the printer, I sent a draft copy to John and Cliff and they each made about a dozen corrections – and believe it or not, they never found the same corrections to be made. So a special thanks to both John and Clifford. I am also grateful to those who provided me book reviews, especially Geoff Kelly. I sometimes had to use a little pressure, but Geoff was always willing and able.

In the beginning, I tried to wrap my head around such terms as “hermeneutical” and “eschatological”, especially when used in the same sentence. But I soon gave up on trying to understand these terms. I kept reminding myself that I was a “non-academic”.

After my tenure as editor, I felt that I now had a better sense of the courage Bonhoeffer demonstrated in living according to the words he followed in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as the focus of his clear vision of where the thinking in Germany had gone wrong, and finally, his willingness to pay the true cost of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. For all of that, I am thankful to the Society for helping educate me as a student. And I am also personally grateful to the many friendships made with so many of you in the Society.”

(Alice)  And for all of that, Gaylon has something to say to Dean… A presentation of a commemorative plaque was made by Gaylon Barker to Dean, with appreciation of the Society for Dean’s long service as editor.

Addendum. In the service of brevity, my remarks at the annual dinner were cut, and a few things I really wanted to say weren’t shared, so I’ll take this opportunity.

There were seven people whose stories were told that evening, spanning more than 40 years of involvement in the IBS for some of us. Those of you in academic positions might come across another seven over your teaching careers. I hope you will encourage those whose interest is sparked as ours was, and encourage them to join and participate in the Bonhoeffer Society, as we have felt welcome to do all these years. Eleanor Neel tells the story of meeting Eberhard Bethge many years ago, when he asked her where she taught. When she replied she was a lay theologian, his reply was an enthusiastic “But that’s the best kind!”. Mary Glazener would not have been able to pursue her efforts to write her novel without the support and encouragement of Eberhard and Renate. They had no idea if she was capable of creating an accurate and readable novel when she began, but their support continued until the novel was finally complete and published, as well as their friendship well beyond.

It is my hope that the IBS-ELS will continue to welcome lay theologians, whether or not we are “the best kind”. Using some of Dean’s words, compiling these stories was an enriching experience, and I too am truly grateful for the opportunity, and for the many friendships with you that I have enjoyed since 1992.

Alice Bond, November, 2016