The Abbotts defined dedication, and I got to play

John earned the shrapnel lodged in his legs, making them ache when the weather changed, when he labored in the fields. When he remembered.

As a battlefield chaplain during World War II, John Abbot worked among wounded and dying American soldiers in Europe fighting the scourge of Nazism. His was an active faith. He believed he incarnated Jesus as he walked, crawled and bled among soldiers who needed assurance that God loved them and that their destiny was assured.

Author as jack of all trades in Espanola, after the Army, before finishing college.

When he returned from the blood-soaked fields of Europe and as America shifted gears to embrace a new, wide open world of possibility, John applied to Southern Baptists’ missionary support agency responsible for “home” missions – or missions within the continental United States. He wanted to be a missionary in his native southwest, serving people, showing them the way of Jesus and leading them to faith.

He was a committed churchman in that denomination and after his service as a chaplain in the military, he assumed that he would be approved for support so he could turn his attention to the purposes of that agency: winning people to faith in Jesus.

Instead, he was denied support because he was deemed medically unsound, due to the shrapnel in his body, lodged there in battle. Disappointed, but undaunted and illuminated by his own vision, John secured support from some Texas Baptist churches where he was known. He bought farm equipment and set up shop in a converted dance hall in Espanola, New Mexico, a small town 25 miles north of Santé Fe.

The dance hall occupied a strategic corner on the main road between Espanola and Chimayo, a tiny town that houses one of only two places on earth that claim to contain healing elements. It’s the dirt in Chimayo, and the waters in Lourdes, France, to which pilgrims crawl. Discarded crutches, canes and bandages testify to the healing properties of the dirt in the Santuario de Chimayo. People have crawled from Santé Fe to Chimayo to do penance before applying the dirt to their injury or illness.

On the north side of the windy, two-lane road between the two towns perched a wooden church, little larger than a garden shed. It was the focal point of religious Penitentes, who marched in a single line, flagellating themselves, seeking forgiveness.

In that environment, John remodeled the dance hall into a church, office, classrooms and an apartment for him and his wife, Ethel, and he utilized the equipment to open doors among the small farmers in the dusty arroyos between Espanola and Chimayo. They could not afford individually field prep and harvest equipment that would increase their yields, and they welcomed the method and message of John Abbott to work among them, to share the work and to share his faith.

With hard work, ingenuity, faith and commitment, John and Ethel started and built a church which membership was primarily Spanish, descendants of Spanish invaders of the 16th century and Native American tribes.  They called it Templo Bautista – Baptist Temple.

Then one day in one of those freak accidents that make Christians wonder if God is paying attention, a piece of equipment that John was working under fell off its jack and crushed him. I guess he was medically unsound after all.

Ethel was suddenly a widow. Much of her livelihood disappeared because she could not run the equipment. John was the pastor, breadwinner, husband, visionary, guide, energy behind the entire effort. I don’t know how old Ethel was. She always seemed old to me, but I was just 20 when I met her. I’m sure I’m older now than she was then.

She promised God she would stay at Templo, would continue the work, if God would send her help. Because of her winsome spirit and compelling stories, Ethel received a fairly regular trickle of weekend or week-long helpers to lead special events and do repair work around the ancient facility. But she needed an everyday helper.

Her prayer and mine – what to do now that I’m getting out of the Army – clanged together in God’s ear and I became that first long-term helper. I was a pale, nerdy Scandihoovian from Wisconsin, knew zero Spanish and was new in evangelical faith. I’d been drafted into the Army after one year at Luther College and now I was out and at loose ends.

I started in November 1973 as a bus driver, youth minister, preacher, log splitter, painter, floor sander, week-night Bible study leader, and encourager. We called many of our members on Sunday morning to wake them in time to catch the bus I drove.

I brought them to church, preached at them and hauled them home. All this was done with sincere, naive spirit and within a profoundly knit community. The names “Ethel” or “John Abbot” opened any door in the county quicker than an electronic key.

I realize now the way we did church was paternalistic. We expected and required too little of members. There was an easy believe-ism in which membership at Templo eased seamlessly into whatever other influences they were weighing. Part of our motivation with activities was to “keep the kids out of trouble.”

But we slogged on. I went back to my home church in Colorado Springs to tell them of the work in New Mexico, and to raise money for Christmas goody baskets for the kids. One young lady was struck by the need, by the opportunity and by my wistful pleas. A few weeks later she arrived as a second helper, in the midst of a snow storm, as the children were trekking down the hallway in their angel and wise men costumes to present the Christmas story.

Her arrival on that snowy night declared that what I’d thought to be the first chapter of this story was merely prologue.

(First chapter to come)

Misusing military to defend corporate Interests

Charles Frazier’s novel “Varina” imagines a long conversation with the wife of Jefferson Davis, the traitorous former senator from Mississippi and former U.S. Secretary of War, who led the disastrous rebellion against the United States in 1860 as president of an “imaginary country.”

In the book, Frazier – also author of the immensely popular “Cold Mountain” – taught me a lot about the “property rights” perspective of southerners who thought slavery the perfect melding of capital and labor to assure economic prosperity. 

Growing up in Wisconsin, we studied the Civil War in fourth grade and never thought about it again. About 1990 I mentioned that fact while interviewing for a job in Georgia. The Colonel Sanders lookalike who chaired the interview committee said, “Down heah, we call that the wawh of nawth’n aggression. And we’re still fightin’ it.”

Americans love war. We must, we’ve been at war for 93 percent of our history.  We, among all nations, are the quickest to send our youth to other nations to kill their youth. In our minds, we’re always the good guys because we are “defending freedom.” “Freedom” is a malleable term with many definitions, depending on the perch from which you observe the march of time and of nations. 

Too often, our defense of freedom is really a defense of our corporate interests, the ability of American corporations to conduct business internationally without interference from local governments. And, that flag waving, slogan shouting defense is fueled by the whispers and checks of corporations who build the machines of war into the ears and accounts of politicians who buy them.

President Trump recently chastised military leaders for prolonging wars –we’re actively involved in seven  – to boost the profits of war machinery manufacturers. He is right in the fruit, but wrong in the root. It is politicians who prolong the wars, not the military. It is presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon who thwarted peace attempts in Vietnam because they felt they would not be re-elected if they cut and ran from that hopeless quagmire. It is Bush and Obama and Trump who insert, left and leave fighters all over the world.

Back to Frazier and his Varina Davis. She is telling her conversation partner about a letter from General Lee to her husband Jeff, warning against an action that “would bring down the reproach of our consciences and posterity’s judgment.”

“But then, it was too late to apply Lee’s advice more widely,” Varina said, “because we were in the middle of trying to pull apart a country to protect the wealth of slave owners.” 

 She went on to say how the war wrecked the South and cast it into poverty. 

“But not for the north,” she said. “Plenty made fortunes off the war. Give a real Yankee one little dried pea and three thimbles and he can buy groceries. Give him a boxful of cheap, shiny pocketknives and pistols to trade and he will turn it into a career. But give him a war, and he’ll make a fortune to last centuries.”

F-22 fighter jet pushed by Pentagon that the Air Force doesn’t want.

And that is why we have been at war for most of our history. There are fortunes to be made! Our military defends the oil fields of Kuwait and the shipping channels of the high seas. It props up impotent and corrupt governments such as Afghanistan and keeps shipping lanes open for our oil companies to bring their products to market. It defends against the nationalization of U.S. companies that drain resources from other nations without proper recompense.   

Our military budget of $716 billion is equal to the military budgets of at least the next 12 biggest spending nations. 

The defense department says we have 4,800 “defense sites” in at least 160 countries. The U.S. military is the nation’s largest employer, paying 2.15 million service members and 72,000 civilians who work among them.

Under the gossamer thin patina of “protecting our freedom” the U.S. muscles into the business of other countries, on behalf of business. We’re the largest seller of weapons in the world. Five of the 10 largest weapons manufacturers in the world are U.S. companies. Once a company secures a contract for a new fighter jet or aircraft carrier or tank, it is virtually guaranteed acceptance of massive cost overruns and extended years of full employment for their employees. 

Sometimes the commercial interests in weapons manufacture push the politicians on their payrolls to buy expensive tools the military doesn’t even want, such as the F-22 fighter jet at $150 million per and the F-15x fighter, at more than $100 million each.   But it means jobs – tax payer funded. And the local senator is loathe to agree to kill the product, even when the military says it no longer wants it. 

 The pipeline of retiring generals to the boards and staffs of these companies is an incestuous, bacchanalian orgy of gorging at the federal trough.  

Some of oldest monied families in the country conceived their fortunes through the sperm and egg of gunpowder and war, birthing both deadly destructive force and their vast fortunes: the gunpowder of E.I. du Pont; the plastics and chemicals like Agent Orange of the Dow family; and the no bid contracts handed to the Haliburton Company to provide services to troops in Afghanistan,  a company led by Dick Cheney until he left to run George Bush… I mean until he left to run as vice president with George Bush. 

So yes, Varina, your husband allowed himself to be drafted by his fellow southern politicians to tear the country apart to protect their wealthy supporters, and to weigh an economic theory against the blood of 750,000  citizens.

But, fortunes were made! And, as discomforting as it is to consider, politicians still use our modern military to create and protect private fortunes. 

I’m a veteran, one of America’s last draftees. I’m neither anti-military, nor un-American. Quite the opposite. I just hurt inside when anything draped in a flag is considered patriotic or anyone draped in a uniform is called a hero, when too often both are symbol and substance of corporate manipulation of our national leadership for their own ends.