Recently, I’ve been typing up my Mom’s oral history interviews for a memoir she’s reading next year at one of the two non-profits she’s still active in at age almost 90. Some of her specific stories remind me again of the privilege it is to have been raised in a family with people of peace on both sides. I’ll post stories from my Dad another time, but for this post, I wanted to draw together three stories based on my Mom’s memories of her parents and their family, that demonstrate facets of what it is to be people of peace: welcoming the sojourner, showing hospitality, and standing for justice. One is about migrant farm worker friends, another about refugee friends who fled from Russia, and a third about Japanese American friends during World War II.
Migrants, refugees, immigrants … friends. I think these are especially apt for Advent. If we think about it, Joseph and Mary were migrants — they had to travel back to their ancestral home. They were refugees, fleeing violence in the land that had been their home and seeking refuge in another country. They were immigrants, moving back to their homeland when it was finally safe to do so.
I wonder who they had as friends along these various journeys … and I wonder who they became friends to. Advent is definitely a season in which to reflect on the many different sorts of sojourners there are, and consider how we can connect with them as peacemakers.
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Migrant Worker Friends
My Mother took the civil service exam right after high school in the spring of 1945. She’d done all the shorthand and typing courses from their business skills track. She passed the test and got a job right away, working for the Department of Agriculture. Since the early 1940s, they’d had a program in place to bring in field workers from Mexico. This was called the Braceros program, and it actually lasted into the early 1960s. But there were sugar beets farms around that area, plus a processing factory. And they needed more workers, because most of the younger American men were in the war efforts elsewhere. So, Mom took care of the secretarial duties and filing, and also was learning some Spanish so she could communicate with the workers and supervisors when needed.
Well, one of the young Braceros took a liking to her. So he got a few of his musician friends together and they came over one evening – to surprise her with his serenading, right underneath the balcony of her second-floor bedroom. Her Dad came upstairs to the balcony, and can you guess what he did?
Probably not what you’d expect. He may have had very traditional Old World values. But he had also immigrated to the U.S. when he was 13 years old, and stayed with his brothers in Boston who’d already moved here. He believed America was meant to be a land of opportunity for all, even guest workers, and so his philosophy was, “We don’t care where you come from, we treat everybody the same.”
So, he smiled and waved at the serenaders to come in. And then he showed them some good old New World hospitality. He invited them into the kitchen and put together a Mediterranean-style feast for them … bread and cheese, olives, sardines, sausage slices, pickles. And wine, of course. And pulled out his guitar or mandolin and played some for them and with them. He’d earned some change in the old days after coming to America, by busking on the street corners of Boston with his mandolin, you know.
And after spending a few hours with them — eating snacks, singing songs, sharing stories — her Dad kindly thanked them again for their serenade and their visit, and said that he was honored that this young man had taken an interest in his daughter. But she was only just out of high school, after all, and he wouldn’t allow her to be dating. No rejection, no shame, yet no more such serenades. Even if these men remained as work acquaintances, in that home that evening, they were treated in the way of friends.
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Refugee Immigrant Friends
In the early decades of the 20th century, my Mom’s parents befriended John and Mary Wagner. They became some of their best friends, and we knew them as Aunt Mary and Uncle John. This couple was originally from Russia, but they were actually German by nationality. They were so-called “Volga Germans” whose families had been invited by Catherine the Great in the 18th century to farm land in the Volga River areas of Russia and the Ukraine.
They were allowed to keep their native language (German), and their national religion (Lutheran). But, the Volga Germans were eventually expelled, mostly between the 1880s and 1920s. So Uncle John and Aunt Mary became refugees. They immigrated in the very late 1910s or early 1920s from Russia, going across Siberia, and to the U.S. via Japan.
During the war years, some interior states of the U.S. were considered a safe place to send German prisoners of war, since it was out in the middle of nowhere with not much but rolling hills and plains. So, the military sent some German POWs there to work in farming sugar beets or vegetables in the area. Uncle John and Aunt Mary served as translators and trainers, giving instructions in German to the men and overseeing their work.
These prisoners were housed at the county fairgrounds, and people from the towns around would go to the outskirts of the camp in the evenings to listen to them sing with their warm voices and rich harmonies. Townspeople weren’t allowed to interact with the POWs, but Uncle John and Aunt Mary did, because of their roles as translators and work overseers.
After the war, there was a program where U.S. citizens could sponsor people who wanted to immigrate to the U.S. Aunt Mary and Uncle John had especially connected with one of the young men who was a POW working under their charge. They had made initial plans to sponsor him and exchanged letters with him. And although that didn’t work out, my Mom remembers their doing that: Here were refugees who’d become immigrants, who understood sojourning and refuge, and wanted to share that opportunity with others.
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Friends With a Family Who Were Under Duress
It may surprise people to know that not all Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during the war. Some who had agriculture or horticulture backgrounds were given the possibility of going to areas like where my Mom grew up, because there were farms there. One such family from Washington state moved inland. And my grandparents befriended this family. That is consistent with their philosophy: “We’re all Americans and it doesn’t matter where someone comes from, we treat everyone the same.”
Indeed, they embraced them as they would have anyone else. My Mom never did hear what had happened to the father of this family, as he had not accompanied the rest of them inland. But the mother worked in the fields. Their older daughter apprenticed in tailoring with my grandmother, as she was a professional seamstress. And tailoring eventually became that daughter’s career. Their younger daughter was my Mom’s age, and they went through high school together. Their son was younger, and he went into a special forces fighting unit, as soon as he turned 17 and could enlist. These units consisted mostly of American men of Asian descent, and they fought in North Africa and Europe.
One particular incident that my Mom recalls is when some of the townspeople were hassling some of the Japanese Americans individuals and families who’d moved inland. Her Dad was furious when he found out about this! So, he decided to do what he could in the situation. Since he was the only shoemaker in town, and both new shoes and leather for shoe repairs were rationed, he let it be known that if you messed with any of these families, you could find somewhere else to get your shoes or get repairs done! And for most people, that would’ve meant using their meager gasoline ration to drive to some other town to take care of shoe business, if they even had a car.
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So, these are the stories I grew up with. I cannot recall a time that my parents ever told us things like, “Be hospitable” or “Learn about justice.” I just saw these practices lived out, and heard similar stories about my extended family. Our home environment was imbued with the purposes and meanings of being peacemakers who were kind-hearted and justice-oriented. I suspect that is a treasure not so many have in their history and their household. And, thankfully, I believe I absorbed much from my grandparents, parents, and relatives to shape me to likewise become a person of peace …