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Finding harmony across three generations as the daughter of a World War II C.O. married to a son of a World War II vet. Part II.

June 15, 2013

Part II

I was brought up in the home and religious training of committed conscientious objectors where I didn’t know any other way. But my faith and life journey took me to the place where I was okay marrying a man brought up in the home and religious training of a committed, patriotic, wounded war veteran who didn’t know any other way.

Vernon Miller, deacon, North Goshen Mennonite Church and family

Easter Sunday when I was about three years old, before my little brother was born. Dad was one of the few men at church who still wore a “straight” coat because he was deacon.

That broadening journey started as my family stepped out of the “Mennonite ghetto”—as my father used to call it, of Goshen, Ind. and purposely moved to where there were only two small Mennonite churches in north Florida.

So I left my Mennonite high school and went to a public school overwhelmed by its first year of full racial integration of schools. As I dated a few guys I learned how very different their Christian orientation was. My journey continued as I entered Mennonite Voluntary Service and worked near Hazard, Kentucky, where one of my most vivid memories was a conversation in the “youth/young adult” class I taught for Summer Bible School at Talcum Mennonite Church with a young man who could not grasp how any Christian would refuse military service, or why. It was a foreign concept.

I went to Eastern Mennonite College where I took courses like “War, Peace and Revolution” with Grant Stoltzfus and studied books like Preachers Present Arms by Ray Abrams where I learned about a Lutheran pastor, Peter Muhlenberg during the Revolutionary War. Stoltzfus animatedly told how Muhlenberg, right down the road from us in Woodstock, Va., had preached a sermon in 1776, tore off his clerical robe revealing his Colonel’s uniform, and encouraged all the men to enlist in the Continental Army (which they did, right outside the church). My husband grew up in the Harrisonburg Muhlenberg Lutheran Church (named for Peter Muhlenberg, a fine church by the way. In addition to faculty at (now) EMU who influenced me, a steady stream of chapel speakers or lecturers like Art Gish presented a sometimes radical way of looking at the gospel.

During a junior year abroad spent in Barcelona, Spain, (then Brethren Colleges Abroad) one of my best friends was dating a West Point cadet; through her contacts we were invited onto an aircraft carrier in Barcelona’s port. While most of the men caroused off the ship in Barcelona, a group of Christians who didn’t want to do that held prayer meetings on the ship and my mind was just a little blown to be sitting in a cramped space on a huge U.S. aircraft carrier praying with enlisted men who were, obviously, committed Christians. Everything in my head was screaming, but … my dad wouldn’t get this … how can this be … who’s right, who’s wrong? What do I believe? These people just believe differently than I do, but we’re both, we’ve got to be, Christians.

My father’s own strong teachings were shaped by his own journey off the farm into Civilian Public Service during World War II, the arrangement between peace churches and the U.S. government for conscientious objectors to still serve their country and God by alternative service. He always said he would have went into military service as a medic if they would have allowed the possibility of treating anyone who was injured, including “the enemy.” But of course that wasn’t possible, at least officially.

Vernon U. Miller in CPS camp, 1940s

My dad keeping busy in the barracks in CPS camp.

CPS was his “college” and he too was influenced by a steady stream of speakers brought to the camps, and conversations with other CPSers who ended up being some of the Mennonite church’s outspoken leaders during the years following the war. In turn, he shared those convictions with us as children through mealtime conversations, musings in the car on the way home from church, through articles in the Gospel Herald and elsewhere which he would stick under our noses and ask us to read. I still have a treasured letter he sent after reading a piece in Mennonite Weekly Review from April 1996, highlighting the excerpted book, For Conscience’ Sake, a novel by Solomon Stucky, (Herald Press, 1983).

Serialized novel in Mennonite Weekly ReviewI saved Dad’s letter and page from Mennonite Weekly Review
many years, not knowing how I would ever use it.
🙂

The excerpt details how “Henry”—most likely Stucky himself, felt when as a conscientious objector, they were sent to the same induction center as enlisted man for physicals and completing paperwork. A crowd of several hundred recruits were herded into a huge locker room:

“A man in uniform stood on the top step in front of the closed door. He began yelling to the draftees below him. ‘All right men, get your clothes off, an’ I mean all of ‘em.’ … The room became so crowded that the men, pressed together shoulder to shoulder, had difficulty removing their clothes. … Several men had left their shorts on. The uniformed man pointed at them and bellowed, ‘You there, Get undressed. All of it.’ … Henry had been to the stockyards in Wichita … and he began to think of himself as part of a great herd of naked, vulnerable animals, goaded and pushed from place to place…”

P1030271

My dad’s note (above), in reference to this book excerpt, wrote:

“Be sure to read For Conscience Sake in April 4 Mennonite Weekly Review. That article tells how I felt when … in the Indianapolis Armory, there were hundreds of us boys … for six hours, went from Dr. to Dr., absolutely nothing on. I personally felt dehumanized, as I was going to be if accepted going into any branch of the army in World War two. Just a mechanical part of a machine. This article just brought it all to memory. Dad.”

Several years ago, a website about CPS was finally launched with a complete directory of persons who served, giving exact locations and dates of service. When I first found my dad’s name here, I felt goose bumps.

I loved that connection across history and generation. And I always wondered how we would raise our own children. What would they believe?

Dad sharing service stories with grandsons

Dad telling CPS stories to his grandsons, Jamie (left) and Jeremy Miller,
while relaxing on vacation with the extended family.

***

Read Part I to this blog post here.

For more about a man who was instrumental in setting up the CPS program with the U.S. government, read my earlier blog post on Harold S. Bender.

And for even more see The CPS Story: An Illustrated History of Civilian Public Service, Albert N. Keim, Good Books, Intercourse, Pa., 1990.

For visual learners, a link to the PBS special from several years ago, The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It.

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