Friends, if it be possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:18)
When I was a child, I grabbed every history book I could reach off the library shelves. I was especially drawn towards those richly illustrated books of men in armor, with plumes on their helmets, and their brightly flashing swords and spears. My mother, a woman of care, thought that this was not the education I needed. So she took me up the road to Wilmer and Velma Heisey.
Wilmer, a Brethren in Christ minister, was a missionary, historian, and honorary rear admiral in the navy of New Mexico. He was also a conscientious objector during World War II, spending the war in the dairy farms of Maine for his 1-W service, and a good family friend. In short, Wilmer was the perfect person to teach young Joel the ways of peace. Or so Mother thought.
She arranged for my brother and I to have a week of history lessons with Wilmer to talk about war and peace. Now, although Wilmer opposed war, and spent much of it working on farms, he followed its conduct closely. He carefully read newspaper accounts and listened to radio broadcasts updating the American public on the course of World War II. To mother’s chagrin, this was most of the content of those discussions. By the third day, it was too much for her and she broke in exclaiming, “Where’s the peace, Wilmer? I want you to tell them about the peace!”
This is a story about where peace is.
About the same time Wilmer Heisey finished fulfilling his 1-W duties in Maine, Ted Studebaker was born on his family’s farm in West Milton Ohio. Studebaker grow up a normal American teenager: he helped on the farm, was a member of FFA, played on the football team and ran track. He was a member of the Church of the Brethren. After high school graduation, he went to Manchester College and then to the University of Florida where upon completion in 1969 he earned his Masters in Social Work and his eligibility for the draft. In the midst of war, Ted Studebaker decided to go to Vietnam, not with the United States military but with Brethren Volunteer Service.
He was placed in the village of Di Linh as an agriculturalist secunded to Vietnamese Christian Service. Di Linh was in the highlands of Vietnam, which were in regular contention between North and South Vietnamese forces. Ted’s specific work was with the Montagnard people, a historically marginalized ethnic minority, helping them to raise chickens, increase rice yields, and establish an agricultural cooperative. When his two-year term ended in 1971, Ted opted to stay for a third year.
Perhaps love had something to do with that decision. Love for Lee Ven Pak, a fellow Vietnamese Chrsitian Service Worker, certainly had an impact. They married on April 17, 1971. But his decision was also rooted in Christian love. On April 26, he was working on a letter to a critic from home, concluding “Above all, Christ taught me to love all people, including enemies, and to return good for evil, and that men are brothers in Christ. I condemn all war and conscientiously refuse to take part in it in an active or violent way. I believe love is a stronger and more enduring power than the hatred for my fellow man, regardless of who they are or what they believe.”
He never finished the letter. That same day, North Vietnamese forces launched a raid into Di Linh. Lee Ven Pak and two other women in the house made it to a bunker. Ted Studebaker was executed in his bedroom.
At his funeral, his wife said, “I’m sure all of you share my grief, but grieve more for those who do not understand what he did.”
The ABC News broadcast of Ted Studebaker’s death can be found here.
I first encountered this story a children’s book, Joy Hofacker Moore’s Ted Studebaker: A Man Who Loved Peace.
To get another perspective on peace work in Vietnam, read Luke S. Martin’s A Vietnam Presence: Mennonites in Vietnam During the American War.