|By Lance Woodruff
Artist Marc Chagall, a Jew, lived his art as a
witness to God's imperative that each one of us is called to
wholeness. He said that, like God, the artist finds chaos and bring
Princeton Theological Seminary, like Chagall,
is an artist, lovingly piecing together diversities and seeming
incongruities to make shining windows, as at Rheims Cathedral,
drawing the faithful from here...and from there...and then
sending them out into the boiling chaos to nudge this troubled world
closer to cosmos. I know I've benefited from PTS's cosmos-making.
While I never myself studied at
Princeton Seminary, it has influenced my life in ways too many to
count through the friendship and inspiration of alumni/ae whose
paths have crossed mine across the United States and around the
is a sculpture commissioned by Lance Woodruff of a young
Makonde refugee. The photograph of the sculpture, and the
young refugee, have been "companions on the way" in
his work with refugees in Thailand.
I grew up a Presbyterian in Salem, Ohio, in the 1940s and
’50s, where the Rev. Mr. A. Laten Carter was pastor of the
Presbyterian church. He became something of a father to me after
my own father’s death when I was eleven, and was the first
minister who encouraged me to question my faith and to risk
searching and learning. I moved to Haddonfield, New Jersey, in
1959 to finish high school. There the pastor of the First
Presbyterian Church, Thomas Lindsay, introduced me to Hugo Muller
(PTS Class of 1943) and Henry Bucher (PTS Class of 1962 and my
senior high youth group advisor while he studied at
Missionaries whose lives took them to Iran,
Ghana, China, Lebanon, they filled my heart and mind with Africa
and Asia. Largely because of those two men, and in the context of
world events, I gave up my childhood “plan” to study at the
Colorado School of Mines. 1959 was my year of decision. Fidel
Castro had entered Havana, the Dalai Lama struggled across the
Himalayas, and an African world affairs conference combined to
convince me that my “calling” was as a journalist.
Henry Bucher was my first “PTS mentor” during this crucial
time. Born on Hainan to missionaries, he grew up in Japanese
concentration camps, coming to Haddonfield by way of the American
University of Beirut and Gabon. He witnessed deeply to peace as
“shalom” and “salaam.” While I was in high school, he took
me to Princeton Seminary, to the East Harlem Parish, and to the
Church Center for the United Nations in New York. In talking with
him, I realized that I was destined to go “into all the
First stop: Macalester College in Minnesota, a
Presbyterian college recommended by Bucher, Lindsay, and Muller.
There another Princeton Seminary alum, Yahya Armajani (PTS Class
of 1933 and the product of the Bucher family’s mission in Iran),
was my faculty adviser. He had followed his study at the Seminary
with a Ph.D. in Islamic history at Princeton University.
“Armi” taught me that Muslims, Jews, and Christians were all
“people of the Book.”
He also taught me about a compassion that knows
no bounds of race, nation, or faith. He told a story of driving
near his childhood home of Meshad in northeast Iran and coming
upon a terrible auto accident. A man, clearly dying, was laid out
on the road. Though himself a Christian, Armi gave him Zoroastrian
last rites and blessed him on his journey.
Armi was also Macalester’s soccer coach, guiding mainly African
and Asian players, including now-secretary general of the United
Nations Kofi Annan, who was a student. He taught the young men to
play with dignity and grace in all seasons, win or lose. Armi’s
grandnephew Jon Armajani followed his uncle to PTS (Class of 1991)
and today both are ordained Presbyterian ministers who did their doctoral
work in Islamic studies and taught at liberal arts colleges. (Jon is on the faculty of
Mary’s College in Maryland.)
Another PTS alum, Tom Hilton (Class of 1960) was assistant pastor of the House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, which I attended while at
Macalester, and was the advisor to my college fellowship
Henry Bucher’s letters to me while I was at
Macalester, first from Princeton and then from his internship abroad in Ghana, led me to Africa. Meeting Jawaharial Nehru at the United Nations and
S.K. Pal, an Indian journalist who was part of Macalester’s World Press Institute, led me to research South Asians living in East Africa. I traveled to Africa, where I “met” Asia, lived with Hindus and Muslims, and became involved with the
Congress, the Mozambique Liberation Front, and Rhodesian independence movements. My first international byline reported the Zanzibar elections in July 1963 for
Central African Parade in Salisbury, Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe). Ironically, I had been asked to write a story for
Presbyterian Life [the then-denominational magazine of the Presbyterian Church], but could not find a story with a Presbyterian angle in the African places I visited.
|Woodruff with his wife, Corina
After graduation, I had hoped to teach at
Makerere University in Uganda, but like many other Americans, I found myself in Vietnam. But there was a Princeton difference. I re-met Henry Bucher at a Vietnam “teach-in” at the University of Toronto. He worked for the National Student Christian Federation at the time and asked if I would be interested in working for the churches in Vietnam. I was hired as the first National Council of Churches/Church World Service full-time media person overseas and shipped out for Saigon in 1966.
Although I did not meet him until twenty years later in Berkeley, in Vietnam I learned of Thich Nhat
Hanh, a Vietnamese in Saigon. Nhat Hanh (that is his formal, religious name; he was known at PTS by his given name, Mr.
Bao) attended Princeton Seminary in 1961-62. In 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, and Bucher informed the PTS
alumni/ae office of Mr. Bao’s “who-ness”!
Bucher said this in a recent conversation we had: “Mr. Bao and I had many conversations about Asia and about the war in Vietnam through its many stages. We often watched the evening news together. Hainan Island [where Bucher was born] was always in the upper-right-hand corner of the map they showed. Mr. Bao said in one of those conversations: ‘The capitalists are saving us from the communists and the communists are saving us from the capitalists. But who will save us from our saviors?’”
When I met Thich Nhat Hanh in Berkeley, he spoke of many things: Nirvana, the kingdom of God, the blue sky, the interconnectedness of flowers and garbage, love and anger, hope as an avoidance of dealing with the present, and the importance of taking refuge in the present moment. “When we hope for the future, we destroy life in the present moment,” he said in an address to students. “We don’t want to accept things as they are."
|Thich Nhat Hanh
"We want to have something better, something right...but only in the present moment can we repair mistakes and build for the future in a mindful way. Nothing in life is wasted. Without garbage we could not have flowers. If the flower is on the way to the garbage, the garbage is on the way to the flower. And we cherish the garbage as much as the flower. Every time we see a flower we are not too attached to it; it is on the way to the garbage.”
Nhat Hanh likened human love to the flower cycle and drew gentle
laughter from his audience of Buddhists (yet themselves middle-class Americans
and immersed in the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant religious and cultural heritage of this nation). We have one earth and one community, he said. Our anger must change to compassion and understanding. If we take good care of our present moments, we will take good care of our future.