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Dachau and the Result of Hatred, Racism and Bigotry

Here’s my May column for the Holland Sentinel:

Before leaving Europe and moving back to the United States, my wife and I had in mind one last tourist destination. We had visited all of the cathedrals, museums and battle fields it was humanly possible to see during the four years we lived in Switzerland, but there was still something more I felt I needed to see—namely, the concentration camp at Dachau.

Dachau today is essentially a suburb of Munich, and so it was a relatively easy three-hour drive from where we lived in Zürich. The drive may have been easy, but the visit was difficult. It was something I will never forget.

I have been to the Yad Vashem holocaust museum in Jerusalem, but visiting a concentration camp was a different kind of experience altogether. German school children in the district of Bavaria, interestingly, are required to visit a concentration camp as part of learning German history.

I can’t say I am glad I went, but I am aware that it was important for me to go. More people should do this.

I thought of my visit to Dachau again this week as I read newspaper accounts about the shooting at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue near San Diego. The shooter apparently told police that he was inspired by a similar shooting last October at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Hate crimes and violence against religious groups—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—seem to be happening more frequently today than at any time in my memory, and that’s deeply concerning.

The concentration camp at Dachau, which was not technically an extermination camp like Auschwitz, was opened in 1933. It was the first of its kind for the new Nazi regime and became a model for several other camps. It was originally intended for political prisoners though, later, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and Gypsies (as they were then called) were sent there as well. Only toward the end of the war were Jews and Russian prisoners of war sent to Dachau.

In all, nearly 32,000 people were killed at Dachau—including men, women, and children. It’s possible that another 10,000 undocumented people lost their lives at the site as well.

Toward the end of the war, the cremation ovens stopped working, and the dead were found piled as high as the roof of the crematorium when U.S. soldiers liberated the camp in April 1945. The ovens and the crematorium are still visible today, as are parts of the electrified fences and at least one guard tower.

During my visit I learned that dehumanization and starvation seemed to be the primary purpose of the camp. Upon arrival, prisoners were stripped of their clothes and, importantly, their names. They became numbers, not persons. They were given little to eat. And they were used as forced labor in a munitions factory at the site.

A dear friend of mine, John O’Melia, a 19–year–old on the day the camp was liberated, was among the first U.S. soldiers to enter the camp. Before he died a few years ago, John told me a great deal about that day. It turned out to be a turning point in his life.

After the camp was secured, which was a complicated process—as many as 50 SS guards were killed by the former prisoners—John told me that he sat alone, prayed, and read the New Testament that his mother had tucked into his pocket before he left for Europe.

His prayer that day, he said, was that God would use him in the years to come to prevent anything like Dachau from ever happening again.

John came home after the war and almost immediately went to work for the YMCA. His first job was to be executive director of the YMCA in Cleveland, and he is best remembered for having organized the first–ever, inter–racial summer camp during the 1950s. This idea was not universally popular, but it was John’s way of responding to what he had seen at Dachau. For his courage he was elected, later in his life, to the YMCA Hall of Fame.

As I think about our world and our country right now, I am convinced that we need more people like John, people who are determined to take a stand against hatred, racism, and bigotry, people who will choose reconciliation over division, even when it is an unpopular choice.

I don’t know exactly how to get there, but I am committing my own life to the work. I have been to Dachau, I have seen where division leads, I have been reduced to sobbing in the face of unspeakable evil. I have decided to choose the way of reconciliation.

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My Camino de Santiago

Here’s my April column for the Holland Sentinel:

A spiritual pilgrimage, so the thinking goes, consists of both an outward journey and an inward journey.

Last week I returned from my first Camino de Santiago, a spiritual pilgrimage dating back to the 11th century. I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Santiago de Compostela (a university town in northwest Spain with a famous cathedral), a distance of 500 miles, which I walked in 29 days.

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Reflections on the “Dead Beat”

Here’s my March column for the Holland Sentinel, which could use an overhaul of its obituary page:

My name has appeared in dozens, maybe hundreds, of obituaries over the years, usually in the last paragraph.

After the date, time and location of the memorial service, my name would be given as the pastor who would be officiating. I think this is the reason I started reading obituaries. Not to make sure my name had been spelled correctly, but because the obituaries would often be revealing.

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A triumph of hope over experience

The lastest from the Holland Sentinel’s community columnist:

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that second marriages are “a triumph of hope over experience.” I feel the same way about exercise.

Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother.

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Called To Be a Loser

Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s community columnist:

Several years ago I was invited to give the baccalaureate address at the Presbyterian-related school, Hanover College, in southern Indiana.

As far as I knew, the school’s main claim to fame, other than having me as a speaker, was having Woody Harrelson as a student. He received his degree in English and theatre in 1983, more than 20 years before I set foot on campus.

I titled my address “Called To Be a Loser” and sent that information, along with a publicity photo, to the college president a few weeks before graduation weekend. Within a few days, the president telephoned with concern in his voice, though I couldn’t quite figure out why. Finally, he said, “That’s quite a title you chose for your address.”

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My Annual Christmas Letter

Christmas 2018

Dear family and friends,

On January 28 I preached what will probably be my last sermon at the Eglise réformée française in Zürich, Switzerland, where the International Protestant Church offers Sunday morning worship and where we shared space with a French-speaking congregation.

I retired that day after nearly 40 years of ministry. Continue Reading →

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Crazy Poor Dutch People

 

Here’s the latest from the Holland Sentinel‘s “community columnist”:

I wanted to call my new book “Crazy Poor Dutch People Who Immigrated to the U.S. and Became Rich, Republican and (Ironically) Anti-immigration,” but my publisher thought that title was too long and unnecessarily provocative. Plus, the allusion to “Crazy Rich Asians” is already dated.

Instead, I went with “The Truth About Who We Are,” which is not nearly as clever. It is available from the publisher and will soon be available through Amazon. Continue Reading →

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It’s good to be home

(Note: I started a new and lucrative career this month as a “community columnist” for the Holland Sentinel, the local newspaper. My first column is below. Look for my florid prose on the editorial page on the first Friday of every month. For those who’ve read excerpts on the blog from my new book, I’m happy to report that The Truth About Who We Are: Letter to My Grandchildren will be out next month from Wipf & Stock, a fine publisher based in Eugene, Oregon. I’ve seen the page proofs, and it looks great! Lots of photos and a Brouwer family tree dating to the 1700s, or about as far back as I have looked so far.) Continue Reading →

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James A. Brouwer and the Electric Car

Here’s another chapter – and most likely the last one you will see here – from my new book, now titled The Truth About Who We Are: A Letter to My Grandchildren.

To this point I’ve written mostly about ancestors who came to the United States and, against tall odds, not only survived, but thrived, making me proud to be descended from them. That was meant to be an inspiring story for you, as it has been for me. But the story is more complicated than that, as you must have recognized by this point. 

The separatist spirit that brought Dutch immigrants to the United States was sincere enough, but it could also be stubborn, rigid, and intolerant. Continue Reading →

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My Only Comfort in Life

(Here’s another random chapter from my new book, Letter to My Grandchildren: Brief Essays on Identity.)

When I was in third grade I started to attend weekly catechism classes at my church, something I would do until I graduated from high school. At the time I thought children all over the world did pretty much the same thing.

In catechism classes we memorized the 129 questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism, a doctrinal statement published in 1653, in a city called Heidelberg, in what is now Germany. It’s a lovely medieval city. I have been there, and I hope you are able to visit someday as well. Continue Reading →

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