The Resistance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In a time where “resistance” has gained a life of its own, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life epitomizes true, grounded resistance. I recently finished Eric Metaxas’ (see note below) lengthy biography of German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. Bonhoeffer didn’t set out to be a member of the resistance against Nazism and Hitler, for many years he was just a pastor. But he refused to comply with the standards of any but God, especially with the standards that ruled Germany of his day. He humbly surrendered his daily life for the sake of the calling God placed on his life. And God led him to stand up against Nazism, which ultimately led to his death. Bonhoeffer’s life is an example of cultivating resistance in a simple, daily way, rooted in loving and pursuing God and loving his neighbors. 

Bonhoeffer was a child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, a family of a prominent Germans who valued critical thinking and integrity. His choice to study theology in university was regarded by his family as unusual but it was nonetheless supported. Yet rather than pursuing God only from an academic point of view, Bonhoeffer sought to determine how theology and daily life would meet and mold. Bonhoeffer’s obedience to God’s calling began with daily habits of meditating on scripture, praying the Psalms, and worshiping through song, conversations, and time outdoors. In these moments, he pursued the sovereign and almighty God.  And he spent his life instructing and encouraging others to do the same. This pattern of worship was present as he pastored congregations in four different countries, taught seminarians, and encouraged others while in prison. His knowledge of scripture helped him stand firm when Germans were bowing down to the whims of power and guided his steps. 

One of the defining parts of Bonhoeffer’s beliefs was that faith in God was active. He believed Christians should be engaged in the world and the people around them. One of his most famous quotes from a letter to his fiancé, Maria von Wedemeyer, epitomizes this well: 

When Jeremiah said, in his people’s hour of direst need, that “houses and fields [and vineyards] shall again be brought in this land,” it was a token of confidence in the future. That requires faith, and may God grant it to us daily. I don’t mean the faith that flees the world, but the faith that endures in the world and loves and remains true to that world in spite of all the hardships it brings us. Our marriage must be a “yes” to God’s earth. It must strengthen our resolve to do and accomplish something on earth. I fear that Christians who venture to stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on only one leg too.” 

Planning for marriage in 1943 at the height of World War II was just one example of how Bonhoeffer lived out active faith in a sovereign God. Bonhoeffer’s hope was in God’s ultimate restoration. His belief that faith was active led Bonhoeffer to turn his love for God outward towards his neighbors, especially Jews. In 1933, the Nazi’s unveiled The Aryan Paragraph declaring that anyone not of Aryan background would lose their jobs. This edict extended to the German church and to pastors who were Christians by faith but ethnically Jewish. As the German church struggled to figure out how to respond, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay entitled “The Church and the Jewish Question”. He clarified three roles of the church in regards to its relationship with the state. The church was first to hold the state accountable and be a witness to truth if there was excessive lawlessness. Then, the church was to aid victims of the state, even if the victims were not Christians. Finally, the church was to stop the state from perpetuating evil if its existence was threatened. In this instance, Bonhoeffer believed the church needed to rebuke the state for it’s refusal to see Jewish people (among others) as humans with worth and dignity and aid Jews.

The essay was not accepted by all in the German church. Many in the German national church decided to institute the Aryan Paragraph and encouraged Jewish congregants to form their own churches. But to Bonhoeffer, loving Jews – whether they believed in Jesus as the Messiah or not – was an act of loving God and loving neighbors. The absence of this belief in the German national church was proof to Bonhoeffer that the German national church was no longer the true church. He cited scripture, specifically Galatians 3:28, that says “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus”.  He and other pastors who believed similarly formed the Confessing Church, a church that sought to serve God only and love God’s people. 

As the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s continued, the German national church continued to acquiesce with Nazi commands. Another command was to rid the Bible and churches of any “Jewish influence”. Ironically, this meant stripping the Bible of most of  its “Jewish elements” such as the Old Testament and re-casting Jesus as a strong, Aryan hero. Bonhoeffer’s response was to publish a book on the power and context of the book of Psalms. By releasing a book about the Old Testament, especially a book from the Bible that was considered very “Jewish”, Bonhoeffer was staking his claim that one could not divorce God from scripture, especially not to suit mere human needs. Despite the book being relatively unknown at the time, the simple act put Bonhoeffer in the sights of the Nazis. For the rest of his life, Bonhoeffer would respond to Hitler and Nazism with obstructions or acts of resistance. Eventually, he decided to join the active collective resistance that sought to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was convicted that the work of resistance was blessed and deemed necessary by God. He believed failing to speak out against the state was “fear” and that the Bible demands people to “‘Speak out for those who cannot speak’”. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for his role in the resistance on April 9, 1945 in Flossenburg concentration camp, two weeks before the camp was liberated. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a model for resistance against the temptation to fear and flee from the world. He refused to put his hope or obedience in any earthly powers. He knew God was sovereign and would ultimately bring justice. He modeled the habits by which we can nurture such hope; through daily acts of pursuit and worship of God. And he was a model for resistance against the evils of this world – such as racism and hatred. Resistance to the evil he witnessed was an integral part of his faith. Because of it, his actions flowed from the deep conviction of loving God and loving those God had created, whomever they may be. When we confront fear and evil in the world, may we engage and wrestle with it, always proclaiming the truth. And may the two greatest commandments – “Love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself” be our guideposts. 

Author Note:  Current views expressed by Eric Metaxas do not reflect my own. I am grieved that 10 years after writing a biography on a man who believed in weakness against power and honoring God far above earthly powers that Metaxas has attached himself so heartily to earthly powers. However, he researched and wrote an excellent book.

Eight Years Later: Part 3

This fall marks the 8-year anniversary of an adventure that redefined me.  Eight years ago, I packed a few changes of clothes, sunscreen, and notebooks and boarded the first of several planes that would bring me to Tanzania, the first stop in a two-country study abroad experience. It was my first time travelling on a plane without my family, my first time leaving the country, and the first step in a new direction for my life.

               I spent the fall semester of 2012 in Tanzania and Kenya (very distinct countries from one another, though I’ll describe my experiences with the broader term East Africa) with a group of 29 other students studying wildlife management, ecology, the Kiswahili language, and the interactions of humans and the environment. Witnessing elephants and lions in their natural habitats, being immersed in new culture, and being away from my comfort zone profoundly moved me. Until this point in my life, I floated confidently through college classes with a close-knit group of friends around me and a faith in God that had not been put through any difficult tests. I thought I would graduate college and go onto a graduate degree in wildlife management to find a job in the National Park Service. Upon returning from studying abroad, I found my life upended.

               Eight years down the road, I’m reflecting back on the ways my life was impacted by my semester abroad. I’ll be reflecting on faith, my worldview, my relationship with environmental issues, and general life direction in this four-part series.  This is Part 3: Worldview.

Reflecting on how my worldview was influenced by my time in East Africa has been personal and challenging. It has been particularly challenging to do so in 2020, a year where society has been reckoning with issues such as racism and nationalism. As a person who naturally withdraws from conflict, I am always concerned about how any of my words are taken and attempt to keep from being divisive. I do believe there is a difference between sharing my experience and being divisive, however. I hope that though I am reflecting on challenging topics, that I can share what I have learned in an honest way. 

Spending a semester in East Africa confronted two things in particular in my worldview: racism and nationalism. As I discussed in earlier reflections, my semester abroad pushed me out of a comfort zone. It revealed both parts of me and a world I didn’t know. With the benefit of eight years of learning and hindsight, much of what I initially confronted in East Africa revolved around privilege, specially racial and ethnic privilege. 

Conversations around privilege often push us into a defensive mode. Feeling defensive is understandable because acknowledging privilege is confronting something we’re stuck with (our skin color or ethnicity) or something we feel we have gained through hard work (education or wealth). But privilege is a broad term that attempts to measure our ability to fare and advance in society. Privilege encompasses both characteristics we’re born with and environmental factors. For example, the American system was built by white men who were educated and wealthy. As such, they created a system that made sense to them and favored other people like them – educated, wealthy, white males – these characteristics were inherent but also gained throughout their lives. So do we living in the modern age all have different types of privilege. My level of education, middle-class upbringing, and whiteness have all translated into opportunities and advancement for me. However, I have also felt looked over and lost opportunities because I am a woman. Conversations of privilege are not meant to attack one another but to make us aware of how we may consciously or unconsciously cash our privilege in for advantages, sometimes at the expense of others. As a follower of Christ, I believe we’re supposed to “be devoted to one another in love. Honoring one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). Loving one another is being willing to acknowledge that these seen and unseen forces of privilege can harm others and be willing to give preference to others. 

I first saw racial privilege play out in Kenya and Tanzania where my white skin clearly made me stand out. Whenever our group of thirty students would travel, we would be heralded by shouts of “mzungu” or “white person”, especially from children. Trips to the market would lead to crowds gathering around us to watch how we fumbled our way through bartering in Kiswahili. At first, the treatment was novel. Eventually, however I grew frustrated and just wanted to blend in. However, no matter the frustration or discomfort I felt over being casually observed, I never felt in danger. Even in a return trip to Kenya in 2014 where I was one of two white people everywhere I went, I have always felt safe and accommodated. This is the most obvious example of my racial privilege, especially in a time where our culture is addressing violence against our black brothers and sisters in particular. Instead of feeling nervous about being the one of the only white persons in a crowd or my skin color causing scared looks, comments, or even violence, my white skin engendered respect and accommodation. And far more than I was due. 

At the heart of me, are racist thoughts and beliefs. Whether they have been learned or present from the time of my birth isn’t the point, I’ve participated with the deadly cancer of racism. In my head is a shameful catalogue of racist words and deeds. I’m not brave enough to write them here, but I imagine they’ll stay with me my whole life. And unfortunately, I’ll probably continue to add to the catalogue. Racism is a corporate and individual sin from which none of us are exempt. Racism denies the divine nature present in all humans. And it keeps us from a central command from God to love each other as ourself. After realizing I never felt in danger despite being in a “minority” in East Africa, I returned to the U.S. wanting to learn about racism. Learning about racism is hard. Confronting it in my heart has been harder. I want to deny my participation, but racism is a cancer that reproduces in the dark corners. It’s not enough to learn about racism. Like treatment for cancer, there must be action taken to confront the racism in our hearts and replace it with the truth of every person’s worth and value. Confronting racism is a slow, arduous process. But if we believe every life has worth – whether born or unborn, black or white – then it is a journey worth taking. 

Tanzania and Kenya were the first places outside the United States I had ever traveled. Without the chance to travel, I don’t think I would have understood the privilege that comes from an American passport. All countries have patriotism and pride, but the sway of being an American is strong. We were in Nairobi in November 2012, the day of the election between President Obama and Mitt Romney. In a grocery store in Nairobi, I remember being stopped at least five times by different Kenyans who wanted to talk to me about the election. When we went to a cafe, election coverage was on the TV. I met people throughout Tanzania and Kenya, before and after that election who were heavily interested in American politics and would often know more about our political system than I did. At the time, I had no clue who the Kenyan or Tanzania presidents were, much less the leaders of any other countries. I met many people who had spent time and effort learning about our country and systems, but I hardly knew anyone back home who learned about other countries – myself including. 

More than just learning about our systems, though, I experienced an often unearned esteem from being an American. One time in Tanzania, we visited a local village called Koinam. In Koinam, we sat under a tree and learned from the village elders about the governance and management of the village. After they had shared with us, they turned to us and asked a group of 20-year-olds how they could improve their governance. Not surprisingly, we had no good ideas for them. At the time, I felt a sense of awkwardness and discomfort that a group of elders, who were running their village with humility, wisdom, and care, turned to a group of 20-year-olds who didn’t have anything in life figured out. While there is an element of sincere consideration for guests in Tanzanian culture and the elders may have been being polite and gracious, the insistence that Americans had the answers was not a one-time experience for us. At times it seemed to me that the attitude of American exceptionalism spilled across borders and led to non-Americans truly believing America was the most important country in the globe. 

America has also done a lot of good both domestically and abroad and I’m well aware of the fact that merely being born in the United States allowed me countless opportunities not afforded to others – like my semester abroad. The problem with privilege is the temptation to only see the good – the good person, the good acts, the good intentions – without also acknowledging and repenting for the bad and striving for better. Ethnic privilege especially comes at the expense of many people and countries around the world. In the continent of Africa alone, America averted its eyes from the Rwandan Genocide and South African apartheid, participated in the assassination of democratically elected leaders like Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and propped up numerous dictators in other African nations. As Americans, we need to learn about the hurt we have caused and hold leaders accountable to do better. Privilege allows us to stay in our bubble of only caring about America. Once more, my faith in Christ compels me to acknowledge the privilege I have being American and to look beyond. We’re told that in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Jesus may have come to earth in the form of a poor, Jewish man but he came to wipe the human distinctions away.

Studying in East Africa wasn’t a magic tool to reveal my privilege and racism. Instead it allowed me to interact with a different part of the world and realize different ideas or world views. Addressing challenging issues like racism requires a lifelong journey to keep learning and keep repenting when we make mistakes. I’ll forever be grateful for the nudge into that journey that studying abroad gave me.

Fungi and Viruses

Once upon a time, there was a disease. This disease was first identified in a different country overseas, but recently identified in the U.S. Not much was known about the pathogen, how it infected the hosts, or treatment options. But it caused problems. And plenty of debates sprung up about how it spread, how infectious it was, and if it really was a cause for concern. Sound familiar? Huh, I guess more people read my Masters thesis than the required four people.

At Michigan State, I studied a disease that was recently identified in the U.S. It was known to have been in Brazil and South Africa, but in 2014 through 2017, we identified it in eight counties in Michigan. Oh, and the disease I studied only affected beans. 

Often times, I feel that my grad school work in plant diseases doesn’t have any benefits beyond the agricultural world. But I’ve realized that my two and half years studying plant diseases have given me a basic understanding of our current pandemic. One of the main duties of a scientist is to share findings and information. I decided (while waiting for my own subsequently negative COVID-19 test) to share what I’ve learned about plant diseases and how it relates to our current situation.

A little bean plant with Fusarium root rot (distinguished by the red discoloration on the root).

I studied a fungal disease that caused a disease on dry beans and soy beans called Fusarium root rot. The first confusing aspect of diseases is the naming system (or one of my favorite words: nomenclature). Diseases are caused by pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, or viruses. The common cold is a virus, E. coli is a bacterial disease, and yeast infections are caused by fungi. However, the actual organisms that cause these diseases are called by different names. For example, the fungus that causes a yeast infection is Candida. The disease I studied is called Fusarium root rot. It is caused by several species of fungi known by names like: Fusarium phaseoli, Fusarium cuneirostrum, and Fusarium brasilience. The disease we call COVID-19 or coronavirus is caused by a virus that has been named SARS-CoV-2 (a note, in scientific nomenclature, species names are italicized so if SARS-CoV is written out “Severe acute respiratory syndrome – related coronavirus” then it would be italicized). The naming rules for microbes are strange. They follow taxonomy rules – how organisms are genetically related – and often named for where they’re found or by whom. The fungus I studied, Fusarium brasilience, was first identified in Brazil – hence the “brasilience”. The CoV-2 part of the virus’ name comes from its designation of being a coronavirus, a category of viruses based on their physical structures. Coronaviruses as a whole can infect humans or animals. 

My cute, little fungus, Fusarium brasiliense

Diving into any research may leave you frustrated because scientific language is confusing. It’s like its own language. Scientists are very careful not to use absolute language like “this is a newly discovered disease.” Instead, we say, “this is a recently identified disease” or “a novel disease”. But the word choice is intentional and important. A newly “discovered” disease conjures up the idea that the disease has never been known whereas the word “identified” means that it was the first time in scientific record that this disease has been known. Novel is also an intentional choice. When “novel” is used, it also means that it hasn’t previously been reported on in scientific records or literature. It’s not “new” because that is a judgment on the age or recency of the pathogen. For all we know, SARS-CoV-2 has been around for many years, it just hasn’t been around humans. The fungus I studied in Michigan often presented this challenge to me. To us, it was a novel pathogen in Michigan but not new because we didn’t know how long it had been in Michigan. The fungus may have been there for years and our tools unable to detect it or it could have been recently introduced. But it wasn’t for me to make the a judgment about its introduction.  My evidence wasn’t focused on when the fungus arrived or why, it just supported that the fungus was now present. 

This may seem like scientists are leaving the back door open for themselves. We often are. The very nature of science is that we learn something new and something contradictory everyday. Scientists don’t want to use absolute language because the next day new information may come along that changes our understanding. It should be comforting that scientists don’t use absolute statements, especially when describing something recently identified. It means we are open to new information.

Different levels of disease on bean roots, from least virulent to most.

Perhaps the most challenging part of COVID-19 is understanding the pathogenicity versus virulence. Pathogenicity and virulence are foundational principles in the study of diseases. We’ll start with pathogenicity.  Pathogenicity is a yes or no question. Is this fungus or virus a pathogen? In grad school, when Fusarium brasilience was identified in Michigan, we had to first figure out if it was a fungus that was actually causing disease or if it was essentially a fungus along for the ride. To answer this question, we grew Fusarium brasilience in the lab on petri dishes that had a food source, a starch. Then we would allow a single spore of Fusarium brasiliense to colonize sorghum grains. After several weeks, the fungus would have grown all over the grains, using them as an all-you-can-eat feast. These grains were added to a soilless growing medium (so there were no other microorganisms to muddy the results) with bean seeds. The beans were monitored over a several week growing period, with careful observance for disease symptoms such as stunting, yellowing of the leaves, and discoloration or rotting of the roots. Finally, the bean roots were washed, dried, and DNA was extracted. We ran tests to see if the Fusarium brasiliense DNA was found in the bean roots. If we found Fusarium brasiliense DNA in multiple tests, it would confirm that the fungus was indeed a pathogen.

A seedling pathogenicity assay – how we tested the pathogenicity of different pathogens

With the identification of COVID-19 (the disease), scientists had to first confirm the virus in question and whether it was causing disease or not. Confirming the pathogenicity of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus) was different from how I confirmed pathogenicity in grad school. The biggest challenge with viruses is they only live and reproduce on living hosts. Fungi can live on alive (like bean plants) or dead hosts (like downed trees in the forest) and this characteristic makes it much easier to study fungi. Some of the first tests to study the pathogenicity of SARs-CoV-2 were done on lab mice (Bao et al 2020). The lab mice in the study confirmed that the virus was a pathogen specifically of the respiratory system. 

After confirming pathogenicity, scientists can then describe the virulence of a pathogen, or the severity of the infection. This is where debates start springing up in our national discourse. How serious is COVID-19? Why does it cause some people to be asymptomatic and send others to the hospital? First, we often forget that diseases like COVID-19 are caused by living organisms that respond and react to conditions. 

My first classes in grad school taught about the disease triangle. The disease triangle shows an interaction between the pathogen, the host, and environment. Fusarium brasiliense thrives in cool, wet soil where there is compaction or little oxygen. So it will thrive more in a year where there is flooding as opposed to a drought year. The main interaction of the host is its resistance to a pathogen and how it fights back. Resistance in plants is similar to how a mammal’s immune system. I tested two types of beans that came from two different genetic “families” and had different levels of resistance. In my study, black beans had more inherent resistance to Fusarium root rot than kidney beans. And finally, the pathogen. Understanding the pathogen is the most complicated part of the disease triangle, mostly because of the microscopic nature of pathogens. However, we’re living in a microbiology information revolution. While humans have known about microbes for hundreds of years, we’ve lacked the tools to study them in depth. Fortunately, since science is always progressing, we are gaining better tools and understanding every day. 

Without microscopes, I wouldn’t have been able to creep on the reproductive lives of fungi

Preliminary information about SARS-CoV-2 suggests that the virus “tricks” the host’s immune system, causing the immune system to initially downplay its response rather than attack steadily and immediately (Kumar et al 2020). Studies also show that the virus is easily transferred from cell to cell in the vascular system, which can explain its spread into other areas of the body and a larger array of symptoms. The immune system is the most important part of our bodies’ defense system but everyone has a different immune system. Our immune system is both due to our genetics and what we’ve been exposed to throughout our lifetime. This is why public health officials have been calling for people who have chronic illnesses, are older, or have otherwise compromised immune systems to be careful. But none of us know what our immune system is truly like. We can’t have our immune system revealed to us like our blood type. And what makes COVID-19 unnerving is that our immune systems haven’t fought against a virus like this before. The spike we’re seeing now are due to the disease triangle creating an ideal situation – we’re spending more time indoors and near people. Since the virus survives on living hosts, it transfers from person to person. 

Learning about the pathogen, environment, and hosts and how they all interact are crucial. But they’re crucial because they can reveal a game plan for treatment. My work in grad school was spent studying Fusarium brasiliense, but also looking at fungicide treatments to offer farmers a way of combating Fusarium root rot. What surprises me most about plant diseases versus human diseases is the treatment. It often seems we are much more willing to put effort into figuring out treatment for crop diseases than human diseases. One aspect of treating crop diseases is the cultural control. Fusarium root rot had higher rates of disease in compacted soil so farmers were encouraged to use deep tillage to break up compaction as the first step of defense. If they routinely struggled with Fusarium root rot, then a fungicide was suggested. 

Humans struggle with the cultural treatments as well. We don’t like staying home or keeping our distance from people. But this disease is real. It affects people in ways we don’t fully understand. And the way we address it matters. Because the lives of human beings are far more important than human’s beans. 

(If you want to know more about my research (ya nerd), you can watch a short video I made for a communications class here, but you can’t read my thesis because that’s just too much)

Eight Years Later: Part 2

This fall marks the 8-year anniversary of an adventure that redefined me.  Eight years ago, I packed a few changes of clothes, sunscreen, and notebooks and boarded the first of several planes that would bring me to Tanzania, the first stop in a two-country study abroad experience. It was my first time traveling on a plane without my family, my first time leaving the country, and the first step in a new direction for my life.

               I spent the fall semester of 2012 in Tanzania and Kenya (very distinct countries from one another, though I’ll describe my experiences with the broader term East Africa) with a group of 29 other students studying wildlife management, ecology, the Kiswahili language, and the interactions of humans and the environment. Witnessing elephants and lions in their natural habitats, being immersed in new culture, and being away from my comfort zone profoundly moved me. Until this point in my life, I floated confidently through college classes with a close-knit group of friends around me and a faith in God that had not been put through any difficult tests. I thought I would graduate college and go onto a graduate degree in wildlife management to find a job in the National Park Service. Upon returning from studying abroad, I found my life upended.

               Eight years down the road, I’m reflecting back on the ways my life was impacted by my semester abroad. I’ll be reflecting on faith, my worldview, my relationship with environmental issues, and general life direction in this four-part series.  This is Part 2: Environment.

The first time I saw elephants in their natural habitat, everything else froze. I could only see the elephants. The way they gently swayed and slowly picked up their feet, their eyes examining the surroundings and staring warily at our jeep, the mothers shepherding their calves with their trunks. They were majestic. When they had passed and the world started moving again, I had to remind myself they were real. 

While studying abroad in Kenya and Tanzania, I was blessed to observe and marvel at animals I had long dreamt of seeing in their natural habitats. Over the course of the semester, we went to six different national parks and several wildlife conservation areas.  I saw countless hippos, a lioness stalking a herd of zebras, ostriches mating, a leopard dragging its prey up a tree, elephants playing, cheetahs resting in the shade of a nearby car, and even chased off some baboons from our kitchen. But beyond the moving experience of observing these magnificent animals, I also realized they don’t always inspire wonder among everyone.

Having a herd of elephants walk in front of your jeep is a humbling experience. It’s also terrifying. Female elephants are fiercely protective of their young and have been known to push over cars if they feel threatened. On one day in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, a female elephant felt we were too close to her calf and trumpeted and started running towards our jeep. Fortunately, our driver sped away before anything further happened. But we had protection of a vehicle. The people who live along wildlife corridors in Kenya and Tanzania don’t always have such protection and have lost their livelihoods and even lives to wildlife. 

A Kenyan friend, Francis, told me the story of a family member who lost his life because he stumbled upon an elephant in the dark and the elephant, acting in self-defense, trampled the man.  Unfortunately, such a story isn’t rare. We heard stories of others who had been attacked by hyenas or lions. 

In Kenya, we also met and interviewed farmers who had entire crops eaten by gazelles, trampled by elephants, or damaged by baboons. We learned from pastoralists, people who made their livings shepherding cows, sheep, or goats. Often these animals are easy prey for leopards or lions. Farmers and herders, angry at losing their livelihoods, often retaliate by killing or poisoning wildlife. 

Prior to talking to these farmers, retaliation against wildlife infuriated me. I recall reading about ranchers in the western United States who would go after wolves if the animals killed their sheep or cows. I couldn’t understand. Meeting farmers in East Africa gave me a new understanding of the conflict. And now as a farmer, it adds another layer. I farm in a forested area that is home to many deer. We’ve lost countless crops and thousands of dollars to deer. In deer hunting season, we are happy when hunters thin out the deer herd on our property. But deer aren’t valued in the same way as elephants or lioms so my celebration over thinning the deer herd doesn’t cause stirs. 

A major issue with human-wildlife conflict in East Africa is over the value of wildlife. Tourists bring about 1 billion US dollars yearly to do as I did – travel to national parks and be astounded by the wildlife. However, in Kenya, all wildlife belongs to the government.  If humans are killed or injured by wildlife, the Kenyan government has a process for people to receive compensation for their loss. The compensation for a deceased family member is 5 million Kenyan shillings, about $46,000 US dollars, while an injury is worth about $18,000 US dollars. But the process to receive compensation is laborious and often gets tied up in Kenyan bureaucracy for years. The entire situation leads many Kenyans to wonder who is more valuable, the wildlife or the humans. 

The challenging nuances of human-environmental conflict wasn’t real to me until my semester in Kenya and Tanzania. I had always landed on a preservationist side regarding the environment. I thought the environment, including wildlife, should be preserved at all costs and that humans should intrinsically value pristine wilderness and wildlife. I began to realize there were more factors in the value calculation than I had thought. 

Wildlife and the environment are indued with immense intrinsic value. I believe that the environment was created with joy and that God looks on it with love and satisfaction that. I enjoy the environment beyond what it can provide for me. And I believe humans are tasked with the role of caring and protecting the environment. Yet the balancing act of human lives and the environment is challenging. Can I tell another human that their livelihood is less valuable than an elephant or lion? Is it wrong for humans to feel the urge to retaliate against wildlife if a loved one is taken from them? Are there times that we put more resources into protecting wilderness than protecting the lives of humans? 

While I believed when I was younger that the environment could be something separate from humans, I learned that caring for the environment means also regarding humans. Habitat destruction is a large problem in many places around the world, including Kenya and the United States. Often natural forests or grasslands are destroyed to make way for human activities. But if we zoom out from habitat destruction, we see many times that destruction is preceded by poverty.  Even poaching, one of the major environmental crises of our time, is done by people who need money to feed their families or send kids to school. When people are struggling to find food, it’s hard for them to enjoy the majesty of an elephant that trampled down their means to a paycheck. 

Any environmental action needs to take humans and their values into account. Most humans won’t do something if it doesn’t align in their value calculations. This is why climate change action is so tricky. If people don’t see direct effects of climate change in their lives, they have little impetus to adapt. A good example of an environmental solution aligning with values in Kenya are beehive fences. Elephants fear African honeybees and have been observed to make a distinct rumble to alert other elephants when faced with a hive. Fences made of honeybee hives protect fields and offer an additional source of income to farmers from the sale of honey and beeswax. When humans aren’t coming into conflict with wildlife, they are more able and willing to see the value of wildlife. 

As our world faces environmental challenges like wildfires, climate change, poaching, and deforestation, we will need to find solutions that protect humans and livelihoods while also not forsaking our role as caretakers and stewards of the natural world. 

Eight Years Later: Part 1

               This fall marks the 8-year anniversary of an adventure that redefined me.  Eight years ago, I packed a few changes of clothes, sunscreen, and notebooks and boarded the first of several planes that would bring me to Tanzania, the first stop in a two-country study abroad experience. It was my first time travelling on a plane without my family, my first time leaving the country, and the first step in a new direction for my life.

               I spent the fall semester of 2012 in Tanzania and Kenya (very distinct countries from one another, though I’ll describe my experiences with the broader term East Africa) with a group of 29 other students studying wildlife management, ecology, the Kiswahili language, and the interactions of humans and the environment. Witnessing elephants and lions in their natural habitats, being immersed in new culture, and being away from my comfort zone profoundly moved me. Until this point in my life, I floated confidently through college classes with a close-knit group of friends around me and a faith in God that had not been put through any difficult tests. I thought I would graduate college and go onto a graduate degree in wildlife management to find a job in the National Park Service. Upon returning from studying abroad, I found my life upended.

               Eight years down the road, I’m reflecting back on the ways my life was impacted by my semester abroad. I’ll be reflecting on faith, my worldview, my relationship with environmental issues, and general life direction in this four-part series.  This is Part 1: Faith.

               Growing up, I was steeped in Christianity. I was fortunate to have adults in my life who encouraged me to ask challenging questions about God and who would search for the answers with me. As such, I never was never given pat answers to questions like “can women be in ministry” or “what is prayer” or “how do we even know God exists”.  I was taught to dig into faith and that God could stand up to my questions. But my faith was relatively easy; living in a middle-class, privileged family and attending a faith-based college where most had similar upbringings kept me comfortable.

               I realized my semester abroad was going to be out of my comfort zone when I met up with my other twenty-nine other classmates in Heathrow airport in London. We had a twelve-hour layover until we would fly to Nairobi (and then on to Tanzania), so we camped out by some chairs and idly chatted. I remember thinking “These people are not like my classmates at Bethel”. Many of them dabbled in what my upbringing would consider “worldly things” like partying, drinking, drugs, etc. At first all these “worldly pursuits” stood out like like a stain. A side effect of a Christian upbringing is a tendency towards judgment and a legalist attitude about things outside the church. The initial meeting distressed me and my judgment initially closed me off to my classmates. I remained closed to my classmates until a week or two into our time in Tanzania when we went on a safari at a nearby national park.  We were split into jeeps with four or five other students and I had a blast with the people in my jeep, a realization that surprised me at first.

               As I stood, watching the savanna rumble by, I realized it was ridiculous to judge my classmates by standards I had defined. I heard a whisper saying “The Lord does not judge by outward appearances but looks inward at the heart”.  I was convicted. If I believed God was the ultimate creator, God had created my classmates with the same love and compassion with which I was created. I learned that the standards were instead a mask of judgment. While I judged people for partying, I was being judged by God for harboring resentment or fake righteousness against others. Cracking the façade of false holiness allowed me to open myself up and understand my classmates as loved and cherished creations of God. During the semester I came to know my classmates and was moved by their hearts, character, and passion.

                The other development of my faith wasn’t fully realized until I came home. Being immersed in East Africa meant learning about a new culture, a new vision of the world. This worldview extended to a different vision of faith. Sometimes in western culture, Jesus is relegated to a holy wish granter or someone who protects us from the hard facts of life. He is pictured in the classic church paintings as a white man with long brown hair and a beard. In many churches his teachings are also watered down and sanitized. But in Tanzania, I saw a vision of Jesus as a black shepherd among the Maasai herdsmen, wearing red plaid cloths called shukas and keeping watch out for the lions. If the Holy Trinity created humankind in their image, then God was a nomad, a herdsman, a shepherd, a warrior like the people I met.

After I returned home, I went back to a church I had been attending in the Twin Cities.  The pastor gave a sermon instructing the congregation of the necessity of finding good mentors to help people improve in their personal lives or businesses. I remember the only connection to Christ was one random verse plucked from the Bible to back up his words. As I sat there, I was disheartened and frustrated. If faith in Jesus was only good for shoring up our financial interests or making our personal lives more productive, I didn’t see the point.

               I stopped going to church. I had met Jesus who walked among his creation and people while in East Africa. He commanded his followers to clothe, care for, teach, and feed those who orphaned, HIV-infected, hungry, or oppressed. But I wasn’t seeing that Jesus clearly in the U.S. I kept seeing churches focused on money, politics, or reputation.  Looking back, I count myself among the apathetic church crowd. As a broken person, I care more about myself and my desires than loving and caring for others. But a year after I first boarded the plane for Tanzania, I took a class called the Theology of Mission where a thoughtful professor walked us through the Bible and showed how the entire Bible spoke to a central theme: God’s people were given knowledge, favor, and privilege not to enrich themselves but to cast it off for the sake of serving others in the name of Christ. Suddenly the Bible spoke to me again. It propelled me to consider my brothers and sisters and act as Jesus’ hands and feet.  

               God has not been handed down to the western churches to dole out as we see fit. Jesus came down as a poor, Middle Eastern human to unleash his kingdom to the entire world. Faith is action. It requires us to push from our comfort zone, to join the brokenhearted and oppressed. Faith propels us to be unattached to our physical goods and be attached to the intangible – mercy, compassion, grace, and love. In Kenya and Tanzania, I found God cannot be confined. God cares for all nations and tribes. God speaks every language. God is Mungu.

Baba yetu uliye mbinguni, jina lako litukuzwe; ufalme wako ufike, utakalo lifanyike duniani kama mbignuni.

(Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven).

Enjoying the Serengeti landscape in Tanzania with a dear friend

Reclaiming the Thistles

Before the adjective “essential” was attached to specific jobs and careers, environmental stewardship was designated essential by God. The first designation of this crucial role came in Genesis 2:15 when God appointed the first humans to “tend and keep” the earth. After creating the physical, chemical, and biological elements of the universe, God turned to Adam and Eve to offer them a task: to name, care for, and keep creation. When Adam and Eve were turned out of the Garden of Eden in brokenness, God declared their sacred callings would now be burdened with toil and pain.

As a vegetable farmer, I often find myself remembering the first act of rebellion when cultivating weeds. Genesis 3:17-19 speaks of thistles and thorns being produced from the ground rather than good, nourishing food.  Whether hacking away at thistles with a hand hoe or the tractor weeding equipment, I turn my frustration towards Adam and Eve. However, modern weed science has shown that certain weeds respond to specific environmental conditions. The Canadian Thistle, a common weed in certain fields on our farm, is an indicator of compacted soil.  Compacted soil is the byproduct of working the soil improperly just as my grudge toward the thistles and Adam and Eve is misplaced frustration at my own brokenness. God gave humans a calling to care for the earth, but too often we have neglected that calling and brought harm to the earth.

Much has been said about the failures of farming in particular to protect our natural resources. Farming has been a responsible for acts of degradation such as algal blooms in lakes, rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico from over-fertilization, or the incredible erosion of Iowa topsoil over the last several decades. In August 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report describing land use and its impact on climate change.  Agricultural enterprises were found to contribute about 20-35% of the human-caused greenhouse gasses.

When the information was released, many farmers felt their livelihoods were being unfairly targeted. Corn and dairy farmers in our region of Wisconsin shot back their defenses on social media or around the coffee pot at church.  But farmers must do more than defend; we have been designated as keepers and tenders and have an essential role to play in climate responsibility. Since farmers have their feet on the ground, we must reckon with environmental successes and failures.

Farmers must join with activists, policymakers, and lay people if true reckoning and actions are to be accomplished. Farmers, including myself, take pride in putting our heads down and working without asking for help. The first year my husband and I farmed on our land, we refused the warnings of older farmers regarding the land, thinking we knew better.  At the end of a disheartening year, we learned pride had closed our ears and hearts, that the older farmers were correct. Nothing is more important than the call from God which asks us to join in keeping and tending. Pride, political disagreements, and cultural divides are the thistles and thorns dissuading us from striving for climate improvement. Though they may be onerous to work around and require work to dig out, a fruitful crop requires labor.

The best solution to remove thistles from a field is to break up compaction through deep tillage. It is a several year act that requires mindful work and perseverance. But essential work, like climate stewardship, is painful. It requires discipline to change the ways we act, travel, purchase, and grow.

Like the brokenness flowing from Adam and Eve’s first sin, the command given to them in Genesis 2:15 extends to us all. We are all essential workers in God’s creation. Our earthly labor is to hoe the weeds and reclaim a small patch of ground at a time. But with every swipe of the hand hoe, we remember: to tend, to keep, to reclaim.

To My Son

Shortly after finding out I was pregnant with our first child, we went on a family trip to Maui.  Snorkeling through coral reefs, among zig-zagging fish and sea turtles was an experience I will never forget.  While floating, I thought of the child in my womb and how I hoped they could experience this wonder some day.  Even though my son didn’t experience the snorkeling first hand, it felt like we were dancing through the coral reefs together. I wrote this poem right after snorkeling to remember.  On my first Mother’s Day with my son outside of the womb, I’m remembering this precious moment and all of the moments of wonder my son has had so far: his face lighting up at the presence of our dog, his tiny fingers running through the grass, touching a tree for the first time.  I’m so grateful to be experiencing these first with him and dream of our continued explorations. To my dear, sweet son who brings joy and laughter every day, I love you.  Let’s keep exploring the wonders of this world. 


When you were yet in my womb

we pirouetted in the push and pull

of an underwater ballet

moving in the same force

as the butterflyfish, tangs,

parrotfish, and wrasse. 

This world, this world of brilliant blue

and neon yellow,

of cauliflower coral, brain coral

is the world you will soon inherit.

When you walk on this planet

built of colonies of polyps

and singing humpback whales

I hope you explore in wonder.

But child, you will walk on a planet

fragile and fatigued

the coral reef where we spun

was faded.

Together, you and I,

we will nurture, redeem, and dance

caring for the damselfish and oak trees

as our friends in divine creation.

When you leave your watery womb

you will find this watery world

marvelous and broken

dance with me, child, and

together we will redeem.

On Farming and Motherhood

Last fall, Dirk and I attended a vegetable farmer “meet-and-greet” lunch.  We spent the afternoon mingling with other farmers, exchanging tips of the trade, and of course, eating each other’s kale or cabbage salads. Towards the end, we sat in a circle and had the opportunity to ask the whole group questions on challenges that would be ameliorated through brainstorming.  Among the group, Dirk and I were the only childless couple and I watched as the farm-grown children scampered off, at ease around equipment and dirt.

“Dirk and I are thinking about starting to try for kids soon.  How do you make kids and a farm work?” I asked the gathered group.  Opinions immediately began flying at us as everyone told us to wait as long as we could and focus on the farm for a while as having a baby the first year on a new farm would be a terrible idea. We took the advice to heart, but we never have complete control over our plans, much less our reproductive systems.  Now I sit, fourteen weeks pregnant, with a perceptible rounding of my belly, and constantly wonder about farming and motherhood.

Long before I became pregnant or started farming, I decided I would be a working mother.  I came from a long line of working mothers.  My mother, both grandmothers, and at least one great-grandmother had all raised kids while working outside the home.  While I never had the chance to talk to my grandmothers about the challenges; I learned from my mom that working and raising children is challenging.  My mom, a compassionate and talented nurse who loves her work, cut back from full time to part time and switched from working on a floor with long shifts to the dependable hours of a clinic so she could spend more time with us kids. Yet I have always admired how my mom found joy in both working and mothering.

Being both a farmer and mother isn’t an insurmountable challenge.  Farming is just another job, albeit a job that is demanding. I’ve heard it said by many farmers that “the farm will take all you can give and more”.  The challenge with farming and being a mother is the commitment required by both. To a certain extent, people with office jobs can leave their physical work at the office.  Farmers step out of the door and are at work.  Farmers make strange boasts like “I work 24/7” or “I can’t remember the last time I took a vacation” as a way to show their commitment to the farm.   With motherhood, or even an attempt at wellbeing, this attitude just isn’t possible. For me, farming is a vocation, a holy call, and a passion, but I would drop growing vegetables instantly for the sake of the human growing inside me.

The search for balance between work and family is not new for women.  I’m another woman in a line of billions realizing anew the complexities of our system and unseen expectations for women.  I always planned on being a working mother, but until I saw my child on the ultrasound screen and heard its heartbeat, I didn’t realize how much I wanted “mother” to outrank any work I accomplish.  I want to be a good farmer, to feed and nourish people and the soil.  But I want to feed and nourish my child more, to raise my child into a person who is gentle, loving, compassionate, curious, and conscientious.  Fortunately, my job can help show my child one example of living out those attributes, I just have to figure out how to make the farm work for my family.


Farmer and Mother (just didn’t know about the mother part yet!)