Friends from Faraway and Long Ago: Kitsa and Lydia

Kitsa and Lydia were among the very few women in my graduating class at Eastern Mennonite College who did not wear a prayer veiling atop their heads. Why? Because they were not Mennonite.

Lydia Mattar from Jerusalem, Jordan and Kitsa Adamidou from Salonika, Greece were international students and my good friends when I attended EMC. Their origins both have a biblical stamp: Kitsa’s hometown was originally known as Thessalonika, the name of two New Testaments books (Thessalonians I and II) and Kitsa’s father from Jerusalem was the Keeper of the Garden Tomb, the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. (Photos from 1963 Shenandoah yearbook)

KitsaYearbookPortrait

Always on the look-out for fun!
Kitsa, always on the look-out for fun!

And then Lydia . . .

LydiaYearbook Portrait

Lydia in Dr. Daniel Suter's Anatomy class
Lydia in Dr. Daniel Suter’s Anatomy class with lab assistant

I was drawn to Kitsa and Lydia during my freshman year because I have always been curious about other cultures. In fact, one year Lydia was my roommate. It appears this inclination has run deep in my DNA. Now as I hold in my hand one of my Grandma Fannie Longenecker’s letters from college I can sense her keen interest in my “foreign” friends and a deep longing to know them better.

In this letter dated December 1, 1960, she insists that she would like both girls to spend Christmas at her home. Born in 1892, Grandma Fannie Longenecker was 68 when she wrote these words to me:

Dear Marian – Guess you’ll be surprised to hear from me, I sure wanted to write before, just didn’t get at it – (Reason) older and slower . . . . Ruth was looking for a letter from you so be sure and bring Lydia & Kitsa along home over Christmas, and forget all about paint etc, two of you can stay here & we’ll have a good time that’s the thing that really matters, I think I’ll be Kitsa’s Grandma of America – Do you know what she needs or wants for Christmas? Forgot to say I’ll pay her way up & we really want them to come, so make it strong, times soon here!

Later in the letter, Grandma admonishes:

Be sure and get arrangements to come home early & if possible bring the girls along. I’ll pay Kitsa’s fare on arrival & find out what she would like for Christmas. This $ 5.00 spot is for you, maybe you need a little for odds and ends or transportation home. Tell us what you are hungry for, that you don’t get at school.

Mark tells me ‘Marian will soon come home’ and his face lights up, so we are all looking forward to that day. Hope your old toe is better.

Grandma’s interest in Kitsa persisted through most of my college years. In her letter of March 8, 1962, she referred to Kitsa and her roommate pictured on the front page of Christian Living magazine (February 1962).

For over 25 years, my Grandma and Aunt Ruthie practiced peace and goodwill toward all, as they opened their home to refugee and immigrant families, beginning with Phuong (pictured below), a young woman who arrived by boat from Vietnam. Their home was a warm cushion absorbing the cultural shock of leaving home and family; it was a safe haven, welcoming refugees from a colláge of countries including Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Russia—anywhere there was political upheaval.

1979Grandma,Ruthie, Phuong_small

Although she graciously accepted the Salt of the Earth Award from Lutheran Social Services in the 1990s, Aunt Ruthie never bragged about her benevolence. From her perspective, she was merely sharing the love of Christ and fulfilling the statement of Menno Simons, founder of the Mennonite faith:

Framed print on the wall of Grandma and Aunt Ruthie's sitting room, 1996
Framed illustration on the wall of Grandma and Aunt Ruthie’s sitting room, 1996

In a noisy world where some speak of building tall walls and wish to spread terror and violence, I am thankful for my heritage including an education at an institution, now Eastern Mennonite University, where the language of peace is preached and modeled. In fact, it is now possible to earn both under-graduate and graduate degrees in justice and peace-building at the University.

EMUJusticPeaceQuote

 

Regrettably, the contact information I have currently for both Kitsa and Lydia has not yielded any results, so I don’t know what paths their lives have taken. But I do know that their lives, like mine, have been imprinted with the power of peace, a message this world could stand a good dose of in these troubled times.

Postcript:

Just this morning, December 11, 2015, I had a long phone conversation with Kitsa, her smooth, alto voice music to my ears. She now lives with her husband in North Carolina and is very active at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church where she is head of the Hellenic Culture initiative. She also gives private Greek language lessons.


 

How have international friendships affected your life? Have you connected with long-lost friends recently?

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Fighting Spirit: Rhetoric, Rotten Rulers, and a Sex Strike

Is a family graduation on your calendar this year?

As a faculty member at Florida State College at Jacksonville (then Florida Community College), I attended graduation every year in full regalia with hundreds of ecstatic grads, joyful families, and proud faculty and administration.

The Tawdry Tale

One year stands out though: 2001. State Representative X rose to the podium to deliver the commencement address and announced that his remarks would be short and to the point. Relieved, the audience sat back to enjoy a brief speech entitled A Short Guide to a Happy Life.  Hmm . . . the title sounded familiar, I thought. Then he went on to tick off the main points: 1. Don’t confuse life with work. 2. Life is what happens when you are making other plans. 3. If you win the rat race, you are still a rat. . . . Then it dawned on me. I have heard this all before. In fact I’ve read it. Recently. In a book. In a book by Anna Quindlen with the same title. This man with an honorable title in high office is plagiarizing his speech, giving no credit to Quindlen or reference to her book. His whole speech. Boldly. Baldly. With no bones about honesty!

QuindlenShortGuide

My sense of justice on high alert, I set out to right the wrong. No, to expose the guilty. I contact the campus president in charge of graduation. Yes, she will check up on my suspicion and she does follow through. There are more emails and phone calls, which in the end boil down to the critical question: Where is the audio recording of that address? Alas, it is never un-earthed. We are told the recording mechanism failed (?) and thus no incriminating evidence is available. Sadly, just my words remain which have now fallen. Flat. On deaf ears.

*  *  *

My own college graduation is a distant memory. When I graduated from Eastern Mennonite College with a degree in English, I was still a plain girl, but with a B. A. degree in English education. I don’t remember at all who spoke at the commencement address or what the topic was, but I am sure there was an emphasis on service to others, demonstrating peace while upholding justice, still strong tenets of my alma mater, now Eastern Mennonite University.

Senior Photo: Eastern Mennonite College
Senior Photo: Eastern Mennonite College

 

The Nobel Laureate

Tomorrow another graduation occurs. On Sunday, April 27, 2014 an honorable woman, Leymah Gbowee, co-winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and a 2007 EMU alumna, will give the 96th annual commencement address at Eastern Mennonite University. Gbowee was the focus of a documentary “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which demonstrates how women, both Christian and Muslim confronted then-Liberian President Charles Taylor “with a demand for peace and end a bloody 14-year-old civil war.” Her genius: Gbowee rallied women, all dressed in white from various ethnic groups to lock arms, protest, and over time literally pray the ruthless rebels, including the President, into retreat. They even staged a sex strike which her book describes in more detail. In 2007 Leymah Gbowee received a Master of Arts in Conflict Transformation from the Center for Justice and Peace-building at EMU, also her alma mater. No doubt in her graduation speech she will make reference to her book: Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War.

BookLaymahGbowee

But I can assure you—she has plagiarized neither her book nor her speech!

*  *  *

When have you become outspoken against an injustice?  What were the results?

Have you heard of Leymah Gbowee? Anyone else you know with her qualities?

Homecoming: Old Friends, New Friend

“Going Home, going home, I’m just going home . . . .”  William Arms Fisher wrote a spiritual tune with nostalgic lyrics adapted from the famous largo in Dvorak’s 9th Symphony that hints of going home “through an open door.”

Last Saturday I walked through the open door back home to my college reunion during Homecoming weekend at Eastern Mennonite University. Nestled among the purple mountains of Virginia in the lush Shenandoah Valley, EMU‘s banner proclaims itself “A Chritian University Like No Other.”

OutdoorBanner

EMU was just a college when I attended. Now the campus seems twice as large and current students way younger than I remember. I kept having to adjust to the sensation of flipping between decades as I viewed the campus and my classmates in a time warp.

There were other adjustments too. College girls now were sporting blue jeans and serious jewelry; my female classmates, like me, all wore braids or buns with prayer coverings.

MarianCollege

Our class gift was the donation of the campus’ first piano. Now there was a magnificent pipe organ in the sanctuary, string ensembles playing folksy tunes, and (gasp!) a theatre department.

“Scatter seeds of loving deeds . . . till we are gathered home at last.” Walking Roots Band

Old Friends

My college room-mate Verna Mohler Colliver and me
My college room-mate Verna Mohler Colliver and me
Other room-mates and friends: Our name tags imprinted with college yearbook photos.
Other room-mates and friends: Our name tags imprinted with college yearbook photos.
Raymond Martin, motorcycle ridin' class-mate
Raymond Martin, motorcycle ridin’ class-mate

Yes, we have all changed. The institution has changed too, outwardly at least, but the mission of the university has remained the same: commitment to rigorous academics with an invitation “to follow Christ’s call, to bear witness to faith, serve with compassion, and walk boldly in the way of nonviolence and peace” in true Anabaptist Mennonite tradition. The motto that was displayed front and center in the sanctuary of the chapel when I was a student still remains: Thy Word is Truth John 17:17.

New Friend

Shirley Hershey Showalter and I have been getting acquainted in the blog world by visiting each other’s websites since March 2013. In September of this year her memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets and Glittering World was published and she has been on a whirlwind book tour, yet she made time for us to meet and visit over breakfast at her home in Harrisonburg, VA on the edge of the EMU campus.

SHSandME

Her breakfast room and office space overlook the gorgeous Massanutten Mountains. The office space includes what you would expect from a college English professor, turned college president and now author–tons of books and orderly files. However, I discovered that there is a special chair where she weaves the magic: a red upholstered swivel chair facing the mountain view. No wonder her book sings!

magic chair
magic chair

“I promise: you will be transported,” says Bill Moyers of her memoir. Part Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, part Growing Up Amish, and part Little House on the Prairie, this book evokes a lost time in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, when a sheltered little girl with big dreams entered a family and church caught up in the midst of the cultural changes of the 1950s and `60s.

Her website and blog: http://www.shirleyhersheyshowalter.com

Carolyn Stoner, winner of BLUSH book giveaway contest
Carolyn Stoner, winner of BLUSH book giveaway contest

Carolyn reports that she loves, loves, loves the book and has underlined certain passages and even inserted little pink sticky notes to earmark special pages. (Stickies concealed for photo!) Carolyn’s name was chosen in a drawing by commenting on my review of Shirley new book: Book review and Contest

Your comments welcome! I will always reply.