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Tribute: Gene Stolzfus, 1940–2010

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In 1963, Gene Stoltzfus was a volunteer aid worker in Vietnam. One day he happened upon a number of military helicopters landing at a nearby field.

“The helicopters were disgorging Vietnamese soldiers who were killed and wounded in a battle about 25 kilometers away,” he recalled. “This was my introduction to war, and this was the beginning of a journey for me to understand being a person of peace in the midst of war.”

The experience set him on his life’s course as a Christian peace activist – a career that ended Mar. 10 when he died of a heart attack in Fort Frances, Ont. He was 70.

Born in Aurora, Ohio, Gene founded or directed peace and justice programs in the U.S. and the Philippines. But his crowning achievement was the creation of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), which he helped found in 1988 and directed until 2004, when he and his wife, Dorothy Friesen, retired to Fort Frances.

The central idea behind CPT, he explained, “was that disciplined and trained teams of people could be put together into highly charged, critical situations and they could make a difference.”

Such work, he knew, was not without its dangers. In 2005, the worst came true when four CPTers, including Canadian James Loney, were taken hostage in Iraq. One of the group, Tom Fox, was killed by his captors before the rest were rescued.

For Gene, these kinds of risks were part of what it meant to be a peacemaker.

“In the work of nonviolence, we try to spiritually prepare ourselves for whatever punishment might come,” he said, noting that just as soldiers are willing to give their lives in war, peacemakers should also be “willing to put their lives on the line.”

Gene himself spent time in dangerous places with CPT, including time in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. He was also arrested a number of times for participating in his nonviolent protests. The last one occurred last fall, near Las Vegas, when he and six others tried to gain entry to Creech Air Force Base to talk to its commander about the morality of using drones to kill people in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Following his arrest, he spent a night and day in a local jail. “Somewhere along the way I was relieved of my shoes, socks, watch, ID, money, and everything but my pants and shirt,” he wrote on his blog, Peace Probe. “Later in the night, I was pushed into a 10-foot by 20-foot holding cell where 18 other people were already making some kind of peace, or silently plotting revenge at police who had shouted or insulted them on their road to detention.”

Most of us would cringe at the thought of being incarcerated. But Gene considered it an opportunity to learn from his cell mates, and also to reflect on what it feels like to be powerless.

“Angels always come to me in unkempt and upsetting ways,” he wrote of his experience. “My cell mates were curious about Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they also reminded me to watch out for bully behaviour wherever it shows up – in Afghanistan, or in Las Vegas police uniforms.”

Not everyone agreed with Gene’s philosophy, strategy, or tactics. But the avuncular man with the bright eyes, ready smile, and big, white Santa Claus beard had a gift for making everyone feel welcome and heard. His goal was to always listen to all sides of a conflict and try to reach a peaceful resolution.

That included listening to those who are considered the worst of enemies – terrorists. Sometime this year, he planned to go to the Middle East to meet “radicalized Muslims,” he said, “to understand a little more deeply how they think.” He will now not get that chance.

Reflecting on Gene’s life, Simon Barrow, co-director of the British religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, said that as a “deeply committed Christian, Gene devoted his whole life to following Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and to challenging the princes of war, whatever ideological or religious garb they chose to wear.

“In a world where religious faith is often seen and spoken of as a source of conflict, he showed another way – a way of deep faith in the possibilities of humanity when eternal love, not temporal rivalry and hate, is our source and inspiration.”

Gene was a special person. He was also my friend. By chance, I met him on Mar. 7, just a few days before he died. He and Dorothy were in Winnipeg, and decided to attend worship at my church before heading back to Fort Frances. After the service, we spent a few minutes reminiscing about old friends and old times. We promised to stay in touch.

That won’t happen, now that he is gone. But Gene Stoltzfus’ legacy lives on.

John Longhurst is director of marketing and sales for Mennonite Publishing Network. He is a member at River East MB Church, Winnipeg. This article first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.

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