Latin American Missions

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“And a ruler asked him, Good Teacher,
what must I do to inherit eternal life? …
When Jesus heard this, he said to him,
One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have
and distribute to the poor, and you will have
treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
(Luke 18:18-2)

As my time at Cornell University grew closer to an end in 1979, my anxiety grew because I had accepted admission, I thought, to the doctoral program only to learn later that my admission was contingent on maintaining a straight-A average. As the son of an economist, I knew that I would spend the rest of my life living in my father’s shadow if I did not finish a doctorate and I had no contingency plan for finishing up. I therefore explored options that would allow me to improve my Spanish and continue in Latin American studies. My uncle John suggested that I consider spending some time overseas working in missions with the Reformed Church in America (RCA).

The RCA sought missionaries that would live and work in Latin America so I was eager to apply. The interview required a psychiatric examination so I made a day-trip to Princeton, New Jersey to meet with an evaluator. There I took a series of written tests, including a Rorschach test and an opportunity to draw a recreational scene. In going over the Rorschach test, the evaluator seemed surprised that I noticed an increasing use of color in ink blots, as if no one had previously noticed. He also seemed interested in the tennis game that I drew, because it pictured me with my best friend who was also considering ministry.

In the interview that followed, no mention was made of my examination, but focused more on the ministry requirements, should I enter missions. The interviewer pointed to the relational component required for effective missions work, while I was more concerned with the technical requirements, having just finished graduate work in agricultural development. When we discussed salary, I flinched—working full-time for the RCA I would earn less than in the internship that I had had the previous summer working for the federal government. If I had completed a seminary degree, he explained, the RCA could offer me a higher salary. However, the conversation broke down when the interviewed told me that the RCA required at least a ten-year commitment of missionaries.

Ten years!

I had been thinking of working in missions for two or three years, but ten years was outside the scope of my thinking. In 1979, I was single and only 26 years old. I had never planned activities more than about five years into the future. What woman would consider even dating me knowing that I earned only a meager income and would disappear to parts unknown for an entire decade? No wonder that the interviewer passed over my examination results quickly; the idea of a ten-year commitment freaked me out and I could not continue the discussion. I left the interview distraught over my school situation and the prospect of never enjoying a decent job and normal family life.

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Boundaries Revisited

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was,
and when he saw him, he had compassion.” (Luke 10:33)

Boundaries Revisited

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the summer of 2002, Pastor Rob Bromhead at Centreville Presbyterian Church preached a sermon which referred to a book by Henry Cloud and John Townsend called Boundaries. What is a boundary? Cloud and Townsend write: Just as homeowners set out physical property lines around their land, we need to set mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries for our lives to help us distinguish what is our responsibility and what isn’t (25). The sermon intrigued me. That afternoon I went on-line and ordered a copy of the book.

Reading through Cloud and Townsend, two points made a big impression on me.

The first impression came from Cloud and Townsend’s reading of the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30-35. They ask: why do we call the Samaritan good rather than great? They observe that the Samaritan saved the life of the man assaulted by robbers and cared for him (this made him “good”), but the Samaritan did not depart from his business trip to take care of him; instead, he delegated the man’s care and continued his trip. In other words, the Good Samaritan did what he could, but maintained healthy boundaries on his care giving.

This insight into healthy boundaries in care giving impressed me greatly because for years anxiety about not being able to “save the world” had left me feeling powerless to initiate simple steps of charity that were well within my reach. The healthy boundaries displayed by the Good Samaritan therefore empowered me to take steps to become more charitable myself. While I still could not save the world, I could offer charity to the needy person in front of me.

The second impression came from Cloud and Townsend’s observation about abuse. Abusers are people who disrespect other people’s boundaries. It is our responsibility to communicate our boundaries; it is their responsibility to respect them. Both parts are important in reducing the relational uncertainty that often causes pain, anxiety, and stress.

Thinking about stress, I remember working years earlier for a manager who was a screamer—if you offended his sensibilities, he threw a loud tantrum. After experiencing a couple of these tantrums, I went to a friend who knew him better to ask why she continued to work with him. She responded that she really enjoyed working with him because once you knew what his hot buttons were, life was easy—he was very consistent. In other words, my screaming manager had well-formed boundaries and, contrary to my initial assessment, his staff did not see him as abusive.

Cloud and Townsend’s teaching about abuse alerted me to problems in my own life. In the office and at home, I lacked safe time and space, and experienced a feeling of being out of control because I had let other people hijack my boundaries. In the office, when I began to assert personal boundaries, my supervisory took offense and over the next year engineered my early retirement along with six months severance pay to walk out the door. At home, I asserted personal boundaries by volunteering to serve as an elder at church in the fall of 2002.

My three-year term as elder began in January 2003 and in our first meeting I volunteered to serve as clerk of session. While many people view the clerk’s role as primarily being the chief note-taker, I viewed the clerk as the chief lay leadership role in the church. Thus, when Pastor Rob appealed to the elders to help out on Sunday mornings by offering personal testimonies (we lost our associate pastor), I told him: “I do not feel comfortable offering a personal testimony, but I will help you preach.” Over the next year I preached about once a quarter and began teaching adult Sunday school on a regular basis.

The engineering of my retirement took the form of a series of short term research projects under tight supervision. Projects that others might work on over several months, I had to complete in about six weeks. Topics were carefully scrutinized by supervisor and the final reports had to meet specifications acceptable to a bank examiner. When another colleague of mine was placed in this situation, he filed a discrimination lawsuit; in my case, I simply cranked out half a dozen studies that were published internally. But that was not the intent—the basic strategy was to put me on a treadmill and crank up the speed until something broke, which it did.

In early 2004, I found myself approaching an administrative deadline for early retirement with no word as to whether my request to retire would be granted. The stress was enormous because a campaign was underway to organize an employee union at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and management released no information to me or anyone else about who would be allowed to retire. Although I had applied to retire and my office planned a sendoff party on Friday, as of Thursday morning I had no decision from management.

Thursday afternoon, I was whisked into the office of the Senior Deputy Comptroller for Economics. Without the benefit of counsel or another job offer, I was confronted with the necessity of negotiating my departure package alone without much preparation. Would I get early retirement, the six month severance package promised, or find myself pushed out with neither? In order to retire without a position, I argued for early retirement and the six months severance because without both I could not make ends meet—both were granted.

Although I was not able to find another federal position, I interviewed for a software consulting position the following Monday and, in the coming days, I used my severance package to pay off my mortgage. In February, for example, on a whim, I attended the inquirer’s weekend at Princeton Theological Seminary and applied for admission, much to the dismay of my immediate family; for kicks and giggles, I was also studying Greek when time allowed. Early in the summer, I succeeded in finding a consulting placement and applied for a permanent position as a financial engineer with the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight (OFHEO). When the OFHEO position eventually came through in August, my high hourly wage as a consultant allowed me to argue successfully for about a 30 percent increase in salary over my prior federal salary, a completely unexpected windfall.

Particularly in view of my windfall, the sequence of events—sermon heard, boundaries established, windfall received, preaching felt—began to weigh on my mind and I remembered my pledge to God in 1992 over my son’s hospital bed: “Lord, do not take him, take me.” As time passed over the next couple of years, I felt God’s call, but did not know exactly what to do about it.

Reference

Henry Cloud and John Townsend. 1992. Boundaries: When to Say YES; When to Say NO; To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

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Breech Birth

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.”
(Psalm 121:1-2)

Breech Birth

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When my oldest child, Christine, was born, Maryam became so attached to her that she refused to hire babysitters and refused to leave her alone with anyone. On rare occasions, Mama Bozorg and I were allowed to watch her, but we were among the chosen few. As she drew closer to delivering our second child, Marjolijn Narsis,[1] Maryam’s attachment to her daughter became an important concern.

The night before she was born, Maryam had trouble sleeping and went into labor early in the morning. Her labor was irregular, however, and did not make progress towards regular contractions every ten minutes, as parents are normally advised. By five o’clock in the morning, I became concerned that, after having labor pains all night, something was wrong and we started having a debate about calling our sister-in-law, Julie. But Maryam did not want to leave Christine with anyone! By five thirty, I was pulling my hair out and called Julie.

Julie came over promptly. Maryam and I called ahead to Inova Fairfax Hospital and drove over together. On arrival, we checked into the natal unit and, thinking that delivery was hours away like with Christine, we were shocked that the doctors whisked us immediately into the delivery room; Marjolijn was a breech baby and needed an emergency Cesarean delivery. The delivery went fine, but the emergency surprised us and Maryam enjoyed a longer stay in the hospital than planned. When Christine and I arrived at the hospital the next day to visit, Maryam was very unhappy to see that her daughter happily holding onto her Dad rather than running immediately to Mom!

In the months that followed, the division of labor in the family changed dramatically. With one child, you can almost maintain your lifestyle as a young couple; with two children, lifestyle adjustments are mandatory. This dilemma becomes really obvious because a single child gets a lot of attention—I call it the pet kid phenomena—which simply cannot be sustained when you have two. In my case, I bought a new single lens reflect (SLR) camera when Christine was born and filmed her every move. When Marjolijn was born, I took fewer photographs, not for lack of interest, but because with two children in play at least one is always in motion. If that weren’t bad enough, Marjolijn experienced even more colic than her sister and we were tired all the time.

Our battles with colic strained a lot of relationships because hardly anyone wants a colicky baby around or to care for one. I remember, for example, being told undiplomatically one Sunday morning to move to the back of the church, Cub Run Elementary School, because my daughter, Christine, was making too much noise. Churches today mostly lack a cry room[2] and expect parents to disappear during worship or to delegate care to someone else, which we never did. Caring for our two girls accordingly required teamwork, whether in church or in taking part in family gatherings.

The fact that the girls were only 16 months apart meant that they was always very close and very competitive. When Stephen Reza came along 16 months after Marjolijn, the pattern continued. Our kids were not only siblings, they were best friends, and they were inseparable. And anyone who tried to separate the troika (or treated any one of them badly) felt their wrath! They also all spoke Parsi making it possible to have private conversations out in front of most anyone, including Dad. And Maryam, who insisted that the kids use her first name, was the leader of the pack.

[1] Marjolijn is named for the daughter of close friends of ours, Map and Jan, from the Netherlands who also happened to attend Lewinsville Presbyterian Church where Maryam and I were married. When Maryam and I were engaged, Map and Jan rented Maryam a room. Map was a stay-at-home mom able and willing offer plenty of helpful advice while Jan was an agronomist with the World Bank able to talk shop with me. Needless to say, we hit it off immediately and remain close friends.

[2] A cry room was a glass encased room at the back of the sanctuary where parents both care for their own infants while hearing and seeing the worship service. The one that I remember best was at Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

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More than Green Beer

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“We put no obstacle in anyone’s way,
so that no fault may be found with our ministry…”
(2 Cor 6:3)

More than Green Beer

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the late fourth century, Celtic pirates kidnapped a sixteen year old boy named Patrick and sold him into slavery in the Irish wilderness where he worked for six years herding cattle. Forced to depend on God, Patrick learned to the Celtic language and to love and pray for the Celtic people. In response to a dream, he escaped his master and returned to England where he studied to become a priest. He was later commissioned as bishop and returned to Ireland as an evangelist. Patrick and his colleagues planted so many churches in Ireland that they later turned their attention to the continent of Europe and began revitalizing the church on the continent (Hunter 2000, 13-25). When people say that Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, it is not a clever tale but a biblical allusion:

The LORD God said to the serpent, Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen 3:14-15)

Christ himself was the offspring of the woman that Patrick introduced the Irish to. Patrick’s walk with the Lord, like that of Joseph (Gen 39), began with a life of hardship, but it also yielded a rich harvest.

The hardship of the Irish has a long history. In 1976 in graduate school at Cornell University, I had an Irish officemate whose wife was famous for her ability to play the harp. I loved to hear her play and would travel with him to see her perform whenever I could. When my officemate learned that my mother’s maiden name was Deacon, he informed me that we were not really Irish, but Scots, who the English resettled in Northern Ireland and who, together with the Irish, were encouraged in the second half of the nineteenth century to immigrate to the New World under difficult circumstances.[1]

The oldest Deacon that I ever knew was Richard Henry Deacon, my grandfather.[2] Grandpa Deacon, as we called him, was born in 1895 and as a young man helped settle the Canadian west. Later on he was sent to Europe in the first World War, but thankfully arrived too late to be sent into combat. He later returned to Guelph, Ontario where he managed the boiler at the University of Guelph.[3] In spite of his lack of education, he rescued textbooks from the boiler fires which he read on his own. He particularly enjoyed reading a good “murder book”, as he used to call them.

Grandpa Deacon was a live wire and a constant joker. He once told the story of visiting a graveyard only to find two men buried in the same grave—“the tombstone read: here lies a lawyer and an honest man.” He used to drink and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day until his doctor told him that his emphysema would kill him if he didn’t give it up. That day he quit smoking and he never smoked again. Still, the rest of his life he wheezed constantly and walked with a limp, having fallen off a ladder out repairing a roof.

Grandpa was always handy and he always came to visit and help us when Dad had a big home-improvement project, like finishing off a basement. Grandpa was also extremely pragmatic and he used to tell me that “if you don’t have a tool; make one”. When I was in grade school, for example, he built me a working cross-bow using only the scraps of wood and metal that we had lying around the house. At that point in my life, I did not appreciate how uniquely talented he was, but later in my career as a financial engineer when I was given undoable projects, having only “scraps” to work with, I followed his example and built my own tools. Like Grandpa, I learned to work with the tools at hand.

Grandpa was also fun to visit because he shared my youthful passion for fishing. When I visited, he early on took me fishing and later on took me to visit in-laws who lived on the farm, knowing my fascination with farming. On one such visit, I remember walking in on a family sitting down to lunch which featured soup bones—potatoes and turnips were also in ample supply, but the bones stood out to my youthful eyes.

The Deacons ate better than farm folks, in part, because grandpa had a regular paying job; he was an expert fisherman and hunter with a freezer full of his trappings; and he was an avid gardener who planted a large garden out back complete with fruit and nut trees. It also did not hurt having the corner store was just down the hill from the house at 123 Granger Street. Still, the threat of poverty was never far off, something I never forgot.

Grandpa died in 1980 following complications due to a prostate operation. At his funeral, when they lowered Richard Henry into the grave[4], was the only time I ever saw my mom cry. Later that day my aunt, Judy, took me aside and gave me Grandpa’s gold regimental ring, which Maryam wears to this day.

My grandmother, Marietta Salter Deacon,[5] was a social butterfly and a devout Baptist who led my mother to get involved with mission work at a young age. When Marietta died from stomach cancer in 1941 and was buried in Wingham, my mother was left to take care of her younger siblings even while she was herself just a teenager. My own “mission work” with Hispanic day workers is a tribute, in part, to Marietta.

Having a bit of Irish in me once meant little more than green beer on Saint Patrick’s Day. However, the more I learned about Saint Patrick, who some credit with saving the Christian faith from fourth century decadence, the more I realized that I inherited more than just a full head of hair from the Deacon family.

References

Freeman, Philip. 2004. Saint Patrick of Ireland: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Hunter III, George G. 2000. The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity can Reach the West…Again. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Marx, Karl. 1887. Capital A Critique of Political Economy: Volume I Book One: The Process of Production of Capital. Edited by Frederick Engels;Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Moscow: Progress Publishers. Cited: 11 November 2016. Online: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1.

[1] Details of the Irish story are treated at length in Marx’s Capital, Vol 1.

[2] Richard Henry Deacon (August 18, 1895–February 1, 1980). Richard was the son of Richard Deacon (July 4, 1845; Lanark County, Ontario) and Jane Chamney (1858-). Richard was also the grandson of Richard Deacon (Feb 1802- June 8, 1886; Kilkenny, Ireland; Church of England) and Sarah Jane Wellwood (September 1805-June 24,1890; Kilkenny, Irelandl; Church of England). Jane Chamney was the daughter of Richard Chamney (1826-1904; Wicklow County, Ireland) and Euphemia
Mason (1832-1881).

[3] Formerly, Ontario Agricultural College. Framed certificates state that Granpa Deacon was a Certified Stationary Engineer, Second Class dated 1943 and again in 1962 (framed one under the other). Apparently a Stationary Engineer holding this certificate was qualified to: (a) act as chief operating engineer in (i) a high pressure stationary steam-plant not exceeding 600 registered horse-power (ii) a low pressure stationary steam-plant, compressor or refrigeration plant of unlimited registered horse-power, (iii) any portable compressor plant, or (b) act as the shift engineer in any plant of unlimited registered horse-power.

[4] Grandpa was buried in a family plot in Woodlawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Guelph.

[5] Marietta Jean Salter Deacon (August 1905–January 7, 1947). Marietta was the daughter of Frances Jean Eastwood Cooper and William George Salter.

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First Fruits

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“The LORD said to Moses,
Consecrate to me all the firstborn.”
(Exod 13:1-2)

First Fruits

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Around 1980 after I returned from year’s study in Germany, I returned to Iowa to visit my grandparents and other family. My grandparents had moved to Oskaloosa at that point, but continued to rent the farm to a neighbor who purchased the farm outright about four years later. Grandpa Frank and I drove out the farm to take care of some chores when he engaged me in conversation about seminary. He encouraged me to go to seminary saying that he would pay my tuition, but I was more interested in the prospect of entering a career in agriculture. I will always remember the look that he gave me—he clearly thought I was nuts to even consider farming.

Later in that trip I drove up to Clarion, Iowa to visit my Uncle Hubert’s family who all farmed a section of land that Hubert had purchased during the Great Depression. Hubert, who was Frank’s cousin and not a close relative, bought land when everyone else was leaving agriculture in those days because he felt strongly that families should stick together and that farming afforded the opportunity for children to grow up with roots that were not available to kids growing up in the city. Hubert mentored my father when he attended Iowa State University in the 19050s and then he mentored me when I attended Iowa State. As a local republican party chairman, he knew everyone and introduced me to the governor and several presidential candidates who would always stop by for a visit at local political gatherings.

Hubert’s kids did not pick up his interest in agricultural politics. Hubert set up his kids, a son and two daughters, in farming that same section of land and built himself a modest home on one of the properties as a retirement residence. His generosity led, however, to family conflict because his son, the oldest, believed that he should inherit the entire property. This disagreement led to a family split. When I would visit, I would be received at each farmstead and bear news of the siblings at each stop along the way. They were so close and yet so far from each other—Hubert’s generosity was not enough to overcome this jealousy and his pain ran deep enough that years later he despaired greatly, but always to himself.

On this particular trip, I was invited to a dinner party but everyone seemed a bit distant. I sat on a couch for a few minutes before I recognized that the young woman sitting next to me was someone that I was actually quite fond of several years earlier. She was one of Hubert’s grand-daughters and lived in Minnesota, far from my usual stomping grounds when I attended Iowa State. As we talked, she related how she had been a year in Brazil as a foreign student, much like I had been in Germany. She also felt rather distant in the group. Recognizing a common issue, I questioned other family members about why they were not talking with us. They responded that they did not think that we, as world travelers, would find their company very interesting. I quickly dispelled that idea; the ice was soon broken; and I was able to enjoy their hospitality to its fullest.

Hospitality was always a core value in the Hiemstra family.

On a later trip in October 1996, my office at the Comptroller of the Currency sent me to an agricultural bankers’ conference in Des Moines. Because my uncle, Dave, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in August, I rented a car and drove to Cedar Rapids to visit him. Dave met me with complete grace and we spent the day quietly putting together puzzles, which were long a favorite family pass-time. Puzzles offer shy people the opportunity to hang out with no requirement that anyone be forced to make conversation. Conversation was certainly not on my mind—what do you say to someone dying that you will never see again in this life?

At one point, we took a break from putting puzzles together and Dave made a puzzling comment—“I don’t know that I am good enough to go to heaven”. I was shocked; I took his statement as a theological question; I was shocked because his brother, John, is a pastor and I certainly was not—at the time, I was only an agricultural economist—why was he asking me? I assured him that as a Christian his salvation was assured, even if life is sometimes a bit confusing. To make my point, I cited the Apostle Paul:

“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:7-9)

If the Apostle Paul could suffer weakness and be saved, then so could we, I argued. Dave seemed satisfied by my explanation and remained ever gracious. When I stood speechless at his door, not knowing what to say, he reached over and kissed me on the cheek goodbye—Dave is the only man that I have ever allowed to kiss me.

Dave’s question about salvation and my grandfather’s offer to pay for seminary puzzled me for years. I later learned that my grandfather held the doctrine of the first fruits close to his heart. He was not himself the oldest sibling, but as a young man wanted to enter the ministry but did not have his father’s support so he went into farming. My uncle, John, was the oldest sibling and pursued a career as a minister in the Reformed Church in America. As the oldest grandchild, grandpa naturally looked to me to go into ministry and in God’s timing I did eventually hear the call.

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The Art of Reading

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.
And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
(Luke 2:46-47)

The Art of Reading

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

During summer vacations in grade school, my dad sponsored reading contests. My sister, Diane, and I kept records of all the things that we read during the summer and at the end of the summer we earned some sort of prize for having read the most. I have long forgotten the prizes that we earned, but I loved reading the Hardy Boy and the Lone Ranger series and frequent trips to the library and local used book stores where such books could often be purchased for something like a quarter. Long after our summer reading contests were forgotten, I found it natural to explore new reading topics during the long summer school breaks.

In the fall of 1971 at Parkdale Senior High School, I was invited to take an honors history course with Mrs. C. Signing up for this class was a big deal because we earned college credit and attended seminars at the University of Maryland. Actually, I only remember a single seminar on a Saturday at the university and a huge reading list for the class. I struggled to complete the reading and to write the paper that we were assigned. Friends of mine skipped the readings and made up fanciful book titles to justify imaginative conclusions to their papers. It was an open joke throughout the class, but Mrs. C. never called them on it. The whole affair offended my sensitivities and I was proud to have completed the readings, but when Mrs. C. gave me a B for the class, I complained exposing the cheaters for making light of the class. She never said anything, but changed my grade to an A.

My experience with history did not sour me on reading.

I did not always understand what I was reading, but I found reading useful on two levels, as I learned in my college experience with economic history. On the surface level, was reading for content picking out the facts and the dates, as in reading history only as a narrative or chronology. On a deeper level, however, was to read paying attention to how the author argued his case. The case could be argued in terms of historical observations with hypotheses proven, presumably, by the number of observations explained by the hypothesis.

I learned to solve the problem of not understanding a particular author by reading more than one author in a field. A particular field, like history or psychology, started to make sense after reading a half-dozen books in the field; reading a dozen books generally made one a regular expert, even in tougher fields like learning a new computer language—as I learned later in my career. Writing book reviews throughout my career has sped up the process by forcing one to study the author’s method of argumentation, even when it might not be obvious on the first pass. Of course, authors having little or no obvious structure to their thought—chapters thrown together in kind of like a verbal collage—were also exposed at this point.

None of this was obvious in grade school when I started writing. I read because I loved reading and learning new things. Things that helped make my world more interesting; things that gave me something to talk about; things that replaced maybe the emptiness of life in the slow lane. When I read and wrote myself out, life simply made more sense. And I like it that way.

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It’s Academic

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“Beloved, do not believe every spirit,
but test the spirits to see whether they are from God,
for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
(1 John 4:1)

It’s Academic

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I got angry.

During the fall of my senior year at Parkdale Senior High School, Parkdale decided to begin competing in the It’s Academic show which aired on NBC Channel 4 television in the Washington metro area.[1] To establish the team, the faculty sponsor walked down to the guidance office and asked for the names of the top 15 students in the school. I was not on the list and I got angry. My English teacher was the faculty sponsor and must have heard me complaining about it in class because an open interview was scheduled down at the television studio—anyone who wanted to compete was welcome to attend.

The interview attracted little attention. There were the top 15 students and there was me. The interview consisted of a mock It’s Academic quiz show where the interviewer would pose a question and the first student to raise a hand got to answer the question. No penalty was assigned for an incorrect answer. Because the questions were pretty basic questions about science and other academic subjects, the basic contest was to see who could raise their hand first. As it turned out, I personally answered about 90 percent of the questions posed correctly through fast hand-raising and was invited to join the team.

The other students, all classmates and friends, were livid. My performance made them look pretty stupid and they resented it. The faculty sponsor set up after school meetings to prepare for the show and we started meeting on a regular basis.

About that time, I decided that I wanted to attend Indiana University and my father agreed on one condition—I needed to get a job working nights and weekends to help pay the expense of going to school out of state. Consequently, I began selling children’s shoes at a shop in Capital Plaza Mall.[2]

Selling children’s shoes was more of an education than I bargained for. The shoes were expensive, upscale brands which attracted customers primarily from the District of Columbia. African American women, who could not afford a lot of things in 1971, felt they needed to buy good shoes for their kids. By contrast, local white women in Prince George’s County, like my mom, shopped at discount stores, like K-Mart, for their kids’ shoes, not feeling it necessary to show-off by buying top-of-the-line foot-ware.  Honestly, I do not think the shoes were any better. The management seemed aware of this dilemma, but were happy to charge premium prices and to slip ill-fitting shoes on many a foot to keep such status-conscious mothers happy.

Actually, a lot of the things these managers did really bothered me.

It bothered me, for example, that managers refused to let me study while we were sitting around on quiet days. While other employees sat around shooting the breeze, if I took out a book, I was assigned to sort shoes in the back or to watch the store, while the rest of them partied, blowing dope out back. It also bothered me that when President Nixon announced a price freeze on August 15, 1971 to combat inflation,[3] we were immediately assigned to raise the prices on all the shoes in the store. I guess that working in that store bothered me about as much as my studying bothered those managers, who knew they were stuck selling shoes because they neglected their own studies.

I did not earn a lot of money selling children’ shoes, but I missed afternoon practice sessions with the It’s Academic team and was placed on the back up team. Being on the back up team meant that we got to cheer for the regular team when we finally were invited on the show to compete. I loved the competition, in part, because I got to sit next to a friend who I later invited to the prom, but the team lost and lost badly. Just as in the interview, they simply did not understand the rules and complained that the other team cheated, being especially fast button-pushers. Too bad the team’s fastest button-pusher was sidelined!

[1] http://www.itsacademicquizshow.com/history.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_Plaza_Mall.

[3] https://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/remembering-nixons-wage-price-controls.

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Early Marriage

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die…”
(Eccl 3:1-2)

Early Marriage

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When Maryam and I were married on November 24, 1984, we lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Shirlington, Virginia. This apartment was located within walking distance of King Street where my family lived during our first year in Washington in 1960 and not far from my office in Southwest Washington. Our families helped us purchase our cars and donated most of our furniture. We did not have much debt, but we were eager to pay back our family loans and to begin saving for a place of our own.

Not being finished with my dissertation, I started work with the government at a GS-11, which was simply meager relative to the cost of living in Northern Virginia. The Shirlington Apartments, where we lived, were solidly built, probably in the 1940s, with a stone exterior and hardwood floors; the rent was affordable, but misbehaving neighbors and an encroaching urban environment made the area fairly sketchy. At one point, the police chased an African American man in a stolen car into the neighborhood where he crashed the car and took off on foot. Drug sales were common a block from us and a clerk was murdered during a robbery in a shopping center down the street. As an evening jogger, I was sensitive to the chances that I had to take, but I worried more about Maryam being exposed to such things. When my mother in law visited and suffered verbal abuse from a relative of the owners of the apartments, we became anxious to find a place of our own somewhere else.

Between my meager income, the sketchy environment, and our desire to find a place of our own, Maryam was eager to find work in her field—chemistry or chemical engineering—but professional work was tied to defense contracting and she did not yet have a green card. At one point, she interviewed with a company looking for a chemist outside of defense, but when the interviewer learned that she was married, the interview was over. While we began the byzantine process of applying for her green card, it became obvious that we could not successfully navigate the process alone—in the Reagan years following the Iranian Revolution, resentment against Iranians was bitterly deep. Maryam began working retail and, later, substitute teaching primarily because no one asked for about your immigration status when they had no one else willing to do the work.

Maryam was a talented sales representative for a fashionable woman’s store, Thimbles, at Tyson Corner shopping center. She routinely outsold the other sales staff, was a featured store model, and was asked to help out in other stores throughout the region. She also accumulated a substantial wardrobe of suits and dresses bought at a deep discount on account of her bonuses.

During this period, my schedule was tight. Maryam dropped me off in the office at 6 a.m. and drove to the mall where she hung out until the store opened at 10 a.m. Later, she picked me up and we had dinner together. Then, I worked until 8 or 9 p.m., went jogging, and worked a bit more before going the bed. In May 1985, when I returned to East Lansing, Michigan to defend my dissertation, I learned that no one expected that I would ever return and that I finished my doctorate before most of the colleagues that I had left behind me at school. With my dissertation behind me and with both us of working and saving everything, we entered 1986 looking for a home of our own [1]. We purchased our first home at 5519 Shipley Court in Centreville, Virginia later in 1986, even though I had not yet been promoted—Maryam’s hard work was instrumental in our being able to afford a house [2].

More important than her hard work in retail, however, was Maryam’s experience teaching. Most substitutes cannot assist in teaching mathematics and chemistry classes, but Maryam was different—she not only taught these lessons, teachers began requesting her from high schools throughout Fairfax County and she soon was offered long-term, substituting opportunities. What’s more, she loved teaching, was good at it, and was quickly able to bond with troubled students, many of whom were also immigrants. She soon decided to study for a teaching certificate and later earned a master’s degree in education at George Mason University.

At some point, I received a flyer in the mail from Senator Paul Trible which described his legislative accomplishments and solicited feedback on issues that we were concerned about. I responded to his solicitation describing our problems with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Not long afterwards, we received a letter in the mail from Senator Trible asking us to call his office about the INS problem. When we called, his office intervened on our behalf with the INS and Maryam soon had her green card.

After we purchased our first home and I entered finance, I felt confident enough to train for and run the Marine Corps Marathon in 1987. My logic was that I did not need to worry about promotion, because I was new to finance but I was nonetheless promoted that year! I trained for the marathon again in 1988 and received a second promotion! At this point, I had the financial wherewithal to pay family expenses without Maryam’s salary and we began thinking about children.

We put off having children for close to five years both because of the financial pressure and because we needed to settle into our relationship. Outside of the usual challenges that newlyweds faced, we were both strong-willed individuals; we came from radically different cultures; and we married much later than most of our friends—age brings maturity, but it also makes relational growth more challenging. In spite of being Muslim, for example, Maryam promised to attend church with me and, for the most part, kept that promise, but we did not share the same level of commitment in attending. Bringing children into the relational mix required special care making financial security especially important.

By 1988, the groundwork had been laid for us to think about kids and we took the plunge. Shortly after announcing that we were expecting, Maryam spontaneously miscarried leading to a bit of embarrassment. All eyes in my family were on us, because I am the oldest child in the Hiemstra clan and so our child would be the first to make my parents grandparents. Being the youngest sibling, Maryam did not receive quite so much scrutiny in her family.

In any case, Maryam was pregnant in 1989 as she applied for citizenship and when my brother, John, married Julie Oweis on November 25. Our first child, Christine, was born a short time later on December 14th. Maryam accordingly took the oath of citizenship in the Alexandria Courthouse on a snowy day after Christmas that year with a week-old newborn in her arms.

[1] We spent almost none of our earnings other than for necessities. When we sat down with a loan officer to purchase a mortgage, he could not believe how much we had saved and insisted on documenting everything. His assumption was that someone lent us our down-payment, which was simply not true. He was not accustomed to seeing newlyweds coming to the table with a 10-percent down-payment that was saved on their own.

[2] Finishing my degree in 1985 did not result in immediate promotion—a sore point at the time. However, when I entered finance in 1987, I received three grade level increases in three years. Having started government as a GS-11, by September 1989 when I began work at the Farm Credit Administration I was a GS-14—an usually rapid progression not often seen in the Economic Research Service in USDA where I started out.

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Ocean Breakers

ShipOfFools_web_07292016But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; …
For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
(Isa 43:1-3 ESV)

Ocean Breakers

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I have known fear.

We entered 1993 with my son set for surgery, with me in a new position, and with fear after fear mounting like ocean breakers crashing on the beach. When Maryam was then diagnosed with breast cancer [1], we were being bombarded with highly technical medical information which we had no criteria to evaluate—we were just pulling our hair out.

Shortly after Maryam was diagnosed with breast cancer her mother, Naranj, came from Iran to live with us. The kid’s (Christine, Narsis, and Reza) started calling Naranj, Mama Bozorg (big mother in Parsi), and soon we all did—she was an angel who lived with us off and on for the next ten years. Mama Bozorg often watched the kids while Maryam and I were off on doctor visits.

Throughout this period Maryam was fearful that she would die of cancer, while I questioned the advice we received from the doctors. Breast cancer is insidious—it starts out as a small lump the size of an eraser on the end of a pencil when you have no symptoms whatsoever. Her mammogram showed no lump; her doctor missed it; Maryam found the cancer in a self-exam. So before anything seemed out of the ordinary, my young, beautiful wife was undergoing physical exams by numerous doctors, often in front of me, and disfiguring procedures were under active discussion. It did not bother her; it bothered me. I felt abused and violated—facing similar circumstances, friends of ours divorced. In the end, we were never again be able to have children.

Desperate to understand whether our doctors were giving us good advice, I stumbled on the website of the National Cancer Institutes’ website.[2] On the website, I found a list of recommendations for the standards of care for each type of cancer and every stage of that cancer. This was called the physicians data query (PDQ). The PDQ allowed us to determine that Maryam’s doctors were giving us state of the art advice for her treatment. Consequently, Maryam had a lumpectomy, localized radiation, and a five-year regime of tamoxifen, consistent with the PDQ.

Meanwhile, I was hunkered down in my work just trying to stay employed—no work; no medical plan.

When I wasn’t working, I was working late nights to learn a new programming language, C++, which was all the rage, in part, because it allowed object-oriented program designs to be implemented. Developed by AT&T’s Bell Labs to implement complex telecom systems, C++ programming required a much higher level of abstraction than structured programming languages, like C or FORTRAN (Complien 1992, x).[3] Fearful of losing my job and fascinated with the prospects of C++, it was hard to be fully present at home where we now had three kids in diapers and no back up.

With my parents living in West Lafayette, Indiana and my siblings located in different place, family get togethers for holidays were fun, but not always easy to manage. Maryam and I were the first to have kids at a time when everyone else had not yet taken the plunge. People tried to be flexible, but the effect was like the Brady Bunch breaking into a singles club. For example, at one point my sister, Diane, invited us to Baltimore Harbor to take a day cruise on her new boat. It sounded like great fun to me, but unable to swim and afraid that a child would go overboard, Maryam resisted; she ended up watching the kids in the hotel room while I took the cruise with everyone else. It was awkward; just awkward.

Adding breast cancer treatments to our already awkward situation meant that we were stretched both physically and emotionally. Treatments were stressful and created tremendous uncertainty. I attended important doctor visits, but, often as not, I got kid duty while Maryam went to routine appointments alone because Mama Bozorg was quite elderly. Fortunately, Maryam refused to put up with bureaucratic run-around and insisted on her appointments and was disciplined in taking her medications.

Normally, it is risky for cancer patients to go to appointments alone, because cancer leaves one emotionally impaired and doctors often do not communicate well enough to be understood without serious cross examination. It is accordingly important to have a well-informed, advocate in the room, but at least a spouse. Another reason why an advocate is needed is because appointments were often hard to schedule and medically critical for treatment, especially on the second round with breast cancer. In the years since we went through these two rounds of cancer, I have seen other patients, who were not so assertive in getting their appointments and treatments,  needlessly pass away—cancer patients need advocates.

While we anticipated the medical problems associated with breast cancer and learned that a cancer diagnosis is no longer a death sentence, we did not anticipate social and psychological effects that invariably accompany cancer. Socially, we learned that most people have an emotional threshold below which they are supportive and above which they begin to back away—it was extremely painful to watch close friends and family back away. Psychologically, cancer is often associated with severe depression among all those that are touched. In our case, we learned to deal with the depression by taking evening walks together and by getting out of the house more often—Maryam by returning to work as a teacher and Stephen by returning to leadership in the church.

[1] This pattern of stress followed by diagnosis of a medical problem in the following year has been noted in family system’s theory, especially among families that are very close. Stress compromises the immune system which can over time invite opportunistic diseases, such as cancer, to develop (Friedman 1985, 121-146). It is not unusual, for example, to observe patients in an emergency development in the hospital suffering from a wide range of physical and psychological problems after a death in the immediate family.

[2] www.cancer.gov.

[3] Data structures and functions could be tied together to create objects that mirrored the processes being modeled and facilitated new more secure error-trapping routine to reduce program maintenance. Furthermore, C++ programs also facilitated Windows programming which allowed users to run complex financial models with menus, pick lists, and selection boxes so that no programming knowledge was required. Add to that hypertext help systems and graphics and the results seemed almost magical at a time when most people did not understand spreadsheets and word processing.

References

Coplien, James O. 1992. Advanced C++ Programming Styles and Idioms. Reading: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Friedman, Edwin H. 1985. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: Guilford Press.

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The Bank Calculator

ShipOfFools_web_07292016“Afterward Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh,
Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel,
Let my people go, that they may hold a feast
to me in the wilderness.” (Exod 5:1 ESV)

The Bank Calculator

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My transfer in 1995 to the economics department in the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) initiated a period of intense learning, productivity, and networking. My particular unit, Global Banking and Financial Analysis (GBFA) developed a relational database in SAS to store and more easily retrieve call report data on commercial banks and thrifts and more generally tasked with financial analysis of community banks. Because most economists have some facility with using SAS, this database enabled our unit to undertake routine oversight of the financial condition of the banks.

My initial work in GBFA involved supporting advanced risk analysis research being undertaken by my colleagues, Tom and Swamy. Swamy developed an econometric approach at the Federal Reserve which was implemented in FORTRAN and ran on the UNIX operating system called the Stochastic Coefficients Estimation Program (SCEP). My task was to migrate this software over to run on Microsoft Windows and to make it accessible to researchers not familiar with FORTRAN. The migration to Windows was fairly straightforward. I then wrote a Windows program in C++ which prompted the user with menus to fill in the required variables and run the FORTRAN as a background process. The harder part was writing the hypertext documentation to explain to users how to understand and user the procedure.

This new program cut the time required to compete an estimation from weeks to a couple hours, making research substantially easier. Tom Lutton and Swamy Paravastu completed a number of journal-quality research papers over the next couple years. Meanwhile, I became acquainted with the procedure and became good friends with mathematician and programmer at American University, Ilok Chang, who had developed the FORTRAN program. Over nights and weekends during the next several years, we collaborated on development of an assembly language implementation of a matrix class for interval mathematics (1996-97).[1] As part of my validation work on this matrix class, I developed a small calculator program to speed up the computations.

In addition to our research work in GBFA, we were encouraged to support the work of the bank examination staff with both macro-economic reporting and financial analysis. For the most part, our macro-economic reporting was ignored, which was a source of much consternation because a monetary crisis was developing in Asia. At one point, we were called upon by a large New York City bank to assist with working on the Asia issue and traveled to New York to brief and be briefed on the issue, but there was little appetite in our office to follow up.[2] When several weeks later the Thai Baht crashed, the attitude about macro-economics did not change and we gave up on our reporting.

The support for financial analysis was different, in part, because everyone was convinced that they could do themselves, even if inadequately. The breakout project in financial analysis came when we were asked a second time to assist in reviewing liquidity risk. Liquidity risk kept coming up because there was an examiner with a special interest in liquidity issues who would periodically worry people enough to have management request an assessment. The first time this happened, we undertook a lengthy literature review and attempted to measure liquidity risk with a research effort—no one understood our work and it was dropped. The second time we received a request, I proposed a brief study of the liquidity ratings given by examiners to each and every national bank.[3] With our new data system, this study was easily undertaken, briefly summarized, and widely cited. This liquidity study was ignored by the economics staff, but was loved by management so we found ourselves fielding more questions about the financial condition of national banks.

Because of my background in agricultural economics and bank examination, I found myself undertaking quarterly studies of the condition of agricultural banks. In response to this requests, I developed a databook of all the agricultural indicators found in the call reports. This databook was warmly received and I was invited to participate in an agricultural oversight committee which met from time to time with examiners from across the OCC. Eventually, I was able to convince OCC managers that, unlike in the 1980s, agricultural banking no longer posed a systemic threat to the national banking system and routine reporting on agricultural banks went from quarterly to annually and then to being dropped. The largest agricultural portfolio in the nation was held by the largest bank, but for that bank it was less than one percent of assets—in other words, agricultural credit risks were being adequately managed.

Between our research work on bank risk taking and our reporting on the financial condition of banks, it became obvious that economic research seldom had an impact on the culture of regulation while financial analysis, even if indefensible in an empirical sense, was routinely influencing administrative decisions. This problem caused our team great consternation, because we believed that our work was both theoretically and empirically sound. In the midst of this frustration, I began to see a disconnect between the contractual risks (credit and interest rate risk, in particular) which regulators followed with great interest and threats to the firms’ survival (liquidity and failure risk) which were often neglected. I coined the term, whole bank risk, to highlight this disconnect.[4] Tom, Swamy, and I began to call ourselves the whole bank risk team.

The whole bank risk project had two primary components, one headed by Swamy and other I headed. My project involved improvements to a bank failure model which we developed in cooperation with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) using Swamy’s econometric approach. This initial failure model yielded a probability of failure which tracked the historical performance of commercial bank failures reasonably well, but the number was lower than FDIC was accustomed to seeing and they rejected the model. The model was accordingly written up and then ignored.

Later on, GFBA was tasked with developing new models for the OCC. A week-long series of meetings were planned in which staff unfamiliar with modeling sat and talked for days about how to develop models. This was extremely frustrating for those of us accustomed to modeling and being ignored. At that point, I had an idea—why not take our existing bank failure model and develop it into a Windows program which allowed the user to simulate bank failure probabilities in a calculator format, as I had done earlier with my interval mathematics validation? I skipped out of the meeting on Monday and returned on Wednesday to demonstrate my “Bank Failure Calculator” program.

The name changed to “Bank Calculator” to placate sensitivities, but the program itself was a great hit. Over the next 7 years, I spent about half my time estimating new failure models to add additional explanatory variables, validating the results, doing supporting studies, and porting the program to other computing environments, like SAS, Excel, and hypertext. I also gave demonstrations to numerous agencies across government interested in our approach. In its hay-day, the bank failure probabilities were updated for every bank in the national system and available along with supporting analysis to examiners across the OCC through the agency intranet.

[1] We envisioned this project accelerating the Human Genome project computations (https://www.genome.gov/12011239). However, in my validation work I discovered a weakness in the Pentium processor which would have required years of effort to resolve. At that point, we abandoned the project.

[2] Frustrated by the response but intrigued by the developing storm, I opened a commodity account and taught myself options trading and technical analysis nights and weekends.

[3] Bank examiners rate banks with 5 indicators each year: capital, assets, management, equity, and liquidity (CAMEL).

[4] Other people talk about enterprise risk.

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