Puerto Rico

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying,
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 
(Jer 1:4-5 ESV)

Puerto Rico

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the formative events in my emerging career as an agricultural economist was the World Food Conference of 1976, which was held at the Stephen’s Theatre at Iowa State University. The conference followed concerns expressed in the 1972 Club of Rome report:

“The intent of the project is to examine the complex of problems troubling men of all nations: poverty in the midst of plenty; degradation of the environment; loss of faith in institutions; uncontrolled urban spread; insecurity of employment; alienation of youth; rejections of traditional values; and inflation and other monetary and economic disruptions..[which have] three characteristics in common: they occur to some degree in all societies; they contain technical, social, economic, and political elements; and, most important of all, they interact.”

The Club of Rome project followed the OPEC oil embargo in 1972 and world grain shortages in 1972-74, and it modeled the world economy and predicted catastrophic resource constraints before the end of the twentieth century—because the world’s best and the brightest minds had advanced this premise, it captured the attention of the entire planet. Here was an urgent reason to study economics, particularly agricultural economics, because starvation was expected. As one speaker put it: “ya gotta wanna”. Before you can avert starvation and save the world, you have to want to do it. Before the end the conference, I clearly wanted to.

Another important topic discussed at the conference were results of the Alliance for Progress that was initiated by the Kennedy Administration and focused on economic development in Latin America, but the lessons learned were applied worldwide. Economic development focused, in part, on land reform and modernization of agriculture to boost food production. Because of the successes of Operation Bootstrap in Puerto Rico after World War II, Kennedy appointed Governor Luis Muñoz Marín as coordinator of the program.[1]

When I left Iowa State to begin graduate studies at Cornell University, my interest was to study economic development with particular interest in Latin America, where Cornell had strong ties. One challenge in pursuing Latin American studies was that I had studied German, not Spanish, in college and would need to become fluent. So I enrolled in Spanish at Cornell and looked for opportunities to study in Latin America in doing my thesis research.

Although I had never been to Latin America, my father—the other Stephen Hiemstra—had strong ties to Puerto Rico. All through my college years, my Dad traveled to Puerto Rico because  his work as chief economist for the Food and Nutrition Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture required periodic visits. As chief economist, he was responsible for, among other things, program evaluation of the food stamp program and, because about two-thirds of all Puerto Ricans were eligible for food stamps, the Puerto Rican program required special attention. Consequently, my Dad suggested that I consider Puerto Rico as the place to focus my research. When I ran the idea by my advisor at Cornell, he was delighted and told me that he had personal ties to the director of the agricultural experiment station at Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico.[2] By the end of my year of college Spanish in 1977, arrangements had been made to finance my studies on the island for the summer.

I flew to Puerto Rico by way of Mexico City (Aeroméxico was wonderful) where I spent ten days with a Chilean friend (and former roommate), Eduardo, who was working at the time for the Inter American Development Bank (IADB). While I expected that Eduardo would use the occasion to share his IADB work experiences with me, but he felt that it was more important to expose me to Mexican culture. For example, in Mexico City we visited the Museo Nacional de Antropología—full of pre-columbian artifacts,[3] Chapultepec—a very large park with canals in the center of the city, and Pirámide del Sol—an Aztex pyramid.[4] Then, Eduardo’s roommate, Cuauhtémoc,[5] invited me to a fiesta de quince años (quinceanera) in Veracruz, Mexico.[6]

My experience in Mexico overwhelmed my sense of social justice between the beggars, small children working as street merchants, and the vast differences between rich and poor. To see old men walking naked in the streets in the very shadows of great cathedrals, startled  and shamed me. Fearful that I would run out of money far from home, I refused to buy much of anything, even from the small children; at one point, Eduardo bought some small trinket from the kids right after I refused even to talk to them—shaming me in my fear. The same fear of the future that keeps us from offering charity in our comfortable surroundings somehow becomes obscenely perverse in the company of those that are absolutely destitute.

The quinceanera also brought shame. The quinceanera was for Cuauhtémoc’s cousin and, because she was now 15, by custom she was eligible to marry. At the party, her friends all lined up to dance with me because everyone knew that I was a gringo and single, but, as a self-respecting 24 year old, I did not know how to react to invitations to dance from a room full of 15 year old girls; in any case, being inebriated, I did not handle it well. After the party, when I objected to sleeping in a bed with three other guys, the family put me up in a hotel—all by myself. When I woke up in the morning in this strange hotel, Eduardo and Cuauhtémoc were nowhere to be seen and I had no money, no idea where I was, a terrible hangover, and not enough Spanish fluency to work it all out. That evening, I found myself at a dinner party as the guest of honor of the young lady’s parents who were anxious to arrange a wedding for their daughter; she, like any other 15 year old, found the conversation tiresome and spent the evening watching television. In the end, I was shamed of my ignorance and I think that Cuauhtémoc found me a disappointment.

After 10 days of tacos (even though freshly made) for the three meals a day, I was ready for Puerto Rico. On my last day in Mexico City, I think that Eduardo was tired of my complaining about the tacos and took me to a nice Mexican restaurant. He ordered dinner for me, but refused to tell me what he had ordered. After we finished eating, he asked if I enjoyed my dinner and I said yes. He then told me that I had eaten cat—to this day, I am not sure what it was.

My flight to Puerto Rico included a fueling stop in Guatamala—I only remember the sweltering heat and humidity. By the time we arrived in San Juan, it was already late afternoon. For some reason, I had expected that someone would meet me at the airport, but I found myself alone in the airport the only white person in a large crowd of black people; while I had read many books about Puerto Rico and its large population of persons of African descent, I never expected to find myself racially isolated in this kind of situation. When I asked for directions to the bus station, I only got blank stares—finally, someone explained that I need only take one of the buses out in front of the airport. Because Río Piedras was not far from the airport, I decided to take a taxi hoping that I would not get lost. It was almost dark—about 8:30 p.m.—when I arrived at the University of Puerto Rico.

For some reason, I expected that the University of Puerto Rico knew that I was coming and walked confidently to the main dormitory with my one large suitcase. When I arrived, a dozen students were hanging out at the front desk when I inquired about a room. The desk clerk knew nothing about me and had no idea what to tell me, but one of the students was from New York and told me that he knew a boarding house with a spare room. So in the dark, about 10 p.m., we walked to Calle Manilla where he introduced me to Matilda, an old woman who spoke no English at all but who had an extra bed to rent for 30 dollars a month. Happy to have any place at all, I took a shower and went to bed, wondering whether I had made some horrible mistake.

Years later (2012), drifting off in church listening to a sermon in Spanish, again I wondered whether I had made a horrible mistake in choosing to get involved in Hispanic ministry. I prayed: “Lord, why have you brought me to this time and this place.” God answered my prayer as I started to reflect on how I had come to Christ through the testimony of a young New York gang member—Nicky Cruz,[7] in the movie, The Cross and the Switchblade.[8] I thought: “Cruz, Cruz—that sounds Puerto Rican.” I later learned that Nicky Cruz was indeed Puerto Rican. In other words, God had brought me to faith at age 13 through the testimony of a young Puerto Rican, even though at the time I had no idea what a Puerto Rican was.

Consequently, neither my “horrible mistake” in 1977 nor my “horrible mistake” in 2012 was any mistake at all.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alliance_for_Progress.

[2] La Estación Experimental Agrícola en Río Piedras. http://www.eea.uprm.edu/estaciones/rio-piedras.

[3] http://www.mna.inah.gob.mx/index.html.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramid_of_the_Sun.

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuauht%C3%A9moc.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veracruz_(city).

[7] http://NickyCruz.org.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amg_Q4aT6Mg.


Iowa State University. 1977. Proceedings of the World Food Conference of 1976, June 27-July 1. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Meadows, Donella, H. Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. 1975. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. New York: Universe Books Publishers.

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The Audition

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Count it all joy, my brothers,
when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith
produces steadfastness. (Jas 1:2–3)

The Audition

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

At the end of my second summer working as an aquatics instructor at Goshen Scout Camps, I pooled my summer’s earnings with savings and bought a new Conn 88h trombone, which classified as a base trombone. The Conn 88h differed visibly from the tenor trombone, a Silver Bach Stradivarius dating from the 1930s, that I had played since the fifth grade because it had a Remington mouthpiece, a trigger for outer register notes, and a distinctive, mellow sound. Shortly after getting my new trombone, I auditioned and won a coveted first chair in the Prince George’s County Youth Orchestra and I began practicing an hour a day.

During my last two years of high school, I also played first chair in both the Parkdale Symphonic Band and the school orchestra. During my senior year, few other instrumentalists enrolled in the music composition class or competed in county and state solo competitions. Meanwhile, at Riverdale Presbyterian Church, I sang in the Youth Choir and took voice lessons from choir director. I also took private lessons from the tubist with the National Symphony Orchestra. My favorite photograph from senior year shows me performing in a jazz ensemble with “shades,” which suggests how much music meant to me.

Music obviously played an important role in my social life and I enjoyed modest success as a player. But what was less obvious was that music taught me personal discipline and served as a metaphor for God’s presence in my life. At one point, I began aware of my lack of Sabbath rest and prayed to God that, because I could not set aside my commitments, he allow me to honor the Sabbath as I slept. God honored that prayer by waking me each morning to the sound of joyous music.

I started to consider music as a career possibility. As I prepared to apply to colleges in the fall of 1971, I announced to my parents, friends, and teachers my plans to audition for the Indiana University School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana.

At that point I did not understand the seriousness of my decision to audition for music school, either in terms of the talent or the commitment required. College seemed a long way off so I assumed naively that picking a course of study in high school allowed plenty of time to prepare. While this assumption might have been true for academic majors, music required a higher level of preparation and I had only a couple months to prepare for the audition.

My music teacher and adviser expressed concern about my preparation for this audition, probably motivated by the fact that I saw music as more of a social activity than a professional aspiration. Professional musicians practice many hours a day to reach a level of perfection seldom attained by amateurs. I had only recently moved from half an hour to an hour a day of practice daily, not a professional level of commitment.

By year end 1971, I started practicing closer to two hours a day and my teacher arranged for me to study with a colleague of his, a trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra. The new instructor adjusted my embouchure to account for my over-bite, which would help me play with a wider range in the upper register. This reconfigured embouchure required the use of new muscles in my mouth and the old muscles to be used differently, which initially reduced my performance range. Of course, the new, more vigorous practice schedule, embouchure change, and new teacher excited and overwhelmed me as I prepared to audition.

Also overwhelmed was my father, who saw music as a great hobby, but doubted that my modest talent could blossom into a viable career. In fact, he had confidence that the music department at Indiana University would reach the same conclusion, but he encouraged me to prove that I too could live with the result. We agreed that, if I passed the audition, I could study music, but if I failed, I would focus my studies elsewhere. My father’s advice about the audition seemed sound enough and I promised to accept it.

When the time came to audition, I traveled alone to Bloomington on a Friday and stayed the night in one of the dormitories. A friend, who studied viola and whom I had met the previous summer at a church retreat, invited me to dinner in the cafeteria and she introduced me to some other students. Tired from the trip, after dinner I took a shower and went to bed early.

On Saturday morning, I walked over to the music building early to warm up. After warming up, I waited with students coming and going—horns blowing, strings playing, flutes piping—as auditions ran late. Jazzed up, overstimulated, and anxious beyond words, when my turn to play arrived, I could not play a Bb scale. Having given the judges no reason to pass me, I failed the audition hands down.

When I returned home, I remained active in the music program in high school and spent the spring and early summer preparing for a concert tour in Europe with the Parkdale Symphonic Band in July. Meanwhile, I accepted admission at Indiana University and prepared to enter as a freshman without a major.

After the band returned home in early August, I needed some time to myself and planned a last-minute bicycle trip out to begin school in Indiana. I needed time because my shame and humiliation over the failed audition ran too deep for conscious reflection in a kind of emotional hijacking. In the months that followed, I lost my longstanding interest in trombone, classical music, and the church, where I so often sang and played.

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Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run,
but only one receives the prize?
So run that you may obtain it.
(1 Cor 9:24)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the oldest books on my bookshelf is L.E. Moore’s Elementary Aviation, which teaches pilots the rudiments of navigation, such as flying on instruments, meteorology, and radio navigation.  I studied this book with great interest in Junior High School because I wanted to attend the Air Force Academy and become a pilot. When I learned that my eyesight was not good enough to qualify for pilot’s training, I joined a Sea Explorer’s unit and set my sights on the Naval Academy. My interest in the academies continued into high school where I began running with the cross country team (1970) after learning that cadets were expected to be athletes and the military had physical training requirements.

My fascination with all things military was obvious to my friends. One friend in high school, having run into me at a scout camporee, nicknamed me “the General” and, when he learned that I had joined the Sea Explorers, he revised my nickname to be “the Admiral”. In keeping with my nickname, for two summers in a row, I worked as an aquatics instructor at Camp Ross, one of the six camps at Goshen Scout Camps, which meant that I learned to row, canoe, and sail well enough to teach others. In like manner, I also attended seamanship classes offered for Sea Explorers on Saturday mornings at the Navy Yard in Washington DC.

I am not sure exactly when my doubts about the wisdom of pursuing a career in the military began to seep in. My Dad, who had attended the reserved officer training corps (ROTC) and served in Korea, used to refer to the pilot’s job as being a kind of bus service in the sky. While he never really supported my goal of being a pilot nor my interest later in music, he also never really said what I should do—that was something I needed to sort out on my own.

My own doubts about the military began to surface in watching the evening news. Video clips from Vietnam dominated the evening news for years on end, but progress in ending the war seemed illusive. World War II lasted for five years and involved battles all over the world so why did this little “police action” in Vietnam take so long and involve no serious progress after years of effort? The explanations seemed inadequate while the nightmare of modern war began to seep in—it was hard to reconcile the carnage on the evening news with explanations given. Why the massacre at Mi Lai?[1] Why the summary execution of a Viet Cong prisoner?[2] The images on the news were shocking; provocative; un-American.

Containing communism was the explanation for the war that made political sense because we thought of communism as bad, even if what that meant was unclear. We had no idea, for example, that communism was officially atheistic and openly persecuted Christians, although we had a pretty good idea that communism was a thin veil over totalitarianism—a “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Defending South Vietnam from a communist takeover was therefore consistent with the Christian concept of a just war. However, the images of the war seen on the television news seemed inconsistent with that concept. To my eighteen year old eyes, indiscriminate bombing, routine use of napalm, and relocation of civilians appeared shocking; provocative; un-American.

Although my questions about the Vietnam War already colored my thinking in 1968 when I campaigned, like my parents, for Richard Nixon because of his plan to the end war, these questions did not affect my attitude about military service or the Naval Academy until around 1971, which was my junior year in high school. In high school, I read authors, like Thoreau and Faulkner, who inspired me to think for myself, but the disconnect between my Christian faith and my aspirations to become a military officer were also beginning to emerge. This disconnect came to a head on August 4, 1972 I wrote the following to my draft board:

I can not fight in a war because as a Christian my highest duty is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. I believe that life is the sacred gift of God which is to be honored and respected by all men. I believe that every man has a constructive contribution to make to humanity and that each man has the right to fulfill this destiny. I believe there is a beauty in all life and that we should use love, concern, and non-violent methods to solve our conflicts. I believe all men are of one indivisible whole and that each man’s life is important to the life of the whole. I must live in peace to uphold my faith.

I wrote as a pacifist because I did not understand “just war” theory, which better reflected my true feelings. I was not opposed to a just war, but Vietnam did not appear to be a just war. Ironically, the highly principled image that I had of military officers was also inconsistent with the image of Vietnam that appeared on the evening news, but how do you write that in an application to your draft board?

My draft board responded my application and brief essay by classifying me as I-0, which exempted me from military service, but required that I take the usual military medical examination and that I find alternative service to perform, if and when my number was called. In the fall of 1972, I took my medical examination in Indianapolis where in a room filled with several hundred registrants I was the only one classified I-0 which was obvious because I was asked to stand up alone in front of everyone and, in front of everyone, they told me that I did not need to answer form questions about my affiliations.

During the fall, I  wrote to public interest research groups around the country inquiring about job prospects that might satisfy my alternative service requirement. One group in Baltimore, Maryland, responded to my inquiry, but none was ultimately needed because the Vietnam War was declared over on December 31, 1972. My draft number—13—was never called. Because numbers up to 153 had been called in the previous year, I took the war’s end as God’s gracious provision.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Lai_Massacre.

[2] https://cherrieswriter.wordpress.com/2015/08/03/the-story-behind-the-famous-saigon-execution-photo.


Faulkner, William. 2011. A Fable (Orig Pub 1955). New York: Vintage International.

Moore, L.E. 1943. Elementary Aviation. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company.

Thoreau, Henry David. 1965. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York: Harper and Row Publishers (Harper Classic).

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The Divine Gift of Sledding


For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways. (Ps 91:11)

The Divine Gift of Sledding

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

After living in the dormitory at Iowa University and taking all my meals in the cafeteria, when I was admitted to Cornell University I decided to live off campus. The idea of living off campus seemed to offer more freedom and would presumably allow me to live with great parsimony. With freedom and parsimony on my mind, during a visit to campus arranged by the department of agricultural economics in August 1976 I rented a basement in a large, cooperatively-organized house with 12 other students on Elmwood Avenue.

The basement was the largest room in the house and, because it was totally unfinished, I was able to rent it for $50 a month on the stipulation that I fix it up. Having worked as a carpenter’s helper and other construction jobs during the summers in college, fixing up a basement to make it look like an apartment was no problem. During the week before classes started, I hung a door on the basement, walled in the heating unit, and wired several electrical outlets. I furthermore converted a small workroom into a study and organized the abandoned furniture into separate living room and bedroom spaces. As living space, my basement apartment was plenty big, but the lighting was poor, the floor was crumbling concrete, and the basement would flood in a heavy rain making it an uninviting place to bring friends; ultimately, it was a depressing place to live.

My living arrangements contributed to my goal of studying economic development by permitting me to save money to travel in Puerto Rico for my thesis project, but living off campus also contributed to my social isolation leaving me more vulnerable to depression, a problem widespread at Cornell that fall. In the fall of 1976 Cornell had record numbers of suicides and student demonstrations on campus before Thanksgiving demanded the college be closed until something could be done about it. Half a dozen students and faculty members, who I heard of through the grapevine, had attempted or succeeded in killing themselves, including one of my housemates—a bright, young premed student—who overdosed herself and was committed to a psyche unit in Syracuse. I drove up to Syracuse to pay a visit, but our conversation turned out to be rather awkward because I had no idea of how to cope with suicide and I was unprepared to learn that she had begun an affair with one of her doctors there—a newlywed. Awkward . . . depressing . . . I so wanted to help.

My own depression started during Christmas break for the first time when I stayed on campus away from my family during the semester break, which was a big mistake. Adding to my sense of isolation from family, most campus activities were suspended during the break and most of my friends disappeared to visit family or, if they had the means, took skiing holidays.[1] So Christmas turned out to be not much of a holiday and I found myself alone, in a cold, dark place with no obvious means of really celebrating the holiday.

My escape at that point was to get up one morning, despondent, and just go for a drive. Thinking of a park on the other side of town, I drove down the hill to Ithaca following an unfamiliar road—Cayuga Street—through town. Down that road, in the middle of Ithaca was First Presbyterian Church.[2] Curious about the church, I parked my car and went in the rear door—I am not sure that I even knew that it was Sunday. On the other side of that door, I must have had the look of death on my face because the music director stopped what he was doing and ushered me into the sanctuary to sing in the choir. In the choir were local college students from Ithaca who were home for the holidays and who invited me to a sledding party that evening. After sledding that evening, I began attending First Presbyterian Church and, when I later became a member, the elders encouraged me to work with their high school kids, which I did for a season.

My discovery of First Presbyterian Church that Sunday morning was a divine intervention and it enabled me to cope with the depression so prevalent at that point in my life. Life took another curve in the following year as I learned that Cornell had admitted me to their doctoral program provisionally—students were expected to maintain an A average in their classes, which proved difficult for me because Cornell adhered to a traditional grading policy. The grade competition was fierce and collaboration among students was not actively encouraged, as was true at Iowa State, in part, because of the Wall Street influence on campus. Wall Street traders at at point still competed in an open-outcry market which meant that a trader either got the bid or not, as is the nature of competitive bidding.[3] This competition sunk in for me when one day I organized a study group only to find when we got together that I was the only one who prepared to discuss the homework; later, members of the study group went on to ace the exam while I did not.

While I felt isolated from my competitive American peers, I increasingly felt at home with Hispanic students and I traded a relatively private office for a desk in the “United Nations” room where I shared a room with a large number of foreign students who studied with a beloved professor, who happened to be blind. The United Nations room was okay with me because I envisioned a career with the World Bank traveling throughout Latin America to visit investment projects and attend meetings, like some of my Washington friends. My goal of working in Latin American development meant that I fit right into my new office where I met colleagues who invited me to play in soccer games and to take part in other activities. One colleague also later became a roommate in the basement for a couple months before he took a job in Mexico City with the InterAmerican Development Bank. Meanwhile, during my first year at Cornell I studied Spanish and at the end of the year Cornell sent me to Puerto Rico for a summer’s study at the Estación Agrícola de Rio Piedras.

[1] Skiing was always a possibility in Ithaca because upstate New York has terribly cold winters with a lot of snow—including lake affect snow virtually every day as the cold wind blows across Lake Cayuga and deposits snow on Cornell which sits on the top an overlooking mountain.

[2] http://www.FirstPresIthaca.org.

[3] At one point, my marketing class visited a grain trading firm in New York City hosted by a trader who sorted through his mail while he talked with us—he never made eye contact with us.


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ShipOfFools_web_10042015Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.
For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone
when he falls and has not another to lift him up! (Eccl 4:9-10)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first small group consisted of three people—Jon (my best friend), my pastor, and I—who met on Wednesday afternoons in my senior year in high school for pizza and soda to discuss the Book of Romans and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book—The Cost of Discipleship (1995). While I really specifically remember only Bonhoeffer’s comments on cheap grace—

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living, and incarnate (44-45).

—those discussions have grounded my faith and theology ever since.

Part of my grounding came by way of Jon who after college went immediately into seminary and shared his seminary texts with me, which we discussed together. He was, for example, heavily influenced by Karl Barth and, at Jon’s prompting, I read some of Barth’s shorter works, such as Dogmatik im Grundriβ[1] in graduate school. Part of my grounding came more directly from my fascination with Bonhoeffer, which led my ordination committee years later (2010) to describe me both as neo-orthodox[2] and very theological.

Grounded or not, the backstory on our group was less encouraging—at the end of my junior year the church fired our youth director unexpectedly when the senior pastor retired. The assistant pastor attempted to fill the void created by her firing, but was not entertaining enough to keep the youth group together. The group collapsed until only Jon and I were left and, because the youth group was my primary social activity outside of school, I was deeply bitter about it. My bitterness continued for several years and, as a result, I did not attend church when I left home for college. At college, I cannot remember attending a single church event on or off campus at either Indiana University or the College of William and Mary.

My lack of church attendance posed no problem when I was away at school, but it was a source of friction when I returned home for holidays and summer vacation. Because my parents moved from Maryland to Virginia during my freshman year, the friction over church was compounded by a change in churches because the kids my age in Virginia were unfamiliar and hung out in high school clicks to which that I was not a part. Between the clicks and my own bitterness, I had no reason to attend church beyond the prompting of my parents. So Sunday morning we would fight, I would attend out of obligation, and not much came of it until I transferred to Iowa State.

At Iowa State University, I lived in Wilson Hall, which overlooked the dairy farm across the street, and shared a room with Dennis who introduced me to the Navigators,[3] a Christian group on campus and who took me to church on Sundays. The Navigators had picnics and other events around campus which I attended, just to get to know other students. Dennis’ church was nondenominational and, because I did not particularly like it, I began attending Collegiate Presbyterian Church [4] and became a member, not knowing that my parents had attended this same church when my Dad was at Iowa State in the 1950s.

Reflecting on why I was returning to church, I realized that the bitterness that I felt when my home church fired our youth director was directed at the leadership of the church, not God. God’s presence was real to me even when I was not part of any church. As a consequence, atheistic arguments never seemed real to me, even when I repeated them, because I knew God first hand and I knew that I had been blessed when I came to faith. Pascal’s Wager, which was directed at atheists, made perfect sense to me, even when I had turned my back on God.

An important atheistic argument starts with the observation that the existence of God can neither be logically proven or disproven. Atheists focusing on this observation prefer the term, agnostic, which in Greek means “not knowing”, suggesting that there is insufficient evidence to make a faith decision. Pascal used probability theory  to argue that the agnostic argument is logically false in that faith is a fair bet (hence the term, Pascal’s wager)—if God exists and you believe, then you win heaven, but if God does not exist and you believe, then you loose nothing. In other words, faith in God has a positive reward even if the probability of God existing cannot be established—just so long as the probability is a non-zero, positive number.[5]  Of course, if you know first hand that God exists, Pascal’s Wager is no bet at all!

Whether Pascal’s Wager seemed logical or not, I began attending church in my junior year at Iowa State both on campus and off. Unlike at Indiana University, Iowa State was close to my grandparents who frequently hosted me on weekends when they took me to Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa where I had been baptized and where I was always in the company of relatives and friends in Christ.


Barth, Karl. 1977. Dogmatik im Grundriβ (Orig pub 1947). Zürich: Theologischer Verlag.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[1] I read Dogmatik im Grundriβ during my year in Germany (1979).

[2] Barth, Bonhoeffer, and others started the neo-orthodox school of theological thought which was popular in the period from the 1940s to the 1960s, but since then has fallen out of fashion.

[3] http://www.Navigators.org.

[4] http://www.cpcames.org.

[5] Pascal’s Wager is mathematic proof that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

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Coming Home

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Phil 1:21)

Coming Home

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My decision to study economics forced me to re-organize priorities both inside and outside school. In school, economics required supporting work in mathematics, statistics, and computer science which I had not taken. Outside of school, my volunteer work in the Indiana Public Research Group (INPIRG) was a constant distraction from my studies. I looked for schools closer to home.

INPIRG Distracts

In my sophomore year of college (1973), for example, my volunteering included work on a local congressional campaign, community organizing, and support for other INPIRG projects. The congressional campaign involved chauffeuring a friend of mine, Charlotte, around the district in Indiana accompanying her on numerous campaign stops. The community organizing involved organizing local community groups on the west side (across the railroad tracks) of Bloomington to protest the city’s neglect in taking care of burned out house on the edge of town. The support for other INPIRG projects involved recruiting students for demonstrations and volunteering for things, like the weekly grocery store price survey, when other volunteers failed to show up.

Being a faithful volunteer was personally meaningful and introduced me to many interesting people both in the local community and on campus, but after I was turned down for a paid position as a community organizer for INPIRG, I started to feel abused. This feeling reached a boiling point when the executive director scheduled a defective-part demonstration at an automotive plant in Fort Wayne during exams week and asked me to recruit students to help out—I did my best, but ultimately I was the only student who was willing to attend the demonstration. After the demonstration and poor performance on exams, I decided to transfer to another school rather than study economics at Indiana University.

College of William and Mary

Transferring to another school proved more challenging than I initiated envisioned, in part, because in the spring of 1973 my parents moved from Maryland to Falls Church, Virginia. Virginia had good schools so, not thinking much about it, I applied for and was accepted at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, thinking that I would save my parents money by going to school in state. School in Indiana would be over in April and summer school classes started in June, leaving me the month of May open to earn the money to pay for summer school expenses.

Earning summer school expenses in a month was just barely doable, if I worked construction during the day and worked in a restaurant at night. For construction, I worked as a plumber’s helper constructing the McLean House where, at first, I helped a plumber hang pipe, but, after the old veteran screwed it up his assignment, the foreman made it abundantly clear that my real job was to keep the plumber out of trouble—the trouble was that he “brown bagged” breakfast at six-thirty in the morning and to cover up his alcohol consumption drank profuse amounts of coffee all day. For restaurant work, I worked the dinner shift at Roy Rogers in Falls Church where I flipped burgers until after eleven and routinely closed out the place. Between construction and restaurant work, by the end of May I was so exhausted that at one point the foreman at the McLean House accused me of having fallen asleep while standing up. Asleep or awake, I earned my summer school expenses in a month.

At William and Mary that summer, I enrolled in principles of economics and calculus, lived in the Jefferson House, and worked washing dishes in George’s Campus Restaurant in Greek Town. I remember economics mostly because my professor smoked cigars blowing smoke and telling stories of his government service and because a pitcher of beer was my favorite study aid. Studying in Jefferson House, known best for its six-inch cockroaches, was a lost cause because of a lack of air conditioning and the intense summer heat. It was cooler washing dishes at George’s Campus Restaurant, where I enjoyed hanging out and got my only real meal of the day.

Out of State at Home

One day I received a letter in the mail from William and Mary informing me that I was being classified as an out-of-state student. This classification, which substantially increased my tuition costs and defeated my primary reason to return to Virginia from Indiana, caused me great distress and with letter in hand I went to visit the college president. The president, sitting behind a figure of three monkeys (hear no evil; see no evil; speak no evil) on his desk, quietly explained to me that, because I had an Indiana driver’s license and registered to vote in Indiana, that I was not a resident of Virginia. To that I responded: if I am not a Virginia resident, then what state am I a resident of? My parents no longer reside in Maryland where I grew up; I have never actually lived outside of school in Indiana; and Virginia is my only real home—how can I not be a resident? The legal answer was that I was not “domiciled” in Virginia because I could not at that point in my life know where I would live following graduation and Virginia required that I be domiciled in Virginia.

Domiciled or not, the president had actually done me a favor because William and Mary was not a good fit, both because of the small class sizes and strong influence of fraternities on student housing. The small class size meant that my cigar-smoking professor, who waxed eloquently about the distinguished history of tidewater Virginia to the detriment weightier topics, would be unavoidable. And, although I was not enamored with Jefferson House, I was even less interested in pledging a fraternity, in part, because of their culture and, in part, because of my own independent streak. The parochial outlook on life at William and Mary and the high tuition costs made the college a bad fit.

Iowa State

When I checked expenses at Iowa State University, where my father attended college, they were lower than at William and Mary College. Iowa State had the additional benefits of being closer to my grandparents and of having a nationally-recognized program in agricultural economics, which was of interest. The idea of studying at Iowa State also pleased everyone in my family. When I applied to and was accepted by Iowa State, I felt that I was truly coming home.

Also see: Looking Back

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Listening and Talking

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor,
but the lips of a fool consume him.” (Eccl 10:12)

Listening and Talking

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first year of college at Indiana University I lived and worked in the Graduate Residence Center (GRC) where everyone had a roommate, telephones were in the hall, and two of the three buildings housed men. Because GRC had both men’s and women’s buildings, it was considered co-educational.

My education in dealing with the opposite sex was less exciting than one might believe from recent movies. The movie that everyone talked about in 1972 was Dustin Hoffman’s The Graduate (1967) where a high school graduate is seduced by an older woman and falls in love with her daughter.[1] The only older women that I met were professors and, although I became acquainted with many young women, they were more interested in dating older guys who were experienced in social settings and could afford to date.

Money was always a problem in college. Although my dad paid my college tuition and room and board, every other expense—books, travel, and entertainment—came out of my account. By Christmas of my freshman year my bank account was pretty much empty of savings from my summer work in high school and I started the New Year working in the cafeteria where I normally was assigned to the dish machine, but occasionally worked the food line. I enjoyed working the line because I soon became acquainted with just about everyone in GRC, including the co-eds. Still, dating co-eds required money and most of my money went to books and traveling home over vacations—even pizza money for Sunday evening dinner was hard to come by and required strict budgeting. My budget simply did not include money for dating.

Dating was not really on my mind in my freshman year, not only because I could not afford it, but because I missed a close friend back at home in Maryland. For me, she was like the freshwater pike that got away and grew longer and more ornery with each telling of the tale, vaccinating me from the advances from other women. Vaccinated or not, it was easier telling myself that my standards were too high than to admit that it was painful seeing older guys date my female friends.

Dating friends in high school, conversation might be about common things, like a class or activity that we shared, but it often quickly wandered into more serious matters, like plans for the future and how many children that you wanted to have. Future plans were a perfect date topic because in the 1970s dating was treated like a job interview for marriage and guys naturally paid for dinner and activities to demonstrate their willingness (and hopefully future ability) to provide for a family, should they marry. Marriage was on everyone’s mind which made dating, like an important job interview, an activity that made almost everyone nervous, because everyone obsessed about being the perfect date.

Unable to date, hanging out with female friends in college was unscripted, awkward, and without an obvious social context—what do you even talk about? I knew almost everyone in GRC from working in the cafeteria, but “I see that you really like green beans” is a pickup line not suggesting a lengthy conversation. Real conversation required common ground that was frequently lacking and verbal skills that I simply did not possess and that were not in the curriculum. In searching for common ground, I soon discovered a friend from high school lived in GRC and made friends with another girl who grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. In developing verbal skills, I soon discovered “the question”.

Questions were cool because you could ask a question and listen potentially for hours to the answer, speaking only occasionally to say something like “yeah” or “tell me more”, because most people love to talk. I loved questions and became a good listener, but there is one problem with questions—they only really worked well in one-on-one conversation. Once two becomes three, conversation takes on a competitive element and it is not cool to dominate the conversation for too long. When conversation morphed into a group dialogue, as I discovered in my freshman year, I was lost both because of my limited social skills and because I did not perceive a social context suggesting that being the “life of the party” was important. More important was that I learn to earn a living and reach a point where I might support a family.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Graduate.

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The Dish Machine

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“But when he came to himself, he said, How many of
my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread,
but I perish here with hunger!” (Luke 15:17)

The Dish Machine

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In the fall of my senior year in high school, I used the money that I earned as a camp counselor during the summer at Goshen Scout Camps to buy a new Conn 88h trombone. My interest in music quickly escalated and I announced my interest in studying music in college. My decision to study music came to the chagrin of my music teacher, who being the tuba player in the National Symphony Orchestra, arranged for me to begin lessons with a trombonist, also with the National Symphony Orchestra. Between my trombone, my new teacher, and my new practice schedule, it became clear that I was under-prepared for spring auditions even as I applied to the music department at Indiana University (IU). When I clutched in the audition, unable to play even a Bb scale, I was so ashamed of myself that I gave up the trombone and could not enjoy classical music for more than a decade. Unable to study music, I traveled to Bloomington, Indiana in the fall of 1972 as a freshman without a major.

In the fall, IU registration was a chaotic event in which students entered a large auditorium with tables set up for the different departments and walked between the tables to sign up for classes. Once enrolled in a sufficient number of classes, students stood in line to pay for your tuition before exiting. As I waited in line, I met a volunteer with the Indiana Public Interest Research Group (INPIRG), a student group funded by a tuition checkoff, and he invited me to an organizational meeting to learn more about the group. Intrigued, I checked off INPIRG on my tuition form and attended the meeting where I was elected as a student representative to the INPIRG board of directors.

INPIRG quickly became a home away from home. As an INPIRG director, my friends were mostly law students who identified with Ralph Nader who was famous for his work on automobile safety [1]. Nader’s new book in 1971, Action for a Change: A Student’s Manual for Public Interest Organizing, which led to the organization of the student PIRGs [2], such as INPIRG, all over the country. In INPIRG, I chaired the personnel committee which hired an executive director that fall and I directed a new bookstore pricing survey which quickly became popular among students.

My volunteer work as a “Nader Raider” was less popular with my roommate who was a business major. He spent most of his time practicing his putting and ganged up with a student across the hall to torment me when I studied for exams. In view of such torments, I quickly moved into a private room in the German Language House, because of my interest in German literature and language studies, and out of the Graduate Residence Center (GRC).

Still, before I left, GRC helped me expand on my work with INPIRG. More than just the first co-educational dormitory on campus, GRC faculty advisers worked closely with residents to initiate independent study programs. In my case, I developed a program in the spring of my freshman year that allowed me to assist almost full-time in an INPIRG study of Indiana state government offices. My contribution to the study involved studies of two offices: a new state regulator of private schools and the state department of weights and measures. Both studies required travel to Indianapolis to interview state officials, background reading assignments, and lengthy written reports.

Between my independent study project and the bookstore survey, in INPIRG I was heavily involved in political and economic research. This research did not, however, mix well with my other studies, particularly my studies in German literature where I struggled to keep up and where I clearly could not identify with the nihilism so prevalent in postmodern literature. The despair in contemporary literature seriously disturbed me, even though I did not attend church during these years, and I had trouble envisioning a future majoring in literature.

In my distress, I visited a professor in the comparative literature department to seek counsel where I asked: “where should I aspire to attend graduate school if I continue studying comparative literature?” Harvard University, he answered. Then, I asked: “how many IU students have been admitted to graduate studies in comparative literature at Harvard University?” None, he answered, stoking my distress.

Being one of the few men living at this point in the German Language House, I sought refuge from my distress in attending the many campus parties that I was invited to. The parties were good, but they kept me up late and Sunday morning I was scheduled to work the dish machine at 6:00 a.m. The early shift on Sunday mornings was lite work because hardly anyone got up for breakfast and I could just sleep—nobody knew; nobody cared.

One Sunday morning I will never forget—I woke up hanging over the dish machine with a terrible hangover from the party the night before. Smarting from the hangover, I resolved that I could not continue doing what I had been doing—bogged down in depressive literature and being manipulated into self-destructive political activism—where I would never finish school or find a career. Knowing from experience that politicians mostly argue about economics and economic studies were doable, that morning I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and become an economist.

[1] Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1965).

[2] New York: Grossman Publishers.

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Oaks of Righteousness

ShipOfFools_web_10042015they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD,
that he may be glorified. (Isa. 61:3)

Oaks of Righteousness

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ordination committee requested that I volunteer outside of my own congregation as a pastoral intern. Having never been an intern, I emailed the General Presbyter who put me in touch with half a dozen pastors serving urban congregations. Among these pastors, only Pastor Chris responded and he quickly arranged a visit to First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.

Because my younger sister, Diane, and her husband lived in Americana Drive for a number of years, Annandale was familiar; unfamiliar were the Hispanic day-workers hanging out on Little River Turnpike in front of the McDonalds. The pavement on Little River Turnpike seemed worn and the bedding plants around the houses seemed overgrown. I remembered a youthful and neatly trimmed Annandale populated by crew-cut veterans and maintained by ever-vigilant Eagle Scouts. Like an old scout, Annandale had aged.

In the late 1970s when my sister and her husband purchased a garden condominium on Americana Drive, Annandale was an affordable, up-and-coming, suburban town inside the Beltway, close to Washington DC, with good schools. In the early 1980 they were joined by my other sister, Karen, and her husband who purchased a brand-new townhouse on Campanionship Drive. By the 1990s Diane and her husband had resettled in Philadelphia; Karen resettled in Florida. By 2007, the year before I entered seminary, Diane died following complications during a second round of breast cancer. When I visited Annandale in May of 2009, my Annandale memories were no longer fresh and, on the way over to the church, Americana Drive eluded me.

Driving up Newcastle Drive, the grounds of the brick church greeted me with enormous oaks, marked out and steady. Unsteady trees, like white pine or popular, can grow 30-40 feet in a few years, but steadiness requires the patience of an oak. A straight, tall oak, hearkening to a time before missionaries brought the hope of salvation to fearsome and heathen Frisians, adorns the Hiemstra coat of arms. Disarming pin oak is my father’s favorite, but formative white oak—faithfully rooted, humbly set—guarded the spire of First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.

At the end of the long, winding driveway, First Presbyterian Church of Annandale offers many doors to enter the building and, for those in need, the shelter of a roof on rainy days. Sunshine, not rain, was my fortune on that first visit and I instinctively ducked under the roof to the door across the hall from the sanctuary. The sanctuary beckoned me with a large white Celtic cross on fire with an avian image of the Holy Spirit that hung behind a modern pulpit. Modern red and yellow stained glass hung overhead and to the left, but wooden organ to the right of the cross captured my attention first. Baptized in the shadow of a pipe organ, confirmed by a Handel chorus, and offered communion by melodies still craddled in my mother’s arms, memories of organ music comforted me. Annandale was familiar before a word was spoken and I knew I was not far from home.

Pastor Chris found me before I found him. He granted me a tour of the many classrooms, the day-care center, the kitchen, the library, and the staff offices. With the facility came a church’s proud history—the building was dedicated in 1960 and expanded in 1963; by 1970, the church had 575 children in Sunday school; two years later membership peaked at 883 active members; and in 1974 the organ was added.[1] More recent history, however, peaked my interest—the church had evolving partnerships with First Korean Presbyterian Church of Virginia (since 1965) and a Pakistani mission congregation, found in few other congregations. And neither partnering congregation was a mere tenant; multilingual worship services took place on special occasions during the year.

I was hooked. For the next year, I served as a pastoral intern at First Presbyterian Church of Annandale.

[1] http://www.fpcannandale.org/history.html.

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Hitch Hiking

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD,
plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and
a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to
me, and I will hear you.” (Jer 29:11-12 ESV)

Hitch Hiking

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

During spring break in March, 1973, I visited my parents driving a Volvo owned by a wealthy graduate student from Bloomington, Indiana to in Lanham, Maryland. As this student was not returning to Bloomington, I accepted an invitation from several friends and decided to return to school by way of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So I got up early, wrote on a sign—BOSTON—with a magic marker, I threw my clothes and a sleeping bag into my backpack, and I walked past Riverdale shopping center to stand on the north-bound ramp to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

As I reached the ramp, it was already seven in the morning. By quarter to eight, I secured a ride from one of many drivers creeping past me going up the hill to the Parkway. As I learned, the Parkway runs parallel with Interstate 95 and they both lead to Baltimore where they eventually come together and Interstate 95 continues all the way to Boston, a car trip optimistically to be driven in about ten hours.


During that long day, I remember thumbing my way through the 95 business district in Philadelphia, but the trip from Phily to NYC took all afternoon. Later that night, a couple graciously picked me up and drove me to the other side of New York City. After standing around for a couple hours in the dark, after midnight I left the interstate, walked over to an apartment building, and slept the night in a heated stairwell. People walking up the stairs would occasionally wake me, but no one gave me a hard time and I ate breakfast in a nearby restaurant early in the morning.

Later that morning I made good progress until I reached Bridgeport, Connecticut. There, I quickly found a ride, but driver drove me across town, stopped in a lonely place, and parked the car. For the next several hours, this older man sipped coffee, cried, and talked about a strained relationship with his son. The strains became obvious because when I spoke about my relationship with my own father, he became irritated and defensive. My anxiety about our conversation grew, not only because I was anxious to reach Cambridge, but because it soon became obvious that the man was drinking coffee to cover up his alcoholism. Eventually, the man tired of our conversation and dropped me off on the other side of Bridgeport. From there, I traveled to Cambridge and found my way to Harvard University.

At Harvard University, I stayed at Adams House, where my best friend lived in a coop with three other guys. During the several days at Adams House, I visited the Fox Club, attended two classes, and took part in a youth program at my friend’s church. In one class, we heard a history lecture which featured parliamentary events during colonial times that took place in the building where we were sitting. In the second class, we heard a guest presentation by the producers of Sesame Street, a popular educational television program for young kids. At the church, we participated in a youth program where I was uncomfortably the only one in the room struggling with disbelief. All things considered, Harvard impressed me as a serious school and the prospect of returning to Indiana University where I actually studied bothered me greatly.

Also bothering was the weather. As I prepared to leave Cambridge, the hot spring days turned to bitter cold and the cold weather left the yellow wind-breaker I had worn in my trip up from Maryland totally insufficient. To keep warm (and to the amusement of passers by), I found myself dancing in the cold alongside of the road.

The road trip west from Cambridge was uneventful until I got picked up in Connecticut by a couple of long-hair, hippy bartenders in a Volkswagen bus on their way to Pittsburgh. Getting a ride to Pittsburgh was a dream come true after so many short rides and so much energetic dancing. Even better, they knew a woman in Pittsburgh who could put us all up for the night.

When we arrived in Pittsburgh late that afternoon, it seemed odd that my bartending hosts were in no hurry to call their friend; in fact, they did not know her telephone number. Instead, they found a bar and started knocking down shot glasses of hard liquor. Worse, when we piled back into the bus, they drove up an exit ramp and we found ourselves dodging cars driving down the wrong side of the highway. It was after midnight when they finally stopped to ask for directions and another drunk—a lawyer and former Maryland University basketball player—invited us to his house for the night. After the lawyer fixed us breakfast at around 2 a.m., I was given a room with a bed and I went to sleep.

At about 7:30 a.m. that morning, I woke with a child pulling on my foot. “Daddy, daddy,” she said: “some strange men are sleeping on the couch.” I rolled over and responded: “I am so sorry. Your father is in the other room.” Then, I got the bartenders up and said: ”We need to go. This guy is going to wake up; not remember anything; and call the cops.” So we left. The bartenders drove me to the west side of Pittsburgh and let me out.

The roads west of Pittsburgh were neither direct nor busy. I spent most of the day getting short rides out of Pennsylvania and by evening had only reached Cambridge, Ohio. However, the ride that dropped me off in Cambridge left me at a truck stop and advised me to hitch rides with truckers whose trips were typically longer—it was good advice.

At the truck stop, one trucker made sure that I found a ride going west. After some welcome dinner that evening, I found myself bound for Indianapolis with a trucker. The trucker’s cab had only a driver’s seat so I slept uncomfortably on a pile of junk that night. But, in the morning I woke up and ate breakfast with the trucker in Indianapolis.

In Indianapolis, I met a black student from school who was also hitch hiking and we teamed up to travel together south on route 37 to Bloomington. We quickly found a ride with a local man who began telling us stories as we traveled. However, the story he told us we passed through Martinsville, Indiana gave us pause. It seems that a few years earlier —1968—a 21-year old black woman named Carol Jenkins who sold encyclopedias door-to-door had been found dead on the street in Martinville and that the crime had never been solved. The rumor was that she had murdered by the Klu Klux Klan as a warning to other blacks to stay out of Martinsville.[1] That may be so. . .it was at least a conversation killer. . .we never so happy to return to school.

Needless to say, that was my last experiment with hitch hiking.

[1] http://www.wthr.com/story/23447014/2013/09/16/martinsville-still-trying-to-clean-image-45-years-after-murder.

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