Prairie View

Monday, February 05, 2018

What Would it Take?

On Tuesday of this past week I attended the funeral of Ervin J. Stutzman.  He died at the age of 96, after nearly 75 years of marriage to Emma.  He was the founder of Stutzman’s Greenhouse in Pleasantview, and my first employer.  Stutzman’s now has 11 Kansas locations, and is well-known outside of Kansas for its quality plants. 

In recent years I had a wonderful opportunity to interact with Ervin again when our composition class created a booklet telling the life story of Ervin and Emma.  The minister who spoke at the funeral mentioned that booklet as a source of information that helped compensate for his having learned to know Ervin only relatively late in Ervin’s life. 

I typed some of Ervin’s last Christmas letters for him, doing some minor editing as he asked me to do. 

I treasure a letter that Ervin wrote me from Haiti, after he read an article of mine in Keepers at Home magazine.  He liked the article–on picky eating.  He had as little use for it as I do. 

Ervin’s funeral was truly inspiring.  The first speaker was Joel B., who grew up in Haiti, came to college at Hesston, and then later worked for Ervin for a short time.  Joel linked Ervin to the people in his home area in Labaliene.  For ten years, this is where Ervin and Emma lived after selling the greenhouse business. 

Hearing Joel speak created a vivid picture of the other world that captured Ervin’s heart.  In that community, Ervin’s investment brought hope and a greatly improved standard of living.  He would be quick to say that he did not do the work alone.  A board eventually was created to oversee the work, but everyone would agree that Ervin was the on-the-ground catalyst for all that followed. 

At the very same time the funeral here was in progress, a service in Haiti was also taking place.  There, the funeral included children from the school that Ervin established–probably several hundred students.  No doubt, people also came who were associated with the church, the sewing center, the shop, and the clinic that Ervin helped build.  Whoever is currently on the mission staff surely also honored Ervin by attending his funeral.  Translating from French, Joel read a letter from the people of Labaliene to the audience at the funeral.  Their love and gratitude clearly runs deep. 

Joel told a story at the funeral that is very illustrative of the down-to-earth, practical way Ervin went about meeting the people’s needs. 

The people of Labaliene used to travel for about three hours to the closest market town.   In conversation, Joel told Ervin that it would be a great help to the village people if they had a more direct route to town.  Ervin responded by asking “What would it take?”  Joel didn’t tell us how he answered–only that before long 175 people worked for three months to build a road to the market town, and Ervin and his helpers provided the means to complete the project.  It wasn’t quite clear to me, but it sounded as though the workers might have been paid in corn, which was donated by American farmers.

I never heard much about this project, but I remember hearing Ervin tell about a tree seedling project that was begun.   The need for firewood has resulted in deforestation of the surrounding area, and re-planting trees seemed necessary.  Ervin certainly knew a thing or two about growing plants, and I hope the project prospered. 

At the sewing center, women from the community could come to use the sewing machines that Ervin had collected and shipped to Haiti.  I don’t know all the ways the sewing center was used, but I do know about one program that I admire.  Women use the sewing machines to make quilts, using squares that have been pre-cut from fabric scraps by women in the U.S., either during the regular monthly church sewing day or by people who do the work at home.  Squares of the same size are bundled, and each seamstress gets enough squares to make two quilts.  One quilt stays at the sewing center, to be distributed as needed.  The other goes home with the seamstress.  She can either use it for her own household or sell it for a bit of income.  Joel’s sister used to be in charge of the sewing center. 

Emma told me once that Ervin often repaired sewing machines when that was needed.  He felt that the Lord had gifted him on-the-spot with that ability.  He certainly had no prior training or experience.

The shop functioned as a repair service.  I presume it contained some of the basic tools one would typically find in a welding shop, a mechanic shop, and a carpenter shop. 

Haiti has been in the news recently in connection with some of the president’s dismissive, foul-language labels for countries from which he does not wish to welcome immigrants.  I think if he had been at Ervin’s funeral, those words might have died before they were uttered.  I certainly hope so. 

No one mentioned this at the funeral, but Ervin was well-known by friends for his harmonica-playing ability.  In his youth he had also played the accordion, but put it aside, presumably when he joined the Amish church in Kansas.  I learned this over the time the composition class was  working on the booklet about Ervin and Emma.  At that time I suggested that he might be able to take up accordion playing again, since the church he was part of  had a different stance on musical instruments than was the case earlier. 

He explained that it wasn’t that simple since he had learned to play on an accordion with buttons that were replaced in modern accordions with keys–like piano keys.  I didn’t pursue it further, but I learned recently that Ervin had bought an accordion with keys and learned to play it some time in his 90s.  In recent years, he often played for other residents at MFC (Mennonite Friendship Communities), where he lived. 

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Since the funeral, I’ve thought more about Ervin’s employment of foreigners, among them students (Joel), trainees (with Mennonite Central Committee’s exchange program), refugees (from Laos and Cambodia–resettled in the US), and at least one illegal immigrant. 

I know a lot about the last one’s situation since he lived at first with my parental family.  He was from El Salvador, and left during the civil war in the 1980s. Relatives of his were friends of my sister, who had lived and worked in El Salvador earlier.  No one here knew anything about his coming here until he was en route and needed someone to pick him up at the airport in Wichita.  He had a passport, but let’s just say it had not been acquired through the proper channels.  He feared for his life when he fled* and was eventually granted political asylum in Canada.  In that country’s system, he was regarded as a refugee rather than an illegal immigrant. 

Ervin did not pay wages to Ricardo because of the laws that forbade it (he didn’t have a green card–a work permit).  Instead he provided for him in other ways.  I know that he bought a car for him. 

In Kansas and in Haiti, Ervin clearly had compassion on needy foreigners.   His example shines brightly in this era of fractious and harsh rhetoric on the subject of displacement and immigration.  I pray that Ervin's passing could call forth such compassion in all who mourn his absence. 

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*Ricardo’s story parallels a complaint that is often heard regarding refugees who are fleeing war-torn countries in this way: He was an able-bodied young man, and not a helpless woman or child.  Today this is often cited as evidence that such refugees are not truly in need of help, but instead are intent on causing harm in whatever country they are allowed to enter.  Canada having granted Ricardo political asylum suggests that their stance was very different from the suspicious and condemning one I sometimes hear voiced today.

Ricardo had served at one time in the El Salvador military, during a more peaceful time.  It’s likely that he was originally drafted in the haphazard way that the El Salvador military functioned at that time.  Essentially, officers boarded public buses and seized young men who looked like likely soldiers.  He had served his time and been honorably discharged. When the resistance movement gained traction later, the military began to call back its former soldiers.  Ricardo did not immediately join.  He had been married, had a child, and was divorced in the meantime. 

Before long, Ricardo  began to receive death threats.  I recall that he said that the death threats came from the side he would most likely have wished to support.  Some of the details are fuzzy now more than 30 years later, but reconstructing what I remember leads me to believe that he sympathized most strongly with the resistance movement, and he was also feeling pressure to join them as a soldier.  With both sides in the conflict vying for his loyalty and commitment, he could not choose either one without risking his life.  I have no trouble at all believing that this is exactly the same situation that many young men face today in war-torn countries. If escape is possible, it’s easy to see why that might seem like the best option.



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