A letter from Jonathan Seitz on home assignment from Taiwan
Advent is often a time of preparation. We remember the call of the magi, the sending of Joseph and Mary to be registered, the pregnancy itself, and the work of those who helped the Christ child to flee to his new home.
In this in-between time, we are grateful to be settled into an apartment for several months before our return. We are thankful for time to prepare for travel, for a new semester, and for renewed work in Taiwan.
My main job in Taiwan is to teach, and it is still a challenging task for me. It requires a knowledge of language and culture, and also of my own teaching areas, which sometimes stretches me. As I write this I'm at the American Academy of Religion–Society for Biblical Studies meeting in Chicago, and it has been very helpful for me in finding resources, tracking down colleagues, and planning for our return to Taiwan in the new year. Soon course materials will be due, and although we’ve enjoyed our time here we are already beginning to prepare for our return.
The first days in Chicago contained two valuable experiences. I read Milo Thornberry's book, Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror. Thornberry was a Methodist missionary who had taught at my seminary in the 1960s, and I had the chance to meet him earlier this year. During my travels I finally read his book. It's a fascinating study of a young couple who struggled to witness to their faith in an oppressive era in Taiwan's history. The Thornberrys befriended a Taiwanese intellectual, Peng Ming-Min, who was under house arrest, and eventually they helped him to escape from Taiwan. With many others they also published a newsletter designed to prod foreigners to rethink their complacency toward Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime, and they helped channel money to released political prisoners. It's a striking, dramatic story.
The day after finishing the book, I went to Wheaton University's library, where I visited the archives of Lillian Dickson. Lillian’s husband, James, was the principal of my seminary during different periods from the 1930s through the 1960s, and he and his wife are buried next to our chapel. I confirmed some stories I'd heard apocryphally. For instance, Dickson said that between all of his different schools, organizations, and church groups, he was, at one point, serving on 58 committees. When asked what this possibly accomplished, he said that "perhaps my most important contribution has been working with these committees.” Lillian added that he valued the process and the democratic nature of this work and that planning together “takes time, wide discussion, and patience to build carefully.” What interested me even more was Lillian's work after James' death. She was involved in the creation of orphanages and leprosariums, TB clinics, and treatment related to "black foot." Her fund-raising mailing list grew to 25,000 names. The Dicksons’ work was striking in the way it reads as a Presbyterian story of institution building and service.
The two stories together make an interesting juxtaposition. One was more focused on resistant witness and expulsion (Thornberry's) while the other (the Dicksons') was a decades-long story of service to the Taiwanese people. Both types of work are crucial and have their place. Both stories also challenged me. The first challenged me to consider how easy it is to be complacent in the face of injustice, and the other showed me a genuine example of lifelong sacrificial labor.
Later in the week I participated in a panel on schism in the Presbyterian Church at a conference. I talked about how the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan has so far managed to remain united, despite some significant tensions and challenges. I called the paper “Unity Through Shared Suffering,” because Taiwanese have often conveyed to me that their unity as a church has come through shared experiences of overcoming adversity. For my own part, I have often thought that it is a shared calling that can help us overcome, or at least live with, our own divisions. In PC(USA) language, we have often emphasized “peace, unity, and purity.” However, it sometimes seems to me that we have forgotten the “apostolicity” (or mission, or sent-ness) of the church.
As we celebrate Christmas we are praying for you and are grateful for the ways you have supported our work in Taiwan. Our travels have been a time of blessings. We feel energized and encouraged and are excited about the trip back. Please pray for the church in Taiwan, that it will continue to seek justice, to work for health and healing, and to share its faith enthusiastically.
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 205
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 214
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