Arthur “Art” Wiser, beloved senior pastor at the Bruderhof, died March 26, 2013 at age 92. Art’s son recounts highlights of his father’s colorful life journey.
My father, Art Wiser, was born to missionary parents in India in 1920. Eager young Christians, William and Charlotte Wiser bucked the cozy traditions of the “mission field,” opting to live in tents in a remote village in north India until they could know the villagers well enough to help in every aspect of their lives. Little did they know that this would take years, not days. Karimganj became Art’s childhood home and that of his younger brother Alfred. The Wisers’ account of their experiences is still in print as Behind Mud Walls, a preeminent text on Indian village life.
The Woodstock boarding school in the Himalayas afforded the best education India had to offer, along with many tearful partings – tears on mother’s part while the excited young Art boarded the train for adventure. Woodstock during the British Raj was a heady place of contrasts: privilege amid servitude and destitution, Western imperialism and culture clashing with emerging views on independence.
In Europe, war loomed over Hitler’s ascent. After “lights out” in the dorm, Art and his classmates debated into the night. Should a Christian fight for his country? Young friends hammered out positions and formed convictions. Some would become decorated war heroes, others conscientious objectors. “Whisky” (Art’s school nickname derived from his signature) decided that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount demands pacifism and determined that if drafted he would refuse military service.
Fascinated by world politics, Art chose to study international relations at Cornell. He traveled east across the Pacific and made his way across the United States, hoping to get to know the country he would now adopt as his own. A casual approach to work at a relative’s dude ranch earned the would-be intellectual a scathing letter from home about work ethics. The lesson was needed; Art would have to work his way through school. At Cornell the freshman had to stumble out of bed early enough each morning to bake biscuits for other students’ breakfasts.
At university the missionaries’ son gravitated to a group that hiked Ithaca’s spectacular gorges, sang folk songs, and was happy to postpone dating and sex. Once the informal grouping accompanied one of their members home to her folks’ dairy farm on the other side of the Finger Lakes. Mary Raecher was proud to introduce her friends to her farmer-school teacher parents whose hard work, along with a valedictorian’s scholarship, had sent her to Cornell. Mary had joined Art’s journey.
These young people continued to engage in the events that swirled around them, and to debate questions of war and peace. In the hills of northeastern Georgia the progressive educator Morris Mitchell established the Macedonia Cooperative Community to develop the ruined mountain economy and raise the poor mountaineers’ social consciousness. When the Quakers invited concerned youth to support Mitchell’s project by attending summer work camps, Art and his friends, including Mary, volunteered. Back at Cornell Art switched majors to agriculture. He was seeking peace.
But war came instead. Pearl Harbor militarized the United States and the conflict became World War II. Art and Mary, like many others, accelerated their plans for marriage. The military draft would separate them, not through conscription, but by conscientious objectors’ internment in Civilian Public Service camps. Eventually Art decided that even participating in the camps’ occupations “in the national interest” compromised a true peace stand. He wrote as much to the president and J. Edgar Hoover, and was soon committed to Sandstone Federal Penitentiary in Minnesota.
The government may not have anticipated the results of interning thousands of pacifists together in camps and prisons that became hothouses of creative social dreaming and youthful energy. After the war young families emerged determined to build a way of life that would not lead to war. Macedonia Community attracted many such families, who gradually coalesced into an intentional community that outlived Morris Mitchell’s plans. Mary Wiser had helped keep the dairy going during the war, and there the Wisers with their firstborn Alan made their home, literally, with their own hands.
Already in the fifties, a decade before hippie communes, an “intentional community” movement flourished. The Wisers threw themselves into this exciting experiment. Their vision was no less than the brotherhood of all. More families joined them. Some left. There were conferences and civil rights activities. Art and Mary’s family grew to four children.
Today Macedonia lies in ruins in the Georgia hills. But it was there that something lasting, even eternal, came into my father’s life.
The high school senior who articulated the pacifist position in the darkened Woodstock dorm had no reason to question his parents’ faith. Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” and that was enough. But even as Art embraced pacifism, he watched churches rallying to the flag and urging their young men to fight. His parents’ heartfelt love for their Indian neighbors was received coldly by their home church in Chicago. Was this Christianity?
Back in India a Hindu was leading the world’s first nonviolent revolution. Atheist Marxists challenged bourgeois attitudes. Heated discussions in CPS camp tended toward Sartre and Camus rather than Christ and St. Paul. A worldwide brotherhood would transcend all differences and include all religions. Macedonia would be its demonstration plot. Art espoused an agnosticism that sought a mystical oneness in the universe that could do without God. All that was needed to discover the truth was honest inquiry.
Macedonia grew and thrived, but cracks began to appear as friends left in bitterness. Marriage difficulties arose. A toddler’s accidental death shook the group, but also gave Art a glimpse into depths the material world couldn’t account for.
Then there was the challenge presented by visitors from the Bruderhof in Paraguay. Macedonia members loved them but were put off by their simple faith in Jesus. In members’ meetings the “religious question” kept intruding itself until they agreed to tackle it head on. Art thought that if they started with reading in the Gospels they might continue with the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran. They never got beyond the seventh chapter of Luke.
As they read the Gospels together and struggled to understand them, something entirely unexpected happened. One by one, souls met the living Christ. As Art recounted in 1990:
I knew that Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am in the midst of them.” If you put three smoldering chunks of wood next to each other, they’ll burst into flame. But if you take those same three smoldering chunks of wood and separate them, they’ll go out. I felt, this is what I’ve been doing to these people whom I love. And I felt smitten. In the name of truth I’ve been unloving, and it’s not been the truth, and I have nothing to stand on.
Eventually the Wisers and most of the Macedonia Community members joined the Bruderhof. Art and Mary’s journey continued, though with no less struggle. William, their fifth child, was born prematurely en route to the new Woodcrest Bruderhof, and remained in hospital five excruciating weeks before the family was united again. As a new Bruderhof member, Art was thrust into the midst of communal crises. He made mistakes and needed forgiveness.
But for the rest of his life, my father loved Christ, and he led me to love him, too. He would have been grateful that his burial was on Good Friday, under the sign of the cross. As his family and community laid him to rest, we recalled the words he spoke after Mary, his wife of 65 years, died in 2007:
So that’s the end of the first, 65-year chapter of our wonderful, wonderful years of sharing together in our search for the best way to serve love and truth. That search led us first to Jesus, then to the Bruderhof and fifty years committed to brothers and sisters, as we sought to follow Jesus faithfully...There have been a good many detours because of self-will or obstinacy, but always, with Jesus leading, brothers and sisters have helped us find the way back.
Mary, I’m certain, has found the prize. I look forward eagerly to my part of the next chapter. It is a thrilling life, and I have just shared Mary’s adventure of a major victory. There will be more ahead.