Rifton, New York, April 19, 2017, “Now I know the meaning of what it truly is to ‘rest in peace.’” A tear traced the old man’s history-weathered face as he embraced my brother and me. Smiling, he added, “This is peace.” My father had died three days before, and Dr. John Perkins, the civil rights hero and founder of the Christian Community Development Association, had come from Mississippi to pay tribute to his old friend and fellow peacemaker. We were gathered around my father’s body, facing the mystery of eternal life. To rest in peace is a reward for work in life.
My father, Johann Christoph Arnold, was many things: a pastor, an elder in the Bruderhof, a veteran of the fight for peace and reconciliation through forgiveness, a warrior in the struggle to live the gospel and love his neighbor.
His wake reflected this life’s work. People streamed into the room: families from the Bruderhof with small children in tow, older people pushed in wheelchairs, lifelong coworkers from the clergy, and hundreds of students. Neighbors he’d visited were there, alongside contractors and plumbers, doctors and nurses, politicians and droves of men and women in law enforcement and emergency services. In the middle of it all, Cardinal Timothy Dolan swept in to offer embraces, a heartfelt prayer for the deceased, and humorous recollections of his and my father’s shared work for the Lord – and their shared love of German sausage and beer.
How do you draw the essence of a man who lived by inspiration and the Holy Spirit? Right about here, Dad would cut me off with, “I’m not a saint! Don’t paint me as a saint.” True, with his walking stick in hand and his straight-shooting manner, Dad was more prophet-like than saintly. He was a pillar: constant, trustworthy, unfaltering, unafraid of wind and weather. A life like his, lived in primal faith in Christ, is at once too simple and too profound to explain. To capture it is to kill it: it is lived, and its intensity burns an image preserved as legend. It’s a hard portrait to paint, and I am no painter. But I can scratch hieroglyphics.