On September 19, 1944, Heinz Jost, a young German soldier, slipped unauthorized into the four square kilometre area known as the Warsaw Ghetto. Presented by the Nazi Party as a place where Jews were being well cared for, Jost’s curiosity was piqued by the corpses that lay outside its gates every morning. He photographed everything he saw. Nearly half a million people lived in squalor designed to deliberately create conditions for mass mortality from starvation and uncleanliness. Of those who did survive nearly everyone to the person was later gassed in death camp chambers.
That night at supper Jost became physically ill asking himself over and over, What kind of world do I live in?!
His experience as presented fifty years later through Facing History and Ourselves, would serve as my initial springboard into my doctorate. What does it mean to know something? …what does it mean to experience something? …how does learning happen notionally and ontologically? …what does the gospel call us to do?
To become a human means to actually participate in and take responsibility for that which is going on around us; it means to enter into the lives of others and to meet their needs on their terms. Allowing others to speak in their own voices and discerning the actual manners in which people participate in the world around them were key in developing my doctoral work. Nel Noddings’ work on care – the nature of our various physical connections to the world – served as a model for me to start to work on a ways two teach that would tangibly sensitize people in the church to participate in the teachings of Christ through our mutual experiences. Supervised training in clinical psychotherapy was particularly valuable in assisting me to identify, understand, and address behaviours of participants that were disallowing this process to unfold, and to press on in spite of their objections. Interestingly enough I started training labrador retrievers over this time for field work just as a way to get outdoors. My being trained in working with working dogs consistently called upon me to leave my notions behind and to simply read the dog’s behaviour. It was a wonderful discipline with great implications for me as clergy as well.
During this four year period it became clear that I did not want to work in the academy. My calling was with the poor and with those who sought to care for the poor in response to the teachings of Jesus. I thought at the time that this is what the church wanted, but I would later find out that I was wrong, which would eventually take me in a new direction in order to achieve this end.
Over this time I also came to rarely receive more than four hours of sleep a night; it is a pattern that I now carry with me in my life.