The coronavirus challenged compassion-providing ministries in new ways
I've written previously about joining the Communist Party when I was 22 and then, through God's grace, leaving it and finally joining a California church at age 26. Two months later, toward the end of 1976, God continued to show love in undramatic yet significant ways. A middle-aged couple, the Inskeeps, led my wife Susan and myself through a weekly Bible study highlighted-how embarrassing to say-by Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano cookies. We kept attending the First Conservative Baptist Church of La Mesa.
How did Christ immediately change our lives? In one sense, by changing our attitude toward life. Both of us had welcomed in 1973 the Supreme Court's pro-abortion Roe v. Wade decision. If either of us had been confronted with an unexpected pregnancy in 1974 or 1975, we might have chosen abortion. Yet in fall 1976, when we learned that Susan was pregnant, we celebrated with ice cream and a trip to a drive-in theater to watch Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales, one of the best Westerns ever.
I was teaching freshman composition to San Diego State students and looking for good writing that would also introduce Jesus to them. Someone suggested stories set in a strange place called Narnia. The students were generally poor readers and worse writers, so the simple but sublime prose of C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe worked perfectly.
Our unborn baby grew early in 1977 and so did our still small understanding of Christianity. Susan one day brought home from the La Mesa public library Francis Schaeffer's Escape from Reason, and that led us to The God Who Is There and other Schaeffer books. A battle-theological, intellectual, and cultural-was raging, and teaching at San Diego State with its volleyball courts seemed too easy. Sometimes my questioning was on the level of movies: What would a Western hero do? Sometimes it went deeper: What would Christ do? Guessing at answers, I often got things wrong.
In spring 1977, I drove north to Long Beach and spent a day with Fred Schwarz, a 64-year-old Christian physician who two decades earlier had moved from Australia to California and made that the base for his Christian Anti-Communism Crusade (CACC). Schwarz had peaked in the early '60s when he could fill the 16,000-seat Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena with Californians intent on his teaching about the evils of Marxism.
As the Cold War relaxed in the 1970s, Schwarz still traveled the United States to speak about the Soviet plan to destroy the United States through "external encirclement, plus internal demoralization, plus thermonuclear blackmail," all of which would lead to "progressive surrender." He still received financial help from the Pew Memorial Trust (then on the right), the Schick razor company, Richfield Oil, and the Lilly Endowment. His speaking tours, though, aroused little interest.
Schwarz proposed that I travel the country with him, wowing crowds with my story of "From Judaism to Atheism to Communism to Christ." An early spotlight is one of the worst things for a new convert, but wanting to do penance for my communism (such was my limited understanding of how Christ had already fully paid for our sins) while egotistically becoming a center of attention, I agreed to join the CACC at the end of May.
One complication loomed: Susan was due to deliver at a San Diego hospital in May, but our baby wanted more time inside. Anti-communism beckoned, so at the end of May Susan (9½ months pregnant) and I drove up and down the streets of Long Beach, looking for an apartment at a time when many in that area did not allow children. One property manager looked at great-with-child Susan, said "I don't see a baby"-and we were in, two blocks from a beautiful beach.
(I should mention that Susan's parents, 11 months after our wedding, had flown from Michigan to San Diego to be present at the birth of their first grandchild. They had rented a station wagon and-when we had decided to head 117 miles north to Long Beach-gamely put our mattress on its roof and didn't offer any criticism of our new-found Christianity or the actions that we regarded as stepping out in faith; they must have seen them as stepping off a cliff.)
On June 4 I drove brave Susan to an unfamiliar hospital with unfamiliar doctors. I sped through two red lights, turned prematurely into the hospital's parking lot, and jumped some speed bumps. Susan was not amused. In the delivery room she breathed beautifully and I coached her in what was then a radical process called Lamaze. Two hours after our arrival came cries of a baby and cries of joy.
Two days after that I joined the CACC to begin my war against communism, and my education in both the strengths and weaknesses of the Christian far right. The strengths were significant: Schwarz understood Marxism and had taught thousands of people about its dangers. He was personally kind-hearted to friends and unpretentious, living simply. He was a baseball fan: We went to Dodgers and Angels games and ate fried chicken in the stands. He understood that college and university leftists are "protectors and runners of interference for the communist conspirators."
That emphasis on conspiracy, though, was a weakness. I had started reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who noted, "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." The tendency of beleaguered groups like the CACC was to comfort their supporters by making evil external. (The approach of G.K. Chesterton was better: When a London newspaper asked him to write an essay on what's wrong with the world, he responded, "I am.")
For several months in the summer of 1977, I had great satisfaction giving my Judaism/atheism/communism/Christ testimony first at a Knott's Berry Farm banquet and then in various U.S. cities. Audience members praised what I had done-but wait a minute, hadn't God done it? I then returned to California with the opportunity to spend time on the beach with Susan and our son Pete. We visited several churches, including one where the preacher spoke of the necessity of men "whuppin' their wives." We encountered Christian survivalists.
After another ego-gratifying speech in Indianapolis, a pastor shook my hand and suggested that I needed help. Edward A. Steele III, from a distinguished Presbyterian lineage, had gone to Yale 10 years before me and wanted to protect the university's reputation. Steele had an anti-communist perspective but saw the CACC as a crackpot organization with which a Yalie should not be yoked. I then spent four late-summer days with his family and himself, living in his manse and studying every day in the backyard, under Steele's tutelage, the book of Romans.
What I sensed from my own experience-that God was truly sovereign and I was truly helpless-I now began to understand theoretically. I returned to California with a suitcase full of systematic theology books and started interspersing my trips with hard study. At that time Schwarz and I argued about my answer to a major CACC funder's question about whether Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist. I had said "No," while noting that a couple of his associates were. Schwarz wanted me not to answer that question directly, and instead to imply that King had spoken about black and white but was red all over.
That was not right. I said that I would not answer questions that way. Schwarz insisted. I demurred. He suggested a parting of the ways and generously offered to fund for nine months my anti-communist activities anywhere in the country as long as it wasn't Indianapolis, where Steele's Reformed teaching would lead me astray and where I might lead astray the CACC's Indianapolis supporters. On Oct. 31, 1977, Susan and I packed up our Chevette and headed to . . . Indianapolis, of course.
It was madness. With an almost 5-month-old baby, and without significant savings or any clear income, we left southern California's comfortable climate and headed into what became Indianapolis' coldest winter in decades. But at least it was madness centered on God: My plan was to study the Bible with Ed Steele for a few months, and then maybe set up a study center. I had no plan as to how to do that and no experience that would even help me to set up a realistic plan.
The best that could have been said of me at the time was that I was a holy fool-and the next four months brought us close to disaster. We moved into a cheap rental house in a poor area of northern Indianapolis, tempted by a big side yard that offered the promise of a big spring garden. But blizzards came first. Our furnace failed. We bundled up Pete as the temperature inside dipped to 50 and falling. We tried to leave but could not get out of the driveway in our minimum-power Chevette.
Meanwhile, Ed Steele's church had just gone through a sad split that forced the pastor, his wife, and two sons to leave their lovely manse and move into an apartment. Nevertheless, Steele drove to our rescue in his big old, maximum-power gas-guzzler. We moved into the crowded Steele apartment for 10 days until we could move into an apartment nearby that cost more than I had planned to pay. (It had one useful perk: heat.)
Bible study was good but by January our savings were running out. It was evident, particularly after the church split, that the study center was a will-o'-the-wisp. No Indianapolis jobs were in sight. Not much was in sight, as the snow kept falling. Still, when I came inside there was the yellow light that Sam Gamgee treasures on the last page of The Lord of the Rings-and Susan drew me in, and put Pete on my lap.
Desperate times, desperate measures. I thought wildly that I could continue my fight against communism, and provide for my wife and son, by going to work in a corporation that would stand up for free enterprise. Sure. I had never set foot in a corporate headquarters. None of my friends or relatives had corporate connections. But I did have newspaper experience and a Ph.D.: Ever since being cut from my sixth grade baseball team I had realized that my best chance to make a living was through writing. I thought I had become good enough.
So off went 100 individually typed letters to 100 large corporations, offering my writing services. Ninety-seven companies either ignored the letters or gave desultory responses. Three-Standard Oil of Illinois, Monsanto, and DuPont-offered interviews. Oil and chemicals, two industries beleaguered by environmentalists and attacked by academic leftists. My cup of tea. The longest set of interviews was with DuPont in Wilmington, Del. Irving Shapiro, the first non-DuPont family member in nearly two centuries to lead the company, needed a junior speechwriter. He had an exceptionally talented senior speechwriter, Carl Kaufmann. Shapiro was a lawyer, not a chemist or an engineer, and he was Jewish. The DuPont public affairs department wanted to hire someone who could be on the same wavelength as Shapiro and Kaufmann.
After an early March interview, DuPont hired me. The corporate personnel office asked how quickly I could come to work, since it usually took new hires a month or two to tie up their current activities. "How about next week?" I responded. We stayed for several days at the venerable Hotel DuPont as we found a Wilmington apartment, eating one evening in the august Brandywine Room amid corporate executives with three-piece suits as Pete overturned a bowl of spaghetti.
God's sense of humor: From communism to the Christian right to the heart of corporate power. But I was not above overturning some bowls myself.
Read other episodes in this multi-part biographical series.