To Become a Witness

Seth Patterson August 11, 2019

Scripture Proverbs 14:21–31

When I started working at Plymouth three years ago, not only did I bring my family, dog and home to Minneapolis, I also brought with me another job. In addition to serving Plymouth, I also have continued to work at the University of Chicago at the Divinity School. Every three months or so, I travel to Chicago and help facilitate a group of 12 early-career clergy in a two-year program around building peer relationships, resilience for the work of ministry and imagination for what this work could look like in an everchanging world. For me, this is important and life-giving work that helps me be better at serving you all here.

In June, we sat down at a long table at the American Jewish Committee office in downtown Chicago with Howard Reich, a longtime music journalist for the Chicago Tribune. He has recently written a book based on his conversations with Elie Wiesel, called The Art of Inventing Hope. As many of us know, Elie Wiesel spent the majority of his life helping us all to remember the indescribable tragedy of the Holocaust while also advocating on behalf of the survivors and their families. Reich is the child of Holocaust survivors who didn’t really wrestle with the weight and complication of that until he was much older.

Reich told us this story:

On Feb. 15, 2001, his mother left her home. Before this, his mother had said maybe three sentences to him and his siblings about her experience as a Jewish child in Europe in the 1940s. On this frigid suburban Chicago night his mother packed two shopping bags full of clothes and fled her home believing that killers (Nazis) were pursuing her. After roaming the streets for who-knows-how-long, she was picked up by the local police to whom she insisted someone was trying to “put a bullet in her.” She was reliving her childhood six decades later when her PTSD overcame her ability to function in a way that was within the bounds of her current reality. Reich later discovered that his mother spent her adolescence alone in the wilds of eastern Poland hiding from the Holocaust that destroyed her family, her village and her culture. She spent years alone as a young teenager hiding, running, never trusting and just surviving. Reich recalls that as a child he would see his mother sit in front of their front window all night—every night—watching the street to make sure that no one came to get her and her children.[1]

He told us this story and then he quoted Elie Wiesel: “To listen to a witness is to become a witness.”

You could feel these words hit those of us sitting at the table and pull the air out of the room. In one sentence he had pulled us deeper into his story.

“To listen to a witness is to become a witness.”

His story will never be my story, I cannot claim it or co-opt it. But his story and the story of his parents are now part of my world. I cannot unhear this story. I cannot pretend that I have not heard it. I must do something with it.

“To listen to a witness is to become a witness.”

This is how we broaden our understanding of the world beyond our own experiences and grow. This is where we become responsible for stories bigger than and beyond ourselves.

“To listen to a witness is to become a witness.”

Wiesel also says that “to be a witness is a sacred duty and privilege. A witness is not merely a passive observer . . . but, in a way, the eyes and ears of a high power.”[2] Proverbs tells us that “souls are saved by truthful witness.” It is the intention of these two profound sources of wisdom to remind us that becoming a witness is sacred and holy work. This is not passive work; instead, the recounting of stories is meant to change both the hearer and the teller of the stories. It is a binding moment. Wiesel says, “We cannot say, ‘we didn’t know.’ The survivors spoke. We cannot go back. Therefore, we must tell the story. Therefore, there is hope that the story cannot happen again. Therefore, history has meaning.”[3] History has meaning when we help other people become witnesses to our stories and allow ourselves to become witnesses to other’s.

On the surface, this may seem to be overwhelming. We are asked to become witnesses of so much in our lives: We become witnesses to the stories of our parents, grandparents and ancestors, to our families, friends, colleagues. We become witnesses to the stories we see on the stage and screen, hear on the radio and that we read in print. We become witnesses when we listen to someone like me stand in a place like this and tell you a story like that of Howard Reich’s mother.

Stories are everywhere. As meaning-making creatures, humans primarily make meaning through stories. Each time I tell a story, I will likely learn something new from it. The meaning I make deepens somewhat at every telling. And then each time we are a witness to someone else’s story, we become a part of their meaning-making. Even if it may seem pedestrian and normal, we are constantly part a gigantic web of storytelling, witnessing and meaning-making.

“To listen to a witness is to become a witness.” To hear a story is to be handed a piece of another person. To tell a story and ask someone else to be witness to it is a vulnerable act. And this sharing of stories is always important, and it is sacred and holy work. And for that we must be careful: we must be gentle with each other and their stories. When we become a witness to someone else’s story, we begin to carry it forth with us. Their story now has a life within us as well.

A week ago, two acts of terrorism rocked our country. (I would like to say that it shocked us, but these acts of making terror are far too common for shock.) Rooted in white supremacy and the idol-worship of guns and violence, we are now all witness to these terrorist attacks. We are all witness to the stories of the two terrorists. We are all witness to the stories of those whose lives were needlessly ended in a public place. It is incumbent upon us all to learn about the lives of Andre Pablo Anchondo, Jordan Anchondo, Arturo Benavidez, Leonard Cipeda Campos, Maria Flores and Raul Flores so that we can be witnesses. We must pay attention to the stories of Jorge Calvillo Garcia, Adolfo Cerros Hernandez, Alexander Gerhard Hoffman, David Alvah Johnson, Luis Alfonzo Juarez, Maria Eugenia Legarrega Rothe and Elsa Libera Marquez so that their stories may extend past their untimely deaths. We need to listen to the witnesses of the lives of Maribel Loya, Ivan Hilierto Manzano, Gloria Irma Marquez, Margie Reckard, Sarah Esther Regaldo Moriel, Javier Rodriguez, Teresa Sanchez, Angelina Silva-Ellisbee and Juan Velazquez so that we may be witnesses to the lives of our siblings in El Paso. In addition, the lives of Lois Oglesby, Megan Betts, Saeed Saleh, Derrick Fudge, Logan Turner, Nicholas Cumer, Thomas McNichols, Beatrice Warren-Curtis and Monica Brickhouse in Dayton will have greater meaning when we own our responsibility to be witnesses.

“To listen to a witness is to become a witness.” We are each asked to become witnesses to so much in our lives and in our world. And it is not always easy. But it is always important. May we hold that responsibility gently and with great love. Proverbs says: “Souls are saved by truthful witness.” May it be so.

[1]Howard Reich, The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel (Chicago Review Press, 2019), p. X.

[2]Ibid., p. 37.

[3]Ibid., p. 93.