Episode 50: Peggy Wehmeyer Part 2

On this episode of Good God, Peggy Wehmeyer talks more about being a religion reporter in America. She also describes her own journey of faith, including her discovery as an adult that her family is Jewish and escaped Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. She talks about her commitment to showing solidarity with her Jewish family despite her chosen Christian faith:

"And so for some reason, George, Pittsburgh maybe launched it for me, but all of a sudden I feel like it's me. It could be me. You want to kill me, and I embrace that. I don't want to run from it. I am like, 'No, I am with them.'"

George Mason: Many people have diverse religious backgrounds, not a single religious identity, and yet they have to figure out how to pursue their own religious convictions in a singular way. How to be generous about your background and take a position of your own religious convictions at the same time is part of the trick.

George Mason: Peggy Wehmeyer, a religion reporter and freelance writer has been learning how to do that and she'll share her thoughts about that on Good God. Stay tuned.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God, conversations that matter about faith in public life. I'm your host, George Mason and I'm pleased to welcome back to the show for a second time, Peggy Wehmeyer. Peggy, glad to have you here.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Thanks, George. Good to be here.

George Mason: Well, Peggy is a freelance writer and a three decades long reporter on religion and American culture. And so, we got to talking in the last episode, and you referred to your own religious conversion experience at the University of Texas, when you became a confessing Christian through a student group that was working there on campus.

George Mason: And so, as you developed your own Christian identity and grew in your own Christian faith there, there also came a really surprising moment for you where you learned some other things about your religious background. Tell us about the call from London with your grandmother.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Oh, boy. You did go back and read those stories. Well, I had grown up, for all kinds of complicated reasons with my father, in a lot of different countries and states and places, and after I became a Christian, I wanted to go off and do summer mission work with one of these campus groups, and I did.

Peggy Wehmeyer: My grandmother, I guess, called me for my birthday or something, I was in San Francisco. I was on the west coast and she was in London, and she said, "Well, what are you doing?" I said, "I'm being a missionary for this summer." And she said, and her thick German accent, "How can you do that? You're a Jew."

George Mason: Hello did I get the right number?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Hello. "You're a Jew". And all of a sudden, I started putting together my mother's German accent, her German accent, that whole family being in South America and England. And so, I started asking question.

George Mason: So how was this kept from you until your college years?

Peggy Wehmeyer: My father hated Jews.

George Mason: Oh, but he married one. He met my beautiful mother in a Swiss train station in Geneva, where she was working for the United States after having working- I'm sorry, for the United Nations after having escaped the Holocaust before the war. And he was working for Gulf Oil in Venezuela and was gallivanting around Europe on a trip and met this beautiful woman.

George Mason: The only problem was she was a Jew; so he told her- Now, my mother, as you may, people may know that some Jews like to tell the story painfully so that everybody remembers. Many, many European Jews change their names, got baptized, go underground, never want to talk about it again.

George Mason: Survival is the number one, name change.

Peggy Wehmeyer: That's what my family did. So, it was easy for my mother to say, "I love you. I'll never say I'm a Jew. I'm not Jewish." They had changed their name from Cohen to Koch. My grandfather had had all the children baptized in the Episcopal church, even though they didn't practice; so, they would look more German, but the Nazis didn't care. They wanted to kill all of them.

Peggy Wehmeyer: And so, they happened to escape because they had enough money. And my mother, they were very quiet about being Jewish, as many Jews are. Anyway, so she came, my father put her on the Queen Elizabeth, brought her into the United States, married her, and she never told anyone she was Jewish, including us.

George Mason: Wow. So when this conversation happened with your grandmother, this must've created all sorts of new curiosities on your part. Where did that lead you in terms of your- you're a reporter, you have a journalistic instinct, anyway.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I wasn't a reporter yet, but I was in college and I remember calling my aunt Dorothy, calling my mother who said, "I don't want to talk about it." I said, "Wait a minute. Grandmother said we're Jewish, you grew up in Germany. Germany, Jewish, Hitler, Nazis. What happened?" "I don't want to talk about it. Call your aunt."

Peggy Wehmeyer: So, I called my aunt Dorothy. She said, "Well, of course you should know this. Yes, but I don't want to talk about it. The only one who talks about it as your uncle Ludwig, who was in Buchenwald, and he only talks about it if he's drunk. We never ask him. If you can get him to talk about it, you can get on a plane and come to England and see if he'll talk about it."

Peggy Wehmeyer: So, I got on a plane, I let them all know I was coming.

Peggy Wehmeyer: My aunt and other relatives told my uncle Ludwig, who I'd never met, that one of us has been saved by Jesus and wants to know about the Holocaust, and she's flying over to meet you. Will you talk to her about it? He said, "I don't know." So I went to meet this amazing, he was a professor at the University of London. They were all brilliant. One of my relatives was a Nobel prize chemist from Cambridge.

Peggy Wehmeyer: They were very different from my father's family. I didn't know these people because I had not grown up with them.

George Mason: Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Anyway, we were driving to a train station together, Ludwig and I, to pick up his daughter, my cousin Ruth. We were early, so he pulled over on the side of the road in his little car on a street in London and he looked at me and he said, "So, you found God, and I lost him." That was the introduction in a very thick German accent, and then I knew I had struck gold, meaning he was going to talk.

Peggy Wehmeyer: And he told me terrible, terrible stories about my family and what he had gone through on Kristallnacht. He had been rounded up in Kristallnacht with my aunt, another cousin, his sister, who I met, the Nazis had put them in Laurie's and taking them over the border. He was put in Buchenwald.

Peggy Wehmeyer: The soldiers marched across their heads. He showed me his tattoo. He, turned out, I learned that my grandfather got him out of the camps, because in the early days if you had enough money you can pay the Nazis to release certain. And so, I started corresponding with him regularly. I was so moved and it was so a part of me, even though my father had ripped that from me for so long.

Peggy Wehmeyer: It's a weird thing 'cause I thought, am I a Jew? I'm a Jew who believes that Jesus was the Messiah. So, I try never to offend Jews by talking about being a Christian because that's painful, and I don't like telling Christians I'm a Jew because they want to mark me up as one of their chosen, then you're, "Oh, you're one of the-"

George Mason: You were one of the Messianic Jews.

Peggy Wehmeyer: A Messianic Jew, and that offends my family. It's a sticky place to be.

George Mason: I was going to ask you, how do you navigate that sticky place? Because it really is a difficult conversation both for Christians and Jews to be in that place.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I don't talk about it because it's so intimate.

George Mason: What's it meant to you?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Okay, it's so intimate to me. It's so personal that I don't want people who can't understand to bastardize it in some way, by making me a token Messianic Jew or being hurt that I've left the family.

Peggy Wehmeyer: What does it mean to me? It's really precious. It's a precious thing. I do feel not mixed up and upset about it, I feel very special. I felt like, "Wow. I came from this amazing family." The Cohens are from the tribe of Levi.

George Mason: Right, the Levites. Exactly.

Peggy Wehmeyer: They're Levites, so I tell my daughter, who's now a minister that she's a Levite, a priest.

George Mason: Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I love the Jewish people. I love feeling like I'm Jewish, but the hard part is, sometimes I feel guilty. I feel guilty that I didn't suffer like they did. I felt guilty calling myself Jewish because it's such a privilege to me.

George Mason: But you know, in our Christian tradition, Peggy, we forget sometimes that the mark of being a follower of Jesus is to be willing to enter into his sufferings, which is in solidarity with the suffering of the world.

George Mason: And I think part of the problem with the American church, especially, is the triumphalism that seems to suggest that we have somehow, because we follow the Christ who was raised from the dead and conquered death, we are part of the victorious religion that supersedes all others. Right?

George Mason: And so, we adopt this sort of notion of privilege that suggests that we should just be experiencing the victory of faith in abundant living, and not joining into the suffering of the world voluntarily, which is what Christ did himself.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Exactly. You said that very well.

George Mason: Yeah. So, by yourself, by your solidarity with your Jewish family, and by the very fact that you have some measure of discomfort, this sense of dissonance to me, that's actually a gift to the church, too.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Are you a pastor?

George Mason: Well, yes.

Peggy Wehmeyer: That's such a wonderful thing to say. Thank you, that's very comforting because it is a, dissonance is a good word for it. I felt dissonant sometimes, but I feel like God, if he's there and real, he's spoken to me in a way where he has said, "You're my beloved daughter and you're both,"

George Mason: Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: "It's alright to believe Jesus is the Messiah, and it's all right to love and belong to this precious family," who I also love.

George Mason: Right. Which came home to you very powerfully when the massacre happened at the Pittsburgh synagogue a few months ago. Right? And tell us about your feelings in hearing about that and what you did with them.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I think, actually, it's not just Pittsburgh cause all those details are not as fresh. I do remember it, but it's even more current. As I read about Brexit, for example, and what's happening with the Labour party in England. Every time now I read about this rise of antisemitism and what's happening in our country with the female Muslim congresswoman.

George Mason: Ilhan Omar.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Thank you. Who said some antisemitic things.

George Mason: Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Now, for some reason, I feel more Jewish when I hear these things because it's antisemitism. The reports are rising all over, which is crazy. Like why? Why do you hate Jews?

George Mason: Because they'd been the scapegoats in history.

Peggy Wehmeyer: It's unbelievable. And so for some reason, George, Pittsburgh maybe launched it for me, but all of a sudden I feel like it's me. It could be me. You want to kill me, and I embraced that. I don't want to run from it. I am like, "No, I am with them."

George Mason: Wow. Okay.

Peggy Wehmeyer: That's how I feel.

George Mason: The solidarity of that is part of maybe what this love your neighbor is really all about. Karl Barth talked about what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, is really to imagine that you, yourself are your neighbor.

Peggy Wehmeyer: But, I am my neighbor.

George Mason: Exactly.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I mean, you're right. It is. If we can ever imagine it with other people.

George Mason: Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: But I actually-

George Mason: Because you are Jewish as well as Christian.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I have come to grips with the fact that if I had been born in Berlin, like my mother instead of here, I would have been put in a camp.

George Mason: Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Even if I believed in Jesus.

George Mason: Yes. Yes. Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Because I'm a Jew, I'm a Cohen.

George Mason: Someone else's decided for you.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yes.

George Mason: And really, when you think about it, part of what's different about, about Christianity is how much of a choice we make to be Christian versus almost every other religion that you sort of grow up in it and you are because of your family, that sort of thing.

George Mason: Maybe that's been somewhat increasingly true about Christianity, but Christianity is really rooted in the sense of choice, of personal choice.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yes.

George Mason: Unlike other religions. So, you identified with the one who is being victimized, which is, really, exactly what Jesus did in identifying with the criminals, the marginalized, the rejected and his crucifixion was a, an invitation for us to see where God identifies with the world, isn't it?

George Mason: In a way, I think that that's a powerful thing. I want to come back and talk after the break with you about some of the ways in which the church in America today, as you've experienced it, is wrestling with the political situation, patriarchy, and the Me Too movement, and things that you've written about and are passionate about. Let's pick it up there after the break.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Okay.

George Mason: Okay. Good.

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George Mason: We're back with Peggy Wehmeyer. Peggy, we were talking about your Christian faith and you went to seminary for a time, and you have identified as an evangelical Christian for most of your life; although, you've been moving to a deeper appreciation, especially through your daughters who have- you have a daughter who's an episcopal priest, right?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Methodist.

George Mason: Methodist?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Methodist Minister.

George Mason: Methodist Minister. Okay, but you have another daughter who's an episcopalian?

Peggy Wehmeyer: She's an episcopalian, but she's a federal public defender.

George Mason: Okay. Alright. So, you've moved and you were worshiping in a Methodist church now? So, you have a lot of the mainline Christianity now in your family as well. But in these recent years, since the election of 2016, the religious tradition, the Christian tradition, that nurtured you and really formed and shaped you in evangelical religion has come under tremendous criticism.

George Mason: Much of it justified, I think, but, it's support of Donald Trump and of the right wing politics of this era has been troubling to you. And you've written about it, and you thought initially, surely some of the sins and foibles of the president would be criticized.

George Mason: Because that's your experience always was, that family values and personal holiness was what evangelical Christianity really focused on. And suddenly that wasn't true. That was an awakening to you. Can you say more about that?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Well, I remember when I covered Bill Clinton's presidency and he had his affair with Monica Lewinsky, and I was sent out by ABC to interview a big Baptist minister in Texas who was going to be preaching about it the Sunday after. So, I went to a big church here and I remember the pastor came up to me and said, "Oh, we just, this president. We just don't know what's wrong with him."

Peggy Wehmeyer: And of course, he was going to preach about it. He goes, "What do you think is wrong with our president?" And I'm getting off topic here, but I remember it just came out of my mouth. I didn't mean to, but I liked this pastor. I said to him, "Well," I said, "I think that probably what's wrong with this president is exactly what's wrong with half your elder board and your last pastor," meaning stop judging.

George Mason: Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: You're making a huge political issue about this because you don't like the Democrats, right?

George Mason: Yeah. Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Not that I was supporting what Bill Clinton did, but my point here is, there was so much criticism of Bill Clinton when he did it that we need this moral, that how your moral life is really does matter about your character, which really matters as president.

Peggy Wehmeyer: And now we have Trump, who is much more immoral or has many more sins publicly that we see than we did with Bill Clinton, I think at least. And there's this overwhelming support in my church for this man. I don't think, George, I would mind.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I would understand and be more empathic if I heard people saying, "We hate the way he is. We think he's dangerous. We hate a man who lies and a leader who lies, but we're in such bad shape right now and the alternatives are so horrible, and I care so much about abortion or gay marriage," or whatever it is they care about, "that I've just had to rack my brain and do this."

Peggy Wehmeyer: That I could understand.

George Mason: Right. But the defense-

Peggy Wehmeyer: But the fact that they all, it's this political tribalism in our country now where everybody has to defend them completely, but Christians, my people? And so I find myself standing up saying, "But wait a minute, you guys. We've got to speak out against this, this, and this." Whether it's children at the border, whether it's cutting back on aid-

George Mason: And your kids were part of...

Peggy Wehmeyer: Oh, my children, who I adore and I'm very close, to my grown daughters who have become activists on behalf of Jesus on the other side. They would challenge me all the time.

George Mason: Social justice advocates.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yes. And when you love your children, you better let your children talk to you. So, I started listening at the dinner table instead of preaching. I was always preaching at my daughters. I remember my daughter who is a federal public defender, I'd say, "Honey," in the beginning, "you're on the wrong side. You need to go after the bad guys. You need to be a prosecutor." And she'd go, "Mom, what is wrong with you?"

George Mason: Didn't you teach me anything?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Jesus is with- I said, but these guys do bad things. Honey, they do bad things. I'm not saying they're not guilty, but they're discriminated against. They get unfair sentencing. Nobody listens to them. If Jesus were here, he'd be here in these prisons. And I resist and resist. Then, I started just listening. I thought, "You know what?" I wouldn't do that. I would be more comfortable being a prosecutor. But I totally see how Jesus would be where she is.

George Mason: Right. Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: And my children have focused on different parts of the Bible.

George Mason: Right. So, the problem with being a person who reads the Bible is that the more you read it, the more you realize what you've missed.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Well, the more you realize, you know what still bothers me most about being a Christian? I thought it was so simple. When I first became a Christian, it was so beautiful. The stars were shining. It's Jesus. It's the creed. He came, he died, he rose. He loves you. He's with you. The Holy Spirit's inside of you and guide you and tells you, and you just open this book and everything for life is right here.

George Mason: Yes.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Well, I remember reading stuff in the Bible going, "Eh, eh, what do I do with this? What I do this?" And people would say, "Ignore that part. Ignore that part. Ignore that part." Then I meet people who'd go, "No, pay attention to that part and ignore this part." Everybody was picking and choosing.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I still have trouble with the Bible. Really, it's like, how are we supposed to know how to read the Bible? Well then you go, this theologian says, read it this way. That one says, read it this way. So, the way I believe and my family believes is, we have got to be pure hearted and honest, the way we come to God. We want to love him with our heart, soul, and mind without a political agenda.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I want to be able to say to Jesus, which is scary, whatever you've said in the Bible that's clear and true, I will follow to the death. I will. I want to be so faithful to you that when it's clear I will obey you, but there's so much that's not clear that I've come back to what Jesus said. All of it's summed up in two things. I'm so thankful for that. All these other things aren't clear to me.

Peggy Wehmeyer: If you were to back me up against the wall and say, what does God say about marriage? I would probably say from Genesis to Revelation, it looks like a man and a woman and a family. You know? I would say that, but I'm not going to say it anymore because everybody's fighting and debating it and I don't know.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I do know this. I'm supposed to love God with all my heart, my soul, my mind. To obey him, following his ways and to love my neighbor as myself, and what does that look like? That's going to take the rest of my life to keep figuring out and that's what I'm going to focus.

George Mason: You know, in a way that the love God and love neighbor sums up the unity of a personal, spiritual holiness and social justice at the same time, doesn't it?

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yes.

George Mason: And it seems like people of left and right, whether religious or not, seem to focus always on one or the other instead of both at the same time. Why is it necessary to choose between those two? Shouldn't they be held together?

Peggy Wehmeyer: That's a good point. You mean, they're either loving God and trying to obey what they see as the commandments or loving their neighbor to the point of accepting anything goes, it doesn't matter what God says?

George Mason: Well, that's one way to put it. I was thinking of it a little differently, and that is to say that I think many in our Christian traditions, you can sort of divide us up as to whether we're focusing more on the authenticity of our faith being judged just in terms of our personal relationship to God.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Oh yes. Personal versus social Gospel.

George Mason: Versus social Gospel, where we are caring for the way people live in the world and and whether there's a level playing field and whether people have an opportunity for the fullness of life.

Peggy Wehmeyer: And I would say this, good luck finding a church that's balancing the two.

George Mason: Yeah.

Peggy Wehmeyer: It's impossible. It's almost impossible. It's very difficult. Churches do one or the other.

George Mason: I think it's very, very difficult. Well, yes. And as a pastor, I will tell you-

Peggy Wehmeyer: You would like to think you're doing both.

George Mason: I would like to think I'm doing well, but I think I'm realistic about it, too, in the sense that clearly, I think probably people in our church would say we focus more on the social justice aspect now than we did maybe 30 years ago, but I think part of that is about reacting, in terms of creating more of a balance.

George Mason: The fierce urgency of where we are in a given time.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yes.

George Mason: But at the same time, I am sensitive to the critique, that doing so creates a, the impression that your faith is political in an inappropriate way. Now, I always respond to that by saying, "Yes, my faith is political. Absolutely. It's just not Democrat or Republican," right?

George Mason: It's political in the sense of if you're going to follow Jesus, it's going to take you into the world and that's going to make you confront certain things that you absolutely have to.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Right. I agree.

George Mason: It's not partisan, but I also think that people are right when they say that they'd like to hear some of the language of beauty and prayer, and some of the good things about life that are not just about the latest crisis or about what we should be doing somehow at the polls, or in Austin or in Washington, or whatever the case may be.

George Mason: But it should be about the character of the soul's formation, and those sorts of things at the same.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Yes. I'll confess that if I had to choose, for me, I would choose a church that's so focuses on the contemplative life. Like, how in the world, in this world, do I stay connected to the spirit of God in such a way that I hear his voice, that I follow his commands, that I know how to go out in the world, and respond to things?

Peggy Wehmeyer: But I stay so in communion with him, and so in love with him, which is the first commandment.

George Mason: Right. Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: So in love with him that all I want to do is delight in him, and enjoy him, and follow his ways forever. Whatever the cost to me, whatever the cost. Jesus sacrificed life for us. We sacrifice, we lay down our lives, and that's where we find life. It's that constant paradox.

Peggy Wehmeyer: You lose your life to save it. So, I would rather be, if I had to choose in a church that was teaching me how amazing God was, how real God is, how to experience God in a way where I'm brave and courageous enough to lay down my life for a living God who I'm truly, honestly connected to in my soul; so that, I can go out into the world and be a light bearer.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I can't do it without being fueled by his life.

George Mason: I think you're taking to preaching here now, actually.

Peggy Wehmeyer: I'm sorry. No, but you brought up the two different lives.

George Mason: Yes, I did it. I'm delighted by that.

Peggy Wehmeyer: This is what I want in a church.

George Mason: I understand. And I think that's actually something that, instead of making church about choosing what Generation X or the millennials want, or the baby boomers or whatever, everybody wants this, don't they? I mean, it seems to me that finding that depth and breadth of both is what we're after because we don't get that in other places in the world.

George Mason: When you come to church, there is an invitation to consider that the world is more than what you can see with your eyes and experience with your senses. And that it's possible for you to be different tomorrow than you are today if you allow the power of God to be at work in your life. And so who else is-

Peggy Wehmeyer: And that's what we want. We want that power. You know what my mantra is for this Lent?

George Mason: Tell me.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Care less, trust more. Now what I mean by that, I used the word care cause I hate the word worry, but instead of fretting about everything I see with my eyes and trying to fight this battle, that battle, decide what I believe about this and that, which is all important, but we're being barraged with it.

George Mason: Right.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Care about these things last and trust God more so that you have the groundedness, and the peace, and the faith to go out and move in the parallel world that you see.

George Mason: Well, Peggy, I think God has given you some unique experiences that are making you a witness even in this stage of life, which is still something you are figuring out.

Peggy Wehmeyer: Thank you.

George Mason: Who isn't? So, thank you for sharing your journey with us and for being on Good God. Always grateful for you.

Peggy Wehmeyer: My pleasure. Thanks, George.

George Mason: Okay.

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