The Life of My Father: Making His Path By Walking

Paul Fitch

April 26, 2020

Good morning.  Today I will share about the life of my father.

I remember going on a walk with my him in Rock Creek Park, which began just across the street from our house on Colorado Avenue here in DC.  I was six years-old.  We were just walking through the woods, without even following a trail.  After a while I asked my Dad, “which way is Rock Creek?” He answered by asking me, “if you dump out a bucket of water, which way would it go?” I said “down” and he said “that’s right,” and we continued down through the gulley until we came to the creek right by where I took this picture a couple days ago.

So began a life of knowing my father as a walker, as one on a journey.  Throughout the remaining 85 years of his life, he continued to journey, sometimes taking me and others of the family along, sometimes on his own, and sometimes with other journeyers.  At times he encouraged me, and he inspired me and I was blessed, especially at times from the mid 1980’s on, to have many close times of sharing with him. 

Even though he was, at times harsh, critical, judgmental, stubborn, and even inappropriate, his passion and his compassionate heart allowed me to forgive and mostly overlook all the rest. (Rock Creek)

The gospel reading of today is about two of Jesus’ disciples walking along a narrow road, winding up from Jerusalem up through the hill country towards the village of Emmaus.  As they walked, they talking about the earth-shattering events of recent days.  Then a stranger approached them and began to walk with them.  The stranger asks them what they were talking about.  Surprised that he’s not aware of the happenings of recent days, the disciples tell him how disconsolate they are, that their Jesus, who they had thought had come to liberate Israel, had been taken by the politicians and religious authorities and was tortured to death on the cross.  What’s more, some women of their group had said they went to his tomb and found it empty, and so they didn’t even have the consolation of being able to mourn at his grave.

But the stranger (who is, in fact, Jesus, but somehow, they don’t recognize him) reprimands them for their response to all of this, saying, "Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they arrive to the village, the disciples invite their new friend to stay with them, as it was getting late, and they share a meal together.  When their guest takes the loaf of bread, blesses it and breaks it, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; he is Jesus!   He then vanished from their sight, and they said to one another, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" They immediately get up and walk back, in the fading light of day, to where the eleven disciples are gathered in Jerusalem.

As I seek to interpret this scripture, various dynamic messages stand out for me.  One is that, in times of crisis, of turmoil, and of disillusionment that while, what we have hoped for has not come to be, there remains a deeper, more enduring hope that remains and which will overcome all the rest.

Another is that, as we step out in faith, and walk with one another, strangers will enter into our lives and will guide us on our way.  And then, when we show them hospitality and share from what we have, transformation takes place and God is present.  In the very humble act of breaking bread, our fundamental unity is restored.

What stands out the most for me is how Jesus situates himself within the long history of a people journeying in faith towards liberation and new life, from the time of Moses, through that of the prophets, up to his own life in present times.  Jesus’ crucifixion does not end this broad historical movement towards the reign of God but, rather, reorients it and shows us the way.

I believe that it is essential for each one of us to know our own history, to embrace our own story, and to draw out of it all that is good; to join with others on the way and be guided even in our lives that are imperfect or which have gone astray.  We can take the best of what life has blessed us with and roll with it and move forward, although we don’t always know the way.  As the words of the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, made famous in liberation movements in Latin America, declare, “Walker, your footprints are the path.  Walker, there is no path.  You make the path by walking.”

So back to my father, whose name was David Fitch, whom many of you knew.  He passed on from this world on July 29th of 2019 in Guatemala, where he had lived in an indigenous village amid the poor for thirty years.  There he was buried, in the presence of family and friends.  To be able to share more deeply with family and friends here in the United States, we were to have a memorial service for him at Dayspring two weeks ago, when my sister Malika and her husband Greg were to have come from their home in Oregon to join the rest of us here.  But, just as it was for the two disciples walking the path in the time of Jesus, our present time is not what we would have expected and what we had hoped for has not come to be.  Even so, I want to share with you, my friends, about the life of my father, his journeys, and the path that he made, and, a little, of the intersection of his life with my own so that I/we may embrace that life, and take from it the good that may help us carry us on into the light.

As my four siblings and I grew up, our parents took us camping and we traveled around the country visiting national parks and relatives scattered around the country but mostly in the Midwest.  But we also, mainly at the urging of my father, I believe, made some more exceptional journeys, and I shall be forever grateful for how they opened up the world to us, and opened us up to see the lives of other people in other lands.

The Cuban missile crisis in 1962, which threatened nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, deeply affected my father.  He wondered, "Why are we ready to massively annihilate populations we don't even know?" and said, "It would be much better to get to know one other and become friends." So, he got his work (I believe for the US Department of Agriculture) to send him to conferences in the Soviet Union in 1963 and 1966.  On the first trip he took my mother and the second the whole family, where we remained over a month.  We, my parents and the children, aged six through fourteen, stayed in campgrounds outside Moscow and Leningrad, saw the sights, and played with children even though we only knew a few words of Russian.  We also returned briefly in 1970.  In 1973 my parents brought a large group from the Church of the Saviour for this same purpose.  Bill Price (later of the 8th Day Church) never stopped talking about that trip for the rest of his life.

He also took us to live, between 1967 and 1969, in Nigeria in West Africa.  My parents also led us to know of the art and to learn of various cultures and tribes as we traveled about the country.  They received a group of artists to display their works every month in an art show in our house.  It was a very eye-opening experience for me as it was the first time I experienced, close at hand, people living in poverty and I learned from and became friends with children much different from me.

As we left Nigeria, his spirit of adventure was played out to the max when we spent six months traveling, with my mother and with their three sons and two daughters, between nine and seventeen years of age, back home the long way around, from Nigeria to Morocco by plane (my mom nixed the idea of driving across the Sahara), from there for Spain by boat, and then by land, in a VW minibus, crossing through now difficult-to-travel-through countries such as Ukraine, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan until reaching India, and then, by plane, to Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Hawaii, until, in the end, to California, Chicago, and Washington.  I missed most of sixth grade, but in the end my parents were able to convince the DC school system that I’d had a very educational experience that year and allowed me to pass.

His Christian faith was always an important part of his life.  In 1962 my parents became members of The Church of the Saviour.  That same year he was taken to task in to a neighborhood meeting after he put in the ad to sell our house in College Park Maryland, “minorities encouraged to apply.” He did not budge from that position.  The following year he participated in the March on Washington.

Unfortunately, my parents entered into a crisis of understanding and their marriage ended in 1975.

Later, until 1989, he became part of the Sojourner Community, where each one shared their resources and lived with a strong focus on social justice.  During this period of his life, he came to have an awareness of the conflicts and wars in Central America and developed an interest, a concern, and a love especially for Guatemala, which he came to visit more and more often in the 1980s.  Coincidently, I became involved in the work of the overground railroad for Central American refugees on their way to Canada and, later, I became engaged, through 8th Day Church, in the sanctuary movement in Washington, DC.  During that period I also lived with him for a year, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, in that then very different, still post-riot period in Columbia Heights, and we had many fine times of sharing.  In 1988 I moved to live and work in El Salvador.  In late 1989 he retired from his government job and went to live in the village of Santo Domingo el Rosario, El Tejar, Chimaltenango department, Guatemala, where he remained most of the time until his death.

My father maintained a good relationship with my father-in-law and mother-in-law in El Salvador.  This is his last visit to them, Christmas 2018.

                    In Guatemala he held a volunteer position at the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama, where he promoted statistically sound studies of rural health, and he also taught statistics classes at two universities.  Together with women in his village, he started a breakfast program before school (which was later taken over by the government) and helped several people with medical expenses.  His strongest desire was to encourage young indigenous people, especially young women, to go to school, to prepare themselves professionally, and to recognize their dignity as women, who would, from there, then become part of a better Guatemala.  For many years he financed a scholarship program that even now continues.  He always gave away a much greater portion of his government pension than what he spent on himself.  His greatest joy was to live simply and to see his neighbors live dignified lives.

He also continued to travel widely, visiting countries such as Egypt, Bulgaria, Turkey, Afghanistan, Georgia, and Syria.  He long desired to spend time in Iran, to learn of their religion and the life of the people, but that never happened.  He did travel to Cuba at least four times, the last time together with me.  He was impressed by their national health system, their concepts of community-based health care, with broad emphasis on prevention, and the way they trained people from all over the world to become physicians; they did so free of charge.  He really hammered away, quoting UNICEF studies finding that 30,000 children a day die of preventable causes and, if every country had a health care system as good as Cuba’s, that 19,000 fewer children would die each day.  Some of us got tired of hearing this constantly from him, but it is true.  And to think, the primary export of the United States are weapons.  Cuba’s primary export is medical workers, with over 30,000 doctors and nurses currently in about 67 countries around the world, and now with additional special Covid-19 fighting teams in at least 17 countries.  The people of Cuba do not understand why the United States hates them so.  Many people I met there told me this.

After the difficult, but grace- and spirit-filled time of accompanying my father in the final thirteen days of his life, in Guatemala, with friends and with family — Videlbina, my brothers Mark and Kirk, and my sister Karen — and after he was buried, in the presence of so many people dear to him in his life, and after his affairs were basically left in order, I travelled to Nicaragua to try to understand what the life of the people there is like, and how they think about their lives.  I dedicated this trip to my father. 

In Nicaragua I fell ill, apparently with dengue fever (probably brought with me from El Salvador, where I spent time along the way), and the nurse and the efficient, personable Cuban trained woman doctor at the local clinic insisted that I go to the hospital for observation.  When I asked the doctor if the hospital would charge me, she said, “Don’t worry about it, brother!”  That hospital, that has no billing office, took very good care of me for five days and then released me, not because they no longer wanted me there but because I strongly urged them to do so.  This was about at the time Trump was saying that the US will not provide health care to undocumented people here.

In Nicaragua there are now a total of only twelve confirmed cases of Covid-19.  Sources there (whom I consider reliable) confirm that this is true, although they are under no illusion that the number in Nicaragua will remain that low forever.  They attribute this to an efficient control of the borders, a close monitoring of those recently arrived to the country, a very broad-based health care system at the national and community level with major emphasis on prevention, and, very importantly, no people arriving deported from the United States.  They have done this with education campaigns, health measures, such as hand-washing stations all over the place, and community engagement, and without shutting down the economy.  Is there something we could learn from this?

In contrast, the United States number is approaching a million and its death toll equal to that of all the US soldiers who died in the Vietnam war.  And here the disease is moving closer to home for many of us.  Rosi — a Salvadoran member of the Faith Empowerment Center that I participate in together with Carol Bullard Bates — is ill at home with this virus.  Kathy and Lisa Doan’s father (whose name I believe is Robert) is in the hospital with Covid-19 and Lisa considers his survival doubtful.  My brother-in-law Aquiles is ill with the virus and is in the hospital in New Jersey, receiving oxygen.

I close by sharing some of my father’s own words, from emails he sent me in the last two years of his life:

  • I was raised to believe that the ministry was the highest calling but was turned off by some things.  Needing a key to enter a seminary.  They trying to impress us by bringing us into the elegant room where they had important meetings.  I resisted the temptation to use my knife to carve "sell all and give to the poor" in the mahogany table.  I knew something of the Bible.  There were years I never missed a Sunday school class.  I was 20 and headed toward marriage and children.  If I was a minister, knowing what I knew of Jesus, I'd be a failure, with no money, so I headed towards statistics.
  • I have tried to tell you about the family with whom I grew up.  My father had a passion for his work to develop better potatoes.  He saw its aim as working for a better world.  Because he told his boss it was not right to touch their secretary, he never received the salary he deserved.  We continued on $1800 a year until a farmer he was helping learned and gave us a $1000 each year.  His passion led him to be declared "Vegetable man of the year.”
  • I remember helping my mother fixing bottles of milk for Faith [his sister], in sterilized bottles.  I don't think, when I grew up, she was much interested in talking with us about the war.  I hope your mother and I included you all in events of the day.
  • I think that you believe some day the world will become, what we might call, the City of God where everyone has clothes and food.  There would be no poverty.  What I believe is that, if we heard Jesus, things would move in the City of God direction.

  • Sometimes I think for a long time about something, like what could the world do so that a thousand fewer children died each day.  If I find an answer I talk to a few people, but unless I word my thought in such a way that the person might somehow profit from such an effort, given our sacred free enterprise economic system, there is no interest…
  • I've been reading an article on ways that the US Empire might end, and it is ending.  I feel most privileged to still be alive, and watch and possibly participate as it takes place.

So, in these new times, let us walk with one another, be welcoming of companions along the way, and break bread together as we seek to live into the City of God.  Amen.