Steve Heronemus

Refraction of History

The prisms we use to view the world greatly frame what we actually see. This fact was brought home to me in crushing fulness through just one sentence, spoken once by one man.
Throughout my life, I have been fascinated by and attracted to Europe. Listening to my great-grandfather and people in my hometown speak German planted curiosity, which I then watered through reading countless books of European history, especially the sagas of seagoing explorers. I studied German from junior high through university, ultimately making it my major.
That curiosity found full bloom my junior year of college as a participant in Valparaiso University’s overseas study program in Reutlingen, Germany.
I reveled in living Europe. The art, architecture, languages, cultures and way of life made me feel more at home there than I had felt in the United States. So much so that at the end of my program semester I could not go back to Valparaiso and took the next term off to continue living in Germany and travelling throughout Europe for as long as my money lasted.
That experience only made me want to get back, and we were able to live as a family near Munich after I pulled every corporate string possible to land a client there for a 6-month assignment. We enjoyed it so much we finagled an extension to nearly two years , after which I quit my job to be able to continue working with my client as an independent contractor, traveling back to Europe frequently.
In 2002 I was honored to represent the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at the World Council of Churches convocation in Geneva, Switzerland. Having not been to Europe for a couple of years and missing being there, I managed to find a flight connecting through Munich with enough of a layover to go downtown, visit my favorite music store, take in an outdoor lunch of fabulous white asparagus and dark beer next to the cathedral.
So it was in a near-euphoric mindframe that I arrived in Geneva, itself a beautiful, cosmopolitan city. There was a dinner gathering that evening for the representatives of more than 80 churches from around the world, and I was delighted to sit next to the bishop of a Nigerian church body. Our conversation revealed that this was his first trip to Europe, and I was so proud to share my excitement and knowledge of all things European with him. At some point I asked him what he thought of Europe so far.

“It is good to see what the blood of my people has bought” was his reply.

Boom. Gone in an instant was the euphoria, the pride, the viewpoint I had nurtured for decades. I had known about the evils of colonialism at some level, but had managed to compartmentalize that knowledge to a place apart from my unbridled, unexamined, enthusiasm. Thoroughly humbled, I sat quietly through the rest of dinner, thinking about the tens of millions of African and Central and South American people killed in the Northern Hemisphere’s quest for wealth and power, and those tales of “exploration” I read as a child were reframed as tales of “exploitation”. 
The convocation neared its end without me having further interaction with the Nigerian bishop, but my role as representing a donor church in service to the causes and needs of less-wealthy areas of the world – areas my country and my ancestors had impoverished and murdered – were acutely in focus. The final agenda item was a church service, where I once again found myself at the side of the Nigerian. I had no idea what to say. The pastor leading the service invited all to say the Lord’s Prayer in their native language, and as we did, the Nigerian bishop held my hand. Never has grace been so fully embodied. Many nations, many languages, many circumstances and many faith expressions, yet we were one people and one God.
The prism of my experience was permanently changed by that bishop, and I now approach world history and current events with a more complete viewpoint. What Western civilization has achieved is astounding, wonderful, and, at times, beautiful, but it was bought with blood money.
Colonialism killed a higher percentage of the world’s population than did WWII and the Northern Hemisphere’s original sin is the exploitation of the Southern Hemisphere. We would not have the wealth and power we enjoy today were it not for the lives and natural resource riches of the South, and we owe those people and places more consideration than we currently give. 
Our daughter Claire leaves tomorrow for a year of service in Rwanda, which gained independence from Belgian colonial rule in 1962. Belgium is one of the world’s most prosperous, educated and healthiest countries, yet it, like all colonial powers in Africa, left Rwanda without roads, schools, electricity, drinking water, sanitation, medical professionals or hospitals. Rwanda’s average household income is $400 per year (Belgium’s is over $50,000), only a third of the country has electricity, most people use pit latrines, and life expectancy is only 60 years. While Europe and America industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries, we invested virtually nothing in the African colonies we ruled and exploited. 
It bothers me to no end that our daughter had to get a malaria vaccination before leaving, yet malaria is one of the leading causes of death in Rwandan children. They don’t get vaccinated because they can’t afford it and most people can’t even afford a $2.50 mosquito net. Nothing defines privilege more clearly to me. 
Yet there are things we can learn from Rwanda. More than half of Parliament seats are held by women, and there are permanent Parliament seats allocated to youth and people with disabilities. Oh, yes, Rwanda is a parliamentary democracy. It is also 95% Christian. 
I can’t wait to hear and learn more about Rwanda through Claire. I invite you to follow her blog for the next year, perhaps your view of life will be refracted a little differently.