Tribute to Berry Friesen

Berry Friesen died January 17, 2018 after a long battle with cancer.  An active member of our Lancaster 1040 for Peace group, Berry was relentless in his search for truth and for his prophetic voice denouncing empire.  There is no way to say all that needs to be said concerning his contribution to the cause of peace but the following tribute offered by his close friend and fellow peace witness, John Stoner, is a good start.

Tribute to Berry Friesen
January 22, 2018
East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church
Lancaster PA

In November Berry wrote to me, “Of all the Bible asks of us, I have most been drawn to “witness.” 

I think that to him being a witness meant giving a fair and honest report of what he saw as God’s truth, or the great truths of the universe in which we live.  

In that November email he wrote: “Three ‘turning point’ decisions of my public life were related to witness:
  • 1.  Taking a clerkship after my second year of law school in a storefront American Indian Center (instead of in a conventional law firm),
  • 2.  Leaving a law practice and moving to Pennsylvania to work for the church through Mennonite Central Committee;
  • 3.  Hanging out with war tax resisters during this last period of my life. 
Berry did not go through life seeking the best job to give him the most comfortable lifestyle.  In his view of God, or of every person’s giftedness, life was a process of finding one’s calling and vocation.  So he accepted the vocation of being a witness.  In the end, this made him what must be called a prophet.  And he was aware of what all of us could see— a prophet is not easily or always praised in his own community. 

Beyond himself, Berry saw the church’s vocation as one of being a faithful witness to the truth which Jesus lived and taught.  In WATER FROM ANOTHER TIME he wrote about the Mennonite Anabaptist history of tension between staying or moving to find the best way to be faithful to the way of Jesus.  He said:

“Both staying and leaving demonstrate an alternative to whatever brand of orthodoxy the powers seek to impose.   Insofar as such acts are claimed by the church and explained to the public as faithful acts of witness, they create new options and demonstrate again why the story of Jesus Christ is called ‘good news’. ”

In that November email Berry also wrote, “Throughout my life I’ve had ambivalent relationships with groups. I think it’s because I instinctively try to be a voice for an important perspective missing from whatever group I join or am part of. Of course, important perspectives are usually missing from a group’s life because it is not desired. So this can be awkward.”  This may explain a significant point of difference between me and Berry which we never resolved—that is, should the church not only welcome gay and lesbian people, but also bless their marriages, or sacred unions.  There we just agreed to disagree.

Berry was a gifted writer, clear and precise.  That made it especially meaningful to me when a few years ago he asked me if I would join him in writing a book on the Bible and empire.  I enjoyed sharing that project with him. 

Berry called the third vocational move of his life “hanging out with war tax resisters..”  The 1040forpeace group which has met one wednesday a month at 7;30 am at Landis Homes has been much blessed by Berry’s participaton, and he will be greatly missed.  A few weeks ago Berry and Sharon welcomed this ragtag group to stop in at their place on a Saturday morning, and I was frankly surprised how many showed up in response to a short notice email invitation—another evidence of how much Berry was appreciated.

As his faith matured, knowing when and how to resist empire became the great discipleship question for Berry.  For the past 4 years, regular visits to Norman Lowry in State Correctional Institution Dallas, Pennsylvania became part of Berry’s routine.  Norm was jailed for his resistance to military recruiting and his radical “no” to the 4 horsemen of the American apocalypse: bigotry, racism, militarism and poverty-production.  Berry wanted to encourage Norm; he found Norm encouraging him. 

Janet and I shared an interest with Berry in birdwatching.  We often compared notes on what birds we saw at the feeder, or on our travels.  

I’ve spoken of Berry’s vocation, but family was central to Berry; family was his vocation.  His children and grandchildren were always on his mind.  I will conclude by reading a poem of love and appreciation for Sharon which Berry wrote in 2006.

John Stoner