Journey of discovery

Man and his library travel to Kansas seeking conversation, community

Aug 12, 2014 by and

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GOESSEL, Kan. — A traveler left Rocky Ford, Colo., this spring, seeking a destination in Kansas to complete a journey that has spanned nearly half a century.

In addition to building his own wagons, John Stiles carved a yoke for carrying loads. — Tim Huber/MWR

In addition to building his own wagons, John Stiles carved a yoke for carrying loads. — Tim Huber/MWR

John Stiles parked his one-man caravan at Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church in late July. It had previously occupied a corner of a parking lot 25 miles away near Inman at Hoffnung­sau Mennonite Church, a link in an Anabaptist oasis chain stretching across the Great Plains.

Attached to a small Ford tractor are two wagons — a library and residence for him and an abode for 50 doves and two chickens.

Sitting on a five-gallon bucket under an oak tree at the back of the Alexanderwohl parking lot, Stiles said that over the course of several decades, sometimes he’s been traveling and sometimes he’s been going somewhere.

“Sometimes I’m just waiting for a sign — what God’s will is, what direction to go,” he said. “And sometimes I know. Like when I left Colo­rado this spring. I knew I was going to Bethel.”

Countercultures

One of 16 children, Stiles was raised in the remote hills of Arkansas. The family acquired a black-and-white television when he was midway through high school, and a steady diet of Westerns inspired him to head west in a station wagon after graduation.

In 1967, he arrived in San Francisco for the Summer of Love. He connected with the “Mother Earth” movement to return to nature and grow one’s own food. He got involved in the civil rights struggle and Vietnam protests. He dodged the draft, got caught but was saved from military service by childhood polio.

“I didn’t have any religious umbrella to get under for conscientious objection,” he said. “It just didn’t seem right to kill someone to keep an affluent economy going.”

But in San Francisco and later at a commune near Taos, N.M., his idealism was compromised when he found himself surrounded by a homogenous, urban middle class.

“It didn’t turn out like I hoped,” he said. “You have to work for a living.”

He returned to Arkansas focused on self-sufficiency and living from the land. In 1978 he departed with three donkeys and a mule, crossing the Great Plains in a covered wagon on his way back to his friends in Taos.

At 33 years old, he farmed at 9,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains near Mora, N.M. He lived in a Hispanic community, the only white man, when one day he was shot in the leg “because I was white.”

“I was ready for winter, but I wasn’t ready for eternity,” he said. “It drove me to the Bible . . . but until I picked up that book with a real sense of need, it didn’t have a real effect on me.”

Where are we going?

Stiles has been on the move for 35 years, 26 of which he walked with the mules. He and his animals lived on the margins, finding camp wherever the grass grew. Never claiming welfare, never taking part in Social Security, he does small jobs at $10 an hour to feed his tractor and himself, when he’s not using the plow at the fore of his rig to till a garden.

John Stiles collects water to do laundry Aug. 1 at Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church in Goessel, Kan. On the side of his wagon are the words “Jesus wept” — a simple verse that encompasses the compassion Christ had for others, Stiles said. Later he traveled to Tabor Mennonite Church southeast of Goessel. — Tim Huber/MWR

John Stiles collects water to do laundry Aug. 1 at Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church in Goessel, Kan. On the side of his wagon are the words “Jesus wept” — a simple verse that encompasses the compassion Christ had for others, Stiles said. Later he traveled to Tabor Mennonite Church southeast of Goessel. — Tim Huber/MWR

The bare-bones approach is in reaction to a human environment in which every relationship is intermediated by technology, at the expense of clean water, global warming and the extinction of species and communities. Put simply, his lifestyle allows him a different perspective on things.

“Whole cultures are destroyed, and it raises questions about where we’re going,” Stiles said. “Creativity is a gift of God. But how much of that creativity is used to glorify God and love our neighbors? How much have we invented ourselves into a corner?”

As his animals needed to graze, so Stiles’ soul thirsted for knowledge. Scouring bookstores across the country, he nourished scholarly pursuits spanning the humanities — history, art, philosophy and, most of all, theology.

Topics intersected and wove into a passion for the Book of Revelation and apocalyptic themes.

“The most I paid for a book is $120 for Nelson Kraybill’s Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse,” he said.

Stiles couldn’t help but note connections between the Gos­pels and Revelation’s warnings about empire and Babylon. The narrative merged with his passion for social justice, leading him to Anabaptists.

He lived five years among the Amish in Arthur, Ill., Shipshewana, Ind., and Millersburg, Ohio. Still sporting a full chin beard, he said he was always welcomed.

He thought the simple expression of Anabaptism would be the answer he was seeking. But ultimately he didn’t care for the closed system and High German worship, and left about 10 years ago.

“I don’t speak German at all, so they had to have an interpreter,” he said. “My impression was it was too much of an ethnic subculture for my understanding of Christian faith. . . .

“I went to the desert to die . . . but I was just still too full of life. I had to study. After I studied alone in the desert, I guess I was with neopagans for 10 years — middle-class people who want to be organic. . . . But they didn’t want anything to do with the Bible.”

Looking for the body

At 10 miles per hour, he, his 800 books and his flock came to Kansas, “looking for that body to be a member with in Christ.”

Stiles said he hopes to spend the remainder of his life in south central Kansas and is looking for a group to be a part of over the winter: “The church is my only family.”

He’s hoping to meet with religion faculty at Bethel College in North Newton, Hesston College and McPherson College, a Church of the Brethren institution. Specifically, he’s hoping to spend quality time in libraries and archives and to address a critical error he sees in many Anabaptists’ relationship with the Bible’s final book.

He wants to restore Revelation — with its message about the dangers of empire — to the Anabaptist canon.

Using the metaphor of bookends, Stiles said the books of the Bible will fall over without Genesis and Revelation. He thinks many Anabaptists are so focused on the Gospels and Paul’s writings that they cast Revelation aside with the Apocrypha.

Affluent Mennonites — be they traders in Holland’s golden age, wealthy Ukrainian aristocrats before the rise of Soviet communism or North Americans today — have a fine line to walk, he said. Despite a life without going to war, such wealth comes from being beneficiaries of empire — the beast, the whore of Babylon.

“If we’re just using [the Bible] for our own greedy purposes, we’re just riding on the back of the beast,” he said. “But if we stand up for social justice and find the cause of the disease, we need the Book of Revelation restored to its first-century understanding.”


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