Memorial Day for a martyr

May 23, 2016 by

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Jose Chuquin came to faith as a student at a Mennonite school at Cachipay, Colombia. As an adult, that faith became his vocation, serving 11 years as director of the relief agency World Vision’s operations in Colombia as well as holding leadership positions in the Colombian Mennonite Church, including president.

Jose Chuquin, a Colombian Mennonite leader, was murdered in Peru in 1991. — World Vision

Jose Chuquin, a Colombian Mennonite leader, was murdered in Peru in 1991. — World Vision

Twenty-five years ago this month, it all cost him his life.

Chuquin was introduced to Mennonites when, after his father became ill, he attended the Cachipay school, operated by General Conference Mennonite Church mission workers for children of leprosy victims.

“It was through service that the Mennonites in Cachipay presented Christ to my father, to me, to my sister Egda and to many other people in and outside our neighborhood,” he wrote in The Mennonite, the GCMC magazine, in 1986.

Christian service defined Chuquin. The biblical directives to love God, love neighbor and make disciples of all nations propelled the him to address his country’s poverty and injustice. As World Vision’s Colombia director, he oversaw some 700 staff and volunteers.

“This is part of the call Jesus makes to become his follower,” Chuquin said. “The kind of mess we live in (oppression, injustice, marginalization of huge numbers of poor people) is so big and so deep and so tall… . I need to continue to study and understand poverty, including its roots and consequences. This needs to be done from a biblical, historical, socioeconomic and political frame of reference.”

In May 1991, Chuquin was in neighboring Peru, assisting that country’s World Vision staff amid growing social and political instability, including a brutal guerrilla war led by the Maoist rebel group Shining Path. On May 17, Chuquin and Norman Tattersall, a Canadian in charge of World Vision’s Peru program, plus their driver, were traveling through the capital city of Lima on their way to the organization’s office. When they arrived, two gunmen — unidentified but presumed to be Shining Path members — blasted the vehicle with automatic weapons.

The driver somehow escaped injury. But Tattersall was killed instantly, hit by 20 bullets to his head and upper body. Chuquin, with perhaps as many as 40 bullet wounds, was rushed to a local hospital, then flown to Norfolk, Va., where he underwent seven hours of surgery. He died May 28, the day after Memorial Day, 1991, at age 45. His survivors included his wife and five children.

The season of Chuquin’s death made it even more poignant. Memorial Day is a problematic holiday for conscientious objectors to war because it honors military men and women who lost their lives in America’s wars.

But Chuquin’s life and death demonstrate that glorification of bloodshed and its use for the idolatrous notions of nationalism is counter to the God of peace who transcends all earthly divisions. Chuquin was a Colombian Mennonite working for justice in another country when he was fatally injured by insurrectionists blinded by the deceptive promises of peace through violence, then died about the same time the United States was celebrating its allegiance to that very same falsehood.

Honoring Chuquin and others who gave their lives in God’s service is an important way to debunk the myth of righteous violence.

Some of those martyrs have long been sources of inspiration: early Anabaptists such as Felix Manz and Michael Sattler, killed by a repressive state-church system; Annie Funk, the Mennonite missionary in India returning to the United States aboard the Titanic who died after she reportedly gave up her place in a life­boat; and Clayton Kratz, the Mennonite Central Committee worker who disappeared in war- and famine-ravaged Russia in 1920.

Other deaths are less familiar, such as Albert Keuter and Andre du Croix, Dutch Mennonite ministers who died in the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 for resisting the Nazis. Among du Croix’s offenses was founding a secret organization to prevent Dutch residents from exacting revenge on Germans.

In 1962, Merlin Grove, serving with Lancaster Conference’s Eastern Mennonite Missions, was stabbed to death by a Muslim mullah in Somalia. Grove, a teacher at a mission school in Mogadishu, was helping students register for class when he was attacked. He died immediately and was buried in the city.

An important figure in the Church of the Brethren tradition is John Kline, a Virginia elder who, during the Civil War era, opposed slavery and secession. That made him a foe of local confederates, and in 1864 he was shot and killed by an unknown assailant as he neared home after attending the church’s annual sessions in Indiana.

These are the sorts of heroes who must be remembered. The world may not listen to the stories, but they at least need to be told among ourselves so we can embolden our witness to the Prince of Peace. Maybe the church could appropriate Memorial Day for more Christlike purposes. It could even be renamed Jose Chuquin Day.

Rich Preheim is a writer and historian from Elkhart, Ind. His book, In Pursuit of Faithfulness: Conviction, Conflict and Compromise in Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference, is being released by Herald Press this month.


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