Naomi Lederach rarely says “I.”
Whether she’s describing her time as a peace worker in Northern Ireland during the Troubles or her experience as a nursing professor at Hesston College in Kansas, Lederach, 79, habitually begins her sentences with “we.” The other half of Lederach’s “we” is invariably her husband, John, who has been her co-worker, best friend and partner for the last 58 years.
Together, Naomi and John have moved from Goshen to Oregon to Kansas—even to Israel and Northern Ireland during periods of great political conflict—always going where they feel called, Naomi as a nurse and John as a pastor and professor. No matter where they live, Naomi and John model for others how to have a lasting, loving marriage and have in fact led marriage workshops together for over 25 years.
Lesson number one? You’re never too old to hold hands, a practice Naomi and John demonstrate regularly.
Their affection for each other was immediately apparent on the sunny spring morning that I visited their Goshen home to interview Naomi. As she and I sat down at the kitchen table, John took drink requests and promptly prepared coffee for me and chamomile tea for Naomi.
“Would you like sugar or sweetener with your coffee?” John asked me politely.
“She wants sugar,” Naomi answered with a wink. John gave her shoulder a small squeeze as he handed her the tea.
Once John left the room, Naomi took a sip from her white mug and said what would become the first of many “we” statements: “We tell each other every day how lucky we are to have found each other. What a wonderful life it’s been.”
Although John has indeed been an integral part of Naomi’s personal narrative, the stories she proceeded to share were still uniquely and unequivocally her own. As she spoke, themes of reconciliation and forgiveness continually emerged as defining values of her life.
These are three of her stories.
Making peace with racism
The year was 1968. Lederach and her husband, both Goshen College graduates, had spent the last decade or so serving at a church in Hubbard, Ore., when they moved their young family to Winston-Salem, N.C. There, Lederach began to work nights as a nurse at a hospital where integration was forced by the federal government. Lederach immediately felt out of place among her co-workers, who treated African-American patients with great reluctance. She soon found herself signing up to care for all the black patients. Other nurses would often thank her for her “sacrifice.”
One night as Lederach walked past the nursing station, she noticed an emergency light flashing on for one of the black patients. White nurses sat around the station, unmoving and indifferent.
“Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?” Lederach asked them frantically.
“Mind your own business! I wish you’d go back to wherever you came from,” retorted one of the nurses, turning her back to Lederach.
After that, Lederach—who had always been popular and made friends easily—became ostracized among the nursing staff. They refused to eat lunch with her, so she ate by herself. During breaks, she’d scrub down the facilities, a job no one else would take.
Life was no easier outside the hospital. When Lederach and her husband went to restaurants with their African-American friends, white patrons would glare at them and mutter under their breath. It was there that she said she “learned what the hate stare looks like.”
At school, Lederach’s young children, John Paul, Philip and Beth, were often teased and bullied for playing with black children. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, all the children in John Paul’s class cheered except for him. As Lederach worked, the city of Winston-Salem burned in the fires of riots. Nurses were accompanied by police as they left the hospital.
Over time, the other nurses slowly began to warm up to Lederach and even showed signs of giving better care to the black patients. On her last night at the hospital (she and John had accepted new positions in Hesston, Kan.), the staff threw her a going-away party and expressed their gratitude.
“Honey, I swear none of you was gonna wear off on me,” said one of the nurses to Lederach, “but it did.” The two women embraced. Both were crying.
Making peace with the unremorseful
Ten years after moving to Kansas and becoming a professor of psychiatric nursing at Hesston College, Lederach made the difficult decision to have her right breast removed due to the recurrent appearance of lumps. Before the surgery, she read every medical journal she could find and discussed the operation at length with both her husband and the surgeon. She felt nervous about the procedure but took comfort in the knowledge that she would leave the surgery with her cancer-free left breast still intact.
On the morning of the surgery, Lederach was taken to a cold operating room where she lay for what felt like days under the masked gaze of the medical team. Finally the anesthetist asked her to think of something pleasant and she drifted off into a dark, heavy sleep.
Hours later, as Lederach emerged from the foggy tunnel of anesthesia, she overheard a loud, impersonal voice near her bed.
“This bilateral mastectomy is about ready to go up to her room.”
This can’t be, thought Lederach hysterically. I only had one breast removed! She looked down at her chest, completely flattened, before drifting back into the warm fog of nausea and sleep.
Over the next few days, Lederach struggled to make sense of what had happened, imploring her nurses and the doctor to explain why they had removed both breasts. The staff performed their tasks but refused to answer her questions. John stayed with her as she cried, hurt and angry that no one would acknowledge her pain or take responsibility for the life-changing mistake.
Four days after the initial surgery Lederach was sent back to the operating room to have small implants inserted. Thankfully, the procedure was successful. Still, her doctor continued to deny anything had gone wrong and went as far to tell her it was her problem now, not his. After her last visit to the surgeon, she screamed and sobbed the whole way home.
Lederach’s peers and lawyer encouraged her to consider suing the surgeon, but Lederach, a lifelong Mennonite, had never felt comfortable with the idea of retaliation. Though she felt a strong desire to make her doctor acknowledge his misconduct and wanted to hold him accountable within the medical community, she ultimately decided that forgiving the doctor would bring her the greatest peace of mind.
“It’s about power,” Lederach said about the forgiveness process. “I’m not going to let this surgeon determine the rest of my life or control how I feel.”
Making peace during the Troubles
Five years after Lederach’s breast surgery, she and John moved to Pennsylvania—
at her behest—to launch Recovery of Hope, an intensive model of marital therapy that has helped hundreds of couples over the years. By 1994, though, the couple was ready to “retire” and try service work abroad.
Their destination? Northern Ireland, a nation divided by decades of violence between Protestants and Catholics. There, the Lederachs served with Mennonite Central Committee’s Mediation Network to act as a peaceful presence in a conflict-ridden community where explosives could be heard on a daily basis.
Once there, the Lederachs worked out of an MCC-owned house located along one of the “peace walls” that divided Catholic neighborhoods from Protestant ones. The peace walls were lined on top with razor-sharp barbed wire; below, Lederach planted honeysuckle, clematis and roses that blossomed bright and full in the spring. Soon neighbors began to plant flowers, too, and for a time the whole neighborhood began to bloom.
During the day, people from either side of the wall would come to the house for visits, and Lederach began to lead women’s groups composed of both Catholics and Protestants. On Sundays, she and John attended Mass before crossing the walls and going to a Methodist church down the street. They made friends with Catholics and Protestants alike and quickly learned how tired everyone was of the violence.
Though it was difficult for Lederach to live in such a segregated neighborhood, she said it “didn’t feel unfamiliar to us,” likening the situation to her time in North Carolina as well as her experiences working with marital and family conflicts.
When Lederach wasn’t leading women’s groups, she was designing courses for dealing with stress and marital problems, or teaching anger management and communication skills to men in prison. Sometimes she helped John teach police officers—94 percent of whom were Protestant—about Catholic history and culture, trying to help them to understand their “enemy” better.
The Lederachs returned to the U.S. in 1997 but went back from 2001 to 2002. They still have good friends from their time in Northern Ireland.
These days, Naomi and John live in a quiet neighborhood in Goshen, where they lead occasional marriage workshops and Sunday school classes. Book clubs and volunteer work fill Lederach’s time. The couple especially enjoys receiving visits from their three children, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
And, of course, Naomi and John continue to remind each other each day how much they treasure the life they’ve shared together.
“It’s not all peaches and cream,” Lederach said, “but I thank God over and over again for this life.”