The New Church           

"In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep to know our heritage - to know who we are and where we came from. Without this enriching knowledge there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainment in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness."

    -  Alex Haley

"Religion points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage." 

    - Frederick Buechner

It would be more honorable to our distinguished ancestors to praise them in words less, but in deeds to imitate them more.

 Horace Mann

God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!"
"See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars."
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.

Where do we come from? This is the universal question mankind has eternally obsessed over. This question is serious business for the human race.

The creation myth I just read (about us being such lucky mud) is from the Holy Book of Bokonen, which effectively summarizes the Bible’s book of Genesis in 6 lines. I personally believe the Book of Bokonen is the world’s only honest holy book. I say this because the first line in the Book of Bokonen is: “Don't be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but shameless lies.”

Author Kurt Vonnegut’s creation, the Holy Man Bokonen, like the author of Genesis, recognized that man needs to know, must know, from whence he came. 

Mankind has a requirement in it’s very bones, in it’s muddy genetic code, to feel like a part of something bigger than itself and to feel like it has a purpose for existing.

The authors of creation myths provide  lyrical, if spectacularly suspect, explanations to fulfill this need. God bless them for their thoughtful fictions.

Creation stories are, post Gutenburg, recorded in holy books, like the Bible and the Book of Bokonen, and in recent years have been digitally recorded in a variety of media like CDs and web sites. But for most of human history, creation stories, both cosmic and personal, were saved for posterity via the oral tradition, passed down generation to generation by tribal storytellers.

During the eons that humans relied on oral traditions to preserve their history, a practice still in use by many so called “primitive” cultures, individuals could recite their lineage. They knew where they came from. They could tell you details about their ancestors going back many, many generations. This connected them to their past, gave them a sense of pride, fulfilled that primal need to be a part of something bigger than one’s self. 

There is a tribe in remote southwestern Africa called the Lemba. Their oral tradition has long heralded their connection to, of all things, the lost tribes of Israel. Their oral tradition further includes the belief that some of their tribe was of a priestly caste, leaders in the clan of Israelites.

Western ethnologists have known of the Lemba’s oral tradition for some time, but had no way of proving or disproving their alleged link to the lost tribes. That their belief seemed unlikely is an understatement. Two thousand seven hundred years had passed since the the dispersal of the lost tribes of Israel, a unimaginably long time to keep a story straight. The Lemba are a black skinned tribe of isolated people, with thousands of miles of desert, mountain ranges, canyons, lakes, rivers, impenetrable jungles, and countless other tribes and cultures between them, the Holy Land, and the semitic appearing people associated with Judaism. 

A few years ago, as geneticists refined their emerging craft, an inquisitive scientist, who in a movie of the week would inevitably  be portrayed as a quirky maverick, was intrigued by the claims of the Lemba, and undertook a study to see if their was any connection, even the most tenuous, between this small tribe and the children of Israel. The scientists colleagues viewed him with befuddled amusement, as a naive Don Quixote of genetics. To the geneticists utter amazement, DNA testing determined that a particular clan of the Lemba, whose own oral tradition specifically mentions a leadership role in bringing the Lemba out of the middle east, had genetic markers identical to the present day group of Jews with the surname Cohen. You may already know that the Cohens are the descendants of the Israelite’s priestly caste, many of whom are rabbis to this day. The black skinned, distant jungle tribe known as the Lemba were the long lost cousins of Israel’s Cohens. The Lemba’s improbable 2,700 year old oral tradition was miraculously accurate. Is this not astonishing? The thought that a people can pass a story down orally for thousands of years and maintain the truth at it’s core for all that time fills me with optimism about the human condition.

This wonderful oral tradition, the handing down of a people’s story, to our great diminishment, has been mostly lost in America, the land where people move often, reinvent themselves, and place great value in the new and superficial. 

When I was a classroom teacher, because of my interest in family connections, I did exercises in which I had kids do their family tree. I was amazed at how many kids could not tell me anything of substance about their grandparents, in many cases not even their names. Knowledge of great grandparents was almost nonexistent. This was surprising to me, it disturbed me. It seemed like an indicator of a great and fundamental loss within our culture.

I’ve always been fascinated by genealogy but, like many, was put off by it’s labor intensive nature. Sloth is my middle name. Two relatively recent developments have greatly diminished the burden of researching genealogy however. The first is that the Mormon church, which places enormous emphasis on ancestry, opened their database of genealogy information, the largest in the world, to non-Mormons. Then rapid developments in computer searchable databases made the Mormon databases and other sources of information more accessible first via CD-ROMS, then via the internet and it’s dizzying explosion of search tools.

Using these resources, and by visiting the  genealogical section of the magnificent Newberry Research Library in Chicago, I was able to track down a remarkable wealth of information about my own ancestry. I can tell you emphatically that the magical moment when you find a document that connects you to your own flesh and blood is among life’s most sublime experiences. Few things compare to the feeling of discovering people you were previously unaware of, people that literally created you.  As you learn about their lives it is like discovering yourself. I have turned up documents over two hundred years old in my own people’s handwriting. I find myself transported back in time, imagining I can get a feel for their nature by soaking in the pen strokes.

I discovered ancestors who came to the US from Scotland in the 1600’s, veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, information on ancestors who interacted with the native tribes in the 1820’s in west central Illinois. I found 200 year old wills, probate data from the early 1800’s and census material on my ancestors from every decade since the late 1700’s. I even found a document that David  Fisher, my illiterate great, great, great grandfather, had marked with an X to signify he was being paid by a monied person in Indiana to take his place in the Civil War. (although the process is more refined today, the end result still has the underclass providing cannon fodder for C students from Yale)

I was most intrigued by information I discovered about the Heberling family, my mother’s family. I greatly admire the Heberlings. Theirs is a family culture of nurturing and quietly sly humor. Much of what I take pride in about myself I can trace to their influence. 

Through my research I learned that an Andrew Heberling had come to America at the port of Baltimore around 1760. He settled first in what is now West Virginia, later moving to the rugged hills of southeastern Ohio. Among his children was a son named John, who himself had 10 children and became quite prosperous and influential. One of John’s children was William Heberling. William married, somehow became estranged from the rest of the family and moved to Greene County Illinois in the 1830’s, where his descendants still live 170 years later. John’s will, which I have a copy of, divided his wealth among all his children, excepting William, who apparently began the tradition in my ancestral line of being oblivious to the mechanics of building wealth.

There is a photo from the 1880’s that shows all but one of John’s children, all still living despite their advanced ages. I would love to know why William, who was still alive as well, remained estranged for so many years and wasn’t there for the picture, but that is a mystery that remains unsolved.

In my research I discovered that Andrew, the first Heberling to come to America, came from a small town in German Saxony called Marktneukirchen, the Place of the New Church. I discovered that Marktneukirchen was known for craftsmen who make musical instruments out of wood, it’s chief industry for hundreds of years. This fascinated me because every census since the 1700’s shows the occupation of at least one Heberling in my family as a carpenter. This tradition continues to this day, although there would appear to be a slight carpentry skill deficiency in my own case.  At least I’m not alone.  At the annual 4th of July Heberling reunion one year, 4 members of the family found dark humor in comparing damaged and missing fingers while chowing down on the pot luck. My grandfather, a superb carpenter, must have been shaking his head somewhere in the next life.

Marktneukirchen, in it’s recent history was, until 1989, behind the iron curtain in East Germany, on the border of both West Germany and Czechoslovakia, making it impossible for westerners to visit because of the communist obsession for border security. But I dreamed of visiting Marktneukirchen ever since I learned of it’s significance to our family, and a few summers ago my family and I were able to make a post-Iron Curtain pilgrimage to Saxony to get a feel for the ancestral home of the Heberlings. As best as I could determine, we were the first descendants of Andrew Heberling in our line to visit Marktneukirchen since he left 250 years ago.

We got to Marktneukirchen via the Czech Republic, where we had a disconcerting episode crossing back into Germany. It gave us a hint that while borders have become a formality in Western Europe, in the East the border guards still liked to create a bit of  anxious drama during the border transaction, a part of the hangover from the communist era.

Marktneukirchen turned out, at first glance, to be a lovely town of perhaps 7,000, built on wooded hills overlooking a modest river valley. It had a remarkable old fashioned museum with thousands of handmade wooden instruments, many of them made right in town. It’s architecture was markedly different from what we were used to in other parts of Germany, utilizing reddish bricks rather than stone or cement blocks covered in plaster like the western German communities we were familiar with. This, coupled with the dearth of maintenance on many of the buildings created a handsome but melancholy visual atmosphere. We saw a building with an old washed out Heberlein sign painted above it’s door and were thrilled at the recognition. Later, in one of the most beautiful and well kept cemeteries I’ve ever seen, we found several markers with the family name providing another sense of connection. 

Some of the streets were named after famous composers, giving a sense of a once sonorant and now faded culture. But we also noticed that it’s streets weren’t vibrant like West German communities of the same size. The streets were mostly deserted and the shops we entered were mostly empty. The shopkeepers were not outgoing and interested in their visitors from America as was typical in Western Germany. 

Marktneukirchen was so far off the beaten path I wouldn’t be surprised if we were among the first Americans to visit the town since the wall fell, yet our encounters made us feel like outsiders, unwelcome. One would think that curiosity about travelers from a distant land visiting their isolated burg would engage the citizenry, but they were not interested in us in the least. There was none of the almost aggressive courtesy we experienced in our interactions in our old home of Wurzburg to the west, no fussing over our youngest son and the perpetual offers of treats in the shops. Here there was an indifference , a dull  aversion to interacting with strangers. I recalled our visit to East Berlin some years earlier when East Germans actively, almost fearfully avoided eye contact with strangers. 

As we strolled around the town center we naturally came upon a church. To my kids dismay, I am a crank on church architecture, always ready to look inside my 20th church of the day, and here was a chance to examine a church in my ancestor’s home town. 

It’s sign identified it as a Christian Church, the denomination escapes me. But as I opened the door something jumped out at me. The door was decorated with trim that formed a series of 6 sided stars. The church had once been a synagogue. It was troublingly easy to imagine why it was no longer a synagogue.

Suddenly, with a vaudevillian double take that almost caused my head to disconnect from my neck, I discerned, scrawled there on the door with a bold marker, the hideous phrase “Scheiss Juden” - shit Jews .  .  .

A sense of darkness that had slowly been arising in my subconscious as we explored Marktneukirchen was explosively forced to the surface. I was rocked on my heels. It was quickly obvious that the slur on the door was not fresh. There appeared to be no rush by those associated with the church to remove it from the door. I was overwhelmed with disgust and anger. What kind of place was this? How could such a slander be expressed in public, on a church appropriated from a synagogue no less, given the horrifying knowledge of what Nazi Germany had done to the Jews within living memory? People still walked the streets who knew of these horrors first hand. What kind of clergyman would allow such a thing to remain on the door of his church, the most prominent church in the community? I flashed back to our visit to East Berlin when the wall was intact and how we had been brazenly followed during our entire visit. Suddenly I felt as though eyes were on us once again. 

Andrew Heberling had left Saxony during one of the periods of religious intolerance that have regularly plagued Europe throughout it’s history. A form of the  dark forces that may have caused him to leave town 250 years ago still lingered, nurtured by the madness of the Nazi’s during the Hitler era, then by a paranoid totalitarian system masquerading as Socialism until just recently.

A pilgrimage I had so looked forward to had taken an unexpected and heartbreakingly dark turn.

The visit to Marktneukirchen had lost it’s luster. After paying our respects at the cemetery, we cut our trip short and headed back to Western Germany.

Once I got over my disappointment at what we had found in Marktneukirchen I slowly came to realize that pilgrimages don’t have to end in rapturous epiphany. It occurred to me that a pilgrimage that ends in disappointment may have more to teach than one dependent on bliss at journeys end. What had I expected to find after all? Andrew Heberling had found the town deficient 250 years ago and I must say I was quite proud of him after our visit. He was apparently a discerning fellow.

 Eventually I came to realize that this was a trip that was as enlightening as any I’d ever made. My ancestor, my own flesh and blood, had the courage and will to leave everything he knew behind when he left Marktneukirchen. He took an unimaginably long and lonely and dangerous ocean voyage knowing he would never return to the only home he had ever known. Our visit allowed me to connect back through time to Andrew and our common forbears, standing where they had stood, seeing the very landscape and many of the same structures they had seen centuries before. It was illuminating to see that religious intolerance still existed there, for that intolerance had almost certainly brought Andrew Heberling to America at a time when the US served as a beacon to those wanting to escape religious persecution. Whatever had happened in Marktneukirchen in the 1760’s had such an affect on him that he left his religion as well as his home behind. His children became Quakers in America, turning their backs on the religion of the old country. I was positively giddy to learn that the  Heberlings were instrumental in organizing the underground railroad in the upper Ohio River Valley, helping slaves to freedom at a time when that involved mortal risk. Apparently they’d had enough of religions that nurture conflict and judgments and chose instead to embrace a Faith that preached acceptance, and brotherhood, and pacifism.  

So in spite of the wistfully disturbing nature of our trip it still served as a pilgrimage fulfilled. I had completed a lifelong dream to understand something of where I came from. For one day I didn’t have to speculate on where I’m from, l was at the source and would have stories to tell about the experience. My people came from the sad and beautiful town of Marktneukirchen and like Andrew Heberling some 250 years before, I knew that a place like it was not the place for me. Like him, my future held a new church that embraced acceptance, and brotherhood, and pacifism above stern, rigid doctrine. Somehow I think Andrew Heberling would approve of that connection. 

Knowing something of your history is wonderfully liberating, wonderfully fulfilling, and that feeling is an indicator of it’s importance to the human experience.  Conversely, not knowing your history causes great conflict, conflict I have observed in a number of my friends who have suffered the perplexing heartache of not knowing their own parents. We simply must feel that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves.  This drive is as much as part of us as the need to breathe. 

I urge you to explore your heritage, find out as much as you can about your family history and, as I did, make a pilgrimage to a place in your ancestor’s past. Echoes of what your people experienced linger there - and, if you listen closely, you will hear those echoes, you will know where you came from, and you will have the inestimable joy of being able to reignite your family’s oral tradition. 

Yes, God made mud, and we are lucky mud indeed, with glorious, glorious stories to tell.

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