image Loving Harder: my father’s legacy in uncertain times, by Alys

img_2421“I don’t know if I’m right or not, but think about it.”

–Big John Willman, Sept. 15, 2001

I read somewhere that the dead do speak to the living, but they never tell us anything they didn’t say while they were alive. Today marks the sixth anniversary of my dad’s death, and as I often do, I was reading through some of our letters to each other. And as has happened many times in the past six years, his words took on a relevance that I missed when he was alive.

Big John Willman, Presente!

Just last Saturday, Danny and I marched with millions of others in Washington DC and around the world. As you all saw in the press coverage, there was plenty of anger and strong words. Above all, though, the message and the general vibe were of love and connection. Speaker J. Bob Alotta, of the Astrea Foundation, called the march an “uprising of love,” and called us to love in the “most radically honest way possible.” img_2653

On the heels of Saturday’s march, I’ve reflected a lot on what it will mean for me to love harder, to love radically and honestly. My dad loved hard – he loved in the most radically honest way – his whole life. In his eulogy, I joked that when I finally got around to reading the Bible, I was able to connect with it right away because Jesus reminded me of my dad.

This won’t shock anyone, but my dad and I did not always agree. Today, I found an email exchange we had in those gut-wrenching days following September 11, 2001. We stood in very different places. From his vantage point in Floyds Knobs, IN, he saw the everyday heroism of people lining up to donate blood or send money to New York, and he felt the US needed to bomb Afghanistan to save more lives. His whole life, he had never experienced any real threat to his safety, and 9/11 rocked him to the core. I was working in El Salvador, after three years living in Nicaragua and another in Chile. I had spent enough time there to have some idea of the human cost of being on the receiving end of US military intervention. I’d been in situations where my own safety was threatened.

My dad and I were both angry, scared, and fearful for the future, but we had different ideas on what should happen next. I was 27, fearful and frustrated. I unleashed it on him in an email. Here is how he responded:

How about some more thoughts on the tragedy but a little less angry and a little calmer?  You need to be in this country right now to see what is going on. The authorities in New York say they can’t take any more donations of blood, money or material. They are full. That stuff has come from all over the country. The Red Cross blood banks here have lines four hours long and people are still going.

I will have a hard time sending American boys to die in Afghanistan, But if we don’t do it, who will?

He finished all this with:

I don’t know if I’m right or not, but think about it.

And then he went on to give me the stats from our high school’s last football game, and a brief weather report. He closed by saying:

Especially now, take very good care of yourself and know that we love you.

That’s how you do it, my friends. That is how we are called to love each other today.

I don’t know what’s ahead. Like my dad, I don’t know if I am right or not about anything. And that just makes it more important than ever to commit to radical love.

Here are five ways I am committing to love harder.

  1. I commit to staying in loving relationship with those I care about, especially when we disagree. We are living in crazy, uncertain times, and it is easy to think cutting people off will help us feel better. Today it is easier than it’s ever been to surround ourselves with people and information that will only confirm what we already believe. There’s also pressure – at least I feel some – to push hard conversations without enough attention to creating safe spaces for those conversations to be constructive. My dad knew when to dialogue, and when to leave things alone; I’m committing to following his example.
  2. I commit to make my voice heard in a positive, loving way. You’d better bet I’m making phone calls to Congress, with all the love I can muster. Right now, I am listening to Danny on the phone with one of our senators. He greets the person on the other end with a “Hi, what’s your name? I hope you are doing well today.” Then he gives his message to pass on to the senator, and wishes him/her a nice day. It’s that easy.
  3. I commit to living into the changes I wish to see. The events of the last seven months have only reinforced the call our family has felt toward changing the way we live. In the coming months, as we discern where to live next, we hope to devote our energy to radical hospitality (especially for those marginalized by current policy) and finding ways to feed, move, shelter and educate our family in harmony with all of creation, with minimal reliance on petroleum, fossil fuels and large corporations.
  4. I commit to standing up for anybody on the receiving end of hate and bullying. Last week, I attended a training in bystander intervention organized by SwampRevolt. This is not about saving anybody, or being a hero, or being hateful to people who are hating on others. It’s about being a decent, positive person – the kind of person I’m trying to raise my boys to be.
  5. I recommit to nonviolence in both word and deed. Here, I go back to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and his six principles of nonviolence. Probably the most important piece for me, right now, is remembering Dr. King’s insistence that nonviolence does not seek to defeat an opponent, but to correct injustice. That means no gloating, no creating winners and losers. It means we choose humility over self-righteousness. This is why Paul wrote, “Love always endures,” (1 Corinthians 13:7) . He didn’t say, “Love wins.” There’s a difference.

In times of uncertainty, the impulse is always to operate out of fear. We retreat to our comfort zones, we tell ourselves we are right and ‘they’ are wrong, and we hunker down. I don’t know about you, but when I think back on my life, I can see that the decisions I made while operating out of fear did not take me anywhere good. My dad knew that, and he lovingly reminded me again today, that I can do better.

Today and every day, I commit to choosing love.


  1. Alys, I loved your reflections on your dayud! He would always try to be so positive and to talk lovingly about all people, especially kids! I do miss his balance and more often than not I ask myself what would he do to stay calm!


  2. Thank you so VERY much for sharing these words from your beautiful heart. It is an honor to walk with you in this sweet life. So many things you said, I NEED to hear. I’m so very grateful for you and how you took the time to write, reflect,and post. Shine on sistah!


  3. Here is my second wish on this blog today: I wish I could duplicate the positive influence that your dad’s quiet, strong, humane personality had on all those around him.


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