When I was writing my book David and Goliath, I went to see a woman in Winnipeg by the name of Wilma Derksen.
Thirty years before, her teenage daughter, Candace, had disappeared on her way home from school. The city had launched the largest manhunt in its history, and after a week, Candace’s body was found in a hut a quarter of a mile from the Derksen’s house. Her hands and feet had been bound.
Wilma and her husband Cliff were called in to the local police station and told the news. Candace’s funeral was the next day, followed by a news conference. Virtually every news outlet in the province was there because Candace’s disappearance had gripped the city.
“How do you feel about whoever did this to Candace?” a reporter asked the Derksens.
“We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives,” Cliff said.
Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She went on: “I can’t say at this point I forgive the person,” but the stress was on the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”
Vulnerability and Power
I wanted to know where the Derksens found the strength to say those things. A sexual predator had kidnapped and murdered their daughter, and Cliff Derksen could talk about sharing his love with the killer and Wilma could stand up and say, “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.” Where do two people find the power to forgive in a moment like that?
That seemed like a relevant question to ask in a book called David and Goliath. The moral of the biblical account of the duel between David and Goliath, after all, is that our preconceptions about where power and strength reside are false.
Goliath seemed formidable. But there are all kinds of hints in the biblical text that he was, in fact, not everything he seemed. Why did he need to be escorted to the valley floor by an attendant? Why did it take him so long to clue into the fact that David was clearly not intending to fight him with swords? There is even speculation among medical experts that Goliath had been suffering from a condition called acromegaly – a disease that causes abnormal growth but also often has the side effect of restricted sight.
What if Goliath had to be led to the valley floor and took so long to respond to David because he could only see a few feet in-front of him? What if the very thing that made him appear so large and formidable, in other words, was also the cause of his greatest vulnerability?
For the first year of my research, I collected examples of these kinds of paradoxes – where our intuitions about what an advantage or a disadvantage are turn out to be upside down. Why are so many successful entrepreneurs dyslexic? Why did so many American presidents and British prime ministers lose a parent in childhood? Is it possible that some of the things we hold dear in education – like small classes and prestigious schools wh0 can do as much harm as good? I read studies and talked to social scientists and buried myself in the library and thought I knew the kind of book I wanted to write. Then I met Wilma Derksen.
Weapons of the Spirit
The Derksens live in a small bungalow in a modest neighborhood not far from downtown Winnipeg. Wilma Derksen and I sat in her backyard. I think some part of me expected her to be saintly or heroic. She was neither. She spoke simply and quietly. She was a Mennonite, she explained. Her family, like many Mennonites, had come from Russia, where those of their faith had suffered terrible persecution before fleeing to Canada. And the Mennonite response to persecution was to take Jesus’ instructions on forgiveness seriously.
“The whole Mennonite philosophy is that we forgive and we move on,” she said. It had not always been easy. It took more than 20 years for the police in Winnipeg to track down Candace’s killer. In the beginning, Wilma’s husband, Cliff, had been considered by some in the police force as a suspect. The weight of that suspicion fell heavily on the Derksens. Wilma told me she had wrestled with her anger and desire for retribution.
They weren’t heroes or saints. But something in their tradition and faith made it possible for the Derksens to do something heroic and saintly.
I never plan out my books in advance. I start in the middle and try and muddle my way from there. When I met Wilma Derksen, I finally understood what I was really getting at, in all the social silence I had been reading and in the stories I was telling of dyslexia and entrepreneurs and education. I was interested – to borrow that marvelous phrase from Pierre Sauvage – in the “weapons of the spirit” – the peculiar and inexplicable power that comes from within.
When I told a friend of mine about my visit to the Derksens, he sent me a quotation from 1 Samuel 16:7. It so perfectly captured what I realized David and Goliath was about that it is now on the first page of the book:
“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
The final chapter of David and Goliath is about what happened in the small town of Le Chambon during the Second World War. Final chapters are crucial: they frame the experience of reading the book. I put the Le Chambon story at the end because it deals with the great puzzle of the weapons of the spirit – which is why we find it so hard to see them.
Le Chambon is an area of France called the Vivarais Plateay – a remote mountainous region near the Italian and Swiss borders. For many centuries, the area has been home to dissident Protestant groups, principally the Huguenots, and during the Nazi occupation of France, Le Chambon become a very open and central pocket of resistance.
The local Huguenot pastor was a man named Andrew Trocme. On the Sunday after France fell to the Germans, Trocme preached a sermon in which he said that if the Germans made the townsfolk of Le Chambon do anything they considered contrary to the Gospel, the town wasn’t going to too along. So the schoolchildren of Le Chambon refused to give the fascist salute each morning, as the new government had decreed they must. The occupation rulers required teachers to sign an oath of loyalty to the state, but Trocme ran the school in Le Chambon and instructed staff not to do it.
Before long, Jewish refugees – on the run from the Nazis – heard of Le Chambon and began to show up looking for help. Trocme and the townsfolk took them in, fed them, hid them and spirited them across borders – in open defiance of Nazi law. Once, when a high government official Ame to town, a group of students actually presented him with a letter that stated plainly and honestly the town’s opposition to the anti-Jewish policies of the occupation.
“We feel obligated to tell you that there are among us a certain number of Jews,” the letter stated. “But, we make no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. It is contrary to the Gospel teaching. If our comrades, who’s only fault is to be born in another religion, received the order to let themselves be deported or even examined, they would disobey the order received and we would try to hide them as best we could.”
“Nobody Thought of That”
Where did the people of Le Chambon find the strength to defy the Nazis? The same place the Derksens found strength to forgive. They were armed with the weapons of the spirit. For over 100 years, in the 17th and 18th centuries, they had been ruthlessly persecuted by the state. Hugeunot pastors had been hanged and tortured, their wives sent to prison and their children taken from them. They had learned how to hide in the forests and escape to Switzerland and conduct their services in secrecy. They had learned how to stick together.
They saw just about the worst kind of persecution that anyone can see. And what did they discover? That the strength granted to them by their faith in God gave them the power to stand up to the soldiers and guns and laws of that state. In one of the many books written about Le Chambon, there is an extraordinary line from Andrew Trocme’s wife, Magda. When the first refugee appeared at her door, in the bleakest part of the war during the long winter of 1941 Magda Trocme said it never occurred to her to say no: “ I didn’t know that it would be dangerous. Nobody thought of that.”
Nobody thought of that. It never occurred to her or anyone else in Le Chambon that they were at any disadvantage in a battle with the Nazi Army.
But here is the puzzle: The Huguenots of Le Chambon were not the only committed Christians in France in 1941. There were millions of committed believers in France in those years. They believed in God 1st as the people of Le Chambon did. So why did so few Christians follow the lead of the people in Le Chambon? The way that story is often told, the people of Le champion are made out to be heroic figures. But they were no more heroic than The Derksens. They were simply people whose experience had taught then where true power lies: God’s power.
The other Christians of France were not so fortunate. They made the mistake that so may of us make. They estimated the dangers of action by looking on outward appearances – when they needed to look on the heart. If they had, how many other French Jews might have been saved from the Holocaust?
Seeing God’s Power
I was raised in a Christian home in southwestern Ontario. My parents took time each morning to read the Bible and pray. Both my brothers are devout. My sister-in-law is a Mennonite pastor. I have had a different experience from the rest of the family. I was the only one to move away from Canada. And I have even been the only one to move away from the Church.
I attended Washington Community Fellowship when I lived in Washington D.C. But once I moved to New York I stopped attending any kind of religious fellowship. I have often wondered why it happened that way? Why had I wandered off the path taken by the rest of my family?
What I understand now is that I was one of those who did not appreciate the weapons of the spirit. I have always been someone attracted to the quantifiable and the physical. I hate to admit it. But I don’t think I would have been able to do what the Huguenots did in Le Chambon. I would have counted up the number of soldiers and guns on each side and concluded it was too dangerous. I have always believed in God. I have grasped the logic of Christian faith. What I have had a hard time seeing is God’s power.
I put that sentence in the past tense because something happened to me when I sat in Wilma Derksen’s garden. It was one thing to read in a history book about people empowered by their faith. But it is quite another to meet an otherwise very ordinary person, in the backyard of a very ordinary house, who has managed to do something utterly extraordinary.
Their daughter was murdered. And the first thing the Derksens did was to stand up at the press conference and talk about the path to forgiveness. “We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.”
Maybe we have difficulty seeing the weapons of the spirit because we don’t know where to look, or because we are distracted by the louder claims of material advantage. But I’ve seen them now, and I will never be the same.
This article first appeared in issue 67 of our print magazine.