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Christmas dinner is interfaith, expressing lifelong learning of acceptance

John and Joan Weekes

John and Joan Weekes will celebrate Christmas in Portland as they have for five years, sharing dinner with their son, granddaughters, his Jewish neighbors and an Ethiopian Muslim woman. 

Laurene and Bob Mullen, the neighbors, helped raise their son John’s daughters, Lauren and Mackenzie, after their mother died 17 years ago.

Zubeda Hlkadir lived with the Mullens in high school. They are now helping her go to college to be a social worker.  She grew up in a mud hut.  After her father was killed, she walked with her mother and brother to a refugee camp.

“It’s great to participate at Christmas with Jewish, Christian and Muslim friends and family,” said John.  “They accept us and we accept them. They are part of my son’s family.

“Zubeda reminds us we take much for granted,” he added.

For John and Joan, members of Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ in Spokane, it’s a fitting expression of their experiences of accepting and being accepted by people of different religions, races and cultures and sexual orientations.

Their church is “open and affirming,” welcoming people no matter where they are on their journey of faith.

John, who was born in North Dakota, said his parents and family were Catholic. 

In the Spokane neighborhood where he grew up, he began attending the youth group of a church that told him the only way to heaven was through their church. 

“I wanted to greet my parents in heaven, so I felt I needed to convert my parents,” he said, describing the tension that created.

After graduating from high school, John joined the Army, serving 18 months as World War II was winding down.  He was stationed in Okinawa and then in Korea in 1946, when the Japanese surrendered in Korea, and Korea was split into the North and South. 

Visiting Japan on leave, he saw the devastation after the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and after the firebombing in Tokyo.

At the age of 18, he was overwhelmed by the horror he saw.

“I couldn’t comprehend that the Japanese would rather die than surrender. I couldn’t imagine what terrible things guerillas did in Korea,” said John.

As a sergeant, he was ordered to go to a village to kill or capture a guerilla leader.  When he and his fellow soldiers broke in the door of a wood structure in a deserted village, they found a missionary and children singing, “Jesus Loves Me.” 

“It bothers me what a waste war is,” John said.

In Korea, the chaplain, who led Catholic, Protestant and Jewish services, “taught me about accepting other faiths,” he said.

When he came home, he approached his family in a different light. 

Still seeking understanding, he went to Europe and saw post-war devastation as he hitchhiked for five months, living on $1 a day, staying in parks, bomb shelters, concentration camps, displaced person camps and homes.

“In Cologne, I saw horrible damage from 1,100 plane raids,” he said.  “While it was hard to see the destruction, I had been trained to be desensitized to it, but it has bothered me through the years.”

John went to Vienna, which was in the Russian Zone behind the Iron Curtain.

When he was hitchhiking, the first vehicle that stopped had Russian troops.  They took him to the border. 

Then he walked across a bridge over the Danube River into the American Zone.

“The Russian soldiers accepted me,” he said.

At refugee camps, refugees shared their food.  At displaced persons’ camps, he learned that German soldiers came home to find their houses bombed and families gone.  They might find an envelope saying where they went.  The Red Cross helped reunite families, he said.

“Seeing how people helped each other strengthened my faith in people,” John said.

When he came back to the U.S., he had $20.23 and hitchhiked for five weeks down the East Coast to a mission in Washington D.C., staying overnight with hill people in Tennessee, picking cotton with blacks in Arkansas, staying with people in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.  In Arizona, a Navajo family picked him up. 

After five weeks, he arrived home with 73 cents.

“I had been accepted by all of them,” he said.

John studied medicine and philosophy for a year at Gonzaga University, and then went to Washington State University, graduating in 1952 with a degree in pharmacy.

Joan, who was born in Chicago, earned a degree in music and education in 1953 at Washington State University and taught piano for three years in Pullman.

They were married in the summer of 1953 at Westminster, which her family attended and where they raised their two children.

John was a pharmacist for more than 50 years.  For 32 years from 1957 to 1985, he owned Greenough’s grocery, restaurant, pharmacy, hardware, service station and beauty salon a block up from the church.  He also owned a pharmacy on the North Side.

Joan taught third grade for about three years at McKinley and Franklin elementary schools and then taught children and adults piano in her home.  She still teaches two adults.

For many years, John ushered and was a leader at Westminster, and Joan taught Sunday school.

“I believe that God wants us to accept everyone, including those who hold different beliefs,” she commented.

Westminster was and is “a church that shared the faith in Christ by welcoming and accepting people,” John said. 

Through the years, John and Joan have marched with African-American brothers and sisters for civil rights, with the Jewish community to oppose the Aryan Nations threat, and with gays and lesbians in the Pride Parade. 

In the Civil Rights era, they joined a protest march from Westminster to Calvary Baptist.

“We were in solidarity and held discussions on civil rights in our church,” John said.

When the Aryan Nations threatened the Jewish synagogue and defaced Temple Beth Shalom in the 1980s, the Weekes marched with the Jewish and ecumenical communities from Temple Beth Shalom to the Cathedral of St. John as a sign of moral support. 

“We took our children to Jewish services,” John said.

Since their church became open and affirming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people—to all people wherever they are on their faith journey—they have marched in some of Spokane’s Pride Parades.

“I am proud of our church’s stands on civil rights, the Aryan Nations and LGBT concerns,” said Joan.

“The biggest thing I see in the community is the change toward more acceptance on race and religion,” said John. 

John and Joan have traveled to 70 countries in Asia, Africa, South America and Europe to see and learn about different places and cultures. 

They began their travels after their children were grown.

John has also been impressed while on those trips, that so many countries that were once U.S. enemies in war are now U.S. friends.

“Acceptance changes us,” said John.

For information, call 624-1366.

Copyright © December 2015 - The Fig Tree