Growing Up a Missionary Kid

My early life can be characterized by travel and moving. And, because of my parents, was filled with service and peace work. How much does our early life influence who we become as adults? 

My parents joined Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a relief, service, and peace agency shortly after their 1965 marriage. MCC represents Mennonite, Brethren in Christ and Amish bodies in North America. Their first assignment was to spend 3-years in Jos, Nigeria teaching at a high school. Jos is located in central Nigeria. It wasn’t such a large city in the sixties but today is close to a million residents. During this time, Nigeria experienced a series of military coups and the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). It was in this environment that I was born in October 1967. 

Ken Neufeld holding Kenley

To this day, my dad remains connected with some of the young students he had in Jos. I certainly don’t recall this time in Nigeria, but it is a part of my story. Nigeria is where I was born, but my connection and roots pretty much end there. 

When my parents commitment was complete, in 1968, they moved back to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and worked in the family lumber business. But our stay in Saskatoon was short-lived as my parents then moved to Akron, Pennsylvania where MCC is headquartered. My dad served as associate secretary of personnel services. Because this was the height of the Vietnam War, the MCC office was helping many young Mennonites seek alternatives to military service. Filing conscientious objector status was a time consuming matter. 

Once again, I don’t have memories of this time in Pennsylvania. And yet I can’t help be wonder how much the peace work my parents were doing may have influenced me. To be surrounded by people taking a clear stand against war and being willing to serve in other capacities. To some extent, I can say the MCC grounding in service and peace has most definitely carried forward throughout my life. 

In 1971, my parents were sent on another 3-year commitment overseas. This time we moved to Lusaka, Zambia. Here my dad was the country representatives in charge of 30 MCC personnel. It was here that I began school and making friends. I recall time on the dirt schoolyard playing marbles with other children. I recall the walk home to our house. Like many in Africa, we had house staff to help with cooking and caring for the property. I remember the people who lived with us. Their kindness and friendship. We had chickens running around the yard that we would use for food and eggs. I recall playing in the wilderness out behind our house where we could get lost in the tall reeds and trees. 

My time in Zambia is a good memory. A time of play and friendship. And beginning to learn about the world around me. But it did come to an end. One lasting negative memory I have was just before we left when we ate a slaughtered family cow. My feeling was of anger and not understanding. Perhaps this was the start of my veganism?

On that note, we moved back to the United States. We arrived in Reedley, California in 1974 where my dad helped establish a West Coast MCC regional office. This move came after I was fully acculturated in Zambia. Zambia is where I began my formative school years. Zambia was really all I knew. I even spoke with an “English” accent as that was the national language in Zambia. The transition to American culture and living was a steep curve and came with many difficulties for me. A missionary kid in a new country, with different ways of talking, different ways of doing things, and with the whole landscape of sports and media I knew nothing about. 

It was also here that I discovered some Mennonites who had served in the military. That was a shock to me because I already knew we were pacifists. But these Mennonites had been in the United States a very long time and had lived through World War II. And as German speakers, they needed to assert their patriotism. This is how I remember it. I knew my parents still spoke German and our family was from Canada (my parents are first generation Canadians). 

I won’t go into the whole story of acculturating to America, that’s for another time, but suffice to say I remain in California since that move. I naturalized as US citizen 1991 so that I could vote and not be kicked out of the country for speaking my mind. 

Growing up as part of the MCC community, the first 12-years of my life, I can most certainly say it influenced me in the areas of service and peace. I have been a lifelong pacifist, practitioner of nonviolence, and a strong advocate for social justice. And though I am no longer a practicing Mennonite, now a student of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village tradition, I can see my practice today is firmly rooted in those early years in Nigeria, Pennsylvania, Zambia, and California

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Family General

Returning Home from Santa Barbara

Feeling blessed, with a clear acknowledgement of my privilege. The mudslides of Montecito have clearly taken a toll on the community. And yet, the kindness and generosity of everyone has been significant. Each step of the way, people have been offering to help and assist. And yesterday, we had children from Montecito Elementary arrive at our college campus to continue their classes since they can’t get to their own campus. They’ll be here for up to six weeks.

This week I’ve been living in my office and today I was scheduled to return home. My plan had been to drive the long way around back, but with snow in the forecast, I was concerned. Trains were sold out. Boats weren’t running due to high surf. And I definitely didn’t want to spend the weekend in my office!

And so, I asked my work community for snow chains to help make the 5-hour drive home. Within 15-minutes, dozens of responses came back. One in particular surprised me because it was an offer to fly me home.

And now, that work colleague may have saved my life.

About the time I would have been driving, a fatal accident occurred on highway 166, closing both directions. If not for this generous colleague, I would have been on that highway at that time. Instead, I was flown home in a private plane and am now lounging at home with my family.

It’s been a tough week. Friends and neighbors are without homes. And worst of all, lives have been lost. Next week I will take the train back to Santa Barbara and hope that 101 will reopen, bringing some relative safety and ease to my commute. And our community can continue to heal and rebuild. I’m definitely excited to have the students back on campus.

I wish everyone a safe and peaceful weekend, wherever you may be.

Dharma Family

Surfing our Relationships

Cultivating a deep and intimate relationship over a period of decades means there will be times of transcendent happiness and also times of suffering and unhappiness. There is this duality in a relationship. 

Learning how to stick it out is an art. John Welwood’s article “Intimate Relationship as a Spiritual Crucible” in Lion’s Roar (September 2017) offers some guidance. 

This involves learning to ride the waves of our feelings rather than becoming submerged by them. This requires mindfulness of where we are in the cycle of emotional experience. A skilled surfer is aware of exactly where he is on the wave, whereas an unskilled surfer winds up getting creamed. By their very nature, waves are rising fifty percent of the time and falling the other fifty percent. Instead of fighting the down cycles of our emotional life, we need to learn to keep our seat on the surfboard and have a full, conscious experience going down. 

Can you live and practice with the ups and downs of our relationships? My experience is that it’s possible and offers a richness to life that can’t be compared. 

Buddhism Dharma Family

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Me

Happiness, the End of Suffering, and Recovery

Forty-six. That’s not so old – young in fact. He and I are both 46, with young children, and in a long term relationship. We both got sober very young and then maintained that sobriety for many years. Mr. Hoffman made it 23-years, and I’m about to reach my 25th year. This is where the story diverges into disbelief, tragedy, and sadness. Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead from a drug overdose in his own house and a needle in his arm.

How does this happen? Why am I still here and he’s dead? These are the questions on my mind today.

What is clear to me is that success, fame, and fortune do not equal happiness and recovery. Further, many men and women in their forties die everyday. Many probably die from alcohol or drugs. We can’t really blame the heroin, though it is gnarly and deadly, because we know that the drug is just a symptom of a deeper suffering, a deeper sadness, and an inability to cope with reality.

Here’s what I know about happiness, the end of suffering, and recovery.

Buddhism Family teaching Technology

Mindfulness, Technology, Education, and Parenting

You might assume I was in my element at a conference dealing with mindfulness and technology – you assumed correctly! It was a blast to sit and use my iPad and iPhone during this mindfulness conference in Mountain View just a stones throw from Google. The Wisdom 2.0 Youth conference is an offshoot of the previously held Wisdom 2.0 conference. The subtitle for the conference was How Do We Raise Children in a Hyper-Connected World? For Parents, Educators, Teachers, and Concerned Citizens. The lineup of speakers included folks from Google, Twitter, and leaders from the mindfulness in education field, all skillfully put together by Soren Gordhamer.

I’ve been to many conferences – mostly technology and/or library related. I have also been to many retreats and led mindfulness activities – mostly Buddhist in nature. This conference was unique for me because it dealt with mindfulness from a purely secular perspective and aligns itself very easily with the applied ethics theme/effort that Thich Nhat Hanh has been exploring the past couple of years. Though I arrived a little uncertain, because of my experience as a practitioner and educator, I was not disappointed with the presentations and panels. I now have a better understanding of what has occurred in bringing mindfulness into schools and what challenges these leaders experienced.

What follows are my notes and thoughts from a handful of the presentations.


All Movies for All Ages

Is there an age appropriateness for film and media? Should we let kids see any movie out there? It seems that some parents seem to think it’s ok and others are horrified at the idea. In a recent Facebook discussion, a parent with young children posted an article When Can I Watch Indiana Jones with my Kids? — it certainly generated a lively discussion and got me to thinking about the topic.

I’m a parent of two children – ages seven and eleven. We all enjoy media and I’m definitely a fan of film. As a child, I was not allowed film or television until my teen years or just before my teen years. And though it was difficult for me, I was in elementary school when Star Wars came out in 1977, reflecting back I don’t feel like I missed much and it provided a different type of upbringing than most other kids.

I firmly believe that we should not legislate how parents raise their children. I don’t believe in the Motion Picture Association’s (voluntary) ratings system. And as a librarian, I definitely don’t believe in censorship because what you think is inappropriate may not be inappropriate for everyone. Parents need to determine the best method to expose their children to books, movies, music, sexuality, etc. Personally, I’m appalled when I see kids in movies with strong violence or significant profanity or sex. For example, the Dark Knight was a great film but I wouldn’t want my kids to see it yet but it would be cool if my 11-year old would watch Star Wars with me. The graphicness, the energy, etc. of a movie from 1977 versus a film from 2008 seem very different to me. This is my opinion, my judgement, and I should be able to make this decision for my children.

Some would argue that by exposing children to violence, sex, and profanity that we are helping them to grow-up and be stronger adults. Ultimately, I believe in letting children be children. There’s nothing wrong with protecting them from the horrors of the world for a while. Children will be adults in no time and the innocence of childhood is a real jewel.

My kids watch movies on Netflix and have seen a handful movies in the theater. My 11-year old has no interest in seeing movies in the theatre because of the sensory overload, but he’ll watch some (very few) at home. This is a case where what might be appropriate for your kid is definitely not for my kid. We’ve stuck to pretty tame and family orientated films, though I’ve tried to get them to watch Star Wars (they aren’t interested). I’m fine with that.

Ultimately, the guides for parents are nice to have but I think every parent has to try making the best decision they can on what to expose kids to in the media (a false reality, at best). Watch the movie first is a good practice. I’m not a prude, but the innocence of childhood is an important thing to protect. What do you think?


An Experiment: Children in School

Today is the first day of school for my 7-year old daughter.

We have two children, ages seven and ten, who have been homeschooled their entire lives. Since our older child was very young, our intention was to homeschool them for as long as it seemed feasible and right. During the last ten years, the homeschool approach to learning connected with our values, and has become a part of who we are as a family. We have built a community around this life-learning. Homeschooling provides flexibility that you can’t find in a traditional school environment. Homeschooling provides for our family to remain a tight community. Homeschooling allows the children to learn what they find interesting, at the time they are interested in the topic. Homeschooling provides a method to learning that doesn’t force learning to the most common dominator. Homeschooling doesn’t teach children how to stand in line, doesn’t rely on exhausted teachers who must follow the state “standards” for learning (not saying that my wife Leslie doesn’t get exhausted).

Though there is great joy and enrichment from homeschooling, it hasn’t been without struggle, frustration, and difficulty – both for the children and for the parents. The two learners have different needs and different styles. Perhaps it hasn’t servered both the children in the same manner due to their different personalities. Further, our son has moderate special needs and demands a great deal of focus and attention. From time to time, we sit down and assess if we are moving in the right direction; to see what is working and what isn’t working. A lot of the issues surround our son and his needs.

Ironically, our little village of Ojai has about 14 schools in the area. Most of them are private boarding schools. Last month Leslie decided to make an appointment to visit the Montessori School of Ojai. I took the day off work and went to observe the classrooms and meet the teachers. Of all the types of schools we have available, this school appears to be the most flexible with integrating different children together by grouping ages (a homeschool value), providing flexibility in how often our children attend, and having open enrollment. They also have a scholarship program to assist with the tuition. The class sizes are very small and the teachers have a long history with the school. Children can be learning at different levels in the same classroom. For example, a children could be reading “above” grade-level and writing “below” grade level and that isn’t a problem.

So our grand experiment begins today. There is about six weeks remaining in their school year and we hope this will give us a chance to experience having children in school. If it works well, then we may continue it next year. This is a significant change for us and involves a lot of letting go of ideas. It’s a great opportunity for me to practice the vows I’ve taken to be open and not attached to views. Who knows what the future may hold. Please send us your support and loving energy, both for Leslie and the children.

Next week: my son’s first day of school.