Sorting by

Skip to main content

On Leaving Ann Arbor: A Farmer’s Reflection

By November 15, 2007 No Comments

When my pastor left a message for me a few weeks before I had to leave town, asking me to speak during a church service, I swallowed hard. Public speaking is not my forte. But I was curious, expecting it might be something like a “Minute for Missions.” Only this would be a “Minute for Goodbyes.”

I would have a chance to tell my fellow church members how nice it had been to be a member of our congregation and how very much I would miss the church and the community.

When I returned the call a few hours later, the pastor asked how my wife and I were coping. Then, to the heart of the matter: would I provide a brief reflection on departure from Ann Arbor during an upcoming worship service? He suggested a theological reflection, speaking collectively for those families from all the local companies who were experiencing transition at the time.

I was both honored and troubled. How does a simple farmer from Iowa speak for thousands of others about this deeply personal and painful event, and speak theologically to boot? As for speaking collectively, that would be presumptuous. Everyone’s story is different. I could only speak personally and hope that some of my experience reflected that shared with others from Pfizer, Ford Motors, Comerica, and the many other companies that seem to be part of an exodus from Southeast Michigan.

For the large majority of us who worked at Pfizer, the closure of its Ann Arbor site was unexpected, painful, even wrenching. So, whatever theological perspective I had on the matter, it had to be a theology of pain. For me, it is also a theology of passage or journey as my wife and I move on to a new community, a new church, and a new phase of our lives.

All of us at Pfizer knew for some time that change was coming. But my not so secret hope was that by some miracle I would be able to spend the rest of my days in Ann Arbor and continue my farming here–cultivating my career, my friendships, my garden. It was a little like thinking about death: we all know that it’s inevitable but fantasize that just maybe the Second Coming will happen in our lifetime so that we won’t really have to experience death ourselves.

With all these forebodings, the news of closure still came as a shock. It was wrenching to suddenly recognize that change was imminent, and that it would involve all Pfizerites in Ann Arbor.

As a farm boy, my first reaction was to identify with two notable farmers from the past. Like that Calvinist farmer-milkman Tevye in that theological classic, Fiddler on the Roof, I railed against God for singling me out, yet again, as one of his elect. I felt far too “elected,” too “chosen.” My life had already been filled with too many career moves, several extremely painful, so “WHY ME AGAIN?”

With that more ancient farmerherdsman, Job, I asked God two things: stop punishing me, and stop terrifying me. I identified with Job when he cried: Lord, do you really enjoy frightening a fallen leaf? … I am rotting away like cloth eaten by worms. (Job 13: 21, 25, 28)

I felt a farmer’s anger. My garden was unfinished. It had taken me five years of hard labor to bring it from overgrown wilderness to a garden. Why couldn’t I enjoy it after all this work? Who would care for it after I left?

I felt the anger of lost or diminished relationships: friendships not fully formed or incomplete. I felt the anger of unfinished work, nascent but showing promise–especially volunteer work with local agencies that provide education, support, and training for families of the mentally ill.

I felt pious anger. Did I have to be separated from the many valuable activities at my church?

Those regrets still persist, but life’s journey moves me inexorably on. I could stay in the mud with the pigs forever, or I could try to climb out.

In the midst of my ruminations our local pastor and “pig herder” called out in one of his sermons, “What wisdom have you gained on the way? ” And I heard the Great Shepherd/Pig-Herder declare, “I am The Way.”

So, what wisdom had I gained during my brief sojourn in Ann Arbor? What did I take with me as I began to pull myself out of the mud? And what did I leave behind?

My response to the first two questions was “too little,” and to the third, “too much.” There just had not been enough time… . But there had been time for joy, for enlightenment, for growth. I had seen my daughters develop and graduate from high school and university. I had felt the concern and love of friends who cared for my family and me. I had experienced the delight of good meals and great conversation with international students. I had known the fulfillment of working with a great team of colleagues at Pfizer. I had been privileged to know the love of God in Ann Arbor’s rich cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity. I had been enriched by the beauty and power of a great choir, great organists, and by world-class guest musicians like Dave Brubeck.

I had seen a greater vision for community through congregational task forces that worked everywhere from Peru to Palestine. I had been inspired by the stories of recovery from mental illness that I had heard in my volunteer work.

I had seen my garden grow.

The Great Pig-Herder still calls: “Open your eyes! Look at the mud-holes of those around you, in Haiti, in Peru, in Palestine, in Iraq. You have had a vision of the New Jerusalem–even more, you have had the privilege of experiencing community in it!”

And so I slip and stumble along, blotches of mud clinging to my clothes and shoes. With that ancient farmer Job I say: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” And with the modern Calvinist farmer from Iowa, Sietze Buning, who sighs after watching his heifer, Pauline, kick over the milk bucket, I pray: “Amen.”

Larry Alphs works for Johnson & Johnson and lives in Princeton, New Jersey. This column is adapted from farewell remarks to his former congregation, First Presbyterian Church, Ann Arbor, Michigan.