Testament to a Life Well Lived

September 15, 2021 by

Justin Peters
Justin, May 2004 in Florida

It is not just birthdays, holidays, and wedding anniversaries that mark our emotional year. When we’ve lost a loved one, the anniversary of their passing can evoke a mixture of pain and happy memories, reflections and favorite stories. This September marks the seventeenth anniversary of the death of Justin Peters. Though his life was cut short suddenly and unexpectedly, it was, as his widow Linda has always noted, a life well lived.

A tall, lanky redhead whose interests ranged from agronomy to physics, Justin was a walking encyclopedia. His chief passion, however, was the plight of the poor and oppressed. And like his hero Martin Luther King Jr. (whose 1968 murder devastated him, though he was only a teen), he felt that evils like poverty and racism could only be overcome in the context of what King called “the beloved community.” No wonder, then, that when he died of a sudden heart attack at the age of fifty-four, it was at a weekend teach-in on peace and justice issues, which he had coaxed a vanload of college students to attend with him.

Justin was the son of a Canadian filmmaker and a British artist who spent the first years of their marriage organizing cooperatives in the Chicago slums. He was four when his parents joined the first American Bruderhof, Woodcrest, in 1954. Looking back on his elementary school years, what he remembered most vividly was “the sense of belonging to a great cause. We children belonged to the civil rights movement, the ban-the-bomb movement, any and every movement for real peace and justice – these were the matters the grown-ups around us cared about.”

As a tenth grader, in response to the first American troops being sent to Vietnam, Justin joined the political science club at his public high school and devoured every news magazine he could get his hands on. Not surprisingly, it was a Newsweek article on starving children that inspired his college major: food crop production, which he studied at Cornell. “It seemed obvious to my naïve mind: if someone would show people how to grow food, their children wouldn’t starve.” Meanwhile, he threw himself into the peace movement that was blossoming on his college campus and others across the country.

But by the time he left Cornell, Justin was disillusioned with politics: “I was looking for a source of hope, and politics didn’t seem to have it.” He was also tired of Christianity – especially its emphasis on salvation:

The central point, it seemed, was to be sure that you were saved, and something in me hated such a belief passionately. What did my being saved have to do with Detroit and Newark in flames? With Vietnamese civilians being massacred?

The Sixties generation (mine) wanted to change the world, to end war and racism and poverty. But I was noticing that there were root causes behind these evils, and starting to look for them.

What caused war? What caused racism? I was part of a huge movement; but it didn’t seem interested in underlying causes, and thus seemed to lack effectiveness. Could it be that a movement, even if small, which saw and overcame the root causes, could be more effective – more relevant, as we loved to say? Was this what the Bruderhof was about?

He returned to the community in 1971, after college, to find out. At Woodcrest things began to fall into place for Justin, chiefly through his reading of Christoph Blumhardt, a nineteenth century religious socialist whose idea of the kingdom of God was not a utopian afterlife, but a realm of justice, love, and peace that could be established, or at very least worked for, in the here-and-now. Justin later wrote that for him, Blumhardt’s vision provided an “on-the-ground hope” rooted in the prayer that God’s will “be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In 1976 Justin became a full member of the Bruderhof.

Justin, June 2004 Justin, June 2004

Over the next three decades Justin threw himself into the life of the community. His job was research and development work for its businesses, but on weekends, he could be found planting trees. (He spearheaded the transformation of an arid, sunbaked property into one that is now covered with trees.) In 1986 he married Linda Button, an elementary school teacher at a Bruderhof school. Wherever they moved, he started a prison ministry – not in order to preach or convert, but in order to give hope to the inmates, who were, as he noted, often trapped in a state of despair. With typical humility, he seemed to bring home a lesson from every man he visited.

Tireless in his personal efforts to reach out to others, Justin was equally dedicated to the well-being of his own beloved community. Concerned that his daughter, Kendra, and her classmates were growing up in a bubble – “By trying to make everything ideal for our children, aren’t we short-changing them?” he asked in a letter – he arranged for her to tutor children of local migrant workers in an after-school program.

In the same vein, he encouraged fellow community members to open their eyes to issues like illiteracy, mass incarceration, and debt in the developing world by recommending classics like Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful. Endlessly curious, he researched the history of colonial exploitation and present-day poverty in the global South, and drafted a compelling article about their “economically direct and mathematically demonstrable” connections.

Justin also envisioned ways the Bruderhof could extend its reach and achieve greater diversity. In a 1998 letter to the community’s senior elder, he wrote about his childhood dream “that the Bruderhof would one day become a community of all races,” and his pain that it remained incomplete. In another letter he wrote, “I’m writing to share my hope that someday soon we might start an urban Bruderhof house. We are, in so many ways, a very isolated community.”

Less than a year before Justin died, the first such house opened in a drug-ridden section of Camden, New Jersey. Others followed over the next years, in London, Harlem, and elsewhere. Justin would have rejoiced. But he would not have rested. As the circumstances of his death, and these lines from an article he wrote in 1995, make clear, his longing for a better future was never stilled:

Our one joy is to belong to a cause that foreshadows and expects a New World coming. Our greatest sadness is that hard, cold, pride of the human heart, ours or anyone’s, in which we cling to our power, our entrenched ways, our comfort.

You who read: we want to be your friends, your sisters and brothers. We want to join with you in living, working, praying, and dying for a new and different time on this earth.

Linda Peters lives at Bellvale, a Bruderhof in Chester, New York.


About the author

Chris and Bea Zimmerman

Chris Zimmerman

Chris and his wife, Bea, live at The Mount, a Bruderhof in Esopus, New York.

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