In Memoriam: The Hippo & The Tortoise

3588426913_958c39850e_bToday the world lost a great man.  The Rev. John Steinbruck lived a long and eventful life, changing so many lives along the way.  He gave people homes, protected the abused, challenged those in power, loved his family, and inspired young adults.  He always had something to say.  There was urgency in life for him; he could not sit idly by while injustices happened.  John was an activist like no other I have seen.  He steadily and emphatically preached Jesus to a warring world.  He never lost sight of the possibility of a new earth where the wolf would eat with the lamb.  He fought and he knocked on doors and he preached.  He was, at times, overwhelmingly negative, but his anger fueled the fire to act.  He always told you exactly what he thought.

I first met John and his wife Erna in 2008, when I began work at the Steinbruck Center for Urban Studies at Luther Place Church.  I did not have much guidance in starting this job, and I was curious to know more about my organization’s namesake.  Before I knew it, I was engaged in long phone conversations with John, who always had something he was fired up about.  That year marked the first of several trips up to Delaware to visit John and Erna.  I was always moved by their love for one another and fascinating compatibility both as husband and wife and as spiritual colleagues.  I was, time and again, the humble recipient of extreme hospitality; even as age wore on the Steinbrucks, their giving multiplied.  I learned over these phonecalls and visits all about the ministry of Pastor John and Erna at Luther Place church from the early ’70s to 1990.  I hung on every word, as did several of my friends, who accompanied me over the years.  John was a character, and something about him drew you in.  It’s fascinating to me that he made such an impression, seeing as how I only knew him for the last 7 years of his life.

I remember in particular one visit to his home where he (unintentionally) made me cry.  I had been talking about my love for walking labyrinths, and he just couldn’t understand why anyone would waste time wandering around in a circle when they could be out in the world feeding the hungry.  That was John!  His incessant pushing for peace has and continues to amaze me.  He showed me the gift and call of the church in a way I had never seen before.  I have been awakened to my responsibilities as a Christian in this world.  For all of these things, I must say thanks be to God for the life, love, and teaching of John Steinbruck.

One of the things John was infamous for was sending mass emails.  Emails condemning war, sharing a favorite sermon, or debriefing a Washington Post article.  Most had subject titles in all caps, the body of the email in the largest, most colorful font you’ve ever seen.  You could almost hear John ranting (and rightly so) as you read the message.  Of these myriad emails I received over the years, there is one in particular that has always stuck with me.  It made me smile so much, a reprieve sandwiched between calls to stand up for justice.  I feel that I must share it with you today, because this is what I will remember most about John: above all else, we are called to spend time with people who are “different” from us.  And in that time, we will discover that we are not so different after all, and that we are capable of expanding our love to include much more than who we originally thought.  John’s subject title for this email was, “WHY SHOULD DIFFERENCES REALLY MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE???”  At the beginning of the message, he wrote, “Much of life can never be explained but only witnessed.”  Here is the article he forwarded:

NAIROBI (AFP) – A baby hippopotamus that survived the tsunami waves on the Kenyan coast has formed a strong
bond with a giant male century-old tortoise in an animal

facility in the port city of
Mombassa , officials said
The hippopotamus, nicknamed Owen and weighing about

300 kilograms (650 pounds), was swept down Sabaki

River into the Indian Ocean, then forced back to shore

when tsunami waves struck the Kenyan coast on

December 26, before wildlife rangers rescued him.  

‘It is incredible. A-less-than-a-year-old hippo has adopted a 
male tortoise, about a century old, and the tortoise seems to be very happy with being a ‘mother’, ecologist Paula Kahumbu, who is in charge of Lafarge Park, told AFP.   

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‘After it was swept away and lost its mother, the hippo was traumatized. It had to look for something to be a surrogate mother. Fortunately, it landed on the tortoise and established a strong bond. They swim, eat and sleep together,’ the ecologist added. ‘The hippo follows the tortoise exactly the way it followed its mother. If somebody approaches the tortoise, the hippo becomes aggressive, as if protecting its biological mother,’ Kahumbu added.  ‘The hippo is a young baby, he was left at a very tender age and by nature, hippos are social animals that like to stay with their mothers for four years,’ he explained. This is a real story that shows that our differences don’t matter much when we need the comfort of another.  Save the Earth… it’s the only planet with chocolate. 

Good and gracious God, thank you for the life and work of your servant John Steinbruck and for the many ways he challenged and inspired others to take up their crosses and follow you.  Grant him eternal rest, that your perpetual light might shine on him.  Bless Erna and the entire Steinbruck family as they celebrate John’s life and grieve in his absence.  Help us to fiercely give witness to messages of beauty in the same way that we acknowledge our holy anger.  Walk with us this labyrinthine path and guide us along the way as we seek to love and serve others.  In Jesus’ most precious name we pray…

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