Peter Hoover: Art Gish

On a sunny but cold 10th of January, 2010 with several inches of snow on the ground, we drove with our friend Paul Brenemen back into the lovely wooded Ohio hill country near the scenic tourist area of Hocking Hills and the city of Athens. Our destination was to visit with Art Gish on his farm “way back in”- through very narrow roads. This man had been described to me by a brother in the church we formerly belonged to (Old Brethren) as the “most like Jesus of anybody he knew”. We parked at the end of the long, steep lane because we feared our van would not make it up the hill in the slippery snow- which later, while we visited with Art, the children occupied their time delightfully sliding down the hill with the sleds we had brought along.

Amish father
We climbed the hill past an old trailer house, and another house that looked quaint in its own way- to the main house. The first part noticeable on the main house is a huge glassed in part -3 stories high- with glass found and donated by Jake Maendel- a former Hutterite who now lives further north in Ohio. This glassed in part housed the former meeting room, school room- and whatever else of the communal farm New Covenant Fellowship. Outside in front of the house one looked out over an absolutely fabulous view of the valleys and hills.

We then met and visited with Art in the cold living room- only slightly heated by a wood stove in the centre. Here I noticed things from the communal days of the Fellowship- a plaque from Eberhard Arnold, and cheerfully decorated songbooks for schoolchildren. Peggy was in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker’s Team, and Art was on the place alone at the time.

Art was born in Lancaster County, PA and grew up on a farm- an occupation he loved and continued- - raising organic produce including one acre of asparagus. . He became a founding member and fixture at the Athens Farmer’s Market (even going barefooted in cold weather sometimes).

For a time Art had served in alternative service as a conscientious objector – doing his service in Europe with Brethren Volunteer Service in 1958-1960, working in a home for crippled teenagers and work camps.

Art and Peggy Gish met in High School and 48 years ago married each other. The story of their marriage is told here:
To this union was born three sons, Dale, Danny, and Joel.

All through their married life they both shared a passion for the justice and peace- rooted in their faith in Jesus and His teachings. In the last several years (for Art since 1995) they served as international observers in places of violence. It was during the times he did things like living very primitively with Palestinians in caves in West Bank, Palestine. He was one who believed in the “Grandmother effect”. That is- if your grandmother appeals to your conscience, then you will more likely respect her and not do anything wrong in front of her. Therefore as an older man (he was active until his death at 70) he would live with oppressed people and do things such as accompany children to school to avoid mistreatment by Israeli soldiers. It was delightful , stirring, and challenging to hear him tell of his experiences and hopefully inspired all who heard him to live more passionately for the Gospel of Jesus and the call of the prophets to “loose the fetters of injustice, to untie the knots of the yoke, to snap every yoke and set free those who have been crushed”. (Isaiah 58:6 NEB)

One story that got much publicity was of him standing in front of an Israeli tank seeking to destroy a Palestinian market in Hebron -- best told perhaps in his own words:

All of Hebron was under total curfew today. I could sense something was wrong. As I walked up the street I soon realized there was trouble at Al Manara. I was horrified at what I saw. There were two tanks and two bulldozers leveling the produce market which extended over two blocks. Produce lay scattered and smashed everywhere, here in this city where many are hungry. Shop owners were scrambling to save boxes of tomatoes, oranges, bananas, and more.

My first response was to just stand there, weeping and sobbing. The scene was so horrifying, so disgusting, so depraved. I could not emotionally bear it. I felt completely helpless.

The produce market was at Al Manara because the Israeli military closed the former produce market in response to the massacre of Muslims in the Ibrihimi Mosque in 1994. In every peace accord since then, Israel has promised to reopen the market. It has never been reopened. Israeli settlers now live in that building.

I continued to feel helpless, but I also felt I had to do something. I started carrying boxes of produce out of the way of the bulldozers. I saved maybe 12 crates of produce from being crushed.

I began confronting soldiers. In a loud voice, I asked them if they were proud of what they were doing, if this is peace, if this is what they want Israel to become. I shouted, "Baruch hashem Adonai" (Blessed be the name of the Lord).

The soldiers tried their best to ignore me, but I am sure they heard me. I ignored their commands for me to leave. One soldier spit at me, so I walked right up to him and invited him to spit on me. He declined the offer.

Three soldiers aimed their guns at and moved toward a group of Palestinian bystanders. It looked to me like they were going to shoot. I quickly jumped in front of the soldiers, raised my hands in the air and shouted, "Shoot me, shoot me, go ahead and shoot me." The soldiers immediately left.

A tank came roaring toward me, its big gun barrel aimed at me. I raised my hands in the air in prayer, and shouted, "Shoot, shoot, Baruch hashem adonai." The tank stopped within inches of me.

I then knelt in the street in prayer, with my hands raised. I felt alone, weak, helpless. I could only cry out to God.

Later this afternoon I went back to Al Manara and watched shop owners dig through the huge piles of rubble, trying to salvage what they could. What could I say?

The Israeli military had put all of Hebron under total curfew today, saying they were looking for terrorists. Now I wonder if there really were terrorists hidden among the apples and oranges. Or, are the Israeli soldiers committing acts of terrorism against the civilian population of Hebron?

I fear for what may come next.

January 2003

During the 1970s to the early 1990s, there was a communal fellowship on the farm where Art and Peggy lived- including several families at one time or another. Art was an ordained pastor in the Church of the Brethren (Dunkards), a historic peace church with Anabaptist and Pietist roots in Schwarzenau an der Eder, Germany (Nord Rhein-Westfalen)- a church very similar to their Mennonites “cousins” but early insisting on a “heartfelt work of grace in the heart” accompanied by trine (triple) immersion baptism in the manner of the early Christians, and a three part Lovefeast consisting of feetwashing, an agape supper, and the Eucharist. They shared with the other Anabaptist churches a strong emphasis on community, separation from the world (termed “nonconformity”), nonswearing, and nonresistance. Because of this we felt somewhat of a connection because of our relationship with the old order branch of the same movement. A bit earlier (during the 1950s-1960s) than Art’s communal fellowship- the Church of the Brethren had seen many young couples and people leave for a lifetime commitment to the Society of Brothers- a Hutterite group more commonly known now as “the Bruderhof”.

Out of this experience with a Christian intentional community- Art wrote a very detailed and inspirational book entitled Living in Christian Community. Though unfortunate, the community dwindled with families leaving to join such groups as the Church Communities, the Plow Creek Fellowship and others. However, Art was very open to people and often took in needy people and helped them as he was able. This is illustrated in the letter below:

I was a drifter several years ago and had a bad drinking problem plus the law was looking for me, some how God place Art in my life. I did him wrong when I left his farm but not one day passes that I don’t think about him.

Now I’ve given up drinking, have a small house, and even a small business. God has blessed me in way I still don’t understand and Art I’m still reading the Bible . . . For the past four years I’ve been helping others in what I can and it’s all do to Art and Peggy Gish.

Thanks you two

Patrick AKA Steve

Some who visited the community at the Gish's place tell of their desire to identify with the poor and starving of the world. This was reflected in trying to grow all of their own food- or even “dumpster diving”. Art and Peggy lived the call of the prophets to share “your food with the hungry, taking the homeless poor into your house…” (Isaiah 58:7 NEB)

Art also wrote another book on simple living, which he made clear is not the same as “ascetic living”. Beyond the Rat Race is a masterpiece on simplicity in lifestyle that reflects the heart and spirit of Jesus. Shortly before he died told the brothers and sisters at Rock Cape Christian Community they would be welcome to publish this book of his on-line. (Do not miss this book. It should soon be on our website, or if you want we could e-mail it to you.) Elmo Stoll of the Cookeville (TN) Christian Community included this book in their recommended and available list of books. Anyone who ever went to Art and Peggy’s farm can testify that they lived very simply- even sparsely.

Art told us that he and Peggy were considering the next stage in their life…where would they go? They were considering an offer from the Bruderhof communities in New York to live near their son and his family, a group in West Virginia, and a new communal group in Lancaster, PA. It seemed he was favourable to the group in PA because it was in the main area and circle of their speaking engagements and activities.

On Wednesday morning, July 28, 2010, Art Gish was out working the garden with his old tractor when he drove too close to the sloped edge and rolled over, pinning him underneath. A man named David who was living and helping at the farm saw the smoke and went out but was not able to free Art. Art spoke to him and told him he would not be able to free him- so David ran to the house to call for help. The tractor caught fire and by the time David returned, Art had entered eternity. Peggy was in Iraq on one of her regular missions, planning on returning to the USA in late August. She was able to return home over the weekend.

A memorial service has been held at the First United Methodist Church in Athens on Saturday, 07.August. Art was a well known and well loved, well respected activist who will live on in the minds and hearts of many as an example of one who took his faith ever so seriously and even to his old age continued passionately the vision of justice and peace in this world- terming himself an “old radical”.

Michael Harris

Rocky Cape Christian Community
19509 Bass Highway
Detention River, Tasmania 7321