Adventures in Justice – Merilie Robertson
Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and please the widow’s cause.
I have known Merilie Robertson since the early 1990’s when our paths crossed as my husband and I were gearing up for PC(USA) mission service. Little did I know that our paths would continue to cross for the next 3 decades, but I’m sure glad they have! I have been blessed to know her and be inspired by her. She moved into Monte Vista Grove Homes in Pasadena in Feb. 2019 after spending many years (when she was in the U.S.A) living in Canoga Park, CA. If you don’t know Merilie already, I hope this article gives you a glimpse into why I feel so blessed to have worked alongside her in both San Fernando and San Gabriel Presbyteries for a number of years now by giving you a brief look into just a few of the adventures in justice she has lived.
Merilie was born in Simi, CA, in 1928 and grew up on a ranch that grew mainly oranges, walnuts, and grapes. She characterizes her family as adventurous, and she remembers many a summer camping trip in Baja California. She has many happy memories of growing up.
It was while earning her teaching credential that Merilie first considered that her calling might be to the mission field. She got her teaching credential; taught science, math, home economics, and P.E. for two years in a small town; earned a Masters in Religious Education at seminary; and then applied to the PC(USA) Board of Foreign Missions. In 1957 after missionary orientation in New York, she boarded the USS Flying Independence (a freighter) for a two-month trip around the tip of Africa to Karachi. She lived in Lahore, Pakistan, for 11 years teaching at the Forman High School for girls. Forman High School was a Christian school for Muslim girls. Merilie started the science department and taught mainly physics and chemistry in the Urdu language. Her next assignment which started in 1969 was teaching school at the Community School in Tehran, Iran. It was a very diverse school both religiously and ethnically. Merilie came to love Iran – the beauty of the country, the cultural treasures, and her students. In 1979 the U.S. Embassy was taken over, and then the Community School was taken over by the revolutionary guard.
Merilie and some other teachers stayed one final school year teaching at a new site in northern Tehran before the government closed all foreign schools and she came back to the U.S. in 1980.
That year, at General Assembly, a 5-year study that produced a document called “Peacemaking: The Believers’ Calling” was received. This little booklet had a profound impact on Merilie, and she says “it was a life-changer for me.” It helped her put many things together and cemented her call to be a peacemaker.
Merilie states that her love for justice started in Iran and grew from there. In the 1980’s Merilie really became an activist. She went on Witness for Peace delegation trips to Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Colombia. She learned about issues affecting Latin America and worked to raise the awareness of U.S. citizens and elected officials so as to effect change in U.S. policy toward Central America. She participated in acts of civil disobedience. It was an important time for her.
As I mentioned, I met Merilie in the early 1990’s before my husband and I went to Nicaragua as PC(USA) mission workers. In Spring 1994 we landed in Managua to begin our assignment. Then in the fall of 1994 Merilie arrived in Nicaragua with the Presbyterian Reconciliation and Mission Program. Merilie was 66 years old (the next oldest participant was 35 years old), and she was sent to the Atlantic Coast to the town of Puerto Cabezas. She was assigned to work with the Moravian Church’s Women’s Association and it was through that group she met many amazingly strong women who inspired her.
One such inspiration was a Miskito woman named Edrina. Edrina was extremely poor, but she was passionate about starting women’s associations at Moravian churches in the region. Edrina’s passion led to Merilie accompanying her to some very remote communities, and Merilie told me of one such trip.
Edrina had set up visits to several remote communities north of Puerto Cabezas, so one late afternoon Merilie walked to the port and boarded a 20 foot or so long sailboat along with Edrina. The boat carried quite a lot of people and freight, and they sailed on the ocean all night up the coast. When they got off the sailboat the next day they walked to a Moravian pastor’s house where they stayed for 2 or 3 days. Each day they walked to different communities and met with church women to talk about starting women’s associations. The return trip was via inland water passages and ended with them wading from waist deep to shore. This was just one of many interesting and adventurous experiences Merilie had while in Nicaragua.
Not one for twiddling her thumbs, Merilie felt called to travel back to Central America shortly after returning to the U.S. from Nicaragua. She went to Guatemala in the fall of 1995 where for two months she accompanied Pastor Lucio Martinez who was receiving death threats. Her time in Guatemala was very significant for her. Accompanying Lucio every day whether he went on a pastoral call in a community or to a meeting in Guatemala City or to work in his corn field gave Merilie a glimpse into and a better understanding of the lives of indigenous people. On community visits she would hear discussions about relevant issues. During Bible studies Lucio would read a passage and those in attendance would bring their experiences to the Scriptures in ways Merilie had not heard before.
Accompanying people like Edrina and Lucio gave her insight into how important it is to listen and especially listen to indigenous people.
Since leaving Central America she has continued to tirelessly do what she can for oppressed peoples. She spent parts of 3 summers along the U.S./Mexico border with “No More Deaths,” sleeping on the ground and carrying heavy water bottles around in order to assist migrants in the desert. At 78 years old she decided she had to stop that activity. But she realized that she could still work in aiding immigrants without traveling into the desert. She’s done a lot of advocacy work and about 7 years ago she started learning about detention centers and realized that people from countries she had visited or volunteered in were in some of these facilities. She started visiting detainees and listening to them, so she could then share their stories and struggles and better advocate for them. Then in time she began to train others on organizing and making visits. One local group she helped train is now way beyond just visiting detainees, and that makes her happy. During this pandemic she is still writing to a few detainees or released immigrants and she is reading to continue learning.
“See life as an experience that educates you,” said Merilie. Well, with all she’s experienced I’d say Merilie is a very wise woman.