All that glitters is not gold

David E. Ortman June 14, 2015

Matthew 25: 42For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: 43I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. 44Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? 45Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

We are familiar with this saying of Jesus even in the English of King James. But it is very similar to the words of Job in the Old Testament:

Job: 31 – 16 If I have withheld the poor from their desire, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail; 17 Or have eaten my morsel myself alone, and the fatherless hath not eaten thereof; 19 If I have seen any perish for want of clothing, or any poor without covering;
21 If I have lifted up my hand against the fatherless, when I saw my help in the gate:
24 If I have made gold my hope, or have said to the fine gold, Thou art my confidence;
25 If I rejoice because my wealth was great, and because mine hand had gotten much;

39 If I have eaten the fruits thereof without money, or have caused the owners thereof to lose their life: 40 Let thistles grow instead of wheat, and cockle instead of barley. The words of Job are ended.

In order to do at least several of these things, give meat, give clothing, take in a stranger you need money, although there is no record of Jesus taking in any stranger, or clothing any naked people, or visiting anyone who was sick and in prison, even John the Baptist. And as far as we can tell, although he talked quite a bit about money, he didn’t handle money. Of course, out of a three year ministry, we only have bits and pieces of what was written down after he died.

In Matthew 17:24 , “They” came to Peter and said, does your master pay tribute (or the temple tax). Peter says, “Yes.” But in v. 27, Jesus sends Peter to the sea to cast a hook and says he will catch a fish with a piece of money in the fish’s mouth and that should be paid for Jesus and Peter. Jesus never touches it.

In Luke 20: 22, when the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not, he says “Shew me a penny.” Or as we now say, Show me the money. He never touches it.

In Matthew 26: 18, after the disciples ask about eating the Passover, Jesus tells them “Go into the city to such a man, and say unto him, The Master saith, My time is at hand; I will keep the Passover at thy house with my disciples.” No mention of money here.

So it is little wonder that we are perplexed about money.

And no wonder that we are perplexed about a lot of money. This is a story about money. A lot of money.

The story begins over seventy years ago. It is World War II on the eastern front. The Soviet Union has withstood the devastating Operation Barbarossa, the long planned invasion by Germany that took place in 1941. By December of that year, the massive German attack had stalled twenty miles from Moscow. By 1943 the Soviets were pushing the Germans back toward Eastern Europe.

As the Germans retreat along the eastern front, many of their soldiers are weary, sick, and injured. The Germans take over a Russian hospital. A local German speaking Russian Mennonite woman is among those ordered to help process the paperwork. She meets a soldier who has typhoid fever. He knows that the evacuation train is leaving soon. He knows he is not going to be on it. A Catholic priest had come along and given him last rites. So had a Lutheran priest.

We don’t have historical records or hospital charts to verify what happens next. But one thing that is certain in this German soldier’s mind is that the Mennonite woman he met in the hospital changed his paperwork. He made it on the evacuation train. She saved his life. And he never forgot.

That soldier’s name was Walter Thieme. He returned to Germany and survived the war. He eventually came to the United States and moved from the East Coast to Seattle. He read a great deal, lived frugally and began investing in the stock market. He looked for stocks that had good growth potential with real assets, such as oil and gas drilling companies and mining corporations. By buying and borrowing to add shares over a long period of time, he accumulated a sizable portfolio.

He guarded his privacy, living alone in a small apartment. He had few friends and detested doctors. By this time he was getting up in age. But he never forgot how it was that he had survived that terrible war on the eastern front. And so, around 1988 or so, he looked in the phone book to see if he could find a Mennonite church.

Church bylaws, articles of incorporation, and guidelines are of little help when a stranger calls and makes a proposal to donate a large stock portfolio. In the first place, most Mennonite congregations do not own stock. Churches are often the named beneficiary in a will and upon their death members will sometimes leave a sizable gift, perhaps in the form of land (which is then normally sold) or in cash. Unexpected windfalls of this type often bring unexpected conflicts: church organ versus paved parking lot; bell tower versus overseas missions. Sometimes the wishes of the beneficiary are known ahead of time so spending the money on behalf of the church is seen as carrying out what the member wanted.

But it is quite unusual for someone still living to want to make a large donation. And so when the Seattle Mennonite Church, worshipping in a rented facility in north Seattle, received this call, it raised a host of questions. But the bottom line was this. A man who once was near death believed that a Mennonite had saved his life and now he was asking the Mennonites to accept his gift.

There are many chapters to the life of Walter Thieme. Ken Kraybill and others could tell about meeting Walter for coffee at McDonald’s because it was cheap, and the difficulty of contacting him as he refused to have a phone. Others, such as Bill and Pat Shaver could tell how when Walter became older and in need of some type of semi-assisted living, SMC worked with the Shavers to provide a house with apartment for Walter.

This chapter begins around 1990 when Walter made an initial donation to Seattle Mennonite Church. In 1993, after much discussion and with a hazy vision of where this might lead the Church chose to accept his donation of his large stock portfolio. Many positive uses for the portfolio were proposed. Among these were the establishment of a foundation that could distribute grants for worthwhile causes. At this point, Walter made clear that he had given this portfolio to be used to benefit the Seattle Mennonite Church and so the idea of a foundation was set aside. Other uses for the money were found, including purchasing this building and funding the church’s community ministry.

But concerns soon centered on one of the corporations in the portfolio itself – Freeport McMoRan, a multinational mining and oil & gas company incorporated in Delaware and headquartered in New Orleans, with powerful people such as Henry Kissinger on its board.

Freeport was in the process of spinning its overseas mining operation into a separate corporation, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold (FCX). In 1995, the church was issued stock in FCX and in 1996, we received a copy of the 1995 FCX Annual Report. It documented the immense scale of Freeport’s Grasberg mining operation in West Papua (Irian Jaya), in the far-eastern part of the island nation of Indonesia, north of Australia.

Prior to 1969, Freeport-McMoRan negotiated a Contract of Work with the Indonesian government. This arrangement gave the company exclusive mining rights to the copper deposits high up (over 10,000 ft.) in the mountainous region of West Papua. Later, in 1988, this was expanded to include a massive copper and gold deposit at Grasberg, now the world’s richest copper mine.

The mining for the copper and gold in this lush mountainous tropical rain forest area is at once both complex and simple. The sheer task of gaining access to such a remote and high altitude site required the construction of a road system zigzaging up the mountain range. The mineral deposits are removed both by shaft mining and by open pit mining.

As the top of the mountain is leveled, hundreds of thousands of tons per day of tailings (unwanted material) are shoved over the side into river systems that transport the tailings downstream and cover a vast acreage of former rain forests in a dead deposition zone. The remaining copper in the tailings is toxic to aquatic life and is slowly leaching into the estuary system and the Arafura Sea.

The indigenous Amungme and Komora people have ties to the rivers and hunting areas of the Grasberg region that go back 25,000 years. FCX is under contract to supply and help the Indonesian military which, in turn, provides protection and security for the mine site. Thus, FCX was linked to the torture and killing by the military of tribal members potesting mining practices.

Imagine if a multi-national Indonesian corporation entered into secret negotiations with the Obama Administration to establish an open pit mining operation on the top of Mt. Rainier. Not so impossible when Mt. Adams had commercial sulfur mining claims at its summit in the 1930s. And then this foreign corporation began removing the top 4,000 feet and pusheing rock and rubble over the side to tumble down into the valleys below where native Americans lived. When native Americans protested the damage, the U.S. military is called in, not to help protect the natives, but to protect the foreign mining corporation.

This triggered a series of responses from SMC as shareholders in Freeport stock:

In late 1996, Micheal Roe, SMC Chair, wrote to Freeport’s Chairman, James Moffett with a list of questions concerning Freeport’s activities in West Papua.

After additional research, including discussions with environmental groups in the U.S. and Indonesia, the Church filed a shareholder resolution for the 1997 FCX Annual Meeting. It called on Freeport to take steps to:

1. Postpone the expansion of milling operations

2. End company cooperation with the Indonesian military

3. Publicly release in the company’s full social and environmental audits

4. Allow independent environmental monitoring of the mining operations and local river and ecosystems by non-governmental organizations.

Bob Pauw (SMC Treasurer) presented the resolution at the April 1997 Annual Meeting in New Orleans to the Freeport Board, which included Henry Kissinger. Two other representatives of SMC also traveled to New Orleans, but were not allowed by FCX to attend the Annual Meeting. However, they were able to meet with Amungme tribal people from West Papua who were also in New Orleans during the time of the Annual Meeting. This proved to be a profoundly moving experience, since these were representatives of those most directly impacted. The SMC resolution received 2.5% of the vote.

The church also sent representatives to the 1998 annual shareholder meeting in New Orleans and helped organize a briefing for shareholders and the press, raising environmental and human rights issues.

As a result, FCX moved its 1999 annual meeting to a small basement room in Wilmington, Delaware. No Board of Directors, no CEO, and no representative of the audit firm attended this meeting.

Also in 1999, a SMC member filed a participant resolution with CREF (College Retirement Equity Fund – used by some Mennonite colleges and one of the country’s largest retirement pension funds), requesting that CREF divest itself from FCX shares of stock. At the November 1999 CREF annual meeting in New York City, the resolution received 17% of the vote.

The church filed another resolution with FCX in November 1999. It expressed concerns about FCX’s mining practices in West Papua and the way it handled annual meetings and stockholder issues. The resolution requested that FCX provide a report to shareholders on Board attendance and matters that come before it at the annual meeting.

In March 2000, FCX agreed to prepare the post annual meeting report so the Church agreed to withdraw its resolution. Also in March, FCX’s David Lowry, V.P. for Social Development and Human Rights Compliance flew to Seattle for a meeting with church members at which ongoing issues regarding Freeport’s human rights and environmental issues were discussed.

In early 2000, SMC also reviewed and raised questions about a Freeport environmental audit. This audit found no significant environmental problems with FCX’s mining operations, including their tailings and mine-waste disposal techniques. The audit results were proudly put forward in May at FCX’s annual meeting in Delaware. That very same day, four FCX workers were killed when a section of the overburden stockpile at the mine collapsed into a water basin causing a wall of water to overtop the basin.

In fall of 2000, the Church submitted another resolution to FCX to draw attention to FCX’s Chairman James Moffett’s compensation of nearly $8 million dollars over the two-year period from 1999-2000. This resolution received over 6% of the vote at the FCX 2001 Annual Meeting.

Although several years of investment in Freeport and Indonesian issues had been made, the church subsequently chose to sell its Freeport stock, thereby ending its activity.

At this point we can only can only speculate on whether a Mennonite over 70 years ago somewhere on the eastern front would have any idea how her brave decision to save the life of Walter Thieme, would impact a small congregation in Seattle, Washington, and the lives of tribal people in West Papua, Indonesia.

Walter Thieme’s gift allowed the church to explore a new way of helping the least of these our brothers and sisters. As Walter Wink has written:

For we are contending … against the spirituality of institutions, against the ideologies and metaphors and legitimations that prop them up, against the greed and covetousness that give them life, against the individual egocentricities that the Powers so easily hook, against the idolatry that pits short-term gain against the long-term good of the whole.’ [Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 140]

And what ARE these powers? As Jim Bob Moffett CEO of Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold said in 1997:

“This is not a job for us, it’s a religion.” Jim Bob Moffett, CEO, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold. [John McBeth, Bull’s Eye, Far Eastern Economic Review, Dec.4, 1997 (v160n49).]

Which raises another question, is it only mining corporations that have the faith to move mountains?

An Indonesian ruler once remarked of Portuguese adventurers, ‘The fact that these people journey so far from home to conquer territory indicates clearly that there must be very little justice and a great deal of greed among them.’ This had made them ‘fly all over the waters in order to acquire possessions that God did not give them.’ [John M. Merriman, A History of Modern Europe (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 40]

I’ve often pointed out to my children that the world’s population is 7.3 billion while the population of the United States is 325 million or a bit over 4 percent. We have already won the lottery just by being here. We are wealthy.

What do we do with money? What do we do with wealth? What do we do with a lot of wealth?

We can turn to Luke 12 – 16-34
Luke 12: 16 And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: 17 And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? 18 And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.
19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. 20 But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?

So what are the lessons that Walter has taught us?

1.You can’t judge people by their appearance. The poor may be rich and the rich may be poor. Who would have thought that Walter Thieme would have been worth more than Donald Trump who declared bankruptcy four times.

2 As Luke 12: 16 points out, you really, really can’t take it with you. Walter didn’t take it with him. And we will all depart this world the same way.

3. Wealth and money, whether too little or too much, continues to be an issue- as individuals, as a church.

4. All the glitters is not gold. And sometimes gold, or gold mining, does not glitter either.

%d bloggers like this: