2019 Barstow-Driver Award – Honoring Merilie Robertson

This award was created in 2014 by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship in order to specifically honor those who have taking significant risks in their retirement for  the cause of nonviolent peacemaking. It is our desire to honor these leaders of our movement and to honor them in their local hometown or location where their primary peacemaking work took place.  In our inaugural year, the award was named the Anne Barstow and Tom Driver to commemorate two of our key leaders in nonviolent peacemaking and the ceremony of dedication was held near New York City which was their primary place of peacemaking activities for decades. 

To honor her action and activism, Activist Council member Tamara Razzano spoke with 2019 award recipient Merilie Robertson:

Barstow-Driver award recipient Merilie Robertson during a visit to Adelanto Detention Center, where she visits people being held in immigrant detention.

The recipient of the Barstow-Driver award, Merilie Robertson, has accomplished more in her lifetime than many, if not most, of us will in ours.  A tireless advocate for justice and peace – still actively volunteering every month – she is the face of God’s love to others. What is most overwhelming is that the following is merely a snippet of her life; she offered the highlights and has so much more we could, and should, hear.  An incredible inspiration embodying humility and grace.

Merilie was raised Methodist in Simi, California and attended UC Santa Barbara where she majored in the physical sciences.  During her college years her faith became important to her, and while a graduate student at UC Berkeley she discerned a call to missionary service.  She attended the Berkeley First Presbyterian Church where she had the opportunity to hear a number of missionary speakers. One of those was the director of the El Guacio Christian Service Center in Puerto Rico.  The following summer she participated in an ecumenical work camp at El Guacio, which she said broadened her horizons.

Her pastor at First Presbyterian encouraged Merilie to gain work experience as a part of her discernment process.  So she taught high school science and math for two years. Still feeling the call to service, she attended the Biblical Seminary in New York, after which she applied to the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions in 1956 and was accepted.  Along with others she participated in an extensive orientation program, including a tour of National Mission sites, a work camp experience in New York City and three months of study in New Jersey. As Merilie said about her time there, “it was an intensely interesting time for this kid from the sticks.”

From there, she went to Pakistan and spent 11 years teaching science at Forman High School for Girls in Lahore’s old walled city.  She then taught for 11 years at the Community School in Tehran, Iran. During the Revolution all foreign schools were closed and Merilie returned to the United States, where she taught for 3 years.

After teaching for more than 25 years, Merilie identified as being “burned out” and sought a different path as a secretary for a church where she could stay engaged as an activist.  During this time, as throughout her life, Merilie’s sister, Rae Wilken, had a great influence upon her. Rae was involved in bussing and nuclear disarmament issues and kept Merilie informed about these and other issues. It was interesting for Merilie to learn that in the same time period that the CIA had engineered a coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, the same thing was happening in Guatemala. Merilie became very interested in Central American politics and justice issues and went with Witness for Peace to Nicaragua, Guatemala and Colombia.  While there and at home Merilie stayed quite busy with her activism and civil disobedience to raise awareness and effect change regarding the issues in Central America. She identifies this as an important time in her life.

Subsequently, Merilie went with the Presbyterian Reconciliation and Mission program to Nicaragua for almost a year in Puerto Cabezas and was assigned to work with the Moravian Church’s Women’s Association.  Following her time there, she was a mission advisory delegate to the General Assembly. There, Merilie heard of the assassination of Guatemalan Pastor Manuel Saquiq. Not thinking of her own safety but only serving, Merilie volunteered to accompany Manuel’s colleague, Pastor Lucio Martinez, who was receiving death threats.  Everywhere Lucio went, Merilie went with him, whether for a pastoral call, to the Presbytery office, to his corn field or to Guatemala City to meet with a United Nations official.

When Merilie came back to the United States, she was at a conference in which Rick Ufford-Chase was speaking about the issues at the Arizona border. She volunteered for short stays 3 summers with “No More Deaths”, assisting migrants in the desert.  However, Merilie shared that she had to stop volunteering as carrying the heavy water bottles and sleeping on the ground was difficult. She was 78 when she had to stop.

Currently, Merilie lives in Pasadena, California in a Presbyterian retirement community which she enjoys.  Six years ago, not one to stay idle, Merilie began visiting people in immigration detention in the City of Adelanto.  Now her monthly visits are mainly with men who are seeking asylum. Their stories are heart-breaking. Merilie says that she is “amazed” at the growth in numbers of visitors and the scope of their advocacy.

As I listened to Merilie’s story and felt the love of God pour forth from her for God’s children, I wondered how she stayed so positive.  I shared with her that so many people I know are really struggling and burning out in our current cultural and political struggles. So, I asked if she had any advice to keep everyone from burning out.  Merilie paused a minute and then said that “we need to have some fun! We need to be in fellowship with people who can energize us and we need to have some fun!” She also shared that she is reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and finding it very enlightening.

Interviewing Merilie Robertson has been an honor and highlight of my time with PPF.  Now, I’m off to have some fun.