Peace Seeker

Through his memoirs, and the help of his writing seminars class, the Rev. John Mote, a conscientious objector, battles an unfair label.

April 01, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The Rev. John A. Mote's life of conscience, compassion and commitment would seem beyond reproach.

But a single word -- "poor" -- scrawled on an "other than honorable" Army discharge nearly 56 years ago still echoes in his memory like a false alarm struck only this morning.

"Character ... Poor." It's a description probably no one has ever used to describe Mote except the U.S. Army.

Mote is 82 now, and the label still stings. He's a Methodist clergyman who only really retired a couple of years ago. He served mostly at impoverished inner-city churches in Baltimore and Washington.

"He's a wonderful man," says Betty Hyatt, a longtime East Baltimore community activist. She was a parishioner and later an employee at the Caroline Street Methodist Church when Mote took over as pastor nearly 50 years ago. They've been friends ever since.

"He's a fine, fine person," she says.

"I think he felt called to work in an area where he could serve the poor and those people who at times had been disenfranchised," Hyatt says. "A very feeling person, he had a real honest, honest, interest in the people he worked with. He has a warmth about him that people remember."

That's pretty much the general feeling about Mote. When he read from a memoir he wrote for Diane Scharper's class at Towson University this semester, his classmates all were touched, including a woman whose husband died in the Korean War and a World War II veteran whose ship was blown from under him by a mine.

They've rallied behind him in an attempt to get his discharge reconsidered.

In 1944, when he asked to be released from the Army as a conscientious objector, Mote was a 24-year-old attendant at Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania. He had been in the Army nearly two years.

"To compromise with conscience is to lose it," he wrote in his letter requesting separation. "To lose conscience is to destroy one's individual consciousness of God."

He was a very serious young man. He used his weekend passes to attend Bible study classes at Pendle Hill, a Quaker community at nearby Wallingford, Pa. He was a conscientious objector when he went into the Army in August 1942. He pretty much still is.

"Yes, I still hold on to these beliefs pretty strongly ... have for a long, long time, 60 or 70 years," he says during a conversation at the Pickersgill retirement community where he lives with Maxine, his wife of 49 years.

"However, the fact that I have this belief has often raised in my mind, the idea of -- am I facing reality, or am I just a dreamer thinking that you can deal with what goes on in the world and do it successfully in a non-violent fashion?"

In 1944 at Valley Forge hospital, he appeared before a "Section VIII" board of officers and received what used to be called a "blue" discharge. On the line marked "Character," a warrant officer scrawled, "Poor per Bd proceedings V.F.G.H. dated 1 June 1944."

Character ... Poor!

"That conclusion hit me like a slap in the face," he says. "I didn't expect that."

He's appealed that judgment several times. He once asked a colonel at the Pentagon: "On what basis did they decide my character was poor?

"I have the Good Conduct Medal," he said. "I had a Pfc. Stripe, with recommendation for corporal. All my fellow workers say I did excellent work. On what basis was it concluded my character was poor? [The colonel] said: `It wasn't on the basis of what you did, but on what you threatened to do.'"

What did you threaten to do? he's asked.

"To refuse to do duty."

But, in fact, he never did. He never stopped doing his duty.

Vincent Kimball, a former high school English teacher in Scharper's memoir class, is determined to get Mote's less than honorable discharge upgraded.

"He's very soft-spoken," Kimball says. "He strikes me as the type of person who expects people to do the right thing, and he's hurt when they don't. He's not one to raise his voice. In this one he needs to raise his voice. It's an injustice."

Kimball fired off letters to Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, Rep. Robert Ehrlich and even Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP. Mfume had seemed especially sympathetic when he was a congressman, and Mote had sought his aid for an appeal in 1989. So far there has been no response.

The Army's procedure for change is cumbersome and demanding, but correction is not impossible.

Among Mote's problems is a Catch-22. The Army's Board for Correction of Military Records told him that because his records were among 18 million destroyed by fire, his case could not be documented. The records could not be located.

"It is impossible to make a fair, impartial and equitable determination of your application," a board official wrote. "There is a presumption that what the Army did in your case was correct. The burden of proving otherwise is your responsibility."

Kimball says: "Isn't that the opposite of what we've been taught? He's guilty until proven innocent."

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