Molly Wilmington On Teaching Children About Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Standing Firm in Their Faith
B&H is happy to announce the first book in the Here I Am! biography series, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Teacher Who Became a Spy (B&H Kids). From the incredible storyteller Molly Wilmington, this captivating picture book recounts the true and inspiring story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an extraordinary man who showed great courage and faith during one of the darkest times in history.
As someone whose own family has been deeply impacted by the experiences of war, Wilmington wrote this book as a guide to help children of all ages understand and learn important lessons about faith, perseverance, and the power of standing up for what is right. With Shep, the sheepdog puppy, as their guide, readers will learn about Bonhoeffer's inspiring story of unwavering faith, his commitment to Jesus, and how he came to be a spy during World War II
Q: Molly, thanks for doing this interview with us. Please tell us a little about yourself and your current ministry.
Thank you, Timothy. Like Jubileecast, music and entertainment play a major role in our family, inspiring us to follow God. In fact, I sent a copy of my book to Switchfoot as a thank you for strengthening me all these years while I wrote and promoted this book! I studied English and Children's Literature at Baylor University before going to Duke University Divinity School in January 1995 to study theology. Two years later, I married my husband David who, like Bonhoeffer, is a theologian and a musician. For 22 years, my husband and I were part of the academic world, and during nine of those years, I stayed home full or part-time teaching our son and daughter. We moved to Montana 6 years ago, where I am the Community Engagement Director for a pregnancy clinic. The stories in my books are mix of these experiences. My approach to engage children is to use humor, animals, and/or suspense to explore more complex ideas like courage, faith, suffering, and love.
Q: When and why did you decide to write biographies for kids?
I discovered the joy of reading children's biographies, especially ones with humor and stories that appeal both to children and adults, while reading to my kids. My two favorites are George Washington and the General's Dog and Quit Pulling My Leg. The first is about Washington's love of animals and centers on a story from the American Revolution where Washington raised the white flag to return the opposing General's dog. Washington was hailed as the perfect gentlemen and celebrated in England and other countries. The other biography is about Davy Crockett who spins tall tales while wearing a live raccoon on his head in place of the traditional coonskin cap, and two raccoons make wisecracks at the bottom of each page. My kids and I loved to pick up these books again and again just to see the funny and heartwarming stories.
I started thinking I might write similar biographies and chose to research two of my favorite leaders, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and William Wilberforce. No picture books for younger kids existed, and I wanted my kids to read about more Christian heroes. I tried already telling my young son and daughter about these two but that held their attention for about 30 seconds. So I decided to take what I knew about children's literature, search for interesting stories on Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, and create fun and engaging books.
Q: Who is Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Why should people know about him?
Bonhoeffer is a well-known and loved German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and Nazi resister who was born in 1906 and was killed in prison three weeks before Germany surrendered in May 1945. He came from a large family who came from a Christian background but did not go to church. Bonhoeffer was an accomplished musician but chose to become a pastor.
At that point, his faith was limited mostly to what he had studied about God and his home life, but after a year of extra theological study in New York, he experienced God more fully within a Christian community and understood more deeply what it meant to follow and love Jesus. In that year 1930, he worshipped and taught children at his classmate's Harlem church, Abyssinian Baptist Church, which was a thriving, spirit-filled church engaged in helping the community. He particularly loved the Spirituals he heard like Swing Low Sweet Chariot and brought back records of this unheard of music to play in Berlin, which his students and colleagues loved.
Bonhoeffer also came to a deeper understanding of Germany's racism against the Jewish people. He witnessed the racism in America and learned from those who stood up against it. And, he dove deeper into the questions of how Christians should respond to war and stand for peace. He wrestled with Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, which also greatly strengthened his faith.
When Bonhoeffer returned, he shifted his ministry to helping poor Berlin students and soon met Karl Barth whose friendship and writings in Church Dogmatics made a profound impact on young Bonhoeffer. Eventually he shifted from teaching in the university to leading a pastors' seminary, where he put into practice ideas for how the Church family should live together in community. Bonhoeffer's book Life Together came from this time and is one of the reasons so many churches have small groups that gather for extra fellowship and worship. His other most famous writings, The Cost of Discipleship, Ethics, and Letters and Papers from Prison, continue to be widely influential in helping Christians understand the importance of engaging the secular world and being the hands and feet of Christ. For example, excerpts from Letters and Papers in Prison are often quoted alongside MLK, Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
For over a decade, Bonhoeffer helped lead the churches in opposing Hitler, collaborated with Christian leaders in other countries, and in his final years, took an active role in the resistance by pretending to spy for the Nazis.
During Bonhoeffer's two years in prison, he sent his writings to his best friend Eberhard Bethge who was married to Bonhoeffer's niece Renate. Renate would bury these letters and papers in their backyard, which is my favorite illustration in my book. The two of them spent the rest of their lives sharing both Bonhoeffer's unfinished writings and his story. 20 years after Bonhoeffer's death, Eberhard published the first Bonhoeffer biography, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography and later Renate published Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Life in Pictures, which is a great resource for children and parents to read together. Both of these are particularly helpful for readers to see how the first country Hitler attacked was his own and how Germans in the military and in the church put their faith into action to stop Hitler and the Nazis.
Q: What can kids learn from Bonhoeffer's life?
Kids can learn about courage and standing firm in their faith. Bonhoeffer often referred to Philippians 1 and "standing firm in one spirit", especially when encouraging his former student pastors and their families after his students were imprisoned. There's a Good Shepherd theme throughout the book that helps kids understand Bonhoeffer's faith in action and the more complex ideas of war, suffering, and sacrifice. This is told by Shep the sheepdog puppy who narrates the book. He explains to kids how Bonhoeffer was like a faithful sheepdog who followed Jesus the Good Shepherd and stood firm against the evil wolf Hitler. Scripture messages from John 10 and Psalm 23 are referenced.
Children will also learn about the two greatest commandments, to love God and love your neighbor, especially those being persecuted like the Jewish people. Shep explains the gospel message (Jubilee!) in one of his helpful sidebars and says that "Jesus was a Jewish man - and is also the Son of God! He fulfills God's promise and brings everlasting life to all who follow Him."
The book ends with peace and joy as Shep tells us about Bonhoeffer's last words at the end of leading a worship service with the other prisoners. When the prison guards came suddenly to take Bonhoeffer away, he said to a fellow prisoner, "This is the end." Then he added, "For me, the beginning of life." The last page has an illustration of Bonhoeffer praying peacefully with his face turned toward a heavenly light while Shep looks joyfully at the reader saying, "Bonhoeffer knew dying was not really the end. He would live forever in heaven with Jesus, the Good Shepherd!"
Q: What are some practical ways children can stand up for Christ the way Bonhoeffer did?
In the beginning of the book, kids see what it looks like to share one's faith in community. With his students, Bonhoeffer plays games, goes on trips to the beach and woods, visits the sick in the hospital, gives presents, plays music, and worships with his students. This isn't typically what you think of as standing up for Christ, but they are acts of service for Christ's sake that the world would discount as not important, and kids get that.
As Hitler rises in power, children see how Christians speak for Christ and stand firm against injustice in practical ways such as when Bonhoeffer writes newspaper articles, gives lectures and speeches, speaks on the radio, and puts his life in danger to spy on the Nazis and Hitler.
The book shows three simple ways Bonhoeffer helped others while in prison. He shares the little food he has with a prisoner who is sick, sneaks into someone's cell to pray with him, and slips a note with an encouraging Bible verse to another prisoner. Children will see how God can use them no matter where they are or what hard time they are going through. Throughout the book is a secret code for children to find using clues from Bonhoeffer's life to find it. Illustrations show Bonhoeffer and his family, including the children, using secret codes hidden in books and the lids of jelly jars to communicate with Bonhoeffer and other prisoners. This shows a tangible way the whole family puts their faith in action.
Q: What is your hope for this book?
I hope children will be encouraged by how Bonhoeffer followed God, loved others, and found courage and peace in the midst of persecution. Children will remember that our Good Shepherd Jesus empowers, protects, and calls them to follow Him now on Earth and evermore in Heaven. I hope it will reach children worldwide, especially in places of persecution.
Q: What's next for you? Do you have another character that you are writing about now?
I might still write on William Wilberforce, but the next book I will propose is called Momma's Little Ladybug. Here's the pitch: Experience the wonder of life and growing in the womb! Join the endearing conversation in this 32-page picture book as Momma explains to her daughter how Momma and Daddy called her different nicknames while she grew in her belly and how she keeps growing every day. It includes sweet back and forth dialogue and funny images. One of my favorite parts is that the book ends with a good night blessing, "In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Be at peace and grow well my child.
To purchase the book, click HERE.
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