Member Stories: Ruth

At First Church in Cambridge you never know who might be sitting next to you or where he or she has come from. If you were sharing a pew with Ruth Hsiao, you’d be sitting next to someone who survived the devastating effects of World War II in China and went on to attain a Ph.D. in the United States. Through those challenges and many more, Ruth’s abiding faith in God and commitment to use her gifts in service to others have left their mark on First Church.

Ruth, the story of your youth describes a time that most of us know of only through history textbooks. Tell us about it.

I was born in Chongqing when the Japanese invasion of China forced my family to flee from their native city of Shanghai. During the war my brothers and I had little in the way of toys, but my mother read us some classic stories such as Heidi and Jane Eyre in books discarded by missionaries. She told the stories in Chinese as she translated them from English, for she was a product of missionary schools. That sparked what became a lifelong love of literature in me. The connection with the Christian mission in China was a vital link in my background. I am among the small minority who are third-generation Christians in China. My grandfathers on both sides were ministers. One was the Anglican rector in the city of Hangzhou and his son, my father’s eldest brother, became the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in Shanghai.

What happened after the war ended?

We moved back to Shanghai, but soon the civil war in the late 1940s led us to Taiwan. Because of my father’s work, we again moved, this time, to Tokyo, Japan. After I graduated from an American high school in Tokyo, my parents sent me to a “safe” place—Goshen, Indiana—for college. Goshen College is connected with the Mennonite tradition and exposed me to pacifism along with theologians such as Karl Barth, Kierkegaard, and of course Menno Simon. I credit my college years with giving me a good grounding in Christian ethics and theology. Although I enjoyed the humanities, I studied science instead…and did a half-hearted job.

Where did you go after college?

After I graduated, I took a job as a lab technician at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. Trinity College was next door, and I took evening courses in American literature. That eventually became my true scholarly passion.

Hartford also holds some personal significance for you as well.

Yes, I met my husband Bill there!

How did you meet?

At a party hosted by a Chinese professor at the University of Hartford. As Bill and I came to know each other better, I saw an altruistic side of him. When two members of the Chinese-American group in Hartford were in need—one was a victim of a serious car accident and the other attempted suicide—Bill spent many hours helping their families. Within two years we were married at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, and both of our sons were born in Hartford.

What brought you to First Church?

Bill had begun a career as an actuary. After a stint as the Chief Actuary of Social Security in Washington, DC, he earned a sabbatical to study public policy at the School of Government at Harvard and stayed on to earn a Ph.D. in the Economics Department. Eventually he became a professor at the School of Public Health. When we settled in Cambridge we lived near First Church. One Sunday in our second year here I visited First Church with our older son who was in the second grade. I thought it was time for him to have some “religious education.” In the following week he received a postcard from Dick Harter welcoming him to his Sunday School class. The following Sunday I took our younger son to church as well. That’s how our family found our church home.

The value of giving back is clearly one that is very important to you. What have you been involved with at First Church?

After four decades, that list is quite long! I have been a Deacon, taught Sunday School, served on the Christian Education and Nominating Committees, and the search committee that brought us Mary Luti as our pastor, as well as the search committee for the Minister of Spiritual Formation. Bill has also been quite involved. He chaired the Fellowship Committee the first year we joined the church and subsequently chaired Stewardship and Buildings and Grounds, among others. He was active in church until his work took him away on many international assignments.

After four decades, you must have seen a lot of change at First Church.

In some ways. The spirit of the people here has lightened up a lot. But at the same time this has always been a church that is committed to serving others. That has stayed very much the same.

Why do you think you have given so much to First Church?

At the heart of my faith, I believe we should do our best to discover, uncover, and use the gifts that God has given us. I also believe we are called to discover God’s gifts in each other, and to support and bless them. First Church has always been a place where I can do both.