Thoughts on staying together

At the end of the Virginia Mennonite Conference annual assembly, July 21, 2018, Assistant Moderator Kevin Gasser encouraged us to “stay together.” Spoken from his heart, unrehearsed, and on the spot in front of the delegates, Gasser, pastor of Staunton Mennonite Church, encouraged delegates to “please stay together.” These wise words of counsel from a relatively young Conference leader were much appreciated. Churches have left in the past, but here are my thoughts on why the Virginia Conference has had a reasonably good track record of staying together.

Historical Consciousness: There’s a deep sense of shared history. It’s been over 180 years since the first Conference met and kept minutes, but the first congregation, Trissels, is coming up on its bicentennial in 2022. At the very beginning, in the 1820s, Virginia Mennonites almost divided over whether meetinghouses should be built, and whether revivalist preaching would be allowed. There have been other times in the history of Virginia Conference when we almost split apart, but leaders stepped forward and urged unity, as did Pastor Kevin Gasser, when the Virginia Conference met at Calvary Community Church, Hampton, Va. It is remarkable that in these fractious and difficult times, the Conference is moving steadily ahead with a history book writing project, not even knowing where the Conference will be when the book is completed in 4-5 years.

Cordial Acceptance: Respect for elders has been a historic practice in Virginia Mennonite Conference. In deference to age and experience, older people were called “Aunt” or “Uncle.” Mennonites who have been a part of the Conference for generations accept those who move in from elsewhere, like myself, they seldom object to significant changes, and they roll up their sleeves and help, with little fanfare. The southern attitude of hospitality is a tangible cultural value held by many in the Virginia context, and combined with Christian virtues of love, respect, and understanding, they serve as part of the glue keeping Virginia Mennonite Conference together almost 200 years.

A Mission Board: A wise pastor in another conference of MC USA recently told me that Virginia Conference’s mission agency helps keep our churches together. This was not an overstatement. At our annual meetings, delegates are inspired with stories of mission activities. When times get tough, as they are now, we often find common interest and focus through outreach, service, and evangelism. Virginia Mennonite Missions is part of the Spirit glue that helps keep Virginia Conference churches together.

Good Leadership: In 1947, when difficult times in the Mennonite Church threatened to split the denomination apart, moderate Virginia Bishop Timothy Showalter was asked to preach a sermon at a tense gathering of ninety bishops and over three hundred ministers from across the United States. Showalter urged moderation, respect for those who were different, and cordiality toward others on the divisive nonconformity issues of his day. A stenographer likely copied the sermon and one of this historian’s prized finds was discovering a copy of Bishop Showalter’s sermon in the denominational archives. It felt like Kevin Gasser, outgoing Assistant Moderator, was channeling Bishop Showalter’s counsel to “please stay together.” Wise words indeed.

Grains of Resistance

On April 5, 2018, nine protestors were arrested at the Cargill Poultry plant in Dayton, Virginia. They attempted to take a petition with hundreds of signatures to the Cargill management. The protestors chose the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. They had an agreement to deliver the petition to company management, but the company backed out at the last minute. The petition asked Cargill to give jobs back to three workers who had been unjustly terminated. Ten signatures were folks from my home church, a Virginia Conference congregation. Four of those arrested and released from jail are members of Mennonite Church USA from the Harrisonburg area.

After an appearance in Rockingham County Court on April 27, the judge dropped charges, though they were required to pay court costs, they were put on probation, and they were ordered to stay off the Cargill property for a year. The Cargill Nine includes my 25-year-old son.

The Cargill Nine are helping many in the Shenandoah Valley learn more about the difficult working conditions in poultry factories and the company’s resistance to any kind of organization by workers, who are often recent immigrants.

Part of the significance of the Cargill Nine for me is that my extended family has been reflecting on the story of our grandfather, John J. Yoder, who refused to wear a uniform and cooperate with the US military during WWI. It was a hundred years ago, in March of 1918, that John was drafted by Uncle Sam. He was among some 2,300 Amish, Mennonite, Brethren, and Hutterite men who refused to cooperate with the U.S. government. John was beaten and placed in a sweatbox in order to break his will. An Amish farmer with an 8th grade education, John had learned the way of peace and he stood firm. After the War John and Emma had a dozen children, one of whom is my mother. John and Emma’s sons, my uncles, were conscientious objectors in WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.[1]

In reflecting on the meaning of John J. Yoder’s story a hundred years later, it dawned on me that my son’s courage to step off the sidewalk at the Cargill factory in Dayton, Va., with the police waiting in force, was somewhat like the courage of his great-grandfather John in WWI. Both resisted the powers, and while John J. Yoder’s life was at risk from the officers’ brutality and his great-grandson’s life was not at risk, it also took courage for the petitioners to step off the public sidewalk, confront the powers, and speak for voiceless workers in a giant corporation, knowing that they would be arrested for doing so.

Menno Simons used an ancient metaphor in his Foundation Book that describes the body of Christ as being made up of many grains of wheat.[2] A hundred years ago most conscientious objectors cooperated with the US government, though a small group of men kept the grains of absolutism alive in the bread loaf of Anabaptist community and refused to cooperate with the US military. My grandfather John Yoder bequeathed me the courage to resist the powers when necessary.

My son and the Cargill Nine have given me new resolve, in the twenty-first century, to speak up for the marginalized in the Shenandoah Valley. For what purpose do the grains of resistance in the Anabaptist tradition serve but to speak on behalf of strangers in our midst. As the gospels instruct, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.”

[1] John J. Yoder’s story of conscientious objection during WWI can be read in Through Fire and Water, Herald Press, Loewen and Nolt, 2010, pages 15-17.

[2] Complete Writings of Menno Simons, Herald Press, 1984, p. 145.

https://themennonite.org/grains-of-resistance/