Lent: the promptings of faith

I like Abram’s response when God offered him a covenant (Genesis 15:1-18). Abram’s fear and questions grew into faith and led to an elaborate sacrifice. Abram’s openness to the promptings of God demonstrates how to live into our Lenten journeys. I had a God appearance years ago in the holy land, though not nearly as dramatic as Abram’s theophany.

As a young man, I volunteered for four weeks of work at Nazareth Hospital. I had dropped out of college after my freshman year, and three Mennonite buddies and I traveled for six months throughout the Middle East and Europe. We were on our own with almost no communication home for the entire time.

One Sunday afternoon at Nazareth Hospital, we Mennonite guys, five British fellows, and four Arab nurses took a walk to see Mt. Tabor, the traditional site of the Transfiguration. Young men from the local community confronted us and did not like seeing single Brits and Americans escorting Arab female nurses on a long walk. It stirred my anger, and though we got through that uncomfortable event without incident, it took all of my restraint and nonresistance teachings to refrain from pushing back.

I experienced Holy Spirit transformation while working at the international Nazareth Hospital, visiting Mennonite missionaries in Israel, taking a trip into the Sinai, and camping along the Red Sea. I had been seeking God’s leading in my life, uncertain that I would ever reenroll in my Mennonite college back home. In the womb of supportive Christian leaders in Israel, travels around the country, and a revelation I received while camping on the sands of the Red Sea coast, I was transformed. That revelation of faith pointed me back toward Virginia to finish college, which I did.

This year, a day before Ash Wednesday, a student asked me if I had considered giving up anything for Lent. I hadn’t, though, by that evening, I sensed an inner nudge to give up recorded music. Giving up my music is a big deal. I listen to music in my study when I research, write, and grade papers. I turn on the radio in my Jeep when I drive around town, and I listen to favorite tunes when I exercise. I’ve given up recorded music for Lent, though not live music; my life has suddenly turned much quieter and more reflective. It’s through a new lens that I read the gospel narrative describing how the devil tempted Jesus for forty days in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-2).

To respond to the promptings of faith, I think, means accepting change, remaining open to new ideas, living into creative possibilities, and taking untraveled paths. It’s exciting to stay open to the promptings of faith, to see what new roads lie ahead, and to receive grace-filled blessings, like God’s covenant offered to Abram so many years ago.

The Mennonite Lent Reflection https://themennonite.org/lent-promptings-faith/

Staying with the denomination

What does a letter buried in an Indiana archive have to do with questions about staying in Mennonite Church USA today? Quite a bit, I’d argue. The letter, which I found in our denominational archives eight years ago, reveals that some of the earliest Virginia Mennonite leaders believed in the value of a church-wide association of congregations. Upon finding the letter, I had a little party of one by the copying machine in the lobby. Since then, I’ve discovered more stories confirming that in each era, Virginia leaders have spoken for, written about, and defended the value of staying with the denomination. Please consider these brief vignettes that I think provide significant direction for today.

1853: That thin and yellowed letter in the Indiana archive came from the pen of Virginia Mennonite Bishop Martin Burkholder. Thirty-six, he wrote a letter to a Pennsylvania Bishop friend, and asked that he and other ministers in Lancaster Conference consider helping him create a general conference of Mennonites. Burkholder and Bishop Samuel Shank Sr. made several circuit trips to Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Canada, asking for a general conference to be formed, but to no avail. After Bishop Martin Burkholder passed away a few months before the Civil War began, it would be decades until his vision for a Mennonite association of area conferences came into being. The great irony of my search in libraries and archives along the east coast, and then finding the letter in Indiana, 157 years after it was written in the Shenandoah Valley, is that having a national archive is one outstanding rationale for staying with a denomination long term.

1897: A year before the Mennonite Church got organized in 1898, Virginia Bishop Lewis J. Heatwole traveled to Elida, Ohio, for preliminary meetings. He and other ministers like Christian Good and Samuel M. Burkholder went to see what was happening, and to report back to leaders in Virginia. L. J. Heatwole faithfully traveled to the early meetings of the Mennonite Church, and kept Virginia Conference informed about wider church developments. With L. J. Heatwole’s clear leadership toward participating, Virginia Conference joined the Mennonite General Conference in 1911.

1919: When Virginia Mennonite Conference met a year after World War I ended, it adopted eighteen fundamentals of faith. Conservative in nature, the articles were adopted, almost word for word, two years later by the Mennonite Church. Virginia Conference’s action, adopted at my home congregation in Broadway, Virginia, October 18, 1919, held significant influence and sway on the Mennonite Church for nearly two generations.

1942: When critical ministers urged Virginia Conference to leave the Mennonite Church during WWII, Bishop John L. Stauffer reacted strongly. Though some thought the broader church had become too liberal, Stauffer stated that Virginia needed to stay and not leave. Bishop Stauffer, then President of Eastern Mennonite College, had significant church wide experience, and he urged the Conference to stay in the denomination. Stauffer’s voice, along with others, won the day.

1981: Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus waited patiently to speak at the Mennonite Church Convention in Bowling Green, Ohio. The hot topic was whether women could be involved in ministry. Her speech at an open microphone stirred many, and helped to create action in the direction of accepting women in leadership. Virginia Bishop Glendon Blosser ably and gladly served as Moderator at the 1981 Bowling Green Conference, the seventh of eleven Virginia Mennonite leaders to serve as moderator of the denomination.

1997: My wife and I took our family to Orlando, Florida, for the Mennonite Church General Assembly in the summer of 1997. While our three young children enjoyed the fun times for kids and we soaked up the Florida warmth, I served as a delegate from Virginia Conference. We took our kids to Disneyland after the Mennonite Church made proactive plans to integrate with the General Conference. Owen Burkholder, from Harrisonburg, served in 1997 as both denominational moderator and as Virginia Conference minister, the lead executive staff position.

2019: Today’s issues are different than in the past, but in other ways quite similar. I teach history and Bible to descendants of Bishop Martin Burkholder, whose letter I found in Indiana. I try to help them understand the high value their ancestor held in organizing a general conference. Further, I will take a bit of Bishop Burkholder’s spirited vision with me when I serve as a delegate at the 2019 Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City. My reading of Virginia Mennonite Conference history is that at each turn in the road of divisive issues, key leaders in Virginia Conference have spoken in favor of participation in the wider denomination. Such is the direction I would urge today.

Harmonia Sacra Singing 2019

On January 1, for the past 117 years, singers from all around come to sing from Joseph Funk’s Harmonia Sacra songbook. On New Year’s day 2019, 360 singers came from six states and Ontario, Canada (see my photo above). We sang twenty-nine songs, led by over a dozen song leaders. Each song was announced in the Legacy Edition of Harmonia Sacra, and the number was announced in the wide-format book.

The Mennonites at this singing came from all kinds of conferences and churches. The three things we can do together across Mennonite boundaries in the Shenandoah Valley include the annual relief sale, working together in disaster relief, and singing together from the 19th century Harmonia Sacra. One can attend a Harmonia Sacra singing once a month in the Shenandoah Valley, they are that popular. Song leaders on January 1 2019 were progressives, leaders in MC USA, and men with plain coats, from the Old Order community in Dayton. In recent years, buggies have been tied outside the church for the singing at Weavers Mennonite Church, west of Harrisonburg.

Why will I go again next year? Because it brings hundreds of Mennonite singers together from among the fifteen or more varieties of Anabaptists in the area. Second, because folks come from great distances, including other states, to celebrate faith through song. I met a woman from Kentucky whom I had only corresponded with by e-mail previously. Third, I’ll go again because my faith is nurtured and bolstered when singers all around joyously proclaim faith through the wonderful art of four-part singing. Fourth, I’ll go again because in our last song, “Fair Haven,” we expressed that in Jesus Christ our faith is one. Perhaps this annual singing, around me whom were basses who made the benches resonate with their low notes, represents a foretaste of heaven itself. At the end of “Fair Haven,” we expressed in music, that “we all shall meet in heaven.” It will be fun when Joseph Funk himself can lead a Harmonia Sacra singing on the other side. I hope to be there for that one too.

“Oh Come, Angel Band”

Like the shepherds, I’ve had angels visit me. Unlike the startling heavenly hosts in Luke’s gospel, however, I’ve felt the presence of angels in the harmonies of great songs. One that stands out is called “Angel Band” and this song has helped me through difficult times, but it has also sparked moments of sheer joy and delight.

First story: In my classroom at school, students come after lunch every Thursday to sing gospel bluegrass music. The joy in performing time-tested and well-known gospel songs with my students has enlivened my classroom.

There’s no credit for students to attend, no requirements, and no tryouts. They just show up and sing or bring a mandolin, guitar, banjo, upright bass, or violin. For a dozen years I’ve done this. We sing old gospel songs, over and over, and they light up, relishing the chance to sing or play a break on their instrument.

Just about every week my angel band will sing the old favorite, “My latest sun is sinking fast.” I look forward to this high point in my week and it thrills my soul with great joy when students sing and perform. Our little angel band is unpolished and does not compare with the fine music performed elsewhere on our Mennonite high school campus, but for the weekly angel band of singers in my classroom, it lifts me near to heaven.

In the third verse, there’s a humorous but haunting phrase when the song writer heard the “noise of wings.” My mother taught me to listen for the noise of wings, to look for angelic visits, and not to discount the odd or extraordinary ways that God meets us through angels. The kids who sing in my room each week bring me deep joy. I have my dear mother to thank for helping me see angelic visitors, right in front of me, every Thursday at the end of lunch.

Sunshine Band EMHS 2018

Second story: A few years ago a young leader in Harrisonburg passed away. In his prime, a great musician, and involved in a number of kingdom enterprises, our community mourned his early death. I took off school to attend his mid-day memorial service at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg.

The Angel Band song brought tears to my eyes and caused me to weep. Performed by outstanding musicians, I will never forget that moment of being drawn into an angel band of mourners and musicians, all attempting to make sense of a death that we found hard to comprehend. Deep joy trickled into my soul amidst great loss, borne on the wings of an old traditional song with simple lyrics. In that moment of loss, an angel band of great musicians with lilting harmonies bore me away on snow white wings, helping release the grief so deeply embedded in my soul.

Third story: On October 21, 2018, my congregation held a Sunday morning worship service to embrace our grief and loss. In the past fourteen months six adults have passed away. We’re not a large congregation, and these deaths have impacted us. One of those, my father-in-law, passed away seven months ago, and to help me cope with his loss, I chose Angel Band as the offertory song. At his funeral, his sixteen young adult grandchildren sang Angel Band.

During our recent service on grief and loss, I may have learned how the shepherds felt when they were “sore afraid.” It was at the end of the second verse of Praise the lord, sing hallelujah, that I forgot whether we’d sung the last verse. The refrain is long and I had been working on dynamics and tempo, and the congregation followed my directing. Enraptured by the soaring sopranos and the strong bass lines, in the last two measures I knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t remember if we had sung the last verse. With my directing arm raised and poised, everyone stopped. Embarrassed, I had to ask, “Have we sung the last verse?” With smiles and shaking heads, they made it clear that we had another verse to sing. I have a new affinity for the terrified shepherds.

Leading music at church gives me great joy, in spite of my mistakes and foibles. Usually I am surrounded by excellent musicians who cover my average musical skills. I am grateful for the weekly “angel band” at church who enter in with joyful songs, ready smiles, and sincere affirmations.

Join me, during this holiday season, to look for angel bands all around. They are not mysterious, ephemeral, or ghost-like. Angels are those in your world who sing heartily, laugh and listen to you, or who help you deal with the loss of a loved one. Heavenly visitors are near if we can see them, just like the shepherds who saw some sort of an angel band so very long ago.

https://themennonite.org/o-come-angel-band/

History Day

On November 7, 2018, I became the Apostle Paul for a day at Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg, Va., where I work. While working with a team of history teachers, History Day began five years ago at my initiative.  Each year we choose a theme and implement the day-long concept for over 300 K-12 students. Our teachers and students get involved in a variety of ways. I met students on my trailer, parked behind my Jeep, in the school parking lot. We had a fire going in a pit, and we burned scrolls, like converts in Ephesus burned their magic scrolls in the first century, as described in Acts 19. 

History Day 2018

On History Day, November 2017, we celebrated a century of education at Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg, Virginia. We had a host of stations to help students understand 100 years of education. I played the role of Virginia Mennonite Bishop Lewis J. Heatwole, one of the key founders of Eastern Mennonite School in 1917.

History Day 2017 – Centennial of Eastern Mennonite School

History Day 2016 took place at Fort Seybert, West Virginia, where the theme was the French and Indian War era. My role was Thomas Jefferson. One of our history teachers has land where there’s an annual reenactment of the 1758 fort burning by the Indians. It’s part of the annual Treasure Mountain Festival. It was a day for our students and teachers to learn colonial American methods, crafts, and practices.

History Day 2016 – French and Indian War era

History Day 2015 at Eastern Mennonite School focused on the 1950s and ’60s in the United States. I sang in a Peter, Paul, and Mary band. My role for the day was Noel Paul Stookey. We played well known ’60s protest music like “If I had a hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.” The faculty helped for the day and our K-12 students learned, in an experiential way, about the ’50s and ’60s.

History Day 2015 – “The Times They are a Changin'” (1950s and 60s)

Our first History Day, October 31, 2014, helped students and teachers understand The Burning of the Shenandoah Valley 150 years earlier during the American Civil War. The Burning was a devastating event for Virginians in 1864, and our small school faculty and staff worked together to make it a history teaching event. I played the role of Union General Philip Sheridan, though the only officer’s outfit I could find to wear was Confederate gray.

History Day 2014
Photos from Eastern Mennonite School archives.

A House Divided Against Itself

Just before the American Civil War Abraham Lincoln declared that the United States could not continue as a divided country–either it would outlaw slavery altogether or slavery would become legal in all the states. Lincoln did not believe the United States could continue as a divided society. Lincoln borrowed his “house divided” phrase from the gospels of Jesus, revealing that Christ’s teachings from two millennia ago are as timely today as they were in the ancient era.

Our houses today cannot remain divided and hope to stand. Our country is as divided as ever, and we must find ways to unite, to speak in civil ways to each other, to build coalitions and bridges among those of very different points of view. Ours is a national crisis of a house divided–let us find leaders who can reach across our aisles that divide and help unite us.

In the church, we need to find ways to seek unity and not division. In the small town of northeast Ohio where I grew up and where I write this blog, we have a Mennonite history of churches dividing when there have been differences, finding that an easier solution than doing the hard work of creating a united house. A denomination, be it conservative or progressive, will need bridge builders to help liberals speak to conservatives, and vice versa, or otherwise the house will divide and collapse. In our congregations there are always differences of belief, opinion, or persuasion. We bring different upbringings, different assumptions, and different theological streams that we drink from. Let us learn to work together.

When I attended college years ago, we students occasionally tried to change things on our campus by speaking to the administration. But my memory is that most of our student energies went outward, challenging the powers beyond our campus. We marched against the production of nuclear weapons, protested the military-industrial complex, and tried to alleviate social injustices. Recently I attended a theological speech at the college I graduated from, where students and faculty greeted me outside the chapel doors with signs of protest for a lecture from a world-renowned theologian. It seemed to me the students were inward-focused, in contrast to my own college days where we mostly directed our energies outward toward the powers. The students who met me with protest signs and sidewalk chalk drawings were speaking into the community, revealing our inside-the-house differences, and trying to make me and others, it seemed to me, to feel concerned about an issue that I believe was an internal debate about ethics. How can a church institution stand when we attack one another from within?

Let us learn from Lincoln’s assessment, first articulated in the dusty towns of Palestine years ago. A house divided against itself cannot stand, be it a country, a denomination, a church school, a congregation, or even our own homes. It took determination for Lincoln to declare his vision in 1858, now eight score years ago. May those who are able to help bridge our current divides be found, enabled, encouraged, voted for, and empowered to cross the chasms that keep us apart. Otherwise we cannot stand.

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.

https://themennonite.org/thoughts-staying-together/

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/

The Emancipation of Peggy Jones

Recently I received good kidding from faculty friends when I took a day off school to find a single historical document in a distant archive. I teach high school history, but my friends know that historical research is my passion. So they started a texting group, with super-sized emojis and jokes, that trailed me from Harrisonburg to the Historical Society Library in Richmond, Va.

It was during Black History Month, February 2018, that I discovered an online emancipation document for Peggy Jones. Freed in January, 1827, the small 6 x 8-inch document lists her height, age, and distinct scar on her face. Seeing a scan of the document on the Historical Society website was not good enough for me, so I took a day off from teaching and drove to Richmond to investigate.

I kept getting good natured texts from my friends, who really did want to know the results of my trek to the state capital. Twice I pulled off the interstate to respond to them. Finally, the moment of revelation occurred when an archivist brought out an oversized collection folder with the emancipation proclamation for Peggy Jones, a thirty-four-year-old 19th century African American Virginian.

I shall not soon forget when I got to hold and study the aging document, stamped clearly by the Rockingham County Clerk’s seal, officially signed and dated. After January 5, 1827, Peggy Jones was a free woman.

Now I’m on a research journey to discover if more can be known about Peggy Jones. I’m not sure I will succeed, because the databases lead me in several different directions, and a clear record of Peggy’s life seems to fizzle out after that day in the Rockingham County Court house when she received her freedom.

Why does this matter? Because 1827, when Jones was emancipated, is the decade when the first log meetinghouses were built for Mennonite churches in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, historic congregations like Trissels, Weavers, and Springdale. Mennonites started their churches in Virginia in the nest of southern slavery, and Peggy’s story provides detail to the saga. Second, this matters because the Baptist woman who freed Peggy Jones lived in and attended a church in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The old meetinghouse that Peggy’s Baptist owners and a few Mennonites used in the early 19th century had a place for slaves to sit, most likely including Jones.

Black History Month 2018 gave me a new historical pursuit—to see if I can emancipate Peggy Jones from the shadows of history and tell her story. I hope to succeed, because as far as I can determine, her story has not been told before. And to my good teacher friends who encouraged and kidded me all the way to Richmond I say thanks!

Where will the next generation of Mennonite leaders come from?

After finishing Donald Kraybill’s fine new history book about Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, I’m left wondering where the next generation of Mennonite church leaders will come from. Kraybill’s centennial book was a fun read for me, but in the midst of his sociological analysis and human-interest stories, it became clear to me that Mennonite leaders in the twenty-first century may not come from Mennonite colleges like they did in the twentieth century.

A question from a returning Goshen (Indiana) College student cut to the heart of the question I had been pondering. On Christmas break from college, we discussed the Mennonite church and his hopes and dreams for the future. I had taught him during all four years of high school, and he finally exclaimed, “Where are the charismatic Mennonite leaders for my generation?”

By charismatic, he meant visionary leaders who can inspire people to join and flow into the Anabaptist-Mennonite theological stream of belief and thought. Kraybill writes about this Goshen freshman’s great-grandfather, minister J. Early Suter, who served on the first faculty at Eastern Mennonite School when the doors opened in 1917. His grandfather was the highly respected Dr. Daniel Suter, also chronicled in the book, who had to make a difficult choice between serving as pastor at Weavers Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg or teaching science at EMC. He chose teaching, and though he was an outstanding science professor, at heart Daniel Suter was a churchman.

As I read Kraybill’s book, it dawned on me that in the coming years, our key Mennonite church leaders may no longer be presidents and administrators in Mennonite colleges.

Kraybill’s book reveals that Mennonite church leaders in the twentieth century were often called into teaching or administrative roles at church colleges. When I attended EMC in the late 1970s, President Myron Augsburger was one of the premier Mennonite Church leaders, and also the academic leader of EMC. I remember his rapid rate of speaking during chapel addresses and his fast-paced gait while walking across campus—Augsburger had both a church and a school to serve, and little time to waste. Augsburger spoke in hundreds of settings across the country and the world during his 15 years of presidency at EMC. My wife and I were EMC students when Augsburger was shown a rope hanging from the ceiling, as Kraybill writes, during his last chapel address as president. In front of a full chapel auditorium, he pulled the rope, which launched a fun prank. We laughed and clapped, relishing our healthy community spirit, and then we sang Augsburger’s favorite hymn. Those were the heady days of the school, as Kraybill writes, when undergraduate enrollment in my freshman year was at 1,100 and required chapels were a valued community event. When I graduated from EMC in 1981, another trusted churchman, Richard Detweiler, was drawn out of church work to lead the college.

Today, as Kraybill writes near the end of his book, presidents and administrators of EMU are hired because of their professional skills and academic credentials. Their involvement in the Mennonite Church, he observes, is a secondary consideration and only tangentially relevant to their position. And so one of my best recent history and Bible graduates from EMHS stood in the library and asked me where the next generation of vibrant and articulate leaders of the Mennonite Church will come from. It’s the right question for the twenty-first century.

As I reflect on the answer, it seems to me that leaders will come from congregations and conferences, which is where they came from before the twentieth century Mennonite college era began.

Kraybill details the way in which EMS had been a “holy experiment” in the early twentieth century, as described by one of its founders. Today that “experiment” has changed and is being acutely tested, as Kraybill details in the last chapter. I studied in the Bible and Religion Department at Eastern Mennonite College as part of my degree program. Since Kraybill finished his book last year, the University has eliminated the philosophy and theology major (although the overall department still exists). That leaves me wondering where our future Mennonite leaders will get their undergraduate theological training in Anabaptist thought. I can quickly list several outstanding Christian universities in the United States, beyond the Mennonite realm, where some of my best EMHS graduates attend.

Nevertheless, I remain guardedly optimistic about the future of Mennonite higher education in terms of its symbiotic relationship to the Mennonite denomination. During days when the EMU Board was large and included representatives from many Conferences in the ‘70s and ‘80s, both my father and my mother-in-law served on the EMU Board of Directors, and I well remember those days of heady optimism for Mennonite higher education. My wife and I and all five of our children are EMU graduates. It was fun to participate in the recent EMU and Eastern Mennonite School Centennial events, celebrated this past fall on the same weekend. While reading Kraybill’s history book I noticed an offer from our local credit union to invest in the lives of children by purchasing savings certificates that mature at age 18. My wife and I bought certificates for our recently born grandchildren, and put them in their Christmas stockings, with the intention to help put a dent in their first semester college costs.

But the question from a Goshen College freshman, one of my outstanding history students, at the library desk I was staffing during semester exams at EMHS, persists: “Where will the next generation of Mennonite leaders come from?”

It is incumbent upon those of us who believe in Mennonite higher education to support our colleges, but also to work in and nurture our local congregations and area conferences, out of which, it seems to me, will come those future Mennonite leaders.

https://themennonite.org/will-next-generation-mennonite-leaders-come/