We Will Follow

Yesterday I preached the morning sermon at a Mennonite church in Hartville, Ohio. That’s the town where I grew up. They’ve asked me to write a history book about the congregation.

At the end of the worship service, we sang, “We will follow, we will follow Jesus, we will follow everywhere he goes.” A simple Zimbabwean traditional tune, the song gave congregants the chance to affirm our desire to be followers of Christ.

The message was entitled “Called to Remember,” and I used Exodus 17:14 for my thoughts. Moses had been called to write down Israel’s stories in order to remember them.

I won’t soon forget the simple affirmation and conclusion in song after I preached. With instruments and congregational voices, we affirmed that we want to follow Jesus everywhere he goes.

We Are One in the Spirit

We are One in the Spirit reminds us that as Christians work together in love, they can change and positively impact the world. Written in the 1960s, I first learned the song in the early 1970s. I chose to lead this wonderful song as a congregational response song following the sermon yesterday.   

The new Voices Together hymnal editors decided to publish this favorite tune, which is not included in many songbooks. The refrain is the strong part of the melody, in which we express that in our love, others will know Christ. 

These are days of continual discernment. At the church where I lead music occasionally, we meet outside for worship during the pandemic. We are deliberating on when and in what ways we can use our sanctuary again for worship. And I noticed that the new hymnal editors used inclusive language in the third verse, an appropriate exercise of updating terminology for a different era than when Peter Scholtes wrote the lyrics in 1966.

Not only in matters of discernment, which are ongoing in every generation for the church, but in our outreach must Christ be known in our love. The verses of this song are in a minor key, but the transition to the refrain flashes a major chord, indicative of the strength in this song’s assertion that the world will know Christ through our love.

This is the Day

At a large family reunion in Montezuma, Georgia, in early August 2021, my relatives sang, “This is the day that the Lord has made.” Over two hundred attended the reunion, and folks from many walks of life knew the lyrics from memory. My paternal family came from numerous U.S. states and several countries in Central and South America.

“This is the day” first emerged in the late 1960s and since then has become a very familiar Scripture song. I sang it as a teenager in church and youth group in the early 1970s. The song has endless variations for singing and is easy to accompany with a guitar.

During a Saturday morning reunion in the red soil of central Georgia, our family reunion members took time to sing songs and listen to a devotional. The chorister chose “this is the day” for the first of four songs that we offered to the Lord from memory.

I may never forget the rich four-part a capella harmonies, the enthusiasm of hearing soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, and the meaning carried from the ancient psalmist to our time. Three millennia after a poet wrote Psalm 118:24, we Yoders in Montezuma, Georgia, confessed our assurance in God’s love and sustaining grace through the familiar lyrics of “this is the day that the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.”

Working During a Pandemic

I try to light a candle in the darkness whenever I can, even in my work. Perhaps especially in my work. The apostle Peter wrote that we’ve been called out of darkness into God’s wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). So what’s my work, and what’s this light?

My day job is teaching high school students world history and the Bible. Today, I’ll meet 19 bright and eager juniors in AP World History Modern. It’s the most academic driven course I teach, with a national College Board curriculum. In that world history curriculum, I tell stories of saints, missionaries, and those who spoke for the downtrodden and oppressed. Today I’ll tell the story of Bartolome de Las Casas, a 16th-century Dominican friar who worked in the Caribbean, challenging the Spanish government to stop the brutal enslavement of indigenous peoples and slaves.

My work is also to collaborate and work with the faculty at my high school. These are my friends, my cohorts, and colleagues. They encourage me, give me insights, and help me to laugh at kids and life. Recently I was invited to share a Christmas devotional with the entire K-12 faculty and staff at EMS.

This fall, I worked to help bring a little light to a food pantry near Washington, D.C. Capital Christian Fellowship needed more food boxes, and so the National Honor Society students and sponsors, of which I am one, engineered a food drive to fill 80 boxes. It was fun to see them loaded on a pickup truck and driven to the church.

Another element of my ongoing work is to produce a quarterly journal, Shenandoah Mennonite Historian. The next issue features the Show Towel of a young Mennonite bride from Rockingham County, Va., who made a beautiful work of art for her groom to be. The date on the Show Towel is 1826.

My work, flowing out of the apostle Peter’s writing, is to declare the praises of God, who called me out of darkness into his marvelous light.

My work includes writing a Trissels Mennonite Church bicentennial history book. I spoke recently at a Virginia State historical marker sign dedication at Trissels Road and Route 42, Rockingham County, Va. Seventh generation descendants of the earliest Mennonite settlers to the Linville Creek attended the event on a blustery Sunday afternoon in November 2020. The sign, describing Trissels’ bicentennial, marks the first in a series of celebratory events over the next two years.

What I learned from teaching online

I Can Do This: On my desk is a generous stack of affirmation cards from my students at the end of a difficult semester of online instruction. Without warning, on-campus classes were suspended, and we went online beginning March 17, 2020. For eleven weeks, I taught five courses, with eighty-five students, in a distance learning environment. I can do this new style of instruction.

I Prefer the Classroom: Education that works mostly requires human interaction and dialogue. While I can teach history and Bible classes online, it’s the classroom setting that drew me to the profession in the first place. I much prefer a live classroom setting where I can encourage, direct, and instruct. History is a series of stories that need to be told through a human voice, not the pixels of an idle screen. I much prefer teaching in-person to online.

The Future Will Not be Like the Past: At the end of this semester, June 7, 2020, it is clear that the future of education will not be like it has been in the past. At our school, we are prepared to teach on campus or online, at a moment’s notice. Education at the high school level has changed fundamentally, such that to say we’ll go back to “normal” won’t work. We don’t know what the future holds, but teachers will still be needed, whether online or in cyberspace.

Teaching history and Bible classes at Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Virginia, March 25, 2020

Naomi R. Francisco (1935-2020)

When Naomi Francisco got married in 1956, she did not want to be involved in church or anything religious. She did not want to marry anyone who would preach and be active in the church like her father. After several years of marriage, however, and the birth of three sons, Naomi’s husband stopped drinking alcohol and going to clubs to dance the night away. With her husband’s changed life, the Holy Spirit gave Naomi new purpose to fully support his pastoral ministries.

In 1966, Leslie W. Francisco II received ordination in the Virginia Mennonite Conference. Naomi worked actively with Leslie in a Mennonite church plant in Newport News, Virginia. Naomi taught Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, directed the children’s choir, led prayer meetings and women’s activities, and helped in any way needed in the church.

When Nelson Burkholder stepped aside as minister of Calvary Mennonite Church in 1973, Naomi’s husband became the lead minister of the VMC congregation. The church became charismatic, including speaking in tongues, energetic music, weekly altar calls, and testimonies. The church held street meetings in Newport News and grew in numbers, but Leslie Francisco II developed a vision to plant a church near their home in Hampton, some miles away.

Both in Newport News and then at Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Naomi became the spiritual Mother of the congregation. Whether to her growing Francisco family, or the large crowds that came for weekly worship, Naomi was affectionately known as “Grandma” to some and “Mother” to others. Her sparkling eyes, beautiful smile, bubbly personality, hearty laughter, and generous nature warmed the hearts of many. Naomi encouraged many children in the Calvary Christian Academy that met in the church. She came into their classrooms and offices with special treats and words of wisdom for Christian living.

In 1985, Naomi and Leslie moved their ministries to Hampton and established the Calvary Community Church. After Leslie was ordained bishop in the Warwick District of Virginia Conference, the church planter couple traveled to Ames, Iowa, for the 1985 Mennonite Church General Assembly. There, the Mennonite Board of Missions gave Bishop Leslie and Naomi Francisco the James and Rowena Lark award, for their significant work in evangelism and church development. The mantle of leadership at Calvary Community Church in Hampton passed to Naomi’s son Leslie Francisco III in 1986 when her husband’s health forced him to step aside.

At Naomi’s large funeral service at Calvary on February 12, 2020, Naomi’s granddaughter, Calvary Pastor Lesley Francisco McClendon delivered the message. A host of bishops and ministers attended Naomi’s funeral service. Also in attendance were Hampton officials, including the Hampton Mayor and Hampton Councilman Steven Brown, a former minister at Calvary Community Church.

Naomi Francisco was the co-founder of Calvary Community Church, the matriarch of her community, and loved by many. With regional political officials in attendance at Naomi’s funeral, it is not surprising that the Virginia State Senate passed Resolution No. 39, February 27, 2020, that recognized the accomplishments of Naomi Rowe (Taylor) Francisco.

Naomi R. Francisco (1935-2020) Photo from Calvary Community Church

This article published in Pathways, of Virginia Mennonite Conference, Spring 2020 issue, page 13

Grape Kool-Aid and Sugar Cookies

One of Brenda (Carr) Fairweather’s memories of growing up at the Chicago Avenue Mennonite Church is the refreshments served to children at Vacation Bible School. During Brenda’s childhood at Chicago Avenue during the 1960s, there were a couple of hundred kids swelling the ranks of a mission-minded Mennonite congregation in the heart of Harrisonburg. At break time, Brenda remembers that teachers and staff served her Kool-Aid and cookies.

Chicago Avenue grew out of the impulse of Eastern Mennonite School students in the 1930s, the resources of Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions in the 1940s, and the steady stream of young couples from Virginia Conference Churches who migrated to the Harrisonburg Church.

Students from the EMS high school and junior college launched a ministry into Harrisonburg in 1936. Students at the school wondered why Mennonites were sending missionaries to Africa, but no outreach existed to black children in Harrisonburg. Though services remained segregated, the school sent students and faculty to teach Sunday school to children in Harrisonburg.

After meeting in a rented building on Gay Street for several years, and with numbers increasing, the Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions purchased a Chicago Avenue building in 1939. Out of the student-led work in the city, the Mission Board helped fund the start of Broad Street Mennonite Church and a church on Chicago Avenue.

By 1948 the Mission Board stepped aside as the church on Chicago Avenue became self-supporting. The bishops of Northern and Middle Districts both wanted the Chicago Avenue church to be in their districts, and folks from both Districts attended the new church. When bishops in the Northern gave way, Chicago Avenue became a Middle District congregation.

The missions’ impulse went out beyond the small meetinghouse on the corner of Green St. and Chicago Avenue. In the late 1940s, Ridgeway Mennonite Church, also in Harrisonburg, came to life with folks from Chicago Avenue. In the early 1950s, others from Chicago Avenue helped establish Mt. Vernon Mennonite Church in Grottoes, Rockingham County.

Young couples from Conference Churches migrated quickly to Chicago Avenue in the late 1940s and 50s. Among others, these included Winston and Phyllis Weaver, Charles and Eula Burkholder, Warren and Virginia Burkholder, John and Maude Lantz, and Harold and Athalyn Driver. The city church provided an opportunity to evangelize the unchurched and had more relaxed standards on dress expectations.

Chicago Avenue Pastor Harold Eshleman married Donna and Nelson Suter in June 1955. Married at age seventeen, Donna had five children, and she credits pastor Harold and key women in the congregation for giving her counsel and support. Chicago Avenue had active outreach ministries, like Sewing Circle and Vacation Bible School, but folks within the congregation, like Donna Suter, were also ministered to in life-giving ways.

Chicago Avenue Mennonite Church Vacation Bible School, about 1960, Harrisonburg, Va.

In 1972, bursting at the seams, Chicago Avenue Mennonite Church built a new meetinghouse several miles away and became Harrisonburg Mennonite Church. Others, mainly from EMC, kept the doors open on Chicago Avenue and organized Community Mennonite Church. The church building today is used by another denomination, but fond memories of grape Kool-Aid and sugar cookies still survive.

Published in Pathways, Winter 2019, page 10