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.
For the June 14, 2020, online church service that we attend, I mixed two musical tracks for the congregation. The first song I ever mixed with multiple voices, in this online era, was “Rain Down,” by Jaime Cortez, as found in Sing the Journey songbook, #49. Rain down your love on your people, God of life!
In Luke 5, we read the story of disciples whom Christ asked to put out into the deep. There, Jesus, told them, they should let down their nets for a catch. When they indeed made a very large catch, they were astonished. We are encouraged to move into the deep water in life, put down our nets, and then acknowledge the one who makes us fishers of people.
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.
This article published in Pathways, of Virginia Mennonite Conference, Spring 2020 issue, page 13
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.
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
The Sunday school movement in Virginia Mennonite Conference had an uncertain beginning 150 years ago. In 1869 seventeen Virginia ministers barely got the 2/3s majority needed to pass a resolution allowing for Sunday schools. Only one of the three bishops in that 1869 Conference meeting supported Sunday schools.
Fortunately, that supporting bishop presided over Emanuel Suter’s church. The Sunday school initiative in Virginia Conference may have begun around Suter’s kitchen table, in a letter written two years before the 1869 resolution. It’s not an overstatement to point to Emanuel Suter’s 1867 letter to Herald of Truth as the real beginning of Sunday schools in Virginia Conference.
Suter wrote his dynamic letter on a Sunday morning, from his home west of Harrisonburg. He had six children under ten running around while he penned his thoughts. In a stirring letter to Mennonite readers across the United States, Suter called on believers to use their gifts for God’s kingdom. That’s exactly what Suter did in the last four decades of the 1800s.
Emanuel Suter (1833-1902), not ordained, had the wisdom, leadership skills, and organizational abilities to lead the Sunday school movement in Virginia Conference. Until his passing in 1902, Suter worked tirelessly to establish Sunday schools, likely remembering those children underfoot at his kitchen table.
Those opposed believed that Sunday schools might allow non-Mennonites to teach their children, Sunday schools would allow women to teach publicly, they followed the fashions of the day, and the Bible did not mention Sunday schools. About 15% of Middle District Mennonites left Conference in 1901, partially over the Sunday school issue.
By the mid-twentieth century, Sunday schools had grown and thrived in many Conference congregations. At Weavers Mennonite Church, for instance, the average attendance for Sunday school in 1961 stood at 268. Sunday schools met the needs of Bible teaching and faith formation.
Minister Paul Glanzer and his wife Isabel, along with their disabled son Jerry Glanzer, came to the Zion Mennonite Church in 1985. For about twenty years Paul taught a Sunday school for his son Jerry and others like him, with a van load of attendees in Paul’s class from Pleasant View, Inc., in Broadway. Paul helped the disabled adults to sing, pray, and learn about God from his teaching.
Today, 150 years later, Sunday schools are still vital in the lives of many Virginia Conference churches. It takes dedicated leaders and teachers to conduct a Sunday school program. Laura Suter Wenger (1873-1959), for instance, daughter of Emanuel and Elizabeth Suter, taught Sunday school for forty-five years.
Two weeks ago, this writer saw a photo taken from the back of a Sunday school class at Lindale Mennonite Church. A lay member of the congregation led a large group of children in prayer. The attentive children had their heads bowed and were learning how to pray. This writer’s three-year-old grandson sat in the front row, with his head bowed in prayer. For those of us who care about teaching Scripture and faith to children, Sunday school continues to be a great place to shape Christian faith.
Out of conviction, I voted no on a popular resolution at the MC USA Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. I’ve been challenged by some, while others have supported my vote. I wanted to raise my hand and cast a vote in the affirmative for the resolution against the abuse of child migrants. The word “condemn,” however, used twice in the resolution, led me to vote against it. My table spokesperson graciously went to the open microphone and explained my rationale to nearly 500 delegates before the vote. With only minutes for me to decide on the revised resolution that landed on my delegate table on Saturday morning, July 6, 2019, I went with my gut instinct and conviction. I cannot vote to condemn anything or anyone.
Theologically, I believe Scripture reveals that God is the one who may choose to condemn, not believers. Jesus warned against condemning others in the same breath as he warned against judging others (Luke 6:37). In principle, I thoroughly support the resolution aimed at the abhorrent abuse of child migrants. The weight of Scripture, however, seems to me to speak against the use of the word condemn. Though I only had a few minutes to decide on my vote, and my recollection of scripture was imperfect, my conviction led me to vote against the resolution, which twice used the word “condemn.”
Historically, I can find no MC USA resolutions that include the word “condemn.” Not even the 2005 MC USA resolution against the Iraq War contained the word. Previously, we in MC USA have found ways to speak forcefully to the powers with language that has avoided the harsh word “condemn.” The Editor of Gospel Herald spoke out strongly against the U.S. government’s indiscriminate carpet bombing raids in the Vietnam War during Christmas, 1972. I remember that editorial because I turned eighteen at the end of the war and was next in line to be drafted. Editor Drescher’s scathing essay challenged the U.S. government to cease the wanton killing, but he did not use the word “condemn” (January 16, 1973). As a descendant of radical 16th-century reformers who were condemned by political and religious authorities, it gave me unease to vote in favor of condemning.
Culturally, I hesitated at the tone of the MC USA resolution on my table at Kansas City 2019. I teach high school social studies classes, and I encourage clear thinking, well-developed opinions, and carefully constructed essays. But I will challenge my students, from the left or right, not to “condemn” another who disagrees with them. Argue and debate, is my teaching approach, and speak clearly, but avoid condemnation of another. We live in an age of vast cultural and political divides, with strident language often used in an attempt to destroy one’s opponents. I think a peace church should speak up against injustices, but avoid harsh and divisive language.
I wanted MC USA to offer its delegates a resolution against the abuse of child migrants without using the word “condemn.” Then, instead of voting no, I could have offered my delegate vote in support.
From the opening hymn sing to the contemporary songs in worship, my heart thrilled to the music at Kansas City 2019. As a delegate and long-time convention-goer, I understand that things have changed for MC USA. Our music, however, is a welcome constant, and it helps to unify and build us up in God’s Spirit. For me, singing in worship with thousands of others provided the highest value in attending the convention.
Our music helped create unity amidst diversity. My cordial table of delegates came from seven states. We were not alike, and we had different perspectives. But when we left our meeting room and joined with three thousand people in the joint worship services, our diversities paled in the glory of praise and honor to God. Let’s sing even more MC USA; it just may help us find a renewed unity that celebrates our theological, cultural, and geographical diversities.
Singing together in the big hall expressed our deepest convictions. When the band started, when the chorister led a time-tested hymn, or when we learned a new song, we confessed lyrics about the most basic beliefs of our faith in God. I am amazed at how poets and musicians can express heart faith in songs that are God-honoring. With rows and rows of high school kids having fun behind me, the singing and clapping energized me even more.
Great convention singing frees our voices in the arts. Our drummer wore a t-shirt that said, in large letters, “The Drummer.” He got into the beat, and the audience loved to watch him do his thing. Our songs at convention ranged from time-tested “Come Thou Fount” to a fantastic break-out medley featuring “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Every member of the praise band brought just the right volume, intensity, and rhythm to help free our voices in the God-given wonder of music. Let’s keep emphasizing singing in our churches, conferences, and at the biennial convention.
Our songs at convention helped to unify the generations. This year older attendees sat next to and sang with youth. I liked the joint music and worship services. Years ago, my wife and I sent our three teens to Mennonite Youth Conventions, with thousands of youth in attendance. Our numbers were down this year, compared to earlier years, and I do ponder why attendance at convention has declined from previous years. All the more reason, I think, to emphasize our music. Years ago, at conventions, adults and youth stayed in different auditoriums for their music–an intergenerational belly laugh with three teens after our first day’s joint worship service is one of my highlights from MennoCon19.
I hope great singing stays front and center for future conventions. Leaders in MC USA should find ways to get our people singing, often, and in ways that draw us together. After a discussion at my delegate table left me tense, I shed tears of joy afterward in worship when the praise band broke into the tune “Days of Elijah.” For me, the great music at convention made it worth the time, energy, and money to attend.
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.