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.
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.
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.
Today the small private school in Virginia where I work turned itself upside down and we teachers began instructing students online. This happened in less than the space of a week, as the United States and the world met the invisible coronavirus. One day last week I taught my students in a regular classroom, with tables, chairs, and a Smartboard. Today is the first in my career of thirty-eight years that I’m teaching all my eighty-seven students online. I have five preparations, though our school only expects me to “meet” them twice a week, which will help we teachers build into this new era.
I’ve taught an online class for almost ten years, and I’ve learned that to teach online, and to do it well, actually takes more time than teaching in a conventional manner. I’m prepared, however. A few years ago, I earned a Masters in Library and Information Science from the University of Pittsburgh. The program was entirely online. With that experience and the tools I’ve collected to teach a high school class online, I feel prepared.
This morning I uploaded my first three teaching videos to our school YouTube Channel. I’ve had many views of those videos, as I think parents, tutors, and administrators are looking at my work, as they should. I’ve answered many emails from students today, getting them up and running. Everything has changed for my students. I think some will thrive in the new learning environment, while others will not. I’m organized and like working in my home study, while others work best being around people, and may get frustrated working in cyberspace.
Everything has changed in education in my community and the United States. It’s time to see where this goes, how it changes education, and whether I can effectively teach in this new modality. I am optimistic that it can happen, and I eagerly look forward to the new challenges that lie ahead. My classroom has long been my center for instruction, meeting students, music, and prayer. Now, my study, with computers, software, and a learning management system, is my new classroom. When I graduated from college I did not have a personal computer, cell phone, or email address. In the space of four decades, the changes have been mostly for the good, though we shall see where this new era takes us in education.
Once in a while, my students get it. I had a moment of joy when my 9th grade Bible class made a justice connection between two events–it’s part of what keeps me teaching.
On a Friday afternoon (October 25, 2019), I took my 14-year-old students downtown Harrisonburg to visit a newly established coffee shop, which is raising money to help people reenter society successfully after being released from prison. The pastors in charge of the coffee shop stood on the sidewalk, with the Court House and jail visible, and explained their vision of restorative justice. They were raising money to help people who come out of incarceration to get a second chance, to help them more successfully integrate back into society. It was one of those moments that made all the logistics work of setting up a field trip worth the time and effort. My students learned about restorative justice on the street, with United Methodist pastors putting shoe leather to their theological beliefs.
In the very next class period, on Monday, Caleb Schrock-Hurst, twenty-three, and recently returned from MCC service in Vietnam, challenged my students to consider serving others. Caleb came onto our campus for two days, under a lecture series we have at the school. He returns to serve with MCC in Vietnam in early November. Caleb is doing academic editing work in Hanoi, helping MCC recognize 65 years of working in the Southeast Asian country.
One bright ninth-grade student asked Caleb if he had heard the voice of God, directing him to serve in Vietnam. No, Caleb replied, he had received counsel to sign up with MCC, he had grown up serving with his family in a Philippines MCC assignment, and his sister and her family served the poor in Indonesia. For Caleb, he explained, service was a way of life. There had been no audible voice of God that he heard.
At our school, we have a culture of restorative justice. It’s woven into the educational methods of how we work with students on both the micro and macro levels. Last year, I helped with a large circle process to work through difficulties in one of the classes.
So at the end of the class period, after Caleb answered a host of questions about Vietnam, I showed the class a photo of us standing on the street corner the previous Friday, talking about restorative justice. “What’s the connection,” I asked, “between selling coffee and tea to help folks getting out of jail, and what Caleb is doing in Vietnam?” Immediately they piped up and made the analysis. “Caleb is working at restorative justice issues in Vietnam, like the pastors in Harrisonburg are with their coffee shop,” one student articulated.
It’s those moments that make all the prep work, all the planning, all the everyday work of teaching worth it. My students made the connection between a justice ministry in Harrisonburg to Hanoi, Vietnam, where an MCCer is going for another year of service. I hope my students never forget this lesson, and I pray that one or more of those students will one day join MCC and serve in an international setting.
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.
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.
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.