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.

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!

Bluegrass Christmas Jamboree

On the first Saturday of December, each year, our friends host a bluegrass music event in Timberville, Virginia. It goes from about 4-12 pm, and there are dozens of musicians and others who come to enjoy about six different rooms where groups of pickers make good music. Our group, December 3, 2016, played familiar gospel tunes.

 

Silver Lake Mill

The historian got to turn an interior iron crank that released water at Silver Lake, Dayton, Virginia, which turned the early 20th century red wheel. The water flowed towards Cooks Creek, which drained towards the North River and eventually the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, which reached the Potomac River and finally the Chesapeake Bay. This mill was burned by Union soldiers during the Civil War and rebuilt after the war. As with the water which bubbles forth from the Silver Lake springs and ends up in the Atlantic Ocean, so our lives are interconnected and flow into the future in sometimes unknown and winding directions.

Silver Lake Mill, Dayton, Virginia, Rockingham County, Virginia July, 2016

Upper Room Revival

Elwood Yoder recently joined The Mennonite online’s blogging team. He teaches history in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He has taught high school history and social studies courses for 34 years, since 1988 at Eastern Mennonite High School. Elwood has written seven books, including congregational histories and historical novels. Elwood is Editor of Shenandoah Mennonite Historian, and he is also …

via Upper Room Revival.

Pleasant Grove Mennonite Church, Pendleton County, WV

Pleasant Grove Mennonite Church had its beginning in 1885, started as a missions outreach of the Northern District churches of the Virginia Mennonite Conference.  Today the building is still usable, but no congregation meets there, except for the occasional special service.  At the time of this photo, 2015, the pews were still in place inside, with hymnbooks, and a pulpit up front.  One hundred and thirty years after it started, the church is closed, begging for research and study on the factors that led to its decline.
Pleasant Grove Mennonite Church, Sweedlin Valley Rd Pendleton County, WV September 19 2015

Natural Chimney’s Music 2015

At the ancient Natural Chimneys in Mt. Solon, Virginia, July, 2015, three outstanding musicians charmed, entertained, and thrilled an eager crowd of listeners.  Music lovers from many states gathered for three days of inspiring music.  Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan performed fine acoustic music for grateful Red Wing Roots festival visitors.

Red Wing Roots Festival July 2015

Northern District Meeting

A middle level adjudicatory body met at the Big Spring Mennonite Church, March 9, 2015.  The Northern District Council, consisting of around 25 representatives from about a dozen churches in the Virginia Mennonite Conference, welcomed a new congregation, heard overseers reports, and listened to a mission worker present new ideas for church growth.