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