Thursday, February 21, 2018
You may have read yesterday’s blog in which I expressed my consternation over the historic reasons that Lancaster Mennonite Conference would choose to be its own denomination. How can I respond with grace, I asked.
Today’s blog continues my rumination. Do not expect a tirade. Do not brace yourself for demeaning remarks. Instead, I am taking this moment to remember the church and the conference that I grew up in. I shall begin with a remembrance of Sunday School in the early 1940’s, written 40 or 50 years ago.
Sunday was important enough to begin on Saturday. We children took baths in the tub, not wanting to go first because the water was too hot, and not wanting to go last in the dirty water. Papa and Mama studied their Sunday school lessons, and sometimes Papa cut our hair with a clippers he squeezed with his hand. It pulled very hard, but he said, sometimes gruffly, to sit still.
Mama looked the same on Sunday as on Saturday, excepting that she put on a clean dress and didn’t wear her kitchen apron. But Papa looked different because instead of wearing overalls he wore a plain (Mennonite) coat that didn’t have lapels.
Right before we left the house, Papa looked for dirt in and behind our ears, and pushed our hair down with his heavy hand.
On the way to church, we’d pass our neighbors going to their churches. Papa and Mama said that the Nissley girls went to Erismans, Henry Stauffers to Kauffmans Church on Route 72, Freys attended Chestnut Hill, Siegrists and Heiseys and Housmans all belonged to East Petersburg which was the biggest church in the “district,” and Floyd Yoders went “down the line.” Jake Snyders were Brethren and so were Mussers and Sam Bakers.
One Sunday John Cope did some combining, and we saw Davy Nissley on his John Deere one Sunday. Neither of those men went to church. No matter, Papa and Mama shook their heads and said their being in the field was wrong. People were to “remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” A couple of our neighbors attended worldly churches; they were on our party line, and Mama said that she heard some things on the phone she wouldn’t repeat.
Our church was in Landisville, a big brick building next to an old log cabin with 1740 above the door. Papa drove our ’37 Chevy in at the north entrance, stopped to leave Mama and Erma by the women’s door, then parked on the east side by the cemetery. I wondered why Papa always chose the same place.
Papa and Mervin and I entered by the men’s door in front, and hung our coats and caps in the men’s ante-room. We’d meet others there; all the members would shake hands and give each other a holy kiss, because the Bible said to do it. You could tell who was a member by the plain clothing. If somebody visited from the Landisville camp grounds, you knew right away they were Methodists or something by their clothes. They were welcomed, of course, but not kissed. There wasn’t much standing around before Sunday school began; the visiting came after church.
Primary children sat on the first row on the women’s side. When the man who was called by a very long word “suprintendent” pushed a little dinger on a bell, he always said a big word “dismistferclass” and then we went to the children’s room in the basement where Martha Rohrer taught us songs like “Running Over.” My favorite, however, was “Mind the rule of Sunday school” because when we did the motions, we could stand up together and sit down together when the words said so.
After Sunday school, we went upstairs. Mervin and I sat with Papa through the long sermon. Erma sat with Mama.
One Sunday, Erma wanted to go to the toilet, so Mama let her go alone. The boy’s toilet was in the basement, but the girl’s was in the women’s ante-room. Erma went all by herself. The preacher was talking. Then Erma called with a very loud voice, “Mama, there’s no paper out here!”
Erma had said an awful thing. But later, every time Mama told about Erma hollering out in church, she laughed in a way that seemed to say “Terrible embarrassments become funny stories.”
Our church property touched the property of the Church of God. Those people weren’t plain. They parked in the school grounds across the street. We could see the people as they walk to the church. The men wore ties and had shiny shoes. The women had hair-dos. If our church ended before theirs did, we could sometimes hear them singing with the organ. We didn’t have such things in our church. We were plain.
Then and now.
I value my early recollections of church and surely I have been shaped by those experiences. Seventy years later I not only review my memories but also gather together events and impressions created since I was a child.
In moving away, I could look at Lancaster as an outsider. My careers in teaching, writing and consulting have taken me to many congregations, district conferences, and national assemblies. And, of course, students at Goshen College come from a broad sweep of the Mennonite world.
In reading historical texts such as John Ruth’s history of Lancaster Conference (The Earth is the Lord’s) and Theron Schlabach’s several volume history of the Mennonite Church, I gained a breadth of vision that I couldn’t come up with myself. Even a novel about Lancaster Mennonites in the final years of the 19th century (I hear the reaper’s song by Sara Stambaugh) helped me to understand the culture of “my people.”
What is my current sense of Lancaster Conference.
- They are my people, caring, loving and generous. They are family oriented. They want in strong Mennonite communities. As farmers they have been successful. More lately their industry has made them probably the wealthiest Mennonite conference in the world.
- They comprise a subculture, not only within the larger American culture, but also within the Mennonite religion and culture. They have not mixed readily with the Lutheran neighbor nor with most other Mennonite conferences. To this day, newcomers say that it takes a long, long time to be accepted as a native.
- While my congregation was traditional and seemingly altogether Mennonite, I can’t remember ever hearing about Menno Simons and/or other founders of Anabaptism. Instead the traditions seemed to reach back into the 19th and 18th centuries but not much beyond that. It’s orientation today seems to have been influenced as much by American evangelicalism as by Anabaptism.
- Lancaster Mennonites understood themselves to be “plain” people, non-conformed to the world. They did and still do “draw lines” on who is in and who is not in. The latest issues to cause a departure of congregations are Biblical interpretation, women in leadership, and LGBTQ.
- Lancaster Conference congregations have never enjoyed much autonomy, but are controlled by a Bishop Board whose constitution at one point required something like a 75% vote to make changes. To be guided by a national organization such as Mennonite Church USA did not and does not feel comfortable to them.
I regret the departure of Lancaster Mennonite Conference from the larger denominational body. It feels like a personal and organizational loss, the kind of “split” somewhat typical of Mennonite communities over the years.