A Catholic and a Mennonite Walk into a Plane

I have flown domestically and internationally dozens of times, and I can think of only one meaningful conversation I have had with a seatmate. That is, until last week, when I had my second most interesting in-flight conversation.   

A 20-something young woman fell into the seat beside me on a budget airline on a flight to Florida. Her accessories seemed expensive, and she apologized as she climbed over me, balancing bags, a hot sandwich, Starbucks, and a loose pair of pale pink heels. “Sorry!” she gushed as she arm-wrestled her posh belongings under the seat in front of her, disappearing under her blonde hair. Before consuming her sandwich, she very noticeably crossed herself, and I admit that I was not expecting this religious expression based on her appearance. 

I pulled out a conspicuous book to read. (I was wading through George Marsden’s brand-new third edition history text, Fundamentalism in American Culture.) It’s a thick book, and the bold headings throughout make it very clear that one is reading about religion. 

Half-way through the flight, she couldn’t resist: “May I ask what you’re reading?”

Me: “It’s George Marsden’s Fundamentalism in American Culture. It’s his new third edition where not only does he highlight how evangelicalism has been shaped by fundamentalism in American history, but he brings it all the way up through the Trump administration and discusses fundamentalism in America even in the last decade.” 

I couldn’t read the look on her face when I mentioned Trump, so I chalked it up to her breeding that she did not comment further on that reference.

“I see it says Christian civilization there on the cover.” She pointed to the cover art. “Are you an evangelical?” 

“Oh, um, I suppose, kind of. I participate in a Mennonite church. Do you know what that is?” 

She nodded yes, and then smiled brightly: “I’m a Catholic missionary.” 

I couldn’t have been more surprised, nor less wrong in my judgment of her appearance as “wealthy, entitled, Gen-Z spring breaker.” 

“I serve as a missionary to students in [certain big city] at [unmentioned Ivy-league school]. So I’m in ministry to Greek students. You know fraternities and sororities?” She laughed. “I minister to students in these societies and come alongside them and do life with them and answer their questions and I invite them to mass, like they can go to daily mass with me if they want, and we do Bible studies, and normally, within that, I connect with just a few students who have the capacity for leadership, and really build them up, and then they are able to lead out in their own Bible studies. We really adopt the model that Jesus used. I mean, he interacted with hundreds of people, but really only 12 of them knew him well, and within that there were the three. So that’s the model my ministry follows. I just, it’s so wonderful, because I came from West Virginia University,” 

I butted in: “Cool, I graduated from Ohio State!” 

“Really?” she gushed. “I totally applied there! It was one of my top three schools! Anyway, I came from West Virginia University, which is an affluent party school. Like only 60% of people graduate. It has to do with wealth and partying and drugs, and, I don’t know, it’s great to be a part of a ministry at [unmentioned Ivy-league-school] that actively enters that world. I mean, I kind of know that world just from being at WVU. Greek life is a lot!” 

She talks about her experience in Catholicism at WVU, and her spiritual director who had a profound impact on her, and how she ascribes to traditional Catholicism. I ask her if she attended grad school, and she says that she is looking at Augustine Institute, as her ministry offers scholarship to students to attend there. She mentions that for now, her work is part of the re-evangelization efforts within Catholicism to its own youth. As she speaks, it becomes clear that she found Catholicism as an adult. I ask her what drew her to Catholicism. Her eyes widen, “Do you know ‘Theology of the Body’?” 

Me: “It sounds familiar?”  

“Basically, Pope John Paul II (that’s three popes ago) – like, his whole life work was about the body and human sexuality, and how it points us to God and how we learn about the divine through the body and human sexuality. (The people at the Theology of the Body institute are so wonderful! I learned so much about marriage, faithfulness, sexuality, to include masculinity and femininity…) Anyway, I found it so compelling, partly because I came from a broken family, lots of sleeping around, and we had none of that, and I found it so, so beautiful. That, and also the Eucharist and everything in John 6. Do you know John 6?” 

I mean, yes, I know John 6, but couldn’t quote it. She speaks about how strange it was, how strange in Jesus’ culture it would have been for him to tell his disciples to eat his body. 

“And I mean, you don’t really get this unless you read it in the Greek, but it has this idea of ‘gnaw on my flesh,’ this really active, thoughtful action. And then there is the incarnation. Do you all take communion?” 

“Yes, we do.” I smiled, thinking about our rare spring & fall communions compared to regular mass. “We take it twice a year.” 

“And is it substantial or symbolic?” 

“For us, it is symbolic.”

She nodded, smiling. 

“Anyway, tell me all about Mennonites! I know nothing about them. And where are you guys? Like in the U.S.?” 

“We’re all over. Name an American state, and I’ll tell you in what city there are Mennonites.” 

“And what are guys?” 

Grasping, I mumbled something about Menno Simons and Zwingli and the Reformation, and then I highlighted some key distinctives which separate Anabaptists from Catholics and possibly other groups, including believers’ baptism and a decentralized church governance which (supposedly) steps away from church hierarchy in favor of consensus-style leadership and more democratic ways of being. And of course, pacifism and nonviolence. 

“So what is your dogma? What are your creeds?” 

“Welp,” I said, “we have them, but I argue that your regular conservative Mennonite, that is, your regular lay person, would not know what they are or be able to quote them. There are confessions of faith, and deeply buried historical catechisms (like the Waldeck catechism), and there are creeds, but your average daily Mennonite is not familiar with them. I happen to have a keen interest in what will happen to the future of our movement if these elements are not resurrected. I am very interested in liturgy, and I believe that we are getting to the end of something, if our people do not get back to some of these things.”  

Later in the conversation, I told her that our pastors don’t go to seminary, and she thereby lost her mind. “How in the world does that even work?!” 

I smiled and perhaps my eyes twinkled for I have had the same question at times. I also added, “To our people, orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy.”

I mentioned that these dynamics are similar in our educational institutions. “I should explain to you the state of our schools.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. 

“It is common practice in our conservative Mennonite schools for teachers to begin teaching right out of high school. Most teachers do not go to college.”

Her mouth dropped open. 

I went on, “I mean, some schools are working to change this. For example, I taught at the only accredited conservative Mennonite school in the United States. I also helped to start the first A.P. program at a conservative Mennonite school in the United States.” 

“Yeahhhh!” she cheered. 

Later she asked about the difference between Amish and Mennonites and said how her grandmother knew a Mennonite man, and also about marriage practices with the Amish and if they really are allowed to sleep together before they get married. And I said that there are a whole heap of things that I don’t know about the Amish, and I couldn’t say. 

Of course she asked about the Bann and how that could even be Biblical, and I told her that excommunication, as it is practiced, probably comes from readings in Paul where it says to expel the immoral brother and treat him as you would an unbeliever (that is, of course, after Matthew 18 reconciliation had been attempted). 

(At that point in the conversation, I couldn’t remember if Paul actually says to “expel the immoral brother,” or if that was just the heading of that passage in my study Bible growing up.) 

“Well yeah, but how do you treat an unbeliever? Why would you treat him differently?” 

I said that I supposed it had to do with the passage about doing good especially unto the household of faith. (Or that that is how some would explain it.) 

“That’s like indicating you wouldn’t do good to an unbeliever. To me, that just does not make any sense, because Jesus’ whole ministry was one of invitation and hospitality!” 

“Ah,” I said, “but don’t you practice excommunication?”

“No!” she said. 

“But you have closed communion, don’t you?”

“What do you mean, ‘closed communion’?” 

Me: “Not everyone can take communion at any time. There are things which keep people from taking communion.” 

Her: “Well yes, but in that moment, you are still Catholic!!” 

She explained how communion is only for members of the Catholic church because of what is believed about the Eucharist. “We wouldn’t want to give you Jesus’ body and you not know what you are eating!!” 

Then she explained venial sins versus mortal sins. That is, if you sin by not picking up your trash and littering, you won’t go to hell for it. But a mortal sin is where you know something is wrong to do, like very very wrong, like murdering someone, and you choose to do it: “I am going to do this thing.” While you are in that state of unconfessed mortal sin, then no, you do not take communion. 

I mentioned that some Mennonite churches have closed communion and some have open communion (related to church membership), and that I grew up with open communion. 

A bit later she asked about attire and head coverings and dresses, and since she seemed comfortable throwing around Scripture, I mentioned where Mennonites draw their teaching: I Corinthians 11. 

“Oh yes,” she said, “I know. As a traditional Catholic, I cover my head, too, in church.” 

Now it was my turn to be surprised!

At one point, feet-washing came up. “Do you practice feet-washing?!” she asked excitedly. I assured her we did. 

“I have to show you this video!” she rummaged for her phone. “Do you know [unmentioned sports team that is regularly in the news because of dynamics of gender]? I actively work with that team. So, so many good things are happening. I can’t tell you everything, but I have to show you this video of ______________ getting their feet washed.” She played a video, showing high church ornamentation, and a priest kneeling and washing the feet of several people wearing skirts. 

In the conversation, it became clear that she comes to her work honestly. She would ask simple conversational questions, and then very quietly ask bold, direct questions, to which you felt compelled to respond. Like her very carefully asking, “How do you experience singleness?” 

Which I quickly turned around on her because I was dying to know how she sees singleness being viewed in the Catholic church, and whether she thinks singleness holds a higher position in Catholicism compared to evangelicalism, due to beliefs about vocations like being a nun or being a “consecrated virgin living in the world.” (If you don’t know what that is, Google it!) 

There isn’t time here to bat around her response, nor to discuss our next topic – what it is like to be a woman in a traditional community – but I can say that she listened very carefully, asked probing questions, and at the end said, “I want to be clear. When you use the word ‘traditional’ to talk about your experiences as a woman in your community, I mean something completely different when I use the word ‘traditional’ when speaking about being a ‘traditional Catholic.’ You must know that I am referring to theology and orthodoxy.” 

I smiled knowingly: “Oh, for SURE. I’m completely aware.” 

I was struck, though, by her nearly instant ability to discover similarities and differences in our use of terminology and to graciously and humbly recognize our different experiences of that word. 

I wondered, then, if that is how some of these memorable and meaningful connections are formed. And if that – as I asked in September’s blog – if that is one of the keys to connecting with those on the margins.

How I Came to Be Polish – and Other Stories

Four weeks ago I discovered a pretty incredible Polish ancestor. I was quite thrilled with my discovery, for I would be traveling to Poland in a matter of days.

It all started with my great-grandmother who lived to be 102. Here’s a picture of her reading me a book.

Circa 1991


I have clear memories of her, and I’m so delighted that she lived to be so old. (I plan on living just as long. Also, how fun is it to be able to say I met someone who was born in the 1800s?! 1893, to be exact.) I remember the way she conserved water when washing her hands by turning on the faucet to only the tiniest stream, and there are stories about her traveling via horse-drawn wagon from Iowa to Oklahoma.

What’s interesting about my great-grandmother is that her mother was adopted from the Ukraine. You must know that this is significant; my family has very solid Swiss and German roots, so a Ukrainian ancestor is a bit of an anomaly. My great-great grandmother’s name was Mary Ratzlaff, and I was always convinced that she had an interesting Russian heritage.

Russian? Ukrainian? Polish?

You see, I have always wanted to be Russian. Because of this, I exaggerate my Ratzlaff family history. Some of you also know my affinity for Tolstoy. Once I spent the weekend in New York City and bought tickets to see The Great Comet on Broadway, Dave Malloy’s musical adaptation of War and Peace. I was pleased as punch with my nosebleed seats to see Josh Groban performing as Pierre, but more so by an Asian family who asked me how much it meant for me to see the play since I was obviously Russian. Earlier that day, a Russian family on the street stopped my friends and asked me for directions, and please could I give them in Russian.

“Why are you asking me?!” I said.

The man replied: “You look like you speak Russian!”

My family tells the story this way: Mary Ratzlaff arrived to America as an immigrant whose parents had died. She was taken in by the Brennemans, a childless Mennonite couple in Oklahoma. She never learned to read or write, but perhaps she enjoyed looking at pictures in the Brenneman’s German family Bible. (My father is in possession of this Bible, and I will inherit it.) The Bible includes a letter, written in my great-grandmother’s hand, on her mother’s origins.

Papa and I have done a bit of digging to discover more of Mary’s past, and we connected a few dots in Ukraine, but the trail goes cold in Poland, right around the time Mary’s parents and grandparents were marrying very Jewish sounding names – Koehns and Schmidts. (!!)

Dad and I lost our minds – what if we are Jewish?!

Last year, I posted about this on Instagram, and my Belarusian friend Kristina (who is living in Poland) mentioned: “Yes, her name sounds a little bit Jewish!”

Me: “Okay, is it Jewish? My dad and I have always wondered!”

Kristina: “For me, it sounds very Jewish. Both name and surname.”

Dad and I were so intrigued. A year later, this December, I did the final uncovering. Using all the free tools at ancestry.com, geni.com, and wikitree.com, I discovered the following:

Slavic?

The earliest known Ratzlaff relative was a Swedish soldier, of Slavic origin named Heinrich, who lived from 1590-1631. (Actually, his first name is unknown, but genealogists have nicknamed him thus.) He may have been a Swedish soldier in the European Civil War (the 30 Years War in 1618-1648), or perhaps a contract soldier (mercenary) of Slavic origin fighting for the King of Sweden. He was born is what is now Szczecin, Poland, a major seaport near the German border and the Baltic Sea. (This city was found by West Slavs in the 700s).

Reportedly, this Ratzlaff ancestor was moved by sermons he heard in the Mennonite church and determined to join the church. He pulled his sword from its sheath and thrust it into a hedge post and broke it off at the hilt. Jacob Wedel (1754-1791), a Mennonite of Przechovka, Poland, who traced family names back to their origins in his Przechovka-Alexanderwohl church record, relates that due to the laws in Prussia of the time about converting to the Mennonite church, Heinrich could not immediately join the church. He had to leave for the Netherlands before returning to Prussia to join the congregation. Heinrich Ratzlaff married Caterina Alcke Vogt, and his only son is described by Wedel as “by our people’s standards, a very wealthy man.”

Wedels are not only 18th century Mennonite record keepers; their German counterparts started the Polish national chocolate brand: E. Wedel!

Kenneth Ratzlaff, in his 1998 A Mennonite Family’s History, raises some interesting questions regarding the possible Slavic origins of the Ratzlaff name: “Where did this ‘Swedish’ Ratzlaff come from with his Slavic-sounding name? Several sources have pointed to Pomerania, a region of northern present-day Germany, on the Baltic Sea west of Danzig [Gdansk]. Pomerania at that time was under Swedish control, and Sweden had been at war with Poland and Russia. Consequently a soldier from that region might have had contacts around Przechowka, and someone from Pomerania could have been identified as Swedish. A similar name, Retzlaff, is common in the area around Stettin [Szczecin] in Pomerania. The name Retzlaff could have been changed to Ratzlaff to fit the Low German dialect of West Prussia. That leaves another question: Ratzlaff sounds Slavic; why would a Slavic name come from a Germanic area? Centuries earlier, Pomerania had been occupied by Slavs. Though Retzlaff is not a Serbian-sounding name, a possible origin in the present-day area of Serbia has been suggested. The Slavic identity had been lost, but the name Retzlaff was possibly a relic of that occupation.”

(Interestingly, wikitree.com indicates that “no known carriers of Heinrich’s DNA have taken a DNA test.” Presumedly doing so could prove these Slavic roots. Me: HOLD MY MENNO TEA. My DNA test just arrived in the mail today!)

For eight generations, the Ratzlaffs resided in what is now Poland. They participated in Mennonite congregations in Prussia throughout the 1600 and 1700s, and if we follow the line, it is Heinrich, Johann V Hans, Elder Berent, Berent, Hans, Heinrich, Andreas Heinrich, and Andreas, who moved to Ukraine. Andreas’s son Tobias, and Tobias’s daughter Mary Ratzlaff (my great-great-grandmother) were both born in Antonivka, Ukraine.

Indeed, to have discovered these possible Slavic origins only days before a short trip to Warsaw, Poland, was immensely gratifying. I imagined my trip to be a kind of home-going, a visiting of the motherland. I imagined 6-year-old Mary Ratzlaff boarding a ship for America, leaving behind the flat plains of Antonivka, never to return again. I imagined her on her deathbed, at 44 years old, learning of her great-great granddaughter whose entire occupation is teaching language and reading. I tried to imagine the Polish landscape, a land my ancestors once inhabited.

No words on any Jewish origins, though. Many female maiden names in the family line sound quite Mennonite (Dutch Mennonite, for that matter): Voth, Funk, Kornelson, Unruh, Dreier. (However, a DNA test should be able to identify Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, if there is any. I will know soon!) I was also shocked to discover that Mary Ratzlaff’s father Tobias did NOT die, leaving her an orphan. Rather, he dropped her off in Oklahoma, and went on to Kansas where he remarried a Helena Schmidt, and proceeded to have 13 children! Both Tobias and Helena are both buried in a Mennonite cemetery in Kansas. I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS. How could he leave his little daughter, and was he estranged from her? For my great-grandmother’s letter mentions nothing of her mother’s father remarrying or ever visiting Mary after she was taken in by the Brennemans. So fascinating.

Story #1: Warsaw holiday

Some of you who follow me on social media know that I planned a short trip to Poland over Christmas to visit two dear friends, Lizzie who is teaching English in Minsk Mazowiecki, and my Belarusian friend Kristina, who is living in Warsaw, who I met on Oasis Chorale tour in Ireland in 2014. (A crazy connection! We met after a concert in the Waterford cathedral, and we’ve stayed connected on Instagram ever since.) When I mentioned that I might be in Warsaw over Christmas, Kristina graciously invited me to visit her church and have a meal with her family.

I traveled with an old roommate of mine (you remember my scientist friend who accompanied me to the Mennonite History conference in Winnipeg) and her husband, and we had a magical time exploring the most festive bits of Old Town, for we arrived at 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

(Interestingly, Tobias and his little daughter Mary arrived to Philadelphia from Europe on Christmas day in 1874. One hundred forty-seven years later, I traveled from Philadelphia to Warsaw on Christmas Eve.)

Mary’s passage documents that I found on ancestry.com: “Maria Ratzlas, 6, female, child, Russian” aboard the S.S. Vaderland in December 1874. (Note the two little girls’ names after hers. Mary had several little sisters on the ship!)

Christmas day was spent with Lizzie and her friends, and Lizzie put me on a train back to Warsaw in the afternoon to meet my Belarusian friend Kristina, who I had not seen for seven years. I was so nervous about getting off at the correct stop, but I managed to find my way, and soon I was in the middle of a Belarusian house party, laughing my way through games played in Russian. Kristina took me back to her apartment, and we drank tea and talked late into the night.

It was an honor to attend her church on Sunday (I may or may not have sung a duet with Kristina in the service), and it was a privilege to meet her parents and 12 siblings. We shared a meal, after which the house was filled with music and singing (in Polish and English), and it felt nearly familiar, with rich four-part harmonies.

Evening came, and more conversation, and soon Kristina and I were sipping coffees at the train station, waiting for my goodbye train.

It is conversations and connections like these that bring us back to “where we are” and remind us of God’s good earth the world over. Sometimes I find that my life feels very in-grown, so very small, at my tiny school in a rural county. But that evening, it was as if, for a moment, I turned slowly in place and surveyed the whole landscape, instead of fixating on that broken hilt.

Story #2: A Man with a baby cat

On my train back to Minsk Mazowiecki, a Man with a Baby Cat began walking through my train, asking everyone to pet it. Everyone cooed at the baby cat. Even though he was well-dressed, I did NOT want to be bothered by this stranger. I got off at my train stop, and he sidled up to me near the stairs:

“Chcesz pogłaskać kociaka?”

I tried to ignore him, and put my head down and kept walking, a little scared to find an empty train platform with my friends NOWHERE in sight.

The Man with a Baby Cat, who was still wearing a huge smile, toddled off to find other victims. I couldn’t remember how to get back to Lizzie’s apartment, so I was left to shiver in 7-degree weather on the train platform and furiously text my friends.

Ten minutes later, they arrived, and all the way home, I gushed about my freshly-made Warsaw memories, and hollered about the Man with the Baby Cat, and right when we were crossing the street to my friend’s apartment, the Man with a Baby Cat dashed up behind us and asked in English, “DO YOU WANT TO PET THE KITTEN?” and we squealed and ran for the apartment and dashed inside and locked the doors.


Story #3: Ice Skating

Indeed, my Warsaw holiday was a gift, thanks to the hospitality of Lizzie and Kristina, and my traveling companions Janae & Justin.

One highlight was exploring Kazimierz Dolny, a historic town filled with art galleries, along the Vistula River.

I also enjoyed ice skating in Old Town Warsaw. (Indeed, I hadn’t gone ice skating in years!) Admission to the rink in the center of Old Town is free, and renting skates costs only $2.50. The rink is lit by festive lights strung dazzlingly across, and in the amber light, I shoved my feet into hockey skates while my friends sought out hot drinks and grilled sheep cheese with cranberries.

I slowly warmed up on the ice, weaving in and out of Polish strangers until my body remembered the movements, and then I skated fast like a little girl, darting in and out of the bundled skaters. I skated around and around, changing directions when the announcers called it, lost deep in thought, not realizing my time had wound down, much past my rental. As I swirled around on the ice that night, an old woman with gray hair, across the rink, caught my eye. She stared into my eyes, smiled, and waved and waved. I circled the rink again, trying to find her face to see if she was actually waving at me or someone else.

I kept scanning the spectators warming themselves with hot drinks by the fire heaters, but I couldn’t find her.

Had she slipped into the crowd?

It doesn’t matter. I will always imagine her to be my ancestor welcoming me home.

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On Being Woman: Reflections on My Mennonite Running Life

Last summer I was interrupted during a particularly foggy early morning 12-mile run. There was an unusual amount of road traffic for just after sunrise on a Saturday. I noticed a large number of Amish buggies, and huge white Amish-hauler vans and big trucks (that seemed like they should have Trump stickers but didn’t) were passing me. As I coasted down a hill, I realized I was running through Linda Stoltzfoos’s search party. I approached a Mennonite church parking lot and found the make-shift search party headquarters. It was 7:00 a.m., and probably one hundred Amish, Mennonite, and community members were gathering to commence the search. Buggies were still arriving, and police cars slowly cruised in the lot. Several men eyed me carefully as I jogged past. I kept my head down and kept running.

It’s been one year since Linda Stoltzfoos, an 18-year-old Amish teen, disappeared from Beechdale Road in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. She was walking home from a Sunday church service when she was kidnapped, strangled, and stabbed to death by Justo Smoker.

I think about her regularly, for I, too, spend time alone on country roads. She, walking home from a Sunday church service, and I, a Mennonite long-distance runner.

When the news story broke last June about her disappearance, and in the following weeks as a kidnapping and murder seemed imminent, I felt sick to my stomach. I spend hours running alone on country roads in Lancaster County. What if it had been me? Had I been out that day? I checked my GPS watch running logs. My half-marathon training records show a 6-mile run in a nearby area the day before.

The 12-mile run when I stumbled upon her search party was a difficult run to finish, for I imagined myself finding a body… in a ditch, in a corn field, under a tree.

I remember as I finished my run and I neared my house, a squad came screaming past. I felt sick to my stomach. Had they found her body? Was it nearby?

While the run was traumatic, I suppose I felt safe that day. I was at least running through a search party.

I think about safety a lot. I’ve been road running for eight years, and you learn some things.

Like when you choose a new running route, don’t use earbuds for several days. Get used to the route. Notice the traffic, the people. Notice the cars driving past. Do you feel safe? Where do you feel exposed? Don’t run at night. Wear bright colors. If you’re running in the early morning, wear a head lamp. At all times have an exit plan. That slow-approaching car? Where can you turn off? Which Amish farm is closest? Do you trust the folks at this non-Amish farm? Pay attention to cars that pass you twice. Memorize license plates. (You can always tell when folks are watching you when they pass you from behind because they slightly drift over the yellow line. Every time a car drifts over the line, I look up and find myself locking eyes with someone in the rear-view mirror.) (It’s always a man.)

Part of my approach to road safety I’ve learned from one of my friends who lives in New York (which, according to my rural neighbors is “the most dangerous place in the world”). Besides the common-sense tips of not being out alone after dark, she talks about intuition.

“You don’t feel safe? Something feels off? That person on the subway making you feel uncomfortable? Get out. Move to a different car. Change your location. There’s a reason your body is giving you these messages. Listen to your intuition.”

Recently we traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico. We were walking, just the two of us, through the beautiful, colorful streets, Instagramming the architecture in the late afternoon sun. The streets were empty, and we turned down one street and noticed a man muttering to himself. We felt it at the same time.

“Let’s turn around,” I said.

“Absolutely, let’s go the other way,” she replied.

As two 30-year-old single women, we enjoyed our time exploring Old San Juan. We also listened to our intuition and deviated from our route if necessary.

For the most part, nobody bothers me when I run. The time in my life when I received the most harassment was when I lived in a small town in northern Indiana that was surrounded by Amish homesteads. It was common on my afternoon run for J.O.’s  in a Jeep to drive by and harass me. (J.O. refers to “jumped over”; it refers to Indiana Amish youth who have left the Amish; they have “jumped over” the fence.) They would honk the horn and yell at me, leaving me to think J.O.’s in their free time weren’t good for much.

Mostly, though, when people see a Mennonite woman running, there is just general confusion. When I was attending a Mennonite Bible Institute in southern Indiana, I was running (in a skirt) one winter afternoon. An “English” man was walking next to his young son who was on a bicycle. A look of great concern came over the man’s face as I approached, and he motioned for his son to stop riding, (presumably so he could “save” me from whatever it was I was running from). I awkwardly waved, tried to smile, and ran past.

When I moved to Lancaster, PA, a Mennonite friend in the city offered me a “running tour” of Lancaster city. We were both wearing Mennonite running skorts. I donned an Adidas hat to cover my head, and she wore a prayer veiling. We scampered all over the city. A young woman with a missing tooth and a cigarette walked past, “Okay, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have NEVER seen an Amish person exercise.” Inwardly I rolled my eyes. My friend smiled and said hello.

As I think about running safety and the different reactions I get while running (from mild harassment to general confusion), it strikes me how these experiences are not shared by Mennonite men. No one bats an eye if a Mennonite man were to run down the road. But this is not the case for Mennonite women. (Indeed, no one bats an eye if a white Mennonite man were to run down the road. The same might not be said for an African American man.)

And so I think about the parts of my running experience that are not shared by white men. For Justo Smoker did not attack an Amish male. He attacked an Amish girl.

And I wonder – is the experience of being a woman different than the experience of being a man? The answer is so obvious, but there are those who want it not to be true exactly when they need to focus on it. There are those who pretend the experience is the same for everyone precisely when it is not.

The fact that I think about Linda Stoltzfoos on nearly every run is evidence, for one. I’m constantly scanning traffic. I notice my route radiuses getting shorter and shorter. I notice I struggle to have motivation to get on the road. I haven’t been this scared before. All this, based on one murder. (It makes me wonder what my black brothers and sisters experience, considering the news we encounter on a regular basis.)

Indeed, different Mennonite women have different attitudes toward road running and female safety. I once suggested a running route to one of my friends, and she said to me, “You would run on that road?! A man exposed himself to some girls on that road once!”

While I champion safety, I do not fall into this “fear of the public” mentality.

“Let’s be clear,” I responded. “That was a one-time event. He doesn’t live on that road and was probably driving past. I’m not going to avoid one of the most beautiful (open, visible) routes in Lancaster because of a one-time event years ago.”

You see? They don’t get to scare us. They don’t get to make us disappear. I will keep running and being visible. I will keep showing up. I refuse to stay inside.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about systems recently. How systems can carry ideology and treatment of people even if the people currently running the system don’t believe those things, and the folks who put those systems in place are long gone. As a school admin, I see how systems put in place years ago continue to affect students and staff that the institution serves. It occurs to me that there can be institutional dysfunction which is the fault of no current employee, yet we all experience the dysfunction, and we all bear the responsibility for change. (I could give examples from various institutions – can you?) (I like to think that it works both ways, that leaders can affect long-lasting positive change, institutional change that outlives them. Why does it feel so hard to be hopeful in this way?)

Is it different being a woman?

A friend of mine, studying at a liberal Mennonite university gave a literary presentation that somehow included reference to his conservative upbringing, to women, and to feminism. A questioner in the audience asked about women from his community and about feminism – if they want it. My friend responded, “Mennonite women are largely content. They have no need of feminism.” He told me this story as if for approval, yet self-assured of his answer. I looked him square in the eye and said: “I would never have given that answer!”

And he shouldn’t have either. He is much too educated to provide such a simplistic, unnuanced answer. He should have at the very least said, “It’s complicated,” and cited the countless sex abuse cases and the (countable) disaffected Mennonite women he knows.

But when a system is working for you, you don’t question if it is working for others. Not to mention the female hegemony he doesn’t look past. 

Years ago, a group of young Mennonite students plopped into their seats as the bell rang for my English class, and they asked as a group: “Miss Swartzentruber, are you a feminist?”

This was a land mine, for then (as now) the word feminist is heard as a four-letter word among conservative Mennonites, especially in those pockets where fundamentalism has attached itself to Anabaptism.

I backed away from the land mine. Turning the question around on them, I asked, “What do you mean by a feminist? Can you define what feminism is?”

They squirmed and looked at each other.

I went on: “If by feminism you mean that female teachers should get paid the same as men, and that female teachers should receive the same benefits as married male teachers, then yes, I’m a feminist.”

A few kids raised their eyebrows. Not because I said, “I’m a feminist,” but because of the hint I was giving them about pay practices at a Mennonite school they attended. These bright students knew that their female teachers worked their fingers to the bone every day for their students. I believe they were shocked to discover that between their goofy, easy-going teachers there was inequality quietly percolating, as it had been, for years.

I suppose what running is teaching me right now is that different people from different groups have different experiences. And it’s no use arguing that we all experience the same things.

Yet no matter how often I have this conversation, someone refuses to listen to it. It is as if there is a chosen deafness.

Why can’t we trust people? Why is it so hard to accept that someone has had different experiences than me? And that those experiences have occurred in systems which happen to benefit me, but not entirely everybody else?

Despite the fact that running motivation for me has been quite low, a few months ago I signed up for the Bird-in-Hand Half Marathon. This local race is nationally recognized for its community experience and next-door view of Amish life. Runners “run with the Amish” through Lancaster County, past Amish farms and schoolhouses. Aid stations are manned by Amish kids and families, and finisher medals are fashioned from old horseshoes from Amish horses. I generally avoid heritage tourist traps, but the race is so highly rated (and literally in my backyard) that I figured I ought to run it. (I noticed that the course is only a half mile from Beechdale road.)

My training leading up to the race was absolute trash. Pouring rain, an insane work schedule, and low motivation caused me to miss half of my training runs. Then I got quite sick with allergies the week of the race. I decided to run anyway, despite my hacking cough and intermittent nosebleeds.

Registration, parking, and port-a-pots were seamless. Indeed, Mennonites and Amish are similar enough for me to know that we know how to do large group events. The lack of thumping music at the starting line was also decidedly local. I felt proud to be welcoming so many out-of-state visitors to “my” community. Didn’t see many Amish or Mennonite runners, though; I was rockin’ a skirt by myself, amidst all the neon spandex.

By mile 2, I ended up in an Amish front yard for a 20-minute pit stop. I had a nosebleed.

“You live here?” I asked four Amish spectators.

Fluids flowed down my hand. Each spectator checked their pockets for tissues.

An Amish man asked softly if I would like some paper towels, a rag to clean myself, and a cup of cold water.

“That would be nice?” I stammered. I realized the nosebleed was going to be a bad one, and I contemplated dropping out. Meanwhile, an Amish lady found a crumpled (used?) tissue, which I accepted. The Amish man returned, and I jammed paper towels on my face. I asked him how many runners he knows are racing.

“Didn’t they say about 1800? Or do you mean how many runners I know personally? About 8 or so. My son was one of the first ones through here,” he said modestly. Though wearing a long beard, he did not have a mustache, and his cheeks looked like they had just been shaved. Behind him, a cow mooed.   

He looked at me: “You need someone to help you. You don’t want to keep running. It could start bleeding again. Aren’t there people around to help?” He was referring to the race organizers and the ambulances dotting the course.

He mentioned a second time that I should probably not finish the race.

THIS WAS EVERY MOTIVATION I NEEDED TO ABSOLUTELY FINISH THE RACE.

I mumbled something about finding an ambulance, then motioned awkwardly to the pile of paper towels at his feet.

“We’ll take care of it,” he said softly, looking into the distance.

I walked for a mile holding my nose, then carried dirty paper towels for 10 more miles. Which I ran without stopping.

At one point, I came upon a group of women in matching miniskirts cresting a hill, squawking like birds.

“Where are you from?” I asked, jogging past.

“Long Island!” they hollered. “LONG OYLAND! Long Oyland! Where YOU from?!”

“I’m from right here, man; I run these roads every Saturday.”

“Ahhhh! You are so lucky!” they cried.

Indeed, little Amish kids offered “wasser” at multiple aid stations, their little chorus of cries in near unison. I was amused at the runners’ wonder and curiosity at all of the county delights – I mentally catalogued all the things they photographed.  

Because I had stopped so long for my nosebleed, the race had really thinned out. For the last two miles, we were running parallel to Beechdale road. I was running alone, and I thought of Linda Stoltzfoos. I blinked back tears.

I finished the race and was surprised by the “community picnic,” a free, massive Amish dinner of ribs, BBQ chicken, potato salad, veggies, cake, and soft-serve ice cream. I wanted to hug the food tent. I’m not sure if race participants understood how Amish/Mennonite that part of the event was. The menu, the help-yourself buffet styling, the endless food for a crowd of over 2000, the seamless organization of it all, the little tiny Amish and Mennonite children darting to and fro. This kind of hospitality runs deep in my bones.

With my back to a tent of 1000 people, I sat by myself in the grass, cross-legged in the bright September sun. I thought to myself how, though I had been surrounded by 2000 people that day, I had barely spoken to anyone all morning (except for the runner’s group from Long Island) and one Amish man.

Both of these groups were my people: the running community, and the plain community. Yet that morning, somehow I felt more like a spectator than a participant, in both groups. 

And maybe that’s what I mean by different people from different groups have different experiences. I wonder what it takes to identify the margins. Who is experiencing life differently than I am? And what might they need?

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Junge Frau: A Story about Growing up Female

There was no warning when she came to live with us. I came down the dark brown carpeted steps one morning and stopped short – a young woman in sleeveless floral pajamas was ironing a blouse, her soft brown hair about her shoulders. I whispered to my sisters, “Who is that?” Mama looked at me and said, “This is Rosie. She’s from Germany. She’s going to stay with us.”

I had a vague memory of talk of a visitor last week, but clearly it had not stuck, for I was quite startled to see this stranger drying her hair and ironing clothes in the dining room. Uncharacteristically, I stood back, lingering behind my sisters.

After breakfast, Papa took the girls to school in his unmarked white box truck, and Mama and I drove with Rosie in our wood-paneled minivan all the way to Rosedale. Mama told me that Rosie was going to attend Rosedale Bible Institute. German words dropped here and there as Mama asked about Rosie’s parents back in Berlin. See, Mama and Papa had lived in Berlin in the 80s. They worked at the Hafen. Papa “worked with the guys from the streets,” and Mama did housework. Rosie’s parents had been Papa and Mama’s house parents. The Hafen, of course, was in West Berlin; the Berlin wall surrounded the city, at the time, separating it from communist East Germany.

Rosie asked, “And the girls? They have school?”

“Yes, Lester drove them this morning.”

“And Esther?”

I sat up a little straighter and tried to look important.

“Esther is in Kindergarten, and she only goes three days a week. She does not have school today.”

I remember thinking that it was in fact nice to have a day off with these ladies.

Kindergarten was a German word that I knew – it meant “child garden.” Papa also sometimes called us “Kinder!” to beckon us inside. I knew other German words, like all the words to Gott Ist Die Liebe. (Papa made me sing it for Walter Beachy every Sunday that he preached, when he carried me out through the receiving line.) Vorsichtig is what Papa says to you when you need to pay attention to what you’re doing. Mama and Papa say “Tschuss!” to each other every morning and kiss each other on the lips. I used to think tschuss means “kiss,” but I think it means goodbye. At the table, you said bitte and danke and it was usually all right to get the butter then.

Culottes, Cut Flowers, & Me, 1996

Rosie spent a few days at our house before moving into the dorms at Rosedale, and she came to our house occasionally after that. How much did we learn about being a woman!

There were Victoria magazines, skirts with buttons down the front, fashionable European shoes with chunky heels (Mom called them “clodhoppers”), German coffees, and tea parties. Rosie took one look at our hair brush and said, “No, no!” She promptly bought us a brand-new brush (the right kind!), and introduced us to Herbal Essences shampoo. She’d weave our long hair into intricate braids – French, inside-out, and fish braids – and choose a French twist for herself, or even better, she’d style her hair with a red velvety accessory called a “turd.” (How we laughed at the name!)

We visited her dorm room at Rosedale, and we met her roommate Carol. They gushed, professing undying love for each other: “We even have nicknames for each other – sometimes I call her Honey Bee, and she calls me Sweetie Pie!” Carol had the most beautiful mane of thick black curls (she looked like Diana Barry), and in my 5-year-old mind, Carol and Rose were the most elegant women on earth. They’d come to our house for Sunday dinner sometimes and occasionally bring friends.

Rosie loved fresh flowers, and she wore silver rings on her fingers. She also liked “laying out,” and we’d lie on the lawn on a blanket beside her lawn chair while she tanned. Laying out took forever. One Sunday we were “laying out,” and Rosie started giggling.

“Why are you laughing?” my sister asked.

“Ettie can’t sit still. She runs inside to get a pillow. She runs inside to get a drink. She runs back in to get a book.”

After that, I tried very hard to lie still and Not Move. But it was just very rather boring to lie in the grass!

One time we asked what Germany is like and she said it’s a place where rats come up the toilet and bite you on the bum. I immediately listed Germany among countries not worth visiting.

Some time later Mama and Rosie were reminiscing about Germany days. “We’ll have to take the girls sometime!” Mama said.

I piped up, very serious, “I do not want to go to Germany!”

“What?” Rosie asked, “Why not?”

“There are RATS in the pots!” I wailed.

Mama and Rosie erupted into laughter.

“I was only joking,” Rosie said, “They don’t bite you on the bum in the bathroom.”

Still. It seemed like a place not to go.

Occasionally, Rosie invited her many friends to our house. She once hosted an entire dinner party – all gentlemen. The table was immaculately set with all the place settings. There can be no doubt that strong coffee and German kuchen (like Erdbeer-Sahne-Torte or Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) were for dessert. Our phone with a cord rang at the last minute.

“All right! A girl’s coming!” Rosie cried, as she hung up the phone. “Gotta change the plates!”

She had set the entire table in Mama’s plain cream dishes, with all the matching place settings. With the presence of just one other woman at the table, it was worth it to change the place settings to Mama’s best china. We quickly reset the entire table.

Once Mama and Papa went to ministers and elders meeting, and we had a babysitter. The babysitter was also attending Rosedale Bible Institute at the time, and she called beforehand asking if she could take us to the talent show. I didn’t know what a talent show was, but it was like church, except like when the youth group did it, at night. People sang songs and did skits, and it was all right to laugh. Afterward, our babysitter greeted all of her friends. We saw Rosie, and she poked each of us in the stomach and squeezed our cheeks so hard that we almost cried, were it not for all the smiling.

Rosie had male friends who occasioned our house – one in particular was Bill. He came quite frequently, he and his long blonde hair. He was what I think Mama calls “ruggedly handsome.” From the very beginning, I did not like Bill. He took up a lot of my new friend’s time – I developed an aversion to him. He tried to speak to me while I emptied the dishwasher.

“Do you know my name?”

“Yes,” I said without looking at him, “It’s Billy Goat’s Butt.”

Bill didn’t say anything and went back out to the patio. At some point that evening, Mama found me.

“Esther, I want you to be nice to Bill. You are being very RUDE.”

“I only called him Billy Goat’s Butt,” I fumed.

“That is rude. You do not call anyone by that name.”

Weeks later, Bill came through the door for the cream-colored-dish-turned-fine-china dinner party.

“Hi, Esther,” Bill winked. “Do you know my name?”

“Yes,” I said quietly. “It’s Bill.” 

“Aren’t you going to call me Billy Goat’s Butt?”

“No,” I said, and went out and sat on the porch swing by myself.

Rosie knew how to sew, and once she made a sailor-style shirt for Bill. It featured corded lacing in the front. Mama raised her eyebrows: “I guess that will show some chest.”

Rosie folded the shirt, “Probably.”

Rosie surprised us in other ways, like her penchant for thunderstorms. She would even SIT on the PORCH… during the storms!

“You’re crazy!” Mom hollered, as cracks of lightning flitted across the pitch-black fields, followed by cacophonous booms.

“Thunderstorms are the best!” she’d say, and disappear onto the porch with a letter to write.

For her first car, Rosie bought a tiny blue Ford Escort, and one sunny day, she washed it outside on the concrete slab while singing along to songs on the radio we’d never heard before.

“How do you know all these songs?” we asked, incredulous.

“It’s called pop! They played it on the radio every day in Germany when I rode the bus to school!” she said, before belting out another tune. We helped spray down her hubcaps before retreating to play with a ball we found. When she practiced for her driver’s test in our driveway, we rode in the back seat and listened to more “pop” while she maneuvered a stick shift in our short lane.

Her brothers came to visit her once, and our house was filled with laughter as Papa and Mama retold countless stories of life at the Hafen when Rose and her brothers were young. I finally met the infamous young man Angie, who in Papa’s slides was a boy who would sleepily say each morning, “Honig, bitte.”

We went to house fellowship on Sunday evening, and Rose and her brothers stayed home. When we drove home under a full moon, we were not prepared for the scene we found. They were lying in the middle of the road.

Mom was in hysterics in the van, and Papa turned into our lane. “They’re crazy,” he muttered. Papa parked the van, and we all ran out to the road.

“What in the world are you doing?” Mama shrieked.

They laughed. “We’re sitting on the road! What does it look like we’re going?”

“Do you have any idea how fast people drive on this road?!” Mom was referring to the extremely flat, extremely straight country road, bordered on both sides by corn fields and bean fields and the occasional Midwestern house.

“We’re learning!” Angie grinned.

“What do you do if a car comes?” I gasped.

“We roll to the other side of the road. Like this!” They rolled over. “And if a car comes on the other side, we roll like this!” They rolled back.

One time, after being away for some time, Rosie returned to visit us, and she showed us a painting she had done of some cherries. I stared at it, wide-eyed.

“How did you do that?” I breathed, incredulous. For it had the look of actual cherries. Real cherries! If you looked closely, she had used colors not associated with cherries to get the actual look of cherries. One of the colors she used was peach.

“You like to draw, don’t you, Esther?” she asked.

I said, dumbfounded, “I will never be able to paint like that.”

“You will,” she said, and meant it. “You will paint like that someday.” I hardly believed her. How could a person learn to paint so that it looked real?

At some point she transferred to a college, I suppose, for soon we were traveling to Wilmore, Kentucky to attend her college graduation. It was an incredible thing to be invited to a real campus. We stayed in a bed & breakfast with very thin walls and a bathroom in the hallway.

Part of the festivities in the almost Southern town was a final chorale program in which Rosie sang in a choir. The concert was in a large white church, with tall white ceilings and dark wood railings at the front. We had very good seats. An African American woman sang a solo, after which many people clapped, and during one piece I was shocked for the director to seat himself and for a woman to direct the choir for a performance. She was a student director, he said, and I never knew in my life that a woman could direct music. I cannot for the life of me remember if she was African American too, and it seems like it matters to remember if she was or not, but all I remember is that she was a woman.

When we left the concert, my sisters and I immediately began whispering about the soloist.

“Her voice was so weird!” we said. We tried to imitate her voice using shrill-like trills. Mama overheard us.

“Oh no,” Mama said matter-of-factly, “She was an excellent soprano with an incredible vibrato. I’m sure her director loves the fact that she can sing that high. She was an excellent soloist!”

I sat back, again surprised. I clearly had much to learn about singing soprano. How could anybody enjoy that kind of singing? But Mama knew. She was one of the best sopranos in church. In fact, she herself had sung in the Rosedale Chorale for many years.

During the graduation visit, we took an evening walk through campus, past tall white columns and under Southern trees to a church where sometimes Rosie and her friends played for worship. They walked to the front of the church, past the dark railings for kneeling, and in the near dark played and sang songs for our little entourage. After the first piece, someone clapped.

“Oh, no, don’t clap,” one of the them said haltingly. “We always play in the context of worship, so there isn’t clapping.”

Again, I was surprised. So we just sat quietly in the dimly-lit sanctuary, listening to their music.

The next day was graduation. We hiked to the balcony of a grand old auditorium for the baccalaureate service and giggled and giggled as the procession began – for the outfits! The outfits! Oh they must be prof – prof – professors! Look at their heads! Their heads! My mother laughed out loud at the colorful regalia.

“Did you like their outfits?” Rosie asked me later. I giggled.

We craned our necks from the balcony as the graduates processed in, in long lines of black caps and gowns. Far below, and halfway up the aisle, Rosie turned around, looked up, and winked at us. This, too, surprised me.      

 * 

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Easters I Remember

There are two Easters I remember well.

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In the first, Papa is a carpenter. I grew up around sawdust and power tools, screw drivers and lumber. Daddy wore jeans and tan work shirts to work every day, with a pencil stuck behind his ear. Sometimes as little girls, we tagged along to job sites, sweeping up sawdust Here, and learning to put Those Boards over There. We were handed nearly empty jars of putty and dull carpenter’s knives to fill holes in woodwork. We’d hold the ends of giant pipes, while Papa carefully painted their rims with green and purple substances. We supervise him soldering copper with a blowtorch, cringing in fear when tiny bits of melted metal dropped to his skin. He’d bark, “Don’t open the tape measure all the way!” But we always did anyway, holding contests to see how long we could unroll it into the air without it cracking to the floor. We stood next to him as dutiful carpenter nurses, handing him various instruments: “Square.” “Sawzall.” “Screw.” “Tape.”

Many times, we were called upon to clean up his work site. We’d arrive to find sawdust spit into every corner, the little bag for catching sawdust completely fallen off the miter saw. Wooden clamps lay twisted on the floor, every which way. Power drills and cords lay haphazardly. “After you fill this, you can play,” he said, handing us impossibly large black trash bags.

Papa had this way of convincing you that you were the greatest at tasks you’d never done before. One day I helped him spackle some drywall. He handed me a stainless-steel trough of freshly-mixed spackle, along with a trowel, demonstrating the motion. He left, then returned to check my work. He’d shake his head.

“I can’t believe it!” he’d say. “You’re better than the guys I hire in Columbus!”

“Lookin’ good, sister! I tell you what. I’d like to hire you!” he’d say, while re-spackling most of the spots I’d done with a “second coat.”

“Just smooth it out, there. See.”

One time, Papa worked for a German woman named Heike in Columbus. She was a professor in the Department of Design at The Ohio State University. I don’t know how Papa met her, but he had a knack for finding German-speaking people and for going out of his way to practice his German on them.

Heike had a remodeling job for Papa to do, and one day Mama drove us in our green wood-paneled Plymouth Grand Caravan to see Heike’s house.

“Esther, you have to see her house. You’ll really think it’s neat.”

Heike had short hair like a boy. Her house was unlike most houses I had seen, in shape, in the amount of rooms, and the furniture. She had a whole table made of glass. (A whole table! Think of it!) Mama instructed us not to touch it. When Mama and Heike were not looking, I touched it.

I remember rattan chairs, and strange art, perhaps from Africa. The best thing of all was her garden and lattices to the side of the house. Papa hadn’t finished the steps down into the little alcove, so he had set up a piece of 2×8 as a ramp that he padded across, and we girls thought that was the neatest thing. But it was raining that day, and as we trotted back and forth on the ramp, Rachel promptly fell off, sprained her ankle, and there was maybe a little blood. The carpenter’s blubbering, crying daughter caused quite the alarm for Heike, who wanted Rachel to be taken to the emergency room. (“That’s because she’s Professional,” Mom said.) Instead, Mom asked for a rag, loaded my two sisters in the minivan and drove home.

I was left with Papa at the work site. I wanted nothing more than to march up and down the ramp some more. But Heike said no.

She asked me if I liked to draw. I said I did, and she invited me into the house. I suddenly felt shy as she walked me toward a sunken room that had little natural light. Only a small window was near the ceiling. She offered me a pencil with which to draw, and gave me the largest collection of colored pencils I had ever seen. I turned my nose up at them (for they were not Crayola), but I was in shock to discover that they were the smoothest set of colors I had ever used. There were no primary colors, and I remember being disappointed to have to improvise using obscure shades. The colored pencils were magical, the lead buttery soft. (I now know that Heike leads the Interior Design department at Ohio State, and I can only imagine what writing instruments she put into the hands of a grimy 7-year-old.)

“Heike is probably not a Christian,” I reasoned, so I decided to draw her a picture of Jesus so that she might be saved. Perhaps it was nearing Easter, for I decided to draw Mary at the tomb. I colored Mary’s robe with a non-descript mauve color for there was no pencil labeled “blue.” Heike returned to the inner room.

“Show me what you’ve drawn.”

“It’s Jesus’ resurrection,” I explained. “This is the angel,” I pointed to a white character. “He’s telling Mary that Jesus isn’t here. He’s risen from the dead. And that’s the tomb.” A large gray circle filled the middle of the page.

“I see,” she said.

“It’s for you,” I explained.

“Oh!” She set it aside.

I was a little surprised she didn’t become a Christian after I gave her my picture. I squirmed out of my seat to go find Papa. I didn’t want to draw with Heike anymore.

***

I am not sure why that memory is so vivid in my mind. I remember her soaking-wet, green gardens, the overcast gray clouds, and the curious angles of her home. I remember her very short hair. I remember the delight of scampering over a simple ramp made by Papa, and the momentary uncertainty of being with a stranger.

***

Easter as a child was memorable for a lot of reasons. Grandma sent us brand-new matching Easter dresses (from J.C. Penney) in a box in the mail every year. We got to wear white shoes to church, or even better, white sandals. There was always an Easter play at church on Good Friday. Grown men would roughhouse Jesus (where the podium used to be), and soldiers (really, all the carpenters in church) would “nail” Jesus to the cross, pounding real nails with hammers that echoed throughout the sanctuary. Jesus would writhe in agony, then be raised on the cross, wearing a T-shirt splattered with red food coloring. Easter morning was a sunrise service, and families would argue whether the church window blinds should be opened or closed.

“The sun causes a glare on some people’s glasses,” some said. Others remarked haughtily, “It’s a sunrise service! What’s the point of a sunrise service if we don’t see the sun?!”

The song leader would apologize “to our morning voices” before leading “Up from the Grave He Arose.” He would try to pitch it down, to the chagrin of sopranos like my mother. Then we had a magical hour of breakfast at church, with tulips on the table for three hundred forty-seven people, and plenty of old ladies to “ooo” at my new dress.

After church, there was ham.

***

But once we were not home for Easter. We traveled to Illinois to visit mom’s friends. I was delighted to realize that mom’s friend had a daughter my age, and we would be playing together all weekend long. Not only that, we would be playing on a farm. Her father was not just a farmer; he was a shepherd. And it was lambing season!

The frigid chilly mornings were full of sunshine and romps through the greening pasture, down to the stream that ran under a road culvert. We spent hours playing by the stream, accompanied by their border collie. I caught a tiny fish by plunging my bare hands into the ice-cold water. We sprinted the long distance toward the farmhouse, skidding to a stop to gingerly crawl under the electric fence, before galloping the last few yards, hollering for an ice cream bucket to keep our new pet in. We turned on the laundry sink at full blast. “Don’t you want pond water?” Katie’s mama said. We stared each other, hollered and sprinted out the back door, stopping to carefully slip inside the pasture again, and whooped and hollered all the way to the stream to fill our 2 qt. cottage cheese container with a more hospitable environment. Her little brother Grant followed us, though we had averted him all morning.

Papa and the older girls picked up branches in the yard and loaded them in wheelbarrows (strong winds were common there). Katie’s father started a fire to burn the brush. In the afternoons, we washed dishes and listened to Adventures in Odyssey.

There was so much laughter when we visited. Papa teased the older girls, and their dad had blue eyes that sparkled when he threw his head back and laughed. The whole family laughed.

The night before Easter, and a lamb was to be born. We had to walk through the pitch-black to get to the barn. Only the oldest daughter was allowed inside the stall. The ewe was in distress, and my friend’s dad informed us the sheep was having twins, and one of them was breech.

In the straw lay a huge bottle of dish soap. He started slathering his hands with soap and explained to each girl in attendance, “This will help me pull out the lamb very quickly. When a lamb is being born, it’s first instinct is to…’hah!’” he motioned taking a big breath. “If it breathes too soon, the baby lamb will breathe in the birthing fluid and drown.”

The ewe became increasingly restless, and my friend’s father sternly rebuked it. His loud voice and firm grip scared me, for he was a kind and gentle man, and I had not seen him be gruff with anyone, especially his children. Adding one last bit of soap to his hands, he slipped his hands in the birthing canal after the sheep had settled, and pulled the first lamb to safety, immediately wiping the amniotic fluid from its mouth. The second twin was ready to be born, and with his hand inside the ewe, his blue eyes widened incredulously, “This one’s born breech too!” Soon two tiny lambs lay next to each other in the straw, one a lot smaller than the other. The oldest daughter poked some straw just inside the lambs’ nostrils, to help them breathe.

On Easter Sunday, the sun was replaced by freezing gray clouds, and a chill wind blew over the unplowed corn fields. I did not wear a new dress from Grandma; she had died the year before. Instead I wore a floral skirt and a lavender T-shirt from Kmart. I had packed large brown sandals, and Mom handed me some nylons to wear. I found Katie downstairs sitting on a sheep’s wool rug, putting on her nicest Sunday shoes. She was wearing a velvet mauve dress and white tights. She looked like she was going to the orchestra. I felt like… that I did not look like I was going to the orchestra.

Katie’s dad was a preacher, and there are few sermons I remember from childhood, but I remember that one.

For his text, he did a word study on the word “Easter,” explaining that the term is nothing more than the name of a pre-Christian goddess. Early Christians in England began celebrating Christ’s resurrection during “Eastermonth,” a season named for the goddess, and a season in which early pagans celebrated the vernal equinox. The preacher carefully highlighted the events of Holy Week, along with the resurrection, resting on the meaning of Easter for Christians who serve a risen God, before arriving at his conclusion: why do we choose such a strange name for our Christian holiday?

Easter Sunday? Pagan god Sunday?” he asked gravely.  “No,” he shook his head, before breaking into a smile, “Resurrection Sunday!”

There was a certain triumph when we sang “Up from the Grave He Arose.” For one thing, it was noon, and every soprano could hit the high note.

On our drive home, they called us to tell us that the smallest little twin lamb had died.

Signs at Christmas

“You will be so impressed when you come home and see allllll my snowmen!” Mama’s voice smiles over the phone, oozing with sarcasm. Every year I criticize Mom’s hideous figurines set in haunting displays about the house. We’ve always quarreled over decorations, neither of us mincing words.

I’m nearing the 270 Columbus outer-belt, a route made familiar by my countless OSU commutes. It’s 10:30 p.m., and the city is nearing its bedtime. Weaving through traffic, I choose the swiftest lanes, paths memorized on my drives to campus. My 10-year-old iPod nano (a gift from my sister and her then-boyfriend) shuffles, playing indie Paper Route, and just then, driving through the glowing Columbus city-scape, it’s like it’s 2011 again, everyone’s in college, life is crucial, and TØP is a backyard band made up of a homeschool kid who used to play Christian high school basketball.

The city is a backward bronze horizon as I turn dark west. Soon I reach the familiar plains; the howling wind comforts me, and the stars are visible on the open plain.

***

“I just love the snowmen you’ve set out!” I gush, upon alighting on the front steps.

Mom rolls her eyes and gathers me into a hug. Papa is napping silently, bare feet sticking out of his favorite denim blanket, eyes behind an old Qatar Airways sleep mask.

It’s 11:00 p.m., and though I’ve already eaten supper, I stuff my face with blood oranges, Emma’s popcorn, homemade dipped gingersnaps, peanut butter blossoms, and a giant slice of frosted tea-ring. It occurs to me that my gastroenteritis ER disaster is firmly in the past.

Mama and I quietly catch up in the living room, me breathlessly explaining my own Christmas miracle from earlier that morning, which can only be explained here as me requesting a Very Important Email from a long-lost professor in Seattle. The sensitive situation required careful research, phone calls, a letter, and a certain kind of academic etiquette that I’m never sure if I get quite right. I can tell you that Thursday night I fell asleep half-seriously asking God for an email for Christmas. The next morning I drove my 30-minute work commute in glum anxiousness, not knowing where to turn during the week of Christmas break, if my efforts were in vain.

Haphazardly checking my email before exiting my car for my last day of work before Christmas break, I gasped in surprise at my inbox, too afraid to even read the brand-new email.

It was better than I could have even hoped.

I was beside myself upon entering work, that I couldn’t figure out what to do in the office with my excitement, so I just went to the bathroom and refilled all the toilet papers.

Isn’t it freaky when your prayers are answered in super-specific, timely ways?

Mom, of course, had heard the whole story twice, but listened gently in motherly raptures at my excitement. In the living room, we giggled over Oasis Chorale news, and Mama and Papa listened quietly as I played for myself for the first time Arvo Part’s “The Deer’s Cry.” Struck by its meditative, almost Russian-sounding quality, I carefully read the text:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in me, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me,
Christ with me.

It’s chilling to imagine performing this piece. Simply put, disciplined worship forms us. And the vision of the future here, the already-not-yet of the Gospel described here is so profound, that it lent a moment of soberness to our crumbly-cookie gathering.

Let me be honest: the disparity between my own brokenness and the Christ-centered existence mentioned in this text breeds spiritual insecurity for me, a common topic for me and my mentors. As I approach the new year, I continue to explore ways to build spiritual confidence and unity with Christ.

Saint Patrick, who composed the text in 433, chanted the text along with his comrades while fleeing through a forest, away from persecutors set to kill them. The story goes that the travelers were transformed, as reported by the perpetrators, into a deer and twenty fawns. Thus, St. Patrick was saved.

(What a strange manifestation of grace, using common forms. Strange and common… like an email.)

Dipping into Disciplines for the Inner Life last week, I was encouraged to pray not for answers, but for the sense of being heard, by God. Is that what had happened when I had checked my email before work?

Receiving exactly what you ask for is confidence-boosting. It is also rare. It also breeds doubt because you second-guess if it’s actually an answer, or just a coincidence, something you received that’s so small that you shouldn’t have prayed about it in the first place. (Call me irreverent, but I struggle to pray for lost coins. I’d rather divert the Lord to, say, the border.) Then, once you decide to actually call it answered prayer, you try to interpret it. What does the “answer” mean for you and your one, beautiful life? Does the answer have anything to bear on other requests, much more monumental, for which you seek wisdom?

***

One and a half days later, I stuff my feet into brilliant purple running shoes and pull on tights and all manner of winter running garb. I steal a handkerchief from my dad’s drawer and tie it over my nose and mouth to protect my lungs.

Shaking out my legs on my first vacation run, I squint my eyes through the only opening on my face, between my hat and scarf. I pick up speed, and the earth quiets. The sun has set, and the entire landscape is a frozen brown, the lavender-blue sky meeting the razor-straight solitary trail, lined by scraggy saplings. Just before I reach “The Tree,” I hear a thundering under the wide expanse. Over my right shoulder, I catch a movement, and my adrenaline surges.

Three white-tailed deer thunder toward me.

For a moment, their light hooves match my rhythm, then thunder past.

I chase them, and their tails disappear just up ahead.

I can’t help but remember…

…“The Deer’s Cry.”

***

Perhaps readers think that such a sighting may be common for Ohio landscapes, but I’ve been running this trail for twelve years and have never once spied such wildlife.

The experience was so otherworldly that it’s hard to not ask what sort of meaning it prefigures.

***

For now, I turn to the Psalms:

“As for God, his way is perfect:
The Lord’s word is flawless;
he shields all who take refuge in him.
For who is God besides the Lord?
And who is the Rock except our God?
It is God who arms me with strength
and keeps my way secure.
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer;
he causes me to stand on the heights.”

Psalm 18:30-33

I hold this memory close at the end of this page-turning year.

Drinking Coffee with Canada’s National Mennonite Historical Society

This past weekend, I listened to no less than thirty academic presentations in a space of 2.5 days as Canada’s national Mennonite Historical Society hosted scholars and speakers for the annual Mennonite Studies conference at the University of Winnipeg. For me, to hear Mennonite history treated with academic regard of the highest degree was paradigm shifting. The conclusions of scholars on Mennonites and education, specifically Mennonite girls in education, were especially moving.

If Canadian Mennonite history were a monarchy, then Frank Epp was crowned king by the frequent reference to his contribution to the three-volume work Mennonites in Canada, his daughter Marlene Epp reigning as current monarch, with U of W’s Mennonite Studies chair Royden Loewen acting as lovable prime minister.

It’s been only recently that I’ve come to discover that the idea of a singular “Mennonite identity” is passé, and it was confirmed to me by the conference. The Canadian presenters seemed to take this as a given as they presented deep research showing diversity of expression in Anabaptist identity in Canada since the 1970s. The fact of diversity within Canadian Mennonitism was further supported through Ted Regehr’s opening comments that highlighted that one major change of Anabaptism in Canada since the 1970s is that it is now primarily an urban identity, not a rural one. (In this way, Mennonites in America seem some fifty years behind their northerly neighbors.) I’ll share here some of the emphases of conference topics and research that to me seemed particularly Canadian in flavor.

1. One of the first concerns raised seemed to be that of indigenous issues. Canadian Mennonite scholars were sensitive to the fact that white Mennonite settlers in Canada settled on Native lands, and the conference began with a ceremonial naming of the tribes on whose land rests the University of Winnipeg. Daniel Sims outlined the interaction of Mennonites with Tsay Keh Nay in Ingenika, British Columbia while they squatted on “government” land. One MCC worker spoke about donations at an MCC thrift store being able to be repatriated to First Nations people in Saskatoon. Coupled with this was occasional reflection on the Mennonites’ responsibilities to the 2008 Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with Melanie Kampen asking the question if Canadian Mennonites have fully explored their participation in the cultural genocide of First Nations through residential schools.

2. There were frequent references to Canada’s 1971 induction of a state policy of multiculturalism, which led to (for Mennonites) the creation and promotion of the Manitoba Mennonite Centennial (attended by 70,000) and even government grants for writing the histories that Frank Epp did.

3. Most thrilling of all was my first taste of Canada’s vast archiving of its Mennonite identity. IT IS TO BE RESPECTED. We in the States do not have any sort of Mennonite Historical Society on a national level, and the level of scholarship, documentation, and archival work is simply phenomenal, leading to highly gratifying presentations like that of Laureen Harder-Gissing’s work on Canadian Mennonites at the edge of activism.

  • It was a Canadian Mennonite woman who gained national attention by lobbying (successfully) for less violent scenes in the children’s TV show “Power Rangers” in the 1980s.
  • Mennonites also hopped on the anti-war toys campaign of the 1990s. Ontario Mennonite Fred Snyder bought his local Sears’ entire stock of GI Joe toys on his credit card, and then returned them after Christmas. Sears was forced to return the toys to the manufacturer!

Dr. Janis Thiessen delighted conference-goers with her exposition on John Braun and his Leftist manifesto of the Radical Mennonite Union of the 70s. Hoping to unite the radical Left and Anabaptists, Braun organized and gained funding for a pan-American road trip in which he interviewed Mennonite dissidents along the way, at the same time distributing Leftist propaganda, stopping by the Chicago Mennonite commune that produced the Leftist Mennonite newspaper, the Mennonite Stomach. Thiessen’s research culminated with observations about how the Mennonite Left differed from its nondenominational counterparts. First, there was an intergenerational institutional support in the fact that the older generation indulged Braun, allowing him to create his trip and even agreeing to be interviewed. Second, the Mennonite Left maintained pacifism and the absence of violence, unlike the New Left when they lost out.

4. Another concern to be raised was that of gender – how would Canadian Mennonites include and promote LGBTQ persons within the church, and how did Canadians view the historical contributions of Mennonite women in their respective communities? (Frank Epp’s wife Helen personally reviewed countless national documents in order to find and record every single Mennonite conscripted during the World War. Also, 40% of Mennonite farmers who testified against building a uranium refinery, the El Dorado nuclear site, on Mennonite farmland in Warman, Saskatchewan, in 1980 were women. [They won, incidentally.])

Thus, a theological self-consciousness emerged, along with a call to “change our theology when it hurts others” (which begs the question – what is the definition of theology, and is it so liminal?) This self-consciousness appeared both in relation to gender, but also to ethnicity. For example, Mennonite Brethren folks wondered whether a name-change is in order for the conference, an option for a new name being Evangelical Anabaptist. (One sees how the name is less gendered and less ethnic than Mennonite Brethren). Which actually makes sense given the fact that one researcher pointed out that the Mennonite Brethren church in Quebec is made up of almost entirely non-white immigrants.

The ethnic question was also brought up implicitly by the cultural diversity presentations. For example, how do we account for a Chinese Mennonite Brethren church in Caracas, Venezuela? “That’s so specific,” in the words of Marlene Epp (who was actually describing a cookbook called Friendly Favorites: a Cookbook of Favorite Recipes of Ontario Markham Mennonite Girls Born in 1995, but it nevertheless relates.)

5. Also noticeable was the Mennonite connection to a farming past (and farming future). We heard how Ontario Old Orders responded to the implementation of electric, refrigerated milk tanks. “Can’t use milk cans anymore? We’re moving to Guatemala.” In relation to a change in farming policy, there was, historically, overall, a wide berth of resistance, flexibility, and acceptance. Or as Royden Loewen’s research mused, “Are Canadian Mennonite farmers biotic believers? Or Anabaptist agricultural agnostics?”

6. A purview into contemporary history of Mennonites necessarily reported on Mennonites “Re-Imagining Education,” and it was telling to hear about the move away from Bible schools to Christian universities for the Mennonite Brethren. I tried to remain stoically unemotional when powerhouse Robyn Sneath dusted off her shiny new Oxford doctorate, reporting on forty oral interviews she collected from Lower German Mennonites on their experience with 8th grade public education, and why secondary education seems unobtainable. Further, Janice Harper’s work on the Elmira Life and Work School in Ontario demonstrated to me a flexibility and creativity at the state level to address truancy among conservative Anabaptist who drop out of school after 8th grade. (Among the compromises this Canadian high school made were providing the Mennonites high school segregation at an off-campus location (!) and a work-study option, in which students attend high school one or two days a week, working for a local business for the other three or four days.) The creativity and flexibility demonstrated by the public school board in order to compromise with the religious community in Elmira, Ontario pierced like a neon saber.

But I couldn’t hold back the tears because I was seeing the issues for which I champion every day as an educator discussed in respectful, nuanced ways by national scholars, while feeling the weight of class struggle bind me in solidarity to one Lower German Mennonite girl who solemnly declared when asked if she would ever go to university: “I could never afford it.” While a fog settles over my own educational path, a path of economic resistance, to see my questions legitimized by cutting-edge researchers was paradigm shifting, yet also called into remembrance what Daniel Sims, a Native researcher called for: “No research on us without us.”

Thankfully, every two hours we breaked for coffee and pastries, and I was able to gulp huge breaths of air, and Mennonite big-whigs exchanged my tears for business cards, helpful introductions, and a genuine interest in my conference affiliation because what are you, and would you even consider yourself Mennonite.

7. The last session cast its eye toward the future with talks on Youth & Generation. Gil Dueck’s “Conceptualizing the Millennial: Questions of Theology and Identity” reported that millennials’ questions are not theological in nature, but rather those of identity. A few data points: (1) The 2011 study “Hemorrhaging Faith: Why & When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying & Returning to the Church” reported in a weirdly recognizable way that things that keep teenagers from engaging with the church include, for one, not having a meaningful relationship with God (not that teens were able to describe what a meaningful relationship looked like, yet they seemed to be able to feel what it was not). (2) “Identity” is becoming crucially important in emerging adulthood, and the search for identity is continuing quite abnormally into the late 20s and even low 30s. (3) Now, adulthood is about standing alone, rather than accepting role change.

Peter Epp spoke on unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts and asked the question, “Why aren’t young people getting baptized?” His named his work “It’s Like Dating Around” because participants in his study equated baptism to marriage, in importance. Since it was a historical conference, Epp was forced to offer objective findings rather than subjective analysis, but it was easy to see how the research pointed to a response. For instance, Epp reported the following concerning unbaptized young adults in Mennonite contexts: (1) To them, baptism requires certainty of belief and changed behavior AND they believe that certainty of belief and changed behavior will be arrived at individually (as in the case of one girl who was waiting to get baptized until she had time to “think really thoughtful thoughts” about what she believed). (2) Secondly, they’ve experienced isolation at church.

If you’re not a historian, feel free to make subjective analysis now.

I worried that a conference of this pace might be tiring, but part of the fun was managing the metacognition of dropping down into a new country… adjusting to signs for “the washroom,” being frowned at for saying, “Yes, sir” (“This is NOT the military!”), noticing uncluttered European-like spaces (a design sense that’s inexplicably un-American), Canadian politeness (could Americans be any more whiny at security), and Canadian forthrightness (especially females). Also the cold. (On a 7o morning, an older conference member announced cheerily, “I walked here, 1.2 miles. Took me twenty minutes. Nice brisk walk.” Another man: “I bike to work. If it’s below -40o, I wear goggles and a face mask. If it’s above -40o, you don’t really need the goggles.”) Have literally never seen an electric hitching post before, in the parking lot, and there was an electric plug sticking out of the hood of the 2018 Dodge Charger we rented. My friend Janae and I dashed out for the most highly rated coffee in Winnipeg, Fools & Horses, and haphazard flakes flittered down lazily, an afterthought in the pink morning sky. (My friend Janae is a chemist, but she graciously accompanied me to the three-day conference, and I think she took more notes than I did!)

 

Winnipeg’s annual Santa Claus parade provided us an hour detour before our final stop: across the Red River is Winnipeg’s French quarter, St. Boniface, and slipping into Promenade, we enjoyed bouef bourguignonne by candlelight, the city lights sparkling on the banks of the river, and we discussed with exuberance our copious notes. Warmed and grateful, I recalled a bit of John Braun’s manifesto as we later stepped out into the night: “Before change, understanding. Before understanding, confrontation. God is alive. Magic is afoot.”

Because Kansas

Touching down on the sizzling tarmac in Wichita, Kansas two weeks ago felt like coming home. While I was a little apprehensive for the upcoming two weeks of intense choir tour with Oasis Chorale, I was excited to be returning to Hutchinson, KS, home of my young college adventures (some of which you can read about on very old posts here.)

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For the past seven years, I’ve spent time every summer singing with the Oasis Chorale, a 40-member Anabaptist a capella choir. This year’s tour started and stopped in Hutchinson, KS, the same town that’s home to Hutchinson Community College, from which I earned my Associate of Arts degree before transferring to The Ohio State University. Moving half-way across the country as a 20-year-old to attend a community college is among one of the weirder decisions I’ve ever made, but it also stands as one of the best decisions, for the Mennonite community there is one of my absolute favorites, and it was my pleasure to call Hutch home for two years.

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Driving from Wichita to Hutch and passing miles of razor flat, wide-open green fields, the sun burning through the pale blue sky and humid, windy air, I giggled in glee, “You can see for miles! You can see the horizon! I can finally breathe deeply again!”

While most easterners and Mid-westerners have driven through Kansas, few of them have come to love the plains, and find beauty in them, like I do. I don’t have much of a chance; I was born in Plain City, Ohio, named so for its extremely flat geography. And I do. I love the plains. There’s something about the sunsets, the miles of fields, and (in Kansas) the unrelenting wind, that I find deeply comforting.

Waves of memories came pouring over me as we sailed down highway 96, past the “honking tree,” and past Yoder, KS, the tiny town where I worked during college. We turned on highway 50, heading toward Pleasantview, following the familiar railroad tracks, and I had a flashback to driving home late one night in tornado-like conditions, all alone on the open road, save for a railroad engineer and the piercing headlight of his long black train.

I hopped out of the van into the warm, windy air and breathed deeply again, an impossibly large smile on my face.

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The next few days became a blur of Oasis Chorale ritual—warm-ups, arpeggios, vocal fry (“Less pitch! Less pitch!”), finding space, unifying vowel, working pieces start-and-stop mode, and recording an entire hymns album (apart from our choral rep for tour), all the while darting in and out of Hutchinson, with its wide western street grids and period homes. I even managed to drag my choir buddies to Metro, the coffee shop I visited every week during my first two years of college.

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Reconnecting with Kansans, I was pleasantly reminded why I love them so much. You know how in every Mennonite Sunday school class there’s at least one lady who is refreshingly honest, unforgivingly practical, sharp as a tack, and very forthright, with absolutely no qualms about calling a spade a spade? Multiply that lady by ten, and that’s basically Kansas. (Readers of Shasta’s Fog will know how I can appreciate those qualities and find them more useful than the guarded, calculated East.)

How fantastic to share with them in song at our first Hutchinson concert, for which, miracle of all miracles, I had my breath under me. (For all our rehearsal days, I just could not make my breath work, but right before concert, my breath returned, and I enjoyed the full concert with, well, another smile on my face.)

Recording over, we began tour with a workshop with Dr. Bartel, a professor at Friends University, and the president of the Kansas Choral Directors Association. Great feedback, including small things like how to sing the word “the.” We were throwing it away, not giving it (and other words) “is-ness.” Such a small detail, but choral musicians know that these tiny significances matter.

Another tour highlight was our choir’s pre-concert chat in Illinois with Westminster student Douglas Byler, composer of this year’s new commission “The Spirit of the Lord.”

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pc: Jason Martin

And our second IL concert featured these special guests, my baby nieces!

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Meeting baby Holly for the first time.

We spent our day off in St. Louis, and furiously googling free things to do, I found that St. Louis is home to the Cathedral Basilica, the largest mosaic-ceiled building in the world. It was stunning.

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A small group of us began our adventures at Kaldi’s, a glass-walled coffee shop nestled beneath Citygarden’s trees, and we enjoyed gluten-free dining.

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Next, we maneuvered the city bus system for a 30-minute ride to the Basilica. It was then that I discovered St. Louis to be one of the friendliest cities I’ve visited. Our bus driver got out of his bus at the bus exchange to point us to the correct bus to the Basilica, and he let my friend ride for free when she only had a $20 and no change. He also added an extra hour to our bus passes. The Basilica’s tour guide offered tacky jokes and an amazing amount of history for the overwhelming mosaics.

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Not a painting; a literal mosaic. (!)

Dinner was at Three Sixty, the restaurant atop the Hilton, where we had a (warm) view of the entire city and the famous St. Louis arch.

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The next morning, our choir slipped inside the Old Courthouse, just a few blocks from our hotel, location of the famous Dred Scott trials, who sued the federal government for his freedom. Permitted by a security guard to perform a single choral piece beneath the famous dome, we sang Hawley’s “Not One Sparrow” in dedication to the historical significance of the courthouse.

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pc: Wikipedia Commons

Not one sparrow is forgotten
Even the raven God will feed
And the lily of the valley
From His bounty hath its need
Then shall I not trust Thee, Father
In thy mercy have a share
And through faith and prayer, my Savior
Rest in thy protecting care?

Most of tour, however, is a rat race of hydrating properly, eating properly, guarding your rest like nobody’s business, focused personal rehearsal and memory work on the bus (outside of group rehearsal), and stealing as many gummy bears as possible from the basses. (Gummies = OC’s candy of choice. The urban legend? They’re good for your throat.)

Another immensely rewarding experience was performing a set of songs at the Kansas Choral Directors Association convention in Topeka, KS to a congregation of choir directors, musicians, and All-State high school choir kids. It’s one thing to share your gift with local church audiences; it’s another thing to perform for a room-full of musicians. (You can catch this performance over at OC’s facebook page.)

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The other side of Oasis Chorale is collaborating with local choirs, meeting hosts, making new friends, and net-working. Performing in the green-hued, hundred-year-old sanctuary of First Christian Church in Fulton, MO, I met a lovely elderly lady who reminisced about the congregation’s past:

“It’s changed so much. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s our church was so full, you couldn’t find a seat. There was a women’s college in town, and the girls were required to attend church. Wherever the girls went, the boys showed up! But it’s changed so much. It’s not near as full.”

At a local Hutch concert, I also reconnected with middlewestpenandpage after we had worked together in KS seven years ago!

One of the most inspiring moments of tour was meeting Dr. Jana Nisly, to whom was dedicated our commissioned piece, “The Spirit of the Lord.” Director of La Clinica de las Buenas Nuevas in rural El Salvador for 25 years, Dr. Nisly has held Luke 4:18-19 as her clinic’s motto, and this text was adapted by Douglas Byler for the new commission.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor,
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
To preach deliverance to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are bruised
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

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It was a pleasure to meet Dr. Nisly, to be regaled by doctor stories over a meal, and to hear the mission of her work: “The poor are disregarded in the medical field in El Salvador. To be able to touch them, to treat them, to listen to them… there is no greater joy.” And in her Kansan way, she added, “Now, there’s also nothing more tiring, and it’s too much for me!”

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Slowly and quietly the circling gyre of tour floated to the ground, and we found ourselves at our last concert in Wichita, surrounded by friends, family, and the lovely folks at Eastminster Presbyterian. We performed our last concert as the western sun sparkled through the stained-glass windows. We swallowed our emotions, encouraged to perform “just another concert.” I had the most freedom of breath in that concert that I experienced all of tour.

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The community of Oasis Chorale is something that amazes me. every. year. It’s a stunning moment to prep breath, vowel, and space, and to be backed by (but also to lead) thousands of vocal muscles that synchronize into a thunderous, unified downbeat of “All Hail.” I don’t take this richness for granted. Nor the spontaneous bus conversations about theology and vocation. Nor can I ignore how singing in choir is a metaphor for the way in which God wants to lead us into more perfect beauty. The experience of being led, and of following, of disciplined rehearsal, of vulnerability and trust within the community of choir mid-concert, and of flexibility to follow new gestures that can only come through the growth of being together… these are things which somehow mimic community led by the Spirit.

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Besides this metaphor is the actual musical beauty of my extremely talented friends, whose music-making, in rare moments, makes me feel that dull, physical ache, that only true beauty can. For we know that we are not made for here. As C.S. Lewis says, “We do not merely want to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” It seems that every summer there is at least one memorable solitary moment in which I experience this ache for beauty, a beauty, it seems, that I cannot inhabit. Lewis goes on: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in the world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We singers regularly discuss the chasm there seems to be between our beautiful two weeks of music-making every summer and the “real world,” as it were, or our vocations, which are more closely touched with earth’s brokenness. It’s therefore a grace to perform, to worship, and to inhabit these texts every evening. Yet we would be remiss to make it all about art. Our director gently reminded us to take time daily to know who we are apart from the choir, apart from the music.

Our pitiful goodbyes being said, we flew home this week, but not before I had one amazing day-on-the-town in good ole’ Hutchinson. My friend Trish and I took a gander around campus, and warm memories washed over me as I walked through Lockman Hall, the campus building where I worked as English Department Scholar, discovered my love of literature, took the hardest exam of my college career (World Mythology), and met some of the finest and most caring English instructors. It’s summer, so professors were out, but I penciled in a note to a professor, met the new secretary, and walked all my favorite routes, including the short-cut across the tennis court.

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My ramble across the empty campus was one of the most healing walks of my life. To remember dropping down into Kansas as a shy, scared Mennonite kid in order to maneuver what felt like the impossible unknown, and to look back now… I see that what was, at the time, one of the scariest decisions I had ever made, was one of the safest decisions. While at the time it seemed risky, I now know beyond the shadow of a doubt that enrolling in college in Kansas was unquestionably the best, and safest, decision for me. My experience with faculty and students at Hutchinson Community College and my interaction with the Mennonite community in Hutch unquestionably impacted the person I have become. Kansas was exactly where God wanted me.

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My day in Hutch ended with one of my favorite iconically Kansan experiences… a night walk on Kansas dirt roads. My friend and I quietly crunched over sand and gravel, in the darkness, breathing deep breaths of sweet hay, and dust, til we reached Trails West, the only paved road for miles, and we lay down in the middle of the empty road, with our backs on the warm pavement, staring through the darkness at stars, the moon, and shooting stars and fireflies, and talking about all the secret things that girls talk about.

The next morning I rose early before my flight to make my last Kansas dream come true—a run down West Mills, my familiar running route, the dirt road where I became a runner. Trish and I ignored the distant thunder and lightning in the gray summer morning, as we jogged down the lane to the dirt road and headed west.

In one sense, Kansas, and its big sky, is a place where you can think more clearly. You feel closer to God because there’s nothing between the you, the prairie, and the open sky. It is at the same time safe, and terrifying. Lonely, yet inspiring.

With the rolling wind at my back and the miles-wide gray thunderclouds pregnant with lightning resting low above the shadow green fields, I picked my feet up faster, grinding them along the top of the dirt road. I ran on, in freedom, stopping only to spin and spin in absolute joy.

I Cooked Rice at 10:00 p.m. and Other Confessions

Hi friends. You’ve been so much on my mind, and I finally have a chance to catch up with you.

Here’s the deal: Nicaragua / camera stopped working / phone crashed / deleted all my photos / got new phone/ realized old phone was just backing up my photos to Google drive just for funsies (while also dying and deleting 15% of my best photos) / Google is evil / phones are evil+expensive / so backing up all old photos because #fear / external hard drive from Amazon stops working / Amazon=evil / garbage disposal stops working / license expires / must re-test in state / must change car registration / must change car insurance / must now pay annual car inspection fees / first time for everything / aaaaand Monday is my first ROOT CANAL / literally all my dirty laundry

Now, let me tell you what’s going RIGHT in my life.

  1. I just spent a WEEK in sunny Nicaragua. It’s dry season, and the sun shone every day. I wore flowers in my hair, took pictures of adorable little girls playing with chickens, climbed a volcano, and spoke all the Spanish.

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But really. It was all about these kids. Pretty find humans right here.

  1. Even though I haven’t properly blogged my Nica experiences, timing was pretty tricky this year because I got off the plane from Managua, walked into a Lancaster County snowstorm, turned on the heat in my 50-degree apartment and began doing laundry to leave the very next day for Oasis Chorale rehearsal! I am honestly one of the lucky ones to sing with such talented friends every year. Talk about luxury to spend an entire spring weekend basking in chords! (In case you didn’t know, my choir makes videooooos.)

 

  1. I played with this lil buddy all Easter long.

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  1. I cooked rice at 10 p.m.

I am honestly so sick of excuses. (You too. Stop it. Stop making excuses.) Get up early. Be polite. Be kind. Read your Bible. Care for your friends. Work harder. Put your phone down and read a book. Exercise. Practice your music. Do the dishes. For Pete’s sake, cook once in a while! (You all know how much of a trial this is for me.) Stop complaining.

This weekend I finally got over THIS THING, this icy grip winter has on me, and I’m finally blooming once more. It’s as if this week, I’m growing. This week started off with a bang: I had motivation for… a day.

And on that day I was still going strong at 10 p.m., so much so that I started cooking rice, SOMETHING I’M EXTREMELY BAD AT. (You can ask me how it turned out.)

You know when you feel like a total failure? Like despite the fact that you’re surrounded by so many people but you can’t shake the feeling of isolation and you kick yourself for every single tiny mis-step that you take? (Who am I kidding, now I’m just talking about introverts.) You know when people ask you how you’re doing and you respond sincerely, “I’m good!” but an inky black bunny, hopping up and down, robotically condemns you in your mind, “THAT IS COMPLETLEY FALSE. THAT IS COMPLETELY FALSE.”

Okay, what I’m trying to say is that even though I’m extremely bad at rice-cooking, and this week could honestly be labeled Week of Teaching/Friend/Human Person Mistakes, it doesn’t matter because I have so much hope AND I’M GOING TO MAKE IT.

For crying out loud, I WANTED to cook rice at 10 p.m. WANTED to.

You will make it too. But you better light a candle, calmly read Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” and start changing the world one English lesson at a time, read thought-provoking BBC articles about the American criminal justice system, start following Jada Yuan on Instagram, the writer that the New York Times hired to visit 52 world-class travel spots in a year and write about each of them (we are all jealous), and remember that for some people dreams really do come true, and that you must do today what will get you closer to who you want to be tomorrow. Finally, remember that not everything is about you. Stop worrying that people might think you’re weird. “Nobody ever changed the world by worrying about people’s opinions of them.” (Lecrae’s Twitter this week.)

  1. Last thing that’s going right: spring running season is upon us!

Announcement: the season is going to be about hurting.

I have a confession. When I run, I never hurt. I am the world’s laziest runner. I keep my paces comfortable because I don’t know, I have rules about hurting? And distance does not bother me physically. Distance for me is only a mind game.  I would rather run 5 times a week than even TOUCH an indoor workout. Why? Because cardio HURTS.

Painless running? Not anymore. Last fall’s marathon was a goal of a lifetime, and I completed it conservatively, fearful of reinjuring myself. Now I’m setting my sights higher, possibly returning to the half marathon, going for a sub 2. IT IS GOING TO BE PAINFUL. I’m giving myself plenty of time, looking for a fall race, but I’m already picking up the paces this spring, and I’m loving it.

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See you at the races!

Why You Think Pennsylvanians Are Stuck-Up (and Why You’re Wrong)

I love how you clicked on this link almost like, “What obnoxious thing is she going to say next?”

You know as well as I do that conservative Mennonites who are not from Lancaster (and even some who are) think that Lancaster Mennonites are snobby and stuck-up. I have finally figured out why this stereotype exists! (It is for unjustifiably unfair reasons, I might add.)

One of my favorite things is to talk about cultural differences, and since I’ve had the privilege of living in four distinct Mennonite communities across the United States as an adult, I consider myself a bit of an authority on the subject. In the past eleven months, I’ve had plenty of time to test this theory of “stuck-up” Mennonites.

I recently moved to Ephrata, Pennsylvania, quite leery of the Lancaster County location of my new home.

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However, you’ll be disappointed to know that on the “Culture Shock” timeline, I’ve moved past the Honeymoon stage (in which I gush about Amish produce stands, discount grocery stores, and modest clothing stores) and the Negotiation stage (in which the Transition shock behaviors of anger, homesickness, irritability, and withdrawal promote snarky posts about dating & marriage rituals, along with more serious critiques of the community-wide “saving face” phenomenon and its effects on spirituality). Currently, I’m in the Adaptation stage, where I’m developing positive attitudes about Lancaster culture and learning what to expect in social situations. But I’m a long way off from Adaptation. Because seriously, I’ve never even been to “the cabin.” For one thing, I have to write this post “awhile.” Haha.

So why do people think that Pennsylvanians are stuck-up? This is my theory—they don’t introduce themselves to newcomers.

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In fact, I was talking to a friend who just moved to Lancaster County, and this was her first impression: “Do you notice that people don’t introduce themselves to you here?”

“Yes!” I agreed. “It’s strange!”

We talked about experiences at weddings, work, and church.

Me: “Sometimes I get the odd sense that people here don’t like me! But I realize that (1) those people have never talked to me, and (2) they haven’t introduced themselves to me. And I ask myself, why not?”

 

Interestingly, I kept finding myself in new situations where I was surrounded by strangers, and no one introduced themselves! I visited a new church once, was ignored, introduced myself to a woman whose eyes were downcast, then scurried out the door in awkward shame. As I settled into the church visiting cycle, I grew weary of approaching strangers and explaining that I just moved to Lancaster County. At work, a friend struggled to connect with co-workers who seemed to care little about her “transplanting” story. (Another very common thread is people living in Lancaster their entire lives. Unimaginable to me, the hyperactive state-switcher. Similarly, the story of my endless moving, to communities where I know absolutely no one, is unimaginable to Lancaster locals, often met by blank stares.) On one occasion, I had to schedule a meeting with a woman I saw nearly every day, and I was convinced that she disliked me because she had never introduced herself to me.

After a while, it started to become a joke, where my friend and I delivered the next new story of failing to be introduced at a social function. Once I attended a banquet where I sat at a table with old and new acquaintances. I was the last one to arrive, and as I sat down with my appetizer, I waited to be introduced to the Lancaster residents who I hadn’t yet met. The introduction never came. In fact, no one acknowledged my presence at the table for a full fifteen minutes!

Now before you label this post as another dig at Lancaster County, let me be clear. I do not think that the people in each of these instances were snobby, stuck-up, rude, unkind, or unfeeling, nor do I think that you should judge my expectation to be introduced as unrealistic. In truth, I found the woman who had never introduced herself to be a sweet and gentle person the very day I met with her! And the time of being “ignored” at the banquet table ended up being a night where I received some very kind encouragement from new friends.

These experiences instead clarify that cultural differences exist among geographically diverse Mennonite communities, specifically in relation to initial socialization. The behavior from both cultures makes perfect sense, but viewed from the other culture is off-putting. Both I (the Midwesterner) and Lancaster Mennonites were acting according to our respective cultures, which obviously have vastly different expectations regarding the behavior toward strangers.

In the Midwest, it’s expected to introduce yourself to a newcomer. A “proper” way to do this might even be to play the Mennonite game.

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Blanket statement: I might suggest that Midwesterners may also be “used to” newcomers more than Lancaster County residents. That is, many Midwestern Mennonites live in smaller Anabaptist communities than the sprawling, teeming Mennonite metropolis of Lancaster County. Therefore, the arrival of newcomers is more clearly felt. In our small Midwestern towns (excluding Holmes County), we’re very aware of who belongs and who is new. And in my experience, people have gone out of their way to introduce themselves and tell me their name.

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It seems that in Lancaster, this is not a cultural expectation, and I’ve had some Lancaster locals help me on this one. For one thing, the sheer number of Mennonites is dizzying. There’s no way to tell who is “new to town,” or simply from the congregation down the street. There’s no need to wave hello to the Mennonite you saw in Walmart because of COURSE you don’t know them. Why would you smile and wave hello?

Another phenomenon unique to Lancaster that’s quite unlike most other Mennonite communities is that people here aren’t friends with people from their own churches. They’re friends with their “group.” Your “group” is whatever family and friends you’ve acquired over the years who have similar interests and/or worldviews as you. (I would contend that this is quite unlike other Mennonite communities. For many of us, our friendships are found inside our local congregations.) However, if you’re from Lancaster, and there’s a newcomer at your church, you may assume that they’re from the County, they’re simply church shopping, and they’re content with their own friends and family outside the church. You therefore feel no need to introduce yourself right away. This has been confirmed to me by more than several locals.

(Southerners, feel free to lend your perspective about what is expected for newcomers in your communities.)

To be sure, people in Lancaster are very busy and have a LOT of friends. One woman who moved here from a rural Midwestern community confided in me, “When I asked someone to go out for coffee, she said, ‘Well let me check my planner first.’ I laughed at her! Why would she need to check her planner just for coffee?! But I get it now. People are so busy. Some women are booked three months out. And so I have the planner now. I have all of it,” she sighed.

You can see, then, why the stereotype of “stuck-up” Lancaster Mennonites exist. The amount of friends and social engagements can get overwhelming, so people aren’t quick to “lend” themselves in this way. But for newcomers, this can feel like snobbery. I wonder, though, if newcomers are selling themselves short by not acknowledging the cultural differences of the realities of living in a large Mennonite community. The lady from the rural Midwest didn’t do this, but instead learned to adapt.

To put a stop to the stereotype, people on both sides need to understand that if you demand that people treat you according to your own cultural expectations, two things may occur:

(1) If you are a non-local, you may not only start agreeing with false stereotypes, but you may also become quite lonely. A few suggestions: stop being bitter about the need to explain that you are a new-comer. Be willing to introduce yourself again, and again, and again. It won’t be long before you’ll buy your own planner (probably at Target, where you’ll ignore a Mennonite woman one aisle over).

(2) If you are a Lancaster local, you may be bothered by the stereotype of snobbery. A suggestion: it may benefit you to visit a small Mennonite community sometime. It also might do you some good to go out of your way to introduce yourself to a Mennonite stranger the next time you see one in church, at Bible study, or even (gasp) at Walmart! You might just meet a new friend, the kind that doesn’t care about planners, and is refreshingly un-busy!

And to those of you who still think I hate Lancaster, I’ll say this: despite the lack of introductions in general in Lancaster County, I’d like to give a shout-out to my local congregation for the outpouring of support I’ve received since moving here, including but not limited to:

  1. Delivering and unloading FOR FREE a piece of furniture I bought
  2. Lending me the “nice” family vehicle, three times, FOR FREE when mine was in the shop
  3. Visiting me when I was sick (bringing me food, cleaning my apartment, and giving me a back rub!)
  4. Dinner invitations, and asking how I’m really doing
  5. A sweet gift and card on Valentine’s Day
  6. A plant on Mother’s Day.

You know who you are. Thank you.

Obviously, Pennsylvanians aren’t snobby. They’re warm and caring just like everybody else. The fact is that we just greet each other differently. So stop stereotyping. And go introduce yourself.