A couple of weeks ago, while I was back in my hometown for a memorial service for an aunt, a photo in one of the displays grabbed my attention. It was of my father’s family, taken in the late 1930s or early 1940s. It’s one of those photos taken at family gatherings—weddings or funerals. Everyone was perfectly posed, dressed in their Sunday’s best. My dad’s parents seated the middle, surrounded by their 11 children, ranging in age (I’m guessing) from late teens to perhaps early 30s.
A trained eye could detect signs of the transition taking place between generations of Mennonites. My grandmother wore the covering with ribbons that she wore until her death and my grandfather a plain coat. My dad’s brothers and sisters were dressed conservatively but less distinctively Mennonite. The men wore jackets of contemporary cut, white shirts buttoned to the neck but no ties. In a few years, things would change even more dramatically. During World War II, my dad’s older brothers were drafted as conscientious objectors and served in Civilian Public Service camps across the country. Three of my dad’s sisters would go to college, two of them ultimately becoming Registered Nurses, while their oldest brother and sister, my Uncle Orland and Aunt Dorothy, didn’t even graduate from High School. Within a decade of that photo, my grandfather would be dead.
Now, some seventy years later, none of the people captured in that image are alive. It’s strange, at age 60, to feel the loss of that generation. They provided so much of the soil that nurtured me and helped me to grow into the person I am today. It was my Uncle Orland, who, in spite of his lack of a formal education, became that Mennonite community’s unofficial historian and wrote the history of its first hundred years. It was he who introduced me to the Martyrs’ Mirror, the seventeenth century compendium of stories of Anabaptists and Mennonites who lost their lives because of their faith. It was he who told me the story of the Hochstettler family, who on the Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s refused to defend themselves when a Native American raiding party attached their homestead. Some were killed, some escaped, some were carried off into captivity, and I am descended from the survivors.
I remember summer evenings spent on the screened porch of the old homestead, the air thick with humidity and corn pollen, the sounds of crickets and cicadas chirping in the distance. I would lie on the concrete floor, grateful for its coolness, reading, or playing, or falling asleep, while the voices of the elders murmured stories of people I didn’t know or things that happened long ago.
Their faith, nurtured in the congregation where I also grew up, provided a firm foundation in changing times. They lived out that faith as conscientious objectors, in service through nursing, by volunteering in many capacities, in quiet service to their congregation and the wider community. Two of my dad’s brothers were called by their church and by the Holy Spirit to be pastors, serving mission churches in Toledo and in rural southern Ohio.
But it wasn’t all easy. In later years, my mother would express how intimidated she felt as a young bride, coming into this family of accomplished, articulate women. And after my Uncle Orland’s death in 1971, even though I was only 13, I remember going through the materials that he used in writing his congregational history, leafing through minutes of congregational meetings, and finding a notation that my grandfather was reinstated to full membership after some unnamed lapse in 1916 or 1917 (later records were almost comical in their detail—a sort of secret service reporting on those who were seen attending the County Fair and prevented from receiving communion for their sins). There was also the stash of empty liquor bottles discovered by my dad’s employees in the 1970s when they were demolishing an outbuilding that had been moved a mile from the church to my grandparents’ farm. The official explanation was that the bottles must have been left by hobos when the building was still on church property in the 1930s.
Now, with that generation gone, and most of my cousins in their sixties and seventies, the distance we all have traveled from that farm on which our parents were raised is far indeed. While some of us have remained in the area, and a few of us who grew up elsewhere have made our homes there as well, we are spread across the country, from eastern Pennsylvania to California, from Wisconsin to South Carolina. And our children have dispersed even further.
The legacy of our parents and grandparents lives in us, and because we had an uncle and four aunts who never married, their legacies live on in us as well. We have become businessmen and women, doctors, teachers, all manner of professionals. Few of us remain in the Mennonite Church, though the values of that tradition continue to echo in the vocational choices we have made and in our commitment to family and community.
As I enter this season of my life, having turned 60 last week, no longer accompanied by those aunts and uncles who nurtured me in my youth, I pause to reflect on all that they gave me, all the ways that they shaped me. Their faith, witness, and their sacrifices have helped to make me who I am. Their love nourished me along the way, and their examples continue to inspire me. As the author of Hebrews wrote,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.
It is a long journey I have traveled in those sixty years, a journey that has taken me a great distance from that community, from the Mennonite Church in which I was baptized and where I first encountered scripture and came to know the love of Jesus Christ. The great cloud of witnesses that now includes my father and all of his siblings surrounds me still.