The Geography of Our Faith

Managing Editor Nancy V. Lee

Personal stories of a people finding their way during a time of unprecedented change in culture and religion are the best indicator of its endurance, its unique character and its determination to stay true to itself.

The following pages will give you, the reader, a good grasp of how several accomplished yet humble folks with a shared spiritual heritage—followers of Jesus in a European-rooted Anabaptist tradition—have found their place in a changing, secular-prone North American culture. Their struggles, their tenacity in face of obstacles, their international experiences open a window into the contours of a minority faith community.

But don’t be misled by the word minority. These persons, admitting to every human frailty while at the same time demonstrating unusual resourcefulness and intelligence, should not be underestimated. They punch way beyond their weight, to use a cliché. Indeed, most of us, in the Anabaptist tradition sharing our stories, come from a humble beginning; but that is only a common starting point.

We are historically a rural people, many of us learning the important lessons of hard work and endurance on the farm. We lived in small provincial enclaves of like-minded people, some of us treating our other-religious neighbors with regrettable suspicion. But as our world expanded beyond those confines through higher education, international experience, and professional ventures into the wider culture, we began to shed parochialism while clinging to basic values of our spiritual heritage.

The theme of coming of age within restrictive environments runs through all of these stories. They read like a novel, except these characters are real, the plot lines unravelling with actual experiences. The characters are resilient, sometimes dramatic, but never boring or dull. They have developed their life narratives with skill and intrigue.

Stories are powerful because they are so personal. We learn from them because they reveal things about ourselves. Many of these storytellers are my friends. I know whereof they speak. Their descriptions are not exaggerated or pompous. They tell it like it is. Their narratives are authentic. They talk of failures along with successes. These are real persons telling us they share our humanness, our frailties, but in equal measure our hopes and dreams.

Some of us have had difficult conversations with our parents, articulated so well by Doug Hostetter, whose introduction to and enlightenment from a wider world put him in conflict with a high-profile father. But underlying that struggle was an undying love between parent and child that kept the relationship intact. This is a tale of redemption.

On the other hand, there is the exhilarating story of Peggy Shenk whose progressive father, well ahead of his time, gave succor not only to his immediate family but also to many in his church leadership circle and beyond. While it cost him a leadership position in one of our major educational systems, it proved to be a shining light that helped lead us out of some of the darkness of the twentieth century. Hers is a moving love story.

In like manner, there is the honest struggle of Martin Lehman, who fought courageously and valiantly for the acceptance of sexually marginalized persons—a leader who came to change his traditional views and worked zealously to make room for these hurting people in a still-reluctant religious community working through its prejudices and moral principles. His is a story of steadfast courage.

There is the thrilling story of an expanded worldview as told by Rick Yoder as he takes his Anabaptist peace and justice values to the world stage through his work with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He was able to take his work and spiritual ethics from a small farm in Elverson, Pennsylvania, to the ends of the earth to provide, in his words “jobs, higher incomes and better quality of life for lots of people.” His is an inspirational story of “seeking justice.”

Another story of a farm boy honing his skills to become an educational leader at home and abroad is that of Lee Yoder, growing up in one of the more closed enclaves of what is known as Big Valley in central Pennsylvania. Further east in a more urbanized setting, Joseph Lapp broke with family tradition of denominational leadership (his father another high-profile leader) to study law and later use his skills to lead Eastern Mennonite College to university status.

Another pioneer in law is the story of Larry Hoover Jr. of Harrisonburg, Virginia, who directed his work in mediation to world affairs, working with the United States to a more creative approach to conflict in such places as the Philippines—another farm boy taking his values to the world stage and making a difference.

There is the inspiration of a business entrepreneur, Allon Lefever, who brought his Anabaptist values and skills to the management of hundreds of employees in one of the largest Mennonite-owned enterprises, Victor F. Weaver Inc. in New Holland, Pennsylvania. He modeled what it means to be fair in labor relations and to keep the profit motive from being the guiding force in the private sector.

These are only a sampling of the many stories that pulsate through these pages. Apologies to those not noted here. All of them are compelling in their own way. They define for us who we are as a people. The narrative they form comes from a generation of creative persons who, grounded in small congregations with the Bible as their center of religious learning, instructed in the basic lessons of life from parents with many times only an eighth-grade education, took those tools and expanded them into high-value leadership positions and professional skills that have contributed to our culture in important ways.

The stories are told with candor, with a good dose of self-effacement and humility, providing a delightful read and giving hope for the future.

The only critique I would offer is that there are far too few stories from women. At a time when women are gaining their rightful place in our faith communion and in our society, we need to hear more about their struggles and aspirations, the pain and constraints under which they surely have lived over the past half-century. Their nurturing component to our story is still often untold—even as the telling would make us a more perfect communion.

Richard (Dick) Benner, Editor and Publisher, Canadian Mennonite magazine