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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Remembering My Amish Baptism--Sixty Years Later

1950's photo from Harry A. Brunk collection, Mennonite Archives of Virginia
I was baptized at the above Stuarts Draft Amish meetinghouse on a warm Sunday morning, September 12, 1954, sixty years ago. I was the youngest member of a baptismal class of nine teens* who gave a public witness to their faith and joined the church that day. It was a memorable experience for a 15-year-old who had always experienced church as a central part of his life and who was now received as a full-fledged fellow member of it.

I'll never forget kneeling at the front of the congregation and having our good Bishop Simon Yoder cup water in his hands from a bowl and gently pour this sacramental sign of cleansing and commissioning on my head--"im Namen des Vaters and des Sohnes und des heiligen Geistes"--and then taking me by the hand and having me stand as a new born and newly welcomed adult member of God's family.

Seven months prior I had experienced my own personal conversion alone in my bedroom one night. I had been too shy to talk to anyone about all of the guilt and fear of judgment I felt as a young teen, and about my desire to know for sure that God did indeed love and forgive me. Mine was not a dramatic Damascus road encounter, but a quiet reaching out and an acceptance of truly amazing grace.

I have had many ups and downs in my relationship with God, and have many a lover's quarrel with the church, but I have never doubted that I have been embraced and loved by both.

Unfortunately, only months later, my parents and the rest of my family became a part of a newly forming "Beachy", or Amish Mennonite Church at Stuarts Draft. Reasons given for the division were varied, but the one most persuasive for my parents (and I) were that the church should be more open to reaching out to our non-Amish neighbors who were unbelievers.

Of course, the fact that joining this newly emerging group also meant we could own cars (black ones) and not have to rely on horse and buggy transportation, and that we could have telephones instead of going to our neighbors when we had to make a call, may have also played a part. However, those factors weren't much talked about. We believed we were striving to be more evangelistic, if not more spiritual, than the group we left behind.

I still feel sad about my church breaking up so soon after my joining it (not that there was any cause and effect relationships between these two events ;-). At any rate, it was only after my leaving home at 21 to attend Eastern Mennonite College (now EMU), marrying a good Mennonite wife, and being asked to serve as a part-time assistant pastor at Zion Mennonite near Broadway in 1965 that I officially transferred my membership to a Mennonite Church and to Virginia Mennonite Conference.

A part of me will always be Amish, the part aiming to live a frugal and unpretentious lifestyle, maintaining strong family commitments, valuing close ties with others in caring communities, as well as about keeping church simple and more about relationships than about expensive real estate and salaried staff.

Just today I found myself moved by these words by poet Wendell Berry, from a piece called "A Country Funeral":

What we owe the future
is not a new start, for we can only begin
with what has happened. We owe the future 
the past, the long knowledge
that is the potency of time to come.
That makes a man's grave a rich furrow.
The community of knowing in common is the seed
of our life in this place...
And so as the old die and the young
depart, where shall a man go who keeps
the memories of the dead, except home
again...
- "The Country of Marriage"

* Other members of the baptismal class were Sylvia Byler, Herman Kinsinger, Verna Miller, Willis Miller, Mary Schrock, Barbara Yoder, Sara Yoder and Henry Zook.
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