Sunday, February 18, 2024

A Torturous Voyage To Philadelphia On The Francis and Elizabeth

Our Yoder forebears crossed the Atlantic
in the voyage described in this historical
novel, available from Masthof Press
I just finished reading this book by a descendant of Frau Barbara Fridman, a 41-year-old widow who with her children, age 19, 15, 8 and 6, crossed the Atlantic on the Francis and Elizabeth in 1742 in a grueling voyage of over two months. Packed in this vessel were over 200 other immigrants, including my Amish ancestor, widower  Christian Yoder and his 20-year-old son Christian and 16-year-old Jacob. 

The ancestral home of the Yoders is Steffisburg in Switzerland, but we're not sure just where our immigrant ancestors lived when they left for the New World. The Fridman family were Lutherans from Massenbach, and made their trip on a series of barges up the Necker and Rhine Rivers to Rotterdam, a journey almost as long and trying as the trip across the ocean. The hardships they and their fellow immigrants endured before and during their ocean voyage, along with Mennonite, Amish and other migrants, are almost unimaginable. Think rats, seasickness, chronic illnesses, burials at sea, insufferable heat, unbelievable stench, and having to sleep in stacks of wooden bunks packed next to other passengers night after night.

I wonder if any of us would have been hardy enough, or desperate enough, to have considered taking this kind of risk, but reading this book certainly added to my appreciation of the sheer courage our forefathers and mothers demonstrated in doing so. 

Here's a link to another post about this voyage: 

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Roses And Ashes: Local Marriage And Divorce Numbers For 2023

Flowers can be expensive, but a good
marriage is priceless.
Today, February 14, is both Ash Wednesday, the first Day of Lent, and Valentines Day, a day for celebrating love, roses and romance.

As a pastor and marriage and family counselor I’ve been keeping record of the number of local marriages and divorces each year since 1996. While our Rockingham/Harrisonburg population has grown significantly since then, the number of divorces granted in 2023, 366, remained relatively low, and the number of marriage licenses issued, 961, remained at near the average number of marriages each year since 1996.

While 366 marital breakups is a lower number than most years, it nevertheless means the painful disruption of the lives of 732 partners, along with whatever distress it creates for their children and countless numbers of friends, parents, grandparents and other loved ones. 

Meanwhile, while we have good records of documented marriages in our community, we lack any statistics on the increased number of partners who are living together without registering their de facto marriages. This means we have no record of how many of these undocumented couples also experience undocumented divorces, with equally distressing effects on children and/or other close family members and friends.

Here are the official numbers as provided by the local Circuit Court:

Year       Marriages     Divorces

1996           873                 387

1997           950                 405

1998           964                 396

1999           932                 405

2000           947                 365

2001          1003                438     (most annual marriages)

2002           976                 421

2003           961                 399

2004           959                 437

2005           889                 381

2006           929                 389

2007           925                 434

2008           950                 405

2009           903                 347 

2010           879                 358     (fewest annual marriages)

2011           933                 433

2012           995                 445

2013           924                 484    

2014           972                 427

2015           955                 474

2016           985                 612     (most annual divorces)

2017           983                 426

2018           935                 476

2019           947                 487

2020           882                 445

2021           994                 466

2022           954                 332     (fewest annual divorces)

2023           961                 366

We should note that the marriage numbers above are based solely on the number of marriage licenses issued, and include those who come here from other localities to get married, whereas divorce numbers include only the official breakups of people who live in the City or County. However, it is reasonable to assume that a roughly equal number of residents from here marry in other jurisdictions as marry here from other communities, so the numbers given should be reasonably valid for comparison purposes.

It should also be noted that we cannot assume a rate of divorce based on any one year's numbers, as in "35% of the first time marriages in our community will end in divorce,” since many of the above couples are marrying or divorcing for a second, third or fourth time. But with numbers like these over a period of years, we can safely conclude that the odds of a given first marriage surviving are well over 50%.

Separations and divorces may certainly be justified in cases of ongoing patterns of abuse, addictions or adultery. But in every way possible, our community is better off supporting ever more marital roses and ever fewer ashes of failed marriages and severed relationships.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Many Established Churches Are On Life Support

This church owned property in Richmond is just one of 
many that are up for sale, this one for a mere $3,800,000.
I attended a memorial service in Staunton Friday for someone who had moved there to teach at Mary Baldwin University and who had a lifelong career working in the criminal justice system. The service for her, held in one of the city's thirteen United Methodist congregations, was attended by fewer than 30 people, but in spite of the small crowd was conducted in the same traditional style as if the auditorium had been filled to capacity. In some ways little has changed, but in other ways everything has.

One of the members I spoke with afterwards lamented the fact that when he joined the church in 1972 it had some 400 members, but that today, on a good Sunday, attendance is down to around 30 or 40 congregants. A two-page directory available in the foyer listed 61 households, but fewer than half consisted of more than a single individual, and only 8 included one or more child or young adult member.

This drastic decline is concerning. Unless congregations have large endowments, they will simply not be able to continue to support a pastor and maintain what has become an oversized facility.

On the following day I attended an all day winter delegate session of our Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) held at the Waynesboro Mennonite Church. VMC is a part of Mennonite Church USA, a small denomination which like the much larger United Methodist Church is experiencing a major divide over the issue of accepting and affirming people in same-sex marriage and which has lost over half its membership in the past two decades. VMC has already lost numerous congregations on each side of this divide, and is almost certain to lose even more in the next few years. 

Attendance and membership are also in decline in most MCUSA congregations, including the congregation that hosted the delegate session. According to an old Mennonite Yearbook I have, it had 179 members in 1979, and while I do not know what its attendance numbers were in that year, on the Sunday prior to our meeting it was 61. 

I don't have any easy answers here, but the churches that are growing, unfortunately, tend to be doing so mostly from the numbers of dissatisfied people leaving other congregations rather than those becoming believers for the first time.

Maybe its time for ministers of churches to spend less time preaching from elevated pulpits and more time gathering their flock in holy huddles to do some serious soul searching about whether simply going about business as usual is really meeting their spiritual and belonging needs and those of the people in their communities. 

Maybe we need to gather more frequently in circles rather than in orderly rows, and spend more time in table fellowship and less in formal gatherings where people leave the service week after week without the opportunity to disclose their deepest needs and their daily struggles. 

Maybe we need sell off more of our real estate and/or to convert some of our holdings into places for feeding and housing those who need food and shelter, and for families who need day care and other services. 

Maybe we need to have our weekly meetings be not just about inspirational worship but about the intensive training of the "laos" (laity, the people, including the clergy) for the life-calling and mission of Jesus, that of bringing "good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, the recovery of sight to those who are blind (literally and figuratively), release for the oppressed and of proclaiming the year of God's favor." 

Maybe we should focus less on meeting budgets to maintain our staff and facilities and for outsourcing our help through organizations and agencies, but to be engaged in freely and personally offering more of help to our neighbors across the street and around the world.

If I had my life to live over again, I believe this is where I would start. Surely people everywhere are still drawn to chosen family-like communities where they experience lots of faith, hope and love. And people still need to be empowered and blessed to love others in everyday ways that offer good news to others around them.

More like this:

All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.     
-Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47 (New Living Translation)

Saturday, February 3, 2024

U.S. Airstrikes: "Proportionate and Necessary?"

President Biden: "The United States does not seek conflict in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world.”

According to an Associated Press report, US forces carried out 85 airstrikes in Yemen today after attacking sites in Iraq and Syria yesterday in response to a drone attack that killed three US soldiers. 

Is this kind of retaliation really "proportionate and necessary?" The attack on our military base this week, in protest of our support of Israel's revenge strikes against Gazan citizens, killed three U.S. troops. U.S.counterstrikes have claimed the lives of at least 40, plus doing an untold amount of additional "collateral damage."

This brings up the question of whether the lives and property of US citizens have infinitely greater value than those of other nationalities, thus justifying our dropping megatons of explosives as a form of "defense."

Do starving refugees and bombing victims everywhere not have equal value? Do people suffering and dying as a result of millions of our taxpayer dollars spent in inflicting harm not equally deserve our mercy and compassion?

And if we really don't want to escalate conflict in the Middle East, why are we in fact escalating it by engaging in massive bombing campaigns?

Chris Hedges, an ordained Presbyterian minister and Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter, writes in his book, The Greatest Evil is War:

"In an instant, industrial warfare can kill dozens, even hundreds of people, who never see their attackers. The power of these industrial weapons is indiscriminate and staggering. They can take down apartment blocks in seconds, burying and crushing everyone inside. They can demolish villages and send tanks, planes, and ships up in fiery blasts. The wounds, for those who survive, leave terrible burns, blindness, amputation, and life­long pain and trauma."

Employing ever more evil means of this kind is far more likely to set off an unimaginably horrific World War III than to bring about any lasting peace.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Arm Chair Debates Over The Bombing Of Gaza: 'Collateral Damage,' A War Crime, Or Genocide?

Rafah, in southern Gaza. Fatima Shbair/Associated Press
New York Times 1/29/24

"When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”    
 - Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel

At this moment the world is experiencing almost unimaginable horrors triggered by the barbaric October 7 assaults by Hamas on Israeli civilians. The massive revenge attacks by Israel have resulted in the deaths of over 25,000 men, women and children living in Gaza, an area of land much smaller than Rockingham County and which is home to over two million people, many of them now homeless. Some of these have already been living in refugee camps for decades, and now have been stripped of all but the barest of necessities.

Not only homes but most hospitals have been destroyed, and those that still exist are despearately short  of the staff, supplies and space necessary to provide care for the thousands in urgent need. Scores of children have had their limbs amputated without anesthesia, and many have suffered severe burns and other injuries that will result in their being maimed for life. According to UNICEF spokesman James Elder, child deaths due to disease and malnutrition may well surpass deaths by bombardment. 

All of this requires a focus on this kind of suffering of innocent people as representing, for us, "the center of the universe." 

I'm tired of hearing debates over which side is most at fault, or whether the destruction of human habitat and whole human communities can sometimes be justified as "defense." There is no defense for inflicting carnage and causing needless suffering of God's children. What is at "fault" is human beings anywhere and for whatever reason resorting to violent and evil means to achieve their ends. 

So whether we call it genocide, or Gaza-cide, domicide, a form of holocaust or just some regrettable "collateral damage," it all represents an affront to God Almighty for which we are complicit by our silence.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Hundreds Pay Tribute To A Beloved Cousin

Barbara Yoder Hershberger, 1939-2024
The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth –

The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity --

- Emily Dickenson

We attended the memorial service for one of my favorite cousins Sunday, a lifelong friend who passed away unexpectedly last week from an apparent heart failure. 

Our family and hers were especially close growing up. Barbara was the cousin nearest to my age and was like a very special sister and confidante during my teen years. 

Over 150 people were at the 3-5 pm viewing at her church Saturday, with an equal number at a second 4-6 family visitation time. We had to wait a full hour to get through the line. Then some 400 people attended her funeral service Sunday morning, well over triple the usual attendance at her church's morning service.

Why would so many turn out for this extraordinary woman, one whose life by some measures may have seemed very ordinary?

I believe it was primarily because she so devoted her life to nurturing strong bonds with her family and her church family. And also because she was such a genuinely gracious, kind and good woman, a caring, Christ-like servant who blessed all whose lives she touched.

I truly want to be more like Barbara, whose primary aim was to be faithful follower of Jesus.

Here is a tribute that was read in Sunday's service, written by daughters Anita and Rosetta:

Mom was a fun-loving, social, and adventurous person. She loved her husband and eight children well and was dedicated to teaching and bringing up us children in the way of the Lord. She, along with Dad, fostered in us the love of singing which passed on to her grandchildren. She always cared about our lives and spent much time listening to and reassuring those of us with more sensitive consciences. She enjoyed reaching out to neighbors and offered a listening ear to those who needed to talk. She loved social activities and hated to miss out on anything.

Serving hot, tasty food to her family was one way she loved them. She enjoyed gardening and often canned and froze extra food during the summer so there was plenty when the family came home. Quality time was high on her list of priorities. Activities with the grandchildren such as walks, building dams in the creek, and playing games gave her joy. A good game of Scrabble or spending time around a campfire also meant a lot to her.

She and dad prayed for the children and grandchildren daily. Reading her Bible was important to her and when her eyesight was getting worse, she read Scripture on her Samsung tablet or listened on audio. She was concerned that we followed the Lord with our whole heart and followed biblical principles.

Mom and Dad had a heart for service which also transferred to their children. She unselfishly bid her children farewell many times as they boarded yet another plane for mission work. She invested many hours to bring the Fresh Air children from New York City to the country and interviewed numerous local families to find placements for them. Occasionally, dad and mom rode the bus from NYC to VA with the rowdy children; she loved it.
The annual widows’ luncheon sponsored each year by the church was a highlight. She found joy in taking the calls when widows phoned to sign up and interacting with them at the event.
We will always remember her loving smile, laughter, care, and servant attitude. Even in her last hours she displayed patience. May we carry on her legacy of living life to the fullest and blessing others for Christ.
Mom, you will be greatly missed, but we know that you are in the presence and care of our Loving Heavenly Father.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Can We Trust Anything Considered 'Mainstream'?

This left to right AllSides Media Bias chart represents their analysis of U.S. news sources.

A growing number of Americans mistrust the so-called "mainstream media" as channels of fake news used to promote the interests of power-hungry politicians and profit-hungry corporations. 

While generalizations like these may contain some truth, they may also serve to confuse, conceal or distort truth. With so many diverse voices form everywhere, how do we determine what is true and what are half truths or outright lies?

A friend of mine recently posted a statement by an eminent physicist in which he questioned most of the conclusions of scientists studying climate change. As someone deeply concerned about the wellbeing of the planet and about a livable future for our grandchildren, I read what he had to say with interest. Are we being misled and overly alarmed by the overwhelming majority of mainstream climatologists who are expressing concerns about our future?

One "truth" we all need to remember is that climate science, like medical science or any other field of study, is never fully "settled" and above being questioned. What scientists do best is test a hypothesis, show their findings, and have later studies either verify or disprove them with better data.

Speaking of medical science, when I tested positive for Covid last year and was treated with a recommended prescription of Paxlovid, I, like most Americans, was putting considerable trust in the latest and best medical science could offer at the time. This in spite of a lot of doubters and naysayers when it came to trusting Covid vaccines or treatments, and in spite of those who believed the whole Covid scare was overblown by a headline-seeking media and a profit-driven pharmaceutical industry.

When it comes to healthcare, I respect those who choose alternative forms of herbal or "natural" medicine, and who question modern medical science, in spite of advancement in inoculations and treatments having contributed to a longer life span and a marked decrease in human suffering and death in the past century. But that doesn't necessarily mean that mainstream medical science, climate science, or any other kind of industry is involved in a malicious conspiracy to defraud and deceive us.