Editor’s Note

Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come…

Song of Solomon 2:12 (NIV)

Continuing our 2021 theme of Transformation, in this summer issue of MennoExpressions we explore changes happening all around us. Bees buzz on tall echinacea and purple petunias; plump red tomatoes, green beans and sweet corn overflow their baskets in market booths; fireflies light up evenings spent outdoors. We celebrate gathering with family and friends, perhaps finally meeting “pandemic babies” or reuniting after long months apart. Vacation travel has reappeared on calendars.

While vaccinations and masks have allowed FMC to meet, and even sing together again, we are still acclimating to different ways of gathering safely. Saying good-bye to Bob and Mag Richer Smith as they completed their encouraging interim ministry was difficult. Welcoming Frances Ringenberg reassures us of continued blessings, as she steps into interim leadership with the FMC team.

Brian Bither, pastor at Shalom Mennonite Church, our sister congregation in Indianapolis, shares how they found new ways to stay connected and care for their members. They also note changes the church has completed to enhance their building.

While hoping to move on from many pandemic changes, taking time to explore ways that adjustments enhanced our lives can encourage all of us.

Creative hobbies have been a redeeming source of joy for many—whether in everyday areas like cooking, gardening, and caring for trees, or artistic endeavors like the drawings and quilts shared in this issue.

And what could be more transforming than stepping back from a busy, rewarding career, ready to explore new opportunities with fewer time constraints.

Wherever you find yourself in the continuum of life experiences, let’s seek to share, support and cherish the ways we can enrich others as the seasons shift around us and we anticipate the approaching exuberance of autumn colors– just down the road and around the corner.

Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.

Psalm 96:12 (NIV)

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Transforming the Church

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a transformative effect on the church. Primarily, the loss of life has been devastating to the church community. Furthermore, the drop in attendance, the loss of income, and frustration over whether a congregation was too strict or lenient in its policies continue to present the broader church with real challenges. But as our Scriptures proclaim, while God is NOT the author of evil, God can bring good out of even the worst situations. I have witnessed that at Shalom in the past year and a half.

After we decided to close the church to in-person services last year, our leaders began discussing ways to provide care and support to the congregation. This was challenging—both because of the number of people who needed care and because we couldn’t visit them in person. We decided to try an approach to pastoral care that we had been considering for several years: a deacon model of ministry. To initiate this plan, nine trusted members of the congregation volunteered to be deacons. Then every adult in our church was assigned to one of them. These deacons then contacted their assignees to see how they were doing and offer support. From that point until the present, our deacons have been periodically calling or texting every active member of our church—except those who opted out—so that each one knows they are remembered and loved. Periodically, I check in with the deacons and offer my direct pastoral support when needed.

Although it may sound simple, this has been a completely different approach to one of the core ministries of our church—pastoral care. From my perspective, it has been a tremendous blessing. Before this program, I struggled to figure out a way to share the ministry of pastoral care with congregational members. Occasionally, elders or church leaders would offer to visit someone sick or make hospital visits, but in reality, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Broader pastoral care involves much more subtle forms of support, such as listening to people who are discouraged, checking in on people who seem to be slipping away, praying with people when their friends or relatives are sick, or in times of crisis. Prior to the pandemic, it has been hard to explain how important these low-key interactions are for our spiritual and social well-being, but after having been deprived of them, most of us understand it more intuitively now. The deacon program not only helps us reinforce the importance of these interactions but offers a way for congregational members to get directly involved in this kind of care.

We will soon be making a formal decision about whether to keep the deacon program or discard it when life “returns to normal.” Whatever we decide, this approach to pastoral ministry has transformed us, and I am grateful for the ways it has done so.

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The first week of July, Bob and I went to Pittsburgh to help our son-in-law with the five year old twins while their mother was out of town.  On the first day, I borrowed my son-in-law’s car, intending to take our grandchildren to the park. Because the car was in an unfamiliar apartment garage, I got somewhat confused on exiting, backed up to turn around and hit a concrete abutment that completely caved-in the rear passenger door.  And in my shock and grief, all I could hear was two five year olds chanting. “Papa is going to be sooo mad!”

Concrete abutments have appeared, often out of nowhere, my whole life long.

Sometimes it is just a minor knock, and sometimes the injury has been life changing.

I remember an early morning knock on my young adult bedroom window with two of my best friends insisting, “Let us in.” And then the bad news, “Your mother died this morning.”

Or a call from our son-in-law informing us that our daughter was in the ICU at 26 weeks of pregnancy and 8 cm dilated, “The babies are coming!”

And then there are the kind of concrete pillars that emerge when an epidemic suddenly has us isolated from one another, or the capitol building is raided, or we watch the real-life murder of a black man on our screens.

Those concrete pillars stop me in my tracks, and I find myself needing comfort and forgiveness as I berate myself for my short-sightedness, for unkind words I cannot take back, and for the harm that I keep contributing to the world.

And I’m often mad at a God who doesn’t take those concrete abutments out of my path and give us all smoother sailing.

On our last Sunday as interim pastors at FMC at the end of June, someone said to me, “I think at the end it’s really all about grace. Is there anything really more important?”

I have pondered that and know that my own on-going growth and transformation depends on how I give and receive grace… how I offer grace to myself, accept my son-in-law’s loving hugs after I wreck his car, and let the worst of life make me more caring. When I discover in my deepest brokenness a SPIRIT of LOVE who does not let go… then TRANSFORMATION happens by little and by little my whole life long. The challenge is to LET the Spirit breathe peace and LET the grace wash over me… until I become a part of that grace and peace for the larger world.  Is there anything more important?

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Transformation of a Tree Steward

Of course, you would ask, “What is a tree steward?” During the day and on occasional weekends he is a local, long-time pediatrician. In the evenings and on other weekends, he is a mentor, husband, friend, father, Care Team member, bike rider, faithful Habitat for Humanity volunteer and much more! By now, you probably have an idea I’m referring to Randy Stoesz. And, you would be right!

Randy, graciously and humbly, allowed me to converse with him for an hour and a half recently so I could learn from him how and why he became interested in helping FMC take better care of our trees (a.k.a. transform our trees).

Randy has done woodworking projects for many years and, as noted above, has helped on many Habitat builds. Of course, these use wood from trees. But his interest in trees, per se, began when he and his family lived on a property in NW Marion County which had a lot of trees. In a way, this property was similar to FMC’s grounds—some areas were fields with a few trees, some areas had buildings with adjacent trees, and some areas were densely forested. Many of these trees had problems. If the trees were going to do well, their caretaker, or their “steward,” needed to learn more about them.

Thus, Randy took the Indiana Community Tree Steward course offered thru the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. This program emphasizes urban forestry topics, with a subset listed here.

  • Benefits of the Urban Forest
  • Identifying Tree Defects and Risk Awareness
  • Pruning Do’s and Don’ts
  • Diagnosing Tree Problems

After the curriculum is completed, a written exam is taken (and passed) and community volunteer work hours must be completed.

All of this training, mentoring and practice has allowed Randy to gain experiences which, in turn, he has been using to benefit First Mennonite, the FMC neighborhood, his home neighborhood and other areas in town. 

Trees provide a lot of benefits to us and to those around us:

  • provide shade
  • absorb CO2
  • provide shelter for birds and other animals
  • keep temperatures at more modest levels
  • provide superb scenic views
  • lessen costs, time and impact of mowing

Trees also need attention and care, including:

  • which varieties are planted
  • how and where they are planted
  • how much and how often they are watered
  • regular inspections
  • how and when they are pruned and trimmed
  • how they are mulched

There are many practices that harm a tree, including surrounding it with pavers or bricks and the famous “volcano” method of mulching, as you can see from this photo.

For more information, click on this link

After reading this article, perhaps, take a 5 minute stroll around 46th Street and Knollton Road and make some observations. Which trees appear healthy? What species of trees appear healthy? Where are these healthy trees located? Which trees look like they are struggling? Why do they seem to be struggling? Do you see trees which have been pruned or trimmed?

Randy has been invested in lessening the negative impact of humans on this one and only Earth by riding his bike to work often, driving an electric car, and being a part of the recent solar energy project at FMC. Rounding this off by becoming trained as a Tree Steward and putting that training to work seems like a natural fit. We are all the beneficiaries of these efforts. Thank you, Randy, for continuing to be transformed, while also learning how to transform trees!

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Discovering the More in Less

Four decades ago, Doris Janzen Longacre’s More with Less Cookbook (1976) and Living More with Less (1980) served as a transformational rallying cry for Mennonites to rethink the way we use the world’s resources by doing more with less.  As we reflected on the theme of transformation related to the coronavirus pandemic, we found ourselves returning to the notions of doing more with less and discovering the more in less.

COVID-19 has, indeed, forced many of us to make do with less – less shopping, less going out to eat, less social interaction, less hanging out with friends, less frequent visits to coffee shops or movie theaters, fewer haircuts!  The list of what has “lessened” goes on and on.  While these restrictions have been felt around the world, for the past 5 months, we have experienced “the less” even more acutely as Germany has used various stages of lockdown as a major weapon in its battle against the pandemic. 

I (Beth) arrived in Germany in early October.  Three weeks into my stay – right after two weeks in quarantine and a one-week mini-vacation at the North Sea – Germany went into “lockdown light.” Stores were closed in the hope that shutting them at that moment would allow them to reopen for Christmas shopping by the end of November.  Social distancing restrictions at restaurants, coffee shops, and pubs were ramped up, and contact information was collected to facilitate contact tracing.  The world of entertainment (sports, movies, theatres, concerts, etc.) went from less to none.  We began to make do with less.  When November didn’t bring a significant drop in new COVID cases, the government decided to move into “hard lockdown,” pushing a giant PAUSE button on almost all public life. No Christmas shopping, movies, concerts, dining out with friends, and no Christmas markets (a hard one for Beth!). Only grocery stores and drug stores stayed open. Schools and daycares were closed, and more people were moved into home offices for their work. Travel was tightly restricted, and social contacts were limited to small gatherings of no more than two households. We had to make do with even less.

As this government-mandated living-with-less reinforced for us Janzen Longacre’s message from over 40 years ago, we also began discovering that the more in less can, indeed, be transformational.  Less traveling actually helped us discover hidden gems in our immediate neighborhood. On our daily walks we “found” three independent bakeries we didn’t know about (with yummy pastries and breads), three churches new to us, a monastery’s secret garden, much interesting lawn “art,” and simply a renewed joy in walking.  Less contact with friends and family in real space and time encouraged us to come up with creative ways to use virtual means to stay connected.  Our Zoom game nights with one group of friends have become a fun and meaningful new staple in our social lives. We also rediscovered analog modes of connection—writing postcards, Christmas cards, and real birthday cards to friends is tactile fun for both sender and receiver. Less shopping and generally acquiring less stuff has been quite freeing—our newly uncluttered closets, cupboards, shelves, and living spaces seem to think so, too.  Less mindless consumerism has also led to less waste and smaller waists. And since eating at home most of all means cooking at home, this brings us full circle back to our battered copy of the More With Less Cookbook, which figuratively and literally has helped us transform the less into more in these strange Corona times.

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My Garden Legacy

I must have been six or seven when I first remember eating fresh peas straight off the vine in my grandmother’s garden.  Wow. I will never forget that pop of sweetness on my tongue! And no carrot ever tasted fresher, or more flavorful than those I pulled straight out of that black Manitoba soil, with no seasoning except a bit of residual dirt. I learned to love garden vegetables early. My grandmother had a huge garden. While I don’t know the actual dimensions, suffice it to say, one could easily get lost in there– or safely sneak fresh goodies without fear of getting caught! I loved that paradise.  It was magical. Grandma grew absolutely everything in that garden. I wish I could talk to her now, and hear what she would have to tell me about it.  When I was growing up in Kansas, my parents usually planted a vegetable garden, and my mom always loved her red geraniums and bright orange begonias just like her mother did. But other things held my attention back then. Now in my adult life, I have always enjoyed a garden. Every year I marvel at the miracle of a seed. The Great Force of life that pushes goodness out of dirt, scraps, waste, and refuse. Such a beautiful metaphor for grace, love and forgiveness, such a perfect symbol for the renewal of spirit and blooming of the soul—true transformation.

I like to think that part of my grandmother lives on in me. My mother and several family members living locally are lucky to have a start from Grandma’s fuchsia peonies that once thrived in my grandmother’s magical garden.  Though I cannot bring plants across the Canada/US Border, I cherish some of those family peonies from my mother’s home in South Bend before they moved. And though my vegetable garden, of course, does not even begin to compare to Grandmother’s, who grew hers to feed her large family of 13 children, I believe my flower garden may not be far off. This season I hope to stretch my flower growing capacity once again as I try my hand at starting seeds indoors.  Many of the seeds are flowers that she grew, like cosmos, zinnias, snapdragons, sweet peas, four-o’clocks, marigolds and petunias.  I am reminded of Grandmother every spring when I get out and start digging in that great, green earth. The days are getting longer now, and I’m starting to feel the gardening bug. It’s time to start getting my peas and carrots and potatoes in the ground. I am ever so grateful to my Grandmothers–both of them. They inspired me to love the earth, to treat it well and realize it will give back three thousand-fold both in beauty and in bounty. I have so much gratitude to them for their amazing, determined efforts to feed their families well–and for that little garden bug planted in my soul.

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Top Ten Transformations of 2020

  1. The most popular sections at the grocery became the spice shelves and baking goods aisle.
  2. Turned out our neighborhood did have a lot of people who lived in it. Who would have known!
  3. More of us understood the differences between “wants” and “needs”.
  4. The reason for common courtesies such as covering your mouth and nose when sneezing became obvious.
  5. “Hobby” became more inclusive, such as reorganizing storage shelves for the third time in four months.
  6. Wearing clothes for longer than a few hours in a day was regarded as a major hassle.
  7. Uneven gray won “Hair Color of the Year” award.
  8. “Family time” had a whole new meaning.
  9. Learning about statistics, graphs, data trends and charts was taken off my list of life goals.
  10. Personal space was renamed to the much more contemporary term, “social distancing”.

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The Rope that Ties Peace and Pain Together

This is a condensed version of the speech that Olivia Krall gave at the C. Henry Smith Oratorical Contest in February 2021 at Goshen College.  Olivia’s speech begins at 13:24. 

Trauma is passed on through generations. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as intergenerational or transgenerational trauma. Children of parents who have faced extreme situations may be more likely to struggle with their mental health. One explanation of this is that parents or family members who are struggling may pass down their negative coping mechanisms. The actions of our families, the stories we grow up listening to, and the communities that we live in shape us. As a result, the consequences of trauma, are felt for long afterward.

I first became aware of this idea two years ago during a lecture on a boat in the middle of the Dnieper River in Ukraine. It has since changed how I think about my own history. One day before that lecture, my grandparents, my mother, and I, along with roughly 30 other passengers, boarded a bus and headed into the Ukrainian countryside to see the villages of our ancestors. What was intended as an eight-hour bus trip slid into hour fourteen. By then I was hungry, exhausted, irritable, and tired of peeing in fields. All I wanted to do was head back to the boat. So, when we pulled up to an abandoned train station, I could only be described as exasperated. The sun had set, and the only lights remaining were the headlights on the bus.

As I caught up to the group, I saw that they had gathered in the middle of the tracks. Here, the leaders of the group informed us that this was the train station Mennonites had used to flee persecution, and that would later carry them to execution. They recounted that as each train of Mennonites left, those that remained sang the hymn “Take Thou My Hand, O Father.” When the last of the Mennonites boarded the train, and there was no one left to sing, the Ukrainians — who had never gotten along with the Mennonites — sang it to them. Together as a group, we stood in the dim light of bus headlights and sang that hymn together. I could not see the faces of those singing around me, and I barely knew the German lyrics, but nevertheless, that moment bound me to those people.  I had heard brief mentions of this chapter in my family’s history but, it had always seemed so far removed from my life that I didn’t pay attention. Suddenly though, I was intimately connected to it. In the course of a week, I had seen the same buildings, the same sky that my ancestors had, I had sung the same hymns, and eaten the same foods. What was far away became close.

On the trip, a group of psychologists told us that trauma is passed on genetically. It is felt and dealt with through generations. I have come to believe that if this is true, then resilience can also be passed on. Resilience comes from knowledge. It comes from hearing and telling our stories. The pathway forward to peace, within ourselves, and our communities, comes from reconciling with the trauma of our pasts.

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