How I became a Mennonite

NOTE: The following piece takes up where my last post ended. It continues the story I told in Child Bride, my second book, which is about my parents and my childhood. What follows is the beginning of my story, the story of a person with her own journey, a private journey.

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I was not a Mennonite when I was a child.  My parents left the church early in their marriage, and I grew up as just another little California girl, playing outside almost all year, watching the adults around me, caught up like them in the drama of World War II California—dashing young men in uniforms, pretty girls flirting with them, trains filled with soldiers and sailors passing behind our backyard, whistling at my mom’s younger sister, Sylvia, as she lay on the lawn in her swimsuit knowing the young males in the trains would see her.  It was an exciting time filled with the happy sounds of big bands and movies about teenagers going to dances and riding around in jalopies with rumble-seats.  And when I turned six, my world became that of the liberal, progressive California public schools where dedicated teachers handed on their belief in reason, democracy and the innate value of all humanity.

Religion for me then was a matter of being sent to the nearest Protestant Sunday school on Sunday mornings; being kind, honest and understanding; saying, “Now I lay me down to sleep” at night and going to the Mennonite Brethren Church in Lodi on Christmas Eve and Easter morning.  I liked going to church.  Taking time to put on my best clothes and gather with other people all dressed in their best seemed to give a significance to Sundays and holidays that other days did not have—but I remember nothing specific about what I actually heard in church.  I knew the traditional Christmas story, of course, but Jesus did not figure in my life in any way other than as the baby in that story, and as the name in Sunday school songs like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children, All the Children of the World.”

The Sunday schools I attended presented Jesus as a reassuring, loving figure, but he never truly felt real to me.  I pretty much left him behind in church when I walked out the door.  God, though, was different; God was very important.  I did not actually think about God very often, but deep down, below my active thought, I felt a sense of God overarching my life and my parents’ lives and the lives of all the people around me, encompassing the whole world, all that existed.  God for me was a smiling presence, much like my grandparents—kindly people who seemed to enjoy having me around, yet didn’t thrust a lot of words or unwanted attention on me.  My grandparents were people I could depend upon and take for granted as I gave myself fully to my own pursuits.  God, like my grandparents, watched over me, but in a very unobtrusive way.  I felt I should pray to God when I went to bed at night, but otherwise I felt free to let God stay in the background.   A very indulgent, permissive God, this God of my childhood. 

Mennonite, Unitarian, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian—they were all the same to me as a child.  I knew my grandparents were Mennonites, but my parents belonged to no church, so neither did I.  We were simply generic Protestants. 

Then, one Sunday morning in the winter of 1951, not long after my thirteenth birthday, my family—Mom and Dad, my almost-ten-year-old sister Nita, and my baby sister, Jacque—all went to church together on a Sunday that wasn’t Christmas or Easter.  The Lodi Mennonite Brethren Church was holding special evangelistic services, and my mother had promised her parents we would attend.  My dad had been angry when Mom told him about her promise but had grudgingly agreed to go because Mom had given her word; she was his wife, and her word bound him as well.  But he made it very, very clear that she should have asked him first before giving her promise. 

My dad was not a happy man that Sunday morning as we got ready for church, then climbed into our two-door 1949 Buick Special.  All I remember of the drive is the feeling of his displeasure—a grey sullenness that squelched all talk, matched the heavy, grey winter sky, the damp, bare vineyards and trees, and the cold-looking houses and yards we passed on the twelve-mile drive between Stockton and Lodi. 

The church was bright and warm after the winter darkness.  Passing through the oak doors of the vestibule, we walked the burgundy carpet path down to about the midpoint of the middle block of pews.  This was where the families with children usually sat.  Old ladies were in the wide section to our right and the old men in the wide section to our left. This people-filled place was pleasant, comforting.  Smooth, white plaster walls, dark oak pews—a curved wall forming a pale blue shell around the choir pews behind the pulpit.  Simple, well built, well maintained, substantial—a space that spoke welcome and reassurance.

The service, I’m sure, followed its usual order–prayers, Bible readings, songs by the choir, congregational singing, sermon.  I never really listened to the words when we visited the church, though I did enjoy the music.  I would tune out, daydream.  But that morning, my dad’s anger subverted pleasant fantasy.  I could feel it seep into me as I sat there on the oak pew.  I could feel his agitation, and I wasn’t surprised when he suddenly picked up Jacque, my baby sister, then stood up and walked to the back of the church.  Jacque was only an excuse to leave while the service was in progress.  I knew that, figured Dad was probably heading to a bar to drink until the service was over.  I hoped he wouldn’t be obviously tipsy when he returned for us, but it was a relief to have him gone.  I could daydream freely now, comfortable in my mom’s presence.

The rest of that Sunday service is a blank—until the end, that is, after the sermon.  Usually the service ended with a simple prayer and benediction, but this was a special evangelistic service with an altar call.  People were urged to “come forward.” I could hear the warm pleading in the evangelist’s voice. We sang verse after verse of a hymn that went on and on. I remember my discomfort and longing for it all to end so we could leave and go home.   But then something happened that my mind couldn’t process: my mother stepped out into the aisle and walked to the front.  The evangelist moved toward her joyfully and lead her to the front pew where the pastor of the church met her, began speaking to her. The evangelist then turned to the congregation, urging others to come join her.

 I was bewildered, confused.  Everyone was looking at me and Nita.  They seemed to expect us to go forward too.  Not knowing what else to do, feeling the pressure of all that expectation, I went up to the front to join my mom.

The rest of that time in the front of the church is a confusion of people praying and crying.  Nita also came forward, and we both must have said the words we sensed people wanted us to say, but what those words meant I didn’t know.  I just knew that my mom had done something momentous, something that changed everything, and that I had to join her in what she was doing.  The adults around me were joyous, but all I felt was a sinking in my stomach.  I didn’t understand, and I wished with all my heart that we had never come to church that morning.

We were there a long time with people kneeling and praying.  I began to worry about my dad.  What would he think about all this?  What would he do?  He must be out front waiting and brooding about why we weren’t coming out of the church. 

Finally, the evangelist and the minister went to see if my dad was outside, to invite him to come in and join his family.  They found a furious man who demanded that they send his family out to him.  The pastor and evangelist came back in, conferred with my mother. We hurried out to my ominously silent father.  Without a word, Dad herded us into the car, got in and turned the vehicle back to Stockton.  I don’t remember him saying anything until we got home, though I may be wrong about that.  What I do remember is the repressed fury that charged the air in the enclosed space of our Buick.  I had been right about my dad’s reaction.  I had also been right about my life and MY family being forever changed. 

Lodi Mennonite Brethren Church, taken in the 1950s

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© Loretta Willems, June 21, 2021

2 thoughts on “How I became a Mennonite

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