Note: The following piece continues the extended personal essay, “How I became a Mennonite,” which tells the story of the revolution in my family when my mother ‘went forward’ at a revival service at the Lodi Mennonite Brethren Church when I was thirteen.
Why did my mother answer the evangelist’s invitation to “come forward” that morning at the Lodi Mennonite Brethren Church? The world of my childhood had been one of liberal Protestant faith and belief. That theology was taught explicitly in the neighborhood Sunday schools, and implicit in the movies I saw, the books I read, even the public schools I attended. My parents had chosen this world for me. They never attended the churches where I went to Sunday school, but the beliefs my parents taught me at home were completely consistent with what I learned on Sunday morning—belief in a loving God to whom one could pray, belief in a Heaven where I would be reunited with all those I loved when I died—not just my family but my friends and neighbors, my teachers and the people I saw in the movies. God loved all the people of the world. There was no belief requirement at all. I had no sense that people had to be particularly good in order to go to heaven, though I did know that God wanted me to be good. I had heard the word Hell, of course, but it had no reality in my world. It was just a word associated with cartoon flames and red-suited horned male figures with tails and pitchforks that were no more real than the cartoon ghosts of Halloween that my parents told me were “just superstition.” We did not believe in ghosts or witches, though people a long time ago did, before people learned better. Everything my parents told me reassured me that there was nothing ‘beyond this world’ that I had to fear.
Where did my parents learn this liberal faith? Probably in the public schools they attended. Even though my dad quit school before the end of the eight grade and my mom quit school to marry my dad in the January of her freshman year of high school, both deeply respected their teachers. These were committed women, compassionate women. Good people. And they were not Mennonites. These teachers taught them tolerance and belief in the common good, the “brotherhood of all humanity.” That faith informed their lives. It wasn’t just the desire to have fun and be free of the restrictions of Mennonite discipline that drew my parents out into the larger world. The tolerant faith that grounded their teachers’ lives attracted them as well. It was the faith that informed the lives of their teachers that drew my parents out of the Mennonite world, I think, not just the glamour and glitter of the movies and bars. They chaffed against the strict disciple of the church, yes. But their rebellion went deeper than that, I think. I think they were reaching for a faith that God loved everyone unconditionally regardless of ‘right belief.” Why else would I have thought that all the churches in our town, Catholic and Protestant were perfectly fine? That even people of other religions were ok, equally loved by God. My liberal Protestant faith had to have been an extension of my parents’ own faith.
So why did my mom return to the theology she had left behind when she and my dad quit the Mennonite Brethren Church, bringing all the rest of our family with her? I can never know for sure, of course. Mom never talked about it. But I know the power that one’s original world has, a power no other subsequent world can have. No other world will ever feel as ‘real’ as that first one. At the revival my mother was completely surrounded by her original world. She was in a building that belonged to her earlies memories. She was surrounded by the people of her childhood world. She was hearing words she had heard since infancy. And when my father got up and left to go the neighborhood bar he removed the distraction of his presence, the physical reminder of their life together. She was free now from concern about what he was thinking and feeling, free, too, from the distraction of the need to keep my toddler sister entertained and quiet. His leaving might even have been a reminder of all that was unsatisfactory in my mother’s life with my father, a reminder of his heavy drinking, of her being left home night after night while he was at the bars. And, too, there was my mother’s age. She was coming up on her thirtieth birthday, a classic time of confrontation with mortality. She would no longer have seen herself as young. She had been married to my father for fifteen years, half her life. The world of movies and bars would have lost its glamour and excitement. She may have been questioning where her life was headed, what life was all about. She may have become dissatisfied with the world she entered when she and my father left the church. She may have been wordlessly asking, ”Is this all there is?” She may, indeed have felt ‘lost,’ aimless, hungering for direction and meaning, completely open to the evangelist’s words. His message may well have felt like the offer of a new life, a life with more meaning and satisfaction than the one she and my dad were leading.
Was fear of Hell part of the motivation? Like other traditional Christians the Mennonite Brethren believed in a literal Hell, and ‘getting saved’ meant getting saved from Hell, not just ‘getting right with God’, not just the healing of one’s life that is at the root of the word ‘salvation’. Fear of Hell may have played a role in my mother’s ‘going forward’. She didn’t act anxious or fearful, though. What I remember is more of a quiet sense of doing what she felt was right, of her feeling comfortable and at peace. Perhaps she just set the the whole issue of Hell aside, focusing totally on the message of God’s love and forgiveness. Mom was not inclined to agonize over ideas. The church in Lodi did not threaten their children with Hell. They spoke about Jesus’ love for them and for all children. Words about Hell were for were presented after the child had been steeped in the image of Jesus loving them, welcoming them into his presence. If that teaching, that image, had taken strong hold on Mom’s mind and imagination, the words about Hell could well have had little or no force. It is very possible that Mom felt no real contradiction between Mennonite Brethren theology and that of the liberal Protestant faith she encountered in the larger culture. Perhaps she left the MB church simply because my father insisted on leaving it in the early years of their marriage. I don’t know. She never spoke about it, and I never asked.
Before the revival I had talked freely about God with Mom and what happens to us after we die, but the revival ended that easy conversation. I never again spoke to her about my religious life, never asked her about religious questions. The questions I now had were too terrible to speak of to anyone.
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© Loretta Willems, August 3, 2021