Note: The following piece continues the extended essay, “How I became a Mennonite,” which began in the June 15 post. It is the story of the revolution in my family that occurred when my mother ‘went forward’ at a revival service at the Lodi Mennonite Brethren Church in Lodi, California. I had just turned thirteen when my mother made that fateful decision.
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A great curtain seems to hang between the memories of my childhood, separating pre from post-revival—a dividing line like that on the earth viewed from space, the line between day and night. For my parents the revival returned to them the world in which their lives had originally taken shape and form. It was a return to a moral universe that felt true and right, to beliefs and language that had deep meaning grounded in the time before memory. My parents had grown up in a world saturated by the words and stories of the Bible, stories of miracles, angels, demons, heaven and hell–each word of the Bible seen as individually uttered by God. Even though they’d left the church early in their marriage to live in the larger, primarily secular American culture, that original language and belief system still felt real and true to them. And like most parents, they assumed that a language and ideas that felt true to them would be equally real to their children. What they didn’t realize, however, was that their two older daughters had come to consciousness in the mental world of school, movies, radio. To me, the world of the Bible was no more real than fairy tales or Greek myths. I believed in God and heaven, but, other than that, the science and reason I learned at school formed the basis of my understanding, not the Bible or the church’s interpretation of it. For my sister Nita and me, our parents’ conversion was not a homecoming; it was an entry into an alien new universe.
Nita and I were truly ‘displaced persons’. We still lived in the same house, the same town, but everything else seemed to have been overturned. And it wasn’t just a matter of strange new ideas. The rules by which we lived in the world outside our home had also changed. Things we had done all our lives, things we had enjoyed, like movies and dancing, suddenly became ‘sin’. Mennonite Brethren did not dress distinctively like Mennonites in the eastern U.S., but they did believe in being “separate from the world.” We were to live in it, treat all people with kindness and compassion, alleviate suffering whenever we could. We were supposed to be honest and responsible citizens doing what our country required of us unless it violated Biblical teaching. All those things I had already learned in the neighborhood Sunday school I had been sent to; I believed those teachings were right; I had no problem with them. What was new was the sharp antithesis between “God’s kingdom” and ”worldly kingdoms,” the rejection of the larger society and culture. I was no longer an ordinary girl like my friends and neighbors, going to movies on Sunday afternoon, looking forward to high school dances, freely exploring the world around me.
To demand that a thirteen-year old girl be different from her friends is to require a hard thing. I still wanted to be like other kids, to go to movies, flirt with the boys in class, talk and laugh, tell intimate secrets, share daydreams about the future, be conspirators in a secret adolescent girls’ world. And I still did many of those things if I could do them without directly disobeying my parents. But I did them guiltily, aware that I wasn’t being true to the spirit of my new world. I hadn’t told my friends anything about what had happened in my family; I’d said nothing about our new beliefs. I had avoided any situation that might require me to say, “I can’t go to movies anymore, I can’t go to dances.” I wasn’t just supposed to say, “My parents won’t let me” or that my church didn’t believe in doing those things. I was supposed to say, “I believe it’s wrong.”
And worse, I wasn’t “witnessing” to my friends. I was supposed to tell them how God loved them and wanted to save them, but to do that they must be “born again,” confess that they were sinners and ask Jesus to forgive them and ask Him to come into their hearts, ask Jesus to be their “personal Savior.” If they did that they would go to Heaven when they died; it they didn’t they would go to Hell. But I couldn’t say that. The words froze in my mouth. They would not come out because deep down, I knew they had no real meaning for me. To say them would be false. They would come out wooden, without conviction. If questioned about what those words meant, I would not have known what to say except to recite other words and phrases I had heard. Even more frightening was the possibility that I might be asked if I truly believed those words. If I did manage to say yes, the other person would know I was not telling the truth. And that terrified me because the new world I had entered still held the ancient idea of a literal, burning Hell—a place of eternal torment.
Today, many Mennonites understand ‘Hell’ as a symbol for the absence of God, but when I entered that world of Evangelical theology as a girl, Hell was seen as a very real place, a place where people burned for eternity. The possibility of Hell and the necessity of belief in order to escape it made it imperative that I somehow manage to believe. But belief alone was not enough. Didn’t the Bible say that “even the demons believe and tremble?” I also had to love God with all my heart. Yet how could I love God if He had made Hell? How could I love God if He condemned those who had never even heard about Him or Jesus? This “Gospel” was not good news! It was the most terrible thing I had ever heard. If it were true, it would be better never to have been born. This is what I felt, and I was terrified that I felt it. I tried to suppress it, tried to make myself both believe and somehow love this God. I fervently prayed like the apostle Thomas, “I believe, Lord. Help thou my unbelief.”
I was too young to see any possibility of rebelling against this theology. My parents were still the basic arbiters of truth for me. I could argue with Dad about facts, about this world. I could reject many of his attitudes and ideas about life and people, but this new theology was outside that concrete world, and it was too scary to argue about even internally. The consequences for being wrong were too terrifying. The only thing that seemed possible was to follow my parents, enter this world and build a life within it as best I could.
With my original sense of reality shattered, a depression settled on my life that would be with me for many, many years. But world-building is a human necessity, and slowly I began to rebuild mine. I liked the people at church, and I liked going there on Sunday mornings. Getting dressed up, going out with my family into the freshness of the day, driving the thirteen miles from Stockton to Lodi, walking under big walnut and sycamore trees up to church, greeting people on the sidewalk and steps. All those old pleasant associations and experiences from my childhood were still there, and they helped in the reconstruction of my life. I liked being a real member, not just an occasional visitor. I liked the sense of intimacy and belonging, the feeling of fellowship. There were new things to look forward to: choir festivals, church picnics, being invited to dinner after church at different peoples’ homes. This concrete world of the Mennonite people was one of warmth and laughter and kindness. I believed in these good people and their lives, and except for the theology they taught, I liked living in the Mennonite world. That old sense of family connection was now stronger. I became interested in all things Mennonite, my ears alert for news and information about Mennonite people, churches, schools. We made visits to MB churches in other towns. MB people from other towns and states visited us in our home. There were choirs and quartets from Mennonite schools, missionaries with 8mm movies of the people they’d worked with in South America, both the native people and the Mennonites who were refugees from Communist Russia living in colonies built in the Chaco of Uruguay and Paraguay.
I began to get a sense of myself as more than American. Mennonites were all over the world. Mennonite identity replaced national identity. I was born in the U.S.; my parents had been born in Canada; my grandparents had been born in Europe. I felt very lucky to have been born in the U.S., but living here felt accidental. I would be me wherever I lived. I could be at home wherever there were Mennonites: South America, Europe, Africa, India, Japan
In the daytime, when I was in presence of Mennonites and other Evangelical people I like and respected, the idea of Hell faded into unreality. It was not gone, though. It was simply pushed out of conscious awareness, a fearsome ghost that would haunt me when I was alone, a ghost that loved darkness and the time before sleep.
Stockton High School, Stockton, California. Spring 1951, the spring following the revival. I am 13, in 8th grade.
© Loretta Willems, Bellingham Washington
August 24, 2021