Tag Archives: John Ruth

New Energy Brings the Community to Celebrate and Remember

By Sandy Drescher Lehman, Pastor at Methacton Mennonite Church

On July 21, 2017, disaster greeted the congregation of Methacton Mennonite Church as we gathered for worship. Our planned liturgy immediately turned into a service of lament, as we witnessed the crash of a huge branch of the 381 year old, white oak at the corner of our cemetery.

The next day, as an arborist — along with many of our neighbors and folks from the Worcester Historical Society — joined us to figure out a way to save the tree, it began to crack.  Everyone ran for their lives, literally, in all directions and watched, as the tree fell – a complete and decisive DO NOT RESUSCITATE! It was totally hollow except for the raccoon family who had made it their home.

The next weeks and months were filled with conversations of lament and inquiries from people who held a strong, and often spiritual, connection to this community landmark all their lives. “Can I have some of the wood?” “That’s the oldest living thing I’ve known”. “I feel like part of me died with that oak!” These were just some of the feeling expressed.

At the same time, our congregation was asking what we could do to reach out to our neighbors. Suddenly the light went on.  Forget the spaghetti dinner idea — that didn’t work anyway. Forget the yard sale that had minimal response from the neighbors. Our community was now coming to us, asking to be part of us!  This was so obviously a gift of God, using the death of “our” tree to bring the community to us!  We jumped on the lightning bolt!

November 5 was the great Community Tree Day. We invited the community to join us in remembering and celebrating the tree that belonged to all of us and to our ancestors. We began with a worship service, singing about the wonder of God’s nature – especially in trees, reading stories and scriptures about our invitation to be Oaks of Righteousness, each holding an acorn of hope in our hands.

After worship, more neighbors joined us for a rich time of story telling and sharing photos of their Methacton Oak memories, followed by soup and cookies in the shape of oak leaves and acorns for more neighbors than had ever entered our Fellowship Hall. Folks from the Worcester Historical Society joined us to offer the community an afternoon of making memories. An activity room was full of projects where people could make things out of pieces of the Old Oak’s wood and leaves. For sale were forest green mugs with an image of the tree on the front, prints and cards from a local painter, and acorn shaped Christmas tree ornaments that Ray Cooper, another neighbor, had turned out of branches from the wood.

Historians John Ruth and Leslie Griffin led a cemetery tour, telling stories about people who have been buried under the Oak since the Revolutionary War, before the day culminated with a double tree planting.  A neighbor, Bayard DeMott, donated and planted a new White Oak, and Paul Felton, a 97 year old forester came with a 3 foot baby of the original Oak that he had planted and nurtured for 6 years, for us to grow across from his Mother Oak. Hubert Swartzentruber blessed the trees and the day with a poem he wrote in response to the news of the fall of the Historic Methacton Oak.

We continue to celebrate the unique and Holy gift that “fell into our laps” to grieve and celebrate with our community. God seems to have no end to giving us ways to nurture our relationships with each other and notice Holiness in our midst.

Where Hope Meets History

By Kendra Rittenhouse, Salford

A 300 year anniversary meant more than one day of celebration for Salford Mennonite Church. Beginning Sunday, September 10th and culminating with a feast of events the following weekend, it was a look to the past that has shaped the present as the congregation heads with hope to the future.

Brian McLaren

Sunday, September 10, Salford began celebrating 300 years of history and hope with guest speaker and author Brian McLaren who among other things gave a presentation of his most recent book, “The Great Spiritual Migration.” McLaren urges Christians to follow closely the words and teachings of Jesus rather than give priority to doctrine and theology. Links to his sermon and afternoon presentation can be found at http://brianmclaren.net/heres-what-i-shared-in-pennsylvania/. The service also included a song written by Lynelle Bush.

The following weekend of celebration began on Friday, September 15 with a play, “These Are My People,” written by Ted Swartz of Ted & Company in collaboration with Brent Anders and was performed by a cast of Salford members along with Ted. Presented again on Saturday evening, it told the story of Salford including why people come, why they leave, the struggle of change from the past to the present day, and the sacredness of gathering together.

Saturday, September 16, a community day was held in the grove next to the school house which included food, fun, and historical tours. A large tent shielded church members and visitors from the warm sun and provided a place to gather, eat together, and enjoy music provided by groups that included Salford members. Bus tours of local Mennonite history, led by John Ruth, included the Dielman Kolb House, Lower Skippack Mennonite Church, and Upper Skippack Mennonite Church, as well as sights throughout Skippack, Upper Salford, and Lower Salford Townships. Joel Alderfer of the Mennonite Historians gave cemetery tours telling of past members who shaped Salford’s history.

Saturday’s activities also included volleyball in the grove and children’s games from a century ago. Children also painted rocks for Color Harleysville, cheerful rocks to be hidden and found throughout the Harleysville area. A photo booth made for fun reminders of the day.

Sunday morning, September 17, began with worship and ended with a catered meal for members and visitors. The sermon on Matthew 14, given by pastor Joe Hackman, focused on having the courage to ‘get out of the boat’ when Jesus calls.  Examples of courage were former pastor Mim Book in following her call in a time when women’s ministry gifts were not recognized, and of MJ Sharp who lost his life working for peace in the Congo earlier this year.

The service also included art and musical offerings. A vocal ensemble and the choir each sang songs of rootedness and vision. As well, a commissioned fraktur by Roma Ruth was presented by Mary Jane Hershey and Roma Ruth and is hanging in the church lobby.

Attending the morning service were former pastors Jim Lapp, Ben Wideman, Mim Book, Maribeth Longacre Benner, Jim Longacre, Loren Swartzendruber, Michael King, Willis Miller, John Ruth, and John Sharp. A panel discussion by the former pastors was held during the second hour in which they reflected on the eras they served at Salford.

In a blessing to the congregation former pastors, Jim Longacre and John Sharp urged the congregation to turn away from Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, to turn back to the teachings of Jesus. John Ruth, in agreement, also reminded us to return to the early Anabaptist teachings and to focus on relationship, which is core to salvation.

It is said that the growth of a plant is proportional to its roots. Salford’s deep and expansive roots are testimony to a rich and fertile relationship with God. Remembering the past, the changes that have taken place, and that God is always faithful and will be faithful in the changes to come made for spirits ready to grow and a celebration full of hope.

Sharing Breakfast and Life

by Emily Ralph Servant, Interim Director of Congregational Resourcing

“I was not really looking forward to the morning event.  I wasn’t even sure it had much to do with my call and work,” confessed Joy Sawatzky, a chaplain at Living Branches.  “What happened was a nice surprise.  I like surprises.”

The “morning event” was a breakfast sponsored by Living Branches and Franconia Conference exploring questions of spirituality across generations.  On February 14, a panel of leaders answered questions about calling, spiritual practices, and hope.

“What happened was heart-felt sharing from three different generations around call and how that was and is lived out, not just in the lives of those on the panel, but in the table conversations afterwards as well,” reflected Sawatzky.

Panelists Krista Showalter Ehst, John Ruth, Paula Stoltzfus, James Krabill, Josh Meyer, and Ray Hurst expressed curiosity about other generations, pondered over advice they would give to their younger selves, suggested practices that are important in the life of the Church, and confessed how their priorities in ministry have been shaped by their life experiences (listen to the podcast).

After the panelists shared, pastors gathered around tables to share their own stories, challenges, and questions.  The take away—a hope for the future of the church and a hope for more of these conversations.

Living Branches began to explore sponsoring conversations on aging after a pastor told them, “Our church is aging, however our energy is focused on family and youth; we would appreciate thinking and talking together about issues of aging. Help us.”   Living Branches believes that as a member of the community and a participating ministry of the Franconia Conference, they have a calling to connect with and resource their community and churches around the issues of aging, says Margaret Zook, Director of Church & Community Relations at Living Branches.  “We believe that joy and purpose in life is enriched through conversations at all stages of our life.”

Credentialed leaders are invited to two breakfasts this April:

  • April 19, 8-10am, at Souderton Mennonite Homes. Chaplains from Living Branches will present the documentary “Being Mortal” and facilitate a conversation around faith and end of life issues.  (RSVP to Margaret_Zook@LivingBranches.org).
  • April 25, 9-11am, at Blooming Glen Mennonite Church. Anne Kaufman Weaver will lead a conversation around her research in resiliency for women in pastoral leadership (RSVP at franconiaconference.org/events).

“Taking time to be together to learn, to network, to eat together, to drink coffee and tea together helps keep our leadership and relationships vibrant and lively,” says Franconia Conference executive minister Steve Kriss.  “While our schedules are busy, this time apart, even for a few hours, is an important respite and a significant time to strengthen both skills and relationships among us as credentialed leaders in our conference community.”

For questions related to upcoming events or to request resourcing for your congregation, contact Emily (email or 267-932-6050, ext. 117).

Paul Lederach: A Spiritual Oak on our Horizon

Paul Lederach
Paul Lederach joins in discernment with the conference community at the 2013 Conference Assembly this past November. Photo by Bam Tribuwono.

by John Ruth, Salford congregation

The passing of  Paul Mensch Lederach (1925-2014) on Monday morning, January 6, brings to an earthly close one of the most admirable, valuable and lengthy life-stories in the three-century history of the Franconia Mennonite Conference.  Not only Paul’s wife Mary (Slagell) and their children and grandchildren, but the Dock retirement community, the conference, and the Mennonite Church USA are now saying farewell to a far-reaching presence and influence.

Born as the oldest living child of a young mission-worker couple in Norristown, Paul grew up in an epicenter of Mennonite life, whose themes captivated his soul.  Ordained a minister by the casting of lots when only halfway through his years at Goshen College, the tall, handsome nineteen-year-old could electrify a traditional Mennonite audience.  The respect the aging bishops had for this newcomer was such that only five years later, when he was 24, and a graduate of a Baptist seminary, they could endorse him in the office of bishop.  I myself, at the age of 20, was ordained by the laying on of his hands at Norristown in August of 1950.

Paul’s completion of a doctoral degree in Christian Education had led immediately to a call to work in that field at the Mennonite Publishing House in Scottdale, PA. This was another epicenter, this time of the wider church.  But his second ordination called him back home, where the bishops asked him to help the Blooming Glen congregation through its recovery from the loss of members to the recently born “Calvary Mennonite” (later independent “Calvary”) church.  One of his tasks in this role, he found, was to persuade members to remove wedding rings.  Many years later he would observe that he had never seen a decade without major debate in the church on one issue or another.

But the wider Mennonite Church renewed its call for Paul’s exceptional training and gifts, with the result that shortly before marrying Oklahoma-born schoolteacher Mary, he returned to Scottdale.  There too he would serve as a bishop in the Allegheny Conference, while supervising the Christian Education work of our entire denomination.  For a quarter century, with four children growing up in Scottdale, Paul’s name was increasingly synonymous with curricular themes and projects in not only our own churches, but those of related denominations.

Some twenty-plus titles from Paul’s pen are still available on Amazon.com.  One with which every member of our Conference should be familiar is his little classic of 1980, A Third Way.  Written at the close of his Scottdale career, it placed in simple language the key insights and convictions of the Mennonite faith tradition and shows how deeply Paul, no follower of fads, was rooted in scripture.  The breadth of this biblical orientation became overwhelmingly evident in his commentary on the book of Daniel, now spread to over 500 libraries nationwide and beyond.

Though not narrow in mentality, Paul represented insight into the reasons for being the kind of Christians implicit in our tradition.  When a respected sister in our conference began to wear a cross necklace, describing it as a spiritual ornament, he asked, “Would you wear an electric chair?”  When in 1995 at a historic and somewhat tense meeting in Wichita, Kansas, the Mennonite Church and General Conference jointly accepted our groundbreaking “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective,” Paul soberly counseled, just before the vote was taken, against a demonstrative, triumphant response that would insult those who in good conscience voted negatively.

In his return to the Franconia Conference area Paul not only served as an appreciated elder statesman, but poured his talents into a sequence of pastoral interims and major historical writings.  A quarter-century later he was still growing spiritually, confessing that his mind was  changing under the influence of the Gospel he loved.  And, on the day before his sudden final illness, he was back at Norristown, encouraging a plan to support the congregation into which he had been born 88 years before.  His legacy will continue initiating and steadying our life as a Christian fellowship.

Paul Lederach passed away on Monday, January 6.  Relatives and friends may call after 1:30 p.m., Saturday, January 11, 2014 at Blooming Glen Mennonite Church, 713 Blooming Glen Road, Blooming Glen, PA 18911. A Memorial Service will follow at 3:00 p.m. Interment will be in the church columbarium.

A window into the life of some Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites

John Ruth Memoirfrom Mennonite Heritage Center

“A first-born and only son, I opened my eyes in a sprawling 122-year-old farmhouse along a pleasant creek in southeastern Pennsylvania,” writes Mennonite historian, John Landis Ruth, in his forthcoming book, Branch: A Memoir with Pictures. As eighty-three year old Ruth tells his story through photos and essays, readers get a rich glimpse of his life but also the Mennonite family and community in which he was raised.

The narrative begins at his birthplace, the 1809 Lower Salford Township farm along the East Branch of the Perkiomen Creek to which, at age 57, he returned with wife Roma and two sons’ families. The early tone is set by the 1940’s photography of his father Henry L. Ruth, a Bucks County-born farmer.  “Those are the scripture verses that little John L Ruth learned by memory when he was a little boy of 4 years old,” writes John’s maternal grandmother in a diary entry included in one of the book’s intimate and evocative photos.

After attending school in Lower Salford and Lancaster County, Pa., and Virginia, in 1950 at the age of 20 the future historian was chosen to be a Mennonite minister by the casting of lots.  Subsequent studies took him to Harvard where he earned a Ph.D. and became a Professor of English at what is now Eastern University, St. Davids, Pa., with a sabbatical as Guest Professor of American Literature at the University of Hamburg, Germany.

Back in Pennsylvania, Ruth accepted a call in his mid-forties to work on themes of Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage in a popular rather than academic mode.  His first book, commissioned by Conrad Grebel College, appeared in 1974.  Photographs from the following decades of cross-country teaching, film-making, writing, speaking at historical observances and tour-leading are interspersed in the memoir with scenes from family, church, and the author’s changing southeastern Pennsylvania community.  “In the end this is a love story—love of family, love of community and church—all anchored in an enduring, classic Mennonite faith,”  observes Dick Benner, editor of The Canadian Mennonite.

In small coffee-table-style, each of the 210 two-page spreads opens to a mini-essay paired with a full-page picture.  Ruth chose this format “to explore synergy between a lifetime’s collection of pictures and the words they may call forth.”

The 432-page, hard-bound memoir, priced at $25, is scheduled to be released at book-signings at the Mennonite Heritage Center, Harleysville on November 21 at 7:30 p.m; on November 22 in Lancaster County at Landis Homes at 10:00 a.m., Garden Spot Village at  2:00 p.m., and at a pictorial presentation on “Travel in the Anabaptist Historical Landscape” at the Martindale Reception Center at 7:30 p.m.; on November 23 at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society at 10:00 a.m.  The release in Canada is scheduled for Tourmagination’s 45th Anniversary Celebration at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo on November 28.

Copies will be available for purchase from TourMagination, www.tourmagination.com and the Mennonite Heritage Center (215 256 3020), 565 Yoder Road, Harleysville, PA 19438, www.mhep.org.

Lois Gunden Clemens named Righteous Among the Nations

Lois ClemensLois Gunden Clemens was involved with leadership at Plains congregation in Hatfield, Pa. and on the Franconia Conference Nurture Commission, as well as the Franconia Conference chapter of Women’s Missionary & Service Commission of the Mennonite Church, editing their national publication “Voice” for some years.  She gave the 1970 Conrad Grebel lectures on “Who Is Woman?” and published the lectures in book form in 1971 through Herald Press under the title “Woman Liberated,” along with a study guide.  –Forrest Moyer, Mennonite Heritage Center

“Lois’s contribution was of such real quality that many of our local people only fairly realized it in retrospect.  She could speak effectively both [inside and outside of the community], to both the traditional and the forward-looking members of our spiritual community, with unself-promoting dignity.” –John Ruth, Salford congregation


July 18, 2013: Press Release from Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem recently recognized Lois Gunden, an American Mennonite who helped save Jewish children while in France during the Holocaust, as Righteous Among the Nations.

Gunden will be posthumously honored in a ceremony that will take place in the United States, in which her niece, Mary Jean Gunden will accept the medal and certificate of honor on her behalf.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, was established in 1953. Located in Jerusalem, it is dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, documentation, research and education.

According to a Goshen (Ind.) College press release, Gunden Clemens was a 1936 Goshen College graduate and a French professor at the college from 1939-1941 and 1944-1958.

In 1941, twenty-six year old Lois Gunden, a French teacher from Goshen, Indiana, accepted the call to serve with the Mennonite Central Committee in southern France.

Gunden joined the Mennonite organization Secours Mennonite aux Enfants in Lyon, and was sent to establish a children’s home in Canet Plage, located on the seaside of the Mediterranean.

The children’s center became a safe haven for the children of Spanish refugees as well as for Jewish children, many of whom were smuggled out of the nearby internment camp of Rivesaltes.

One of the Jewish children sheltered there was Ginette (Drucker) Kalish who was born in 1930. Her family lived in Paris until July 1942 when Ginette’s father was deported to Auschwitz. Managing to hide from the police, Ginette and her mother fled to the south of France but were caught on the train and eventually taken to Rivesaltes.

It was there that Lois Gunden approached Ginette’s mother and pleaded with her to let her take the child out of the camp. While hesitant at first, Gunden managed to convince her that Ginette would be safer under her care, and Ginette’s mother decided to part from her child.

“At the time I was 12 years old and certainly scared,” Ginette Kalish told Yad Vashem, “but Lois Gunden was quite kind and passionately determined to take me and these other Jewish children out of Rivesaltes to protect them from harm … I remember Lois Gunden being kind and generous and she made a special effort to blend us in with the other children. None of the other children were told that we were Jewish.”

Far from her home, Gunden would show great courage, ingenuity and intuitiveness, as she rescued children of a different nationality, religion and background.

One morning while the children were out for a walk, a policeman arrived at the center in order to arrest three of the Jewish children, Louis, Armand and Monique Landesmann.

Gunden told the police that the children were out and would not return until noon.  At noon the policeman appeared again and ordered her to pack the children’s belongings and prepare them for travel.

This time Gunden told him that their clothing was still being laundered and would not be dry until the late afternoon.

Gunden testified that throughout that day and evening she prayed for wisdom, guidance, and the safety of the three children. The officer never returned and the children were saved. During this time Gunden kept a diary, describing in it her experiences and daily activities.

In November 1942, the Germans occupied southern France. Although Gunden was considered an enemy alien after the United States entered the war, she continued to run the children’s center.

In January 1943, Gunden was detained by the Germans until she was finally released in 1944 in a prisoner exchange, later returning to her home in Indiana. In 1958 she married a widower, Ernest Clemens.

While she did not have any children of her own, Gunden gained a stepdaughter through her marriage. In addition to teaching French at Goshen College and Temple University, she also ministered in the Mennonite Church. Gunden passed away in 2005.

On Feb. 27 Yad Vashem recognized Lois Gunden as Righteous Among the Nations.

Lois Gunden is one of four Americans to be recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations alongside Varian Fry and Waitstill and Martha Sharp.

Simple obedience (To Mennonite Blog #10)

John Ruthby John Ruth, Salford

I was baptized after an emotional week of revival meetings with a tearful preacher in an old store-building at the young Finland Mennonite mission in the hills above “The Ridge” nine miles from the Lower Salford farm of my birth.  I was all of eight years old, and in third grade.  Other boys from Salford Mennonite families made fun of me, calling me, “Chun the Baptist.”

When Bishop Arthur Ruth of Line Lexington arrived at Finland for the service, and asked me some introductory questions, I felt I was flunking.  I knew from Sunday School and family worship that we were saved because “Jesus died on the cross,” but I couldn’t answer the bishop’s follow-up question, “How do we know that?”  The bishop helped me out: “The Bible tells us.”

Well, I had known that too.  I had memorized a lot of Bible verses.  And with all my immaturity I now found the church commending me on the solemn “step” I had taken.

This was only one of some questionable actions I would observe my church taking.  So why did I continue to respect it and grow to love it?

I did not rebel when my extra-conscientious parents sent me fifty-five miles west to a two-year-old Mennonite High School at Lancaster (there was no Christopher Dock High School for another decade).  I enjoyed my new Lancaster friends, visited their homes, dated a girl, and even got a “plain coat” for my graduation, like my Lancaster buddies.

While working in 1948-9 to earn money for college, I was asked to teach Sunday school in Conshohocken,  at one of the many new “mission stations” then springing up in the Franconia Conference – many out of lay initiative.  I think my plain coat had caught the attention of the bishops, because they put me in the lot for minister even though I was between my freshman and sophomore years at “EMC.”

Then when the “lot was cast” between me and two other men, both at least twice my age, it fell on me, as it had on even younger fellows like Paul Lederach of Norristown and Al Detweiler of Rockhill.  Alas, I hadn’t yet really begun to think for myself.  But the church had chosen me, and I chose to be chosen ecause in the voice of the church I heard the voice of God.

Sixty-two years later, my respect for the Church of Christ is a key to my Mennonite loyalty.  In its fellowship I found a good wife, and was allowed both to finish college and a Ph.D. program in English at Harvard University, and teach literature for a dozen years at Eastern University.  After that, I had a “second ordination,” again under the leadership of a bishop, Richard Detweiler.  For thirty-five years I have been making films and videos, writing history books, and leading Anabaptist heritage tours in Europe, while serving as an associate pastor for twenty-two years in my beloved congregation at Salford.

I respect the Church because I believe, as Paul wrote in Ephesians 3, that it is the means by which God makes experiencable the mystery of salvation.  Being reconciled to God and each other is what salvation is about.  It is what our church is about. Our first confession of faith (Schleitheim, 1527) is about church, because the way we do church is the evidence of what we believe .  Not complicated doctrine but simple acceptance of this mystery and living by it is what church is about.  Not trying to be “realistic” about politics, war and economics, but simple obedience to the great Pioneer of our reconciliation, is what our church fellowship is, by birth and continuing discernment, about.

When I asked Indonesian members of the Praise Center this summer in Philadelphia why they would want to  be a part of our Conference, they said, “Because you know what it is to be marginal” (i.e., non-conformed to the world).  We don’t find that sense in other potential fellowships.”

“Well,” I said, “what about the fact that we’re pretty much part of the establishment now?”

“Yes,” they replied, “but at least you have the historical memory.”

I know what it feels like to be touched by that Mennonite  memory.  Seventy-four years after my immature baptism, though my church is still imperfect and tempted to imitate instead of obey, its noble birth-message of reconciliation makes it where I want to belong, be accountable, and share the mystery of salvation with a whole new set of neighbors.

Our summer blog series will soon be wrapping up.  Have there been any insights that have touched you, made you think, connected with your experience?  How do you “Mennonite”?  Join the conversation on Facebook & Twitter (#fmclife) or by email.

Who am I?  (To Mennonite Blog #1)
Serving Christ with our heads and hands (To Mennonite Blog #2)
Quiet rebellion against the status quo (To Mennonite Blog #3)
Mennoniting my way (To Mennonite Blog #4)
Generations Mennoniting together (To Mennonite Blog #5)
Body, mind, heart … and feet (To Mennonite Blog #6)
We have much more to offer (To Mennonite Blog #7)
Mennonite community … and community that Mennonites (To Mennonite Blog #8)
Observing together what God is saying and doing (To Mennonite Blog #9)

Conferences discuss history, consider future in forums

by Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.org

Jim Musselman and John Ruth
Jim Musselman, left, and John Ruth, unofficial historians for Eastern District and Franconia Conferences share the history of the 1847 split. Photo by Emily Ralph..

Members of Eastern District and Franconia Conferences of Mennonite Church USA met on March 29 at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale, PA, to continue conversations about a shared future.  This gathering, the first of two forums planned for Spring 2012, focused on developing a deeper understanding of the 1847 split in Franconia Conference that led to the formation of Eastern District Conference.

Although some people think that the merger between the two conferences is a done deal, that couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Ron White, moderator of Eastern District Conference and member of Church of the Good Samaritan.  Conference leadership has been following the delegates’ directive from the 2011 Assembly to move forward in exploring and listening, he said in his welcome.

When White asked how many people from each conference had attended an event or service in a congregation from the other conference, nearly every hand in the room raised.  “See, we’ve already been working together,” said White, “we just haven’t called it that.”

Jim Musselman, Zion congregation, and John Ruth, Salford congregation, unofficial historians for the two conferences, shared presentations on the history of the 1847 split, the tensions leading up to it, and the fallout in the years following it.  The progressives (a group which broke off to later become Eastern District Conference) were looking for modern administration, freedom in dress and conduct, education for pastors, and the creation of publications, said Musselman, Eastern District historian.  The years following the split were tumultuous for the new conference, he said, with further division as differing theological strains emerged.

“Almost every positive thing that the Eastern District leaders wanted eventually came to Franconia Conference,” said Ruth, Franconia Conference historian.  “It just took 100 years longer. . . . It would have come sooner to Franconia Conference if they all would have stayed together.”  In the end, said Ruth, both sides lost: “There was not much creativity in finding ways of love and respect for each other.”

After the presentations, participants talked around their tables to ask questions and reflect on the history. Photo by Emily Ralph

To this day, remnants of the 19th-century division remain in attitudes toward one another.  Eastern District Conference congregations often accepted into membership people who had been disciplined by Franconia Conference congregations, gaining them a reputation as a conference who will “take anybody,” said Musselman; Franconia congregations worried that this acceptance watered down the purity of the church body.

Following the presentations, the gathering broke into table groups to talk about what they had heard, formulate questions, and discuss together the implications of a shared future.  In reporting the highlights of their table conversations with the room, members of both conferences expressed concern about navigating theological differences within conferences and congregations, overcoming generations of “us/them” mentalities, and working through organizational and structural differences.

The group also wondered how there could be healing of the personal wounds that people still carried from the tension between the conferences.  “How can we gain empathy for each other’s narratives in moving forward?” asked Marta Castillo, assistant moderator for Franconia Conference and a pastor at Nueva Vida Norristown New Life.

These next steps will be discussed at a second forum, planned for May 24, 7pm, at Christopher Dock.  Forum 2 will look at present-day similarities and differences in vision and mission as well as strengths and weaknesses of the two conferences and begin a conversation on future possibilities.  A possible third forum may be scheduled if needed.

Sam Claudio, co-pastor of Christ Fellowship, came to the forum to gain further understanding of the histories of the community that he has joined in Mennonite Church USA.  “It’s good to see that I’ve become part of something that is in the midst of coming together, not in the midst of tearing apart,” he told the group.  “As we leave this place, let us remember that we are ministers—all of us, each of us—of reconciliation.  That is our mandate, to be reconciled one to another….  Let us work toward that goal as we leave this place.”

Listen to Forum 1:


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On ‘Titanic’ centennial, missionary’s life remembered

By Sheldon C. Good, Mennonite World Review

Annie Funk
Funk prepares to ride her bicycle to the girls’ school she started in India in 1908. — Photo provided

HARLEYSVILLE, Pa. — When Annie Clemmer Funk, a Mennonite missionary to India, learned her mother was very ill in Pennsylvania, she quickly packed her bags and caught a train to Bombay. From there she traveled to England, where she learned a coal strike had delayed her ship’s voyage to the U.S.

So she paid a few extra gold pieces for a spot on the Titanic, which set sail two days later.

Funk was one of 1,517 people who died in the “unsinkable” ocean liner’s disaster on April 15, 1912. Just three days earlier she had celebrated her 38th birthday aboard the Titanic.

To mark the centennial of Funk’s death in one of history’s most famous tragedies at sea, filmmaker Jay Ruth is producing a 35-minute video that tells the story of Funk’s faith and witness and describes the nature of Mennonite mission at the time.

A DVD will be available, and two premiere showings are planned. The first will be at 7:30 p.m. April 29 at Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton. The second will be at 7:30 p.m. May 6 at Hereford Mennonite Church in Bally, Funk’s home congregation.

The film, sponsored by Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania, is a production of Jay Ruth’s Branch Valley Productions in Lederach.

A native of Butter Valley in southeastern Pennsylvania, Funk was the first Mennonite woman from Pennsylvania to serve as a missionary in India. Fragments of her story have been known for years, but the film is the first larger project of its kind.

“Here’s a young woman who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and somehow she was drawn from there to the other side of the world, and then her life ended in this worldwide drama,” said historian John L. Ruth, a consultant for the film. “As a memorably dedicated Christian, she has not been forgotten in India and North America as a hero of our faith family.”

Using momentum from the blockbuster 1997 film Titanic, Charlotte Strouse of Zion Mennonite helped Funk’s story became even more widely known. Strouse recalled Funk’s life more than 100 times in a one-person re-enactment.

Before going to India, Funk took a teachers’ course at West Chester State Normal School, which later became West Chester University. She trained for Christian service at D.L. Moody’s Northfield (Mass.) Seminary for Ladies, then served in Chattanooga, Tenn., and with the Young Women’s Christian Association in Paterson, N.J.

After Mennonite missionaries in India put out an urgent call for an unmarried woman, Funk expressed interest, Jay Ruth said.

According to a story in the Dec. 26, 1985, issue of Mennonite Weekly Review, Funk had written: “Several years ago I promised the Lord that if the way would open to go to the foreign field, I would do my duty… . Now the door is open wide enough for me to do my duty to the extent of being willing to go.”

Funk went to Janjgir, India, in 1906, at the age of 32. She served under the General Conference Mennonite Church’s young board of missions.

“At the time, India had famine, leprosy, cholera and extreme heat,” Jay Ruth said. “Annie would not have thought of herself as an important person. She would have thought of herself as being faithful.”

In 1908 Funk started a one-room school for girls, later named Funk Memorial Girls School.

Giving up her seat

Not much is known about Funk’s time on the Titanic. Conflicting stories tell of her experience while the ship was sinking.

According to one account, Funk was already seated in a full lifeboat when she saw a woman and her child (or children) who needed space. So Funk gave up her seat, saying she would probably find a seat in another boat.

Although a newspaper in England was said to have documented Funk’s situation, the story is now mostly oral, Jay Ruth said.

Funk’s friends back home were surprised to see her name listed in newspapers along with the other casualties. They were sure the Annie Funk they knew was to come on the SS Haverford. A letter Funk sent back to India as the Titanic left England explained what she had done.

After her death, several memorial services were held in Pennsylvania and India. Her mother’s health had improved, and she was able to attend one of the services. A plaque was later installed in the chapel of the Northfield school, where she had trained.

In 1913 a monument was dedicated at the Hereford Mennonite Church cemetery. The monument, erected by Eastern District Conference, says: “Her life was one of service in the spirit of the master — ‘not to be ministered unto but to minister.’ ”

Reprinted by permission from Mennonite World Review.

Historic forums planned for inter-conference dialogue

Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.org

Delegates from Eastern District and Franconia conferences approve continued conversations on a shared future at the joint assembly in 2011. Photo by Emily Ralph

Eastern District and Franconia conference leaders have planned two delegate forums this spring to continue the exploration of a shared future.  The forums will be held on March 29 and May 24 at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School in Lansdale, PA and will include presentations from conference historians and conversations about the nature of each conference and possible next steps.

At the joint assembly in 2011, delegates of both Conferences expressed a strong desire to more fully understand the events that led to the 1847 split in Franconia Conference and the eventual formation of Eastern District Conference.  There was overwhelming support for continuing conversation as well as concern that these conversations be done with care and integrity, said Eastern District moderator Ron White, from Church of the Good Samaritan, in a letter to delegates.

Continuing to maintain two separate conferences, side by side, is the expression of an unhealed break in the Body of Christ, according to historian John Ruth, Salford congregation, who will be presenting at the March forum.  “It’s a statement that needs to be explained (or defended) to the current generation of church members . . . and the neighbors to whom we witness,” he said.

Beth Rauschenberger, associate pastor at Zion congregation, understands the need for these forums. She didn’t grow up within the Mennonite church and has always found the historic rift between the conferences puzzling, she said in a recent round table. “You have to hear those personal stories; you have to hear the hurt,” she explained.  “I don’t understand the hurt, so I want to hear the hurt that some people have gone through.”

Although all delegates are asked to attend, the forums are also open to anyone interested in learning more about the joint history of the conferences or participating in conversation about future possibilities.

In preparation for the forums, Franconia Conference has made available digital copies of three chapters of Maintaining the Right Fellowship, Ruth’s history of Franconia and Eastern District conferences.  These chapters describe the circumstances leading up to the 1847 split and the aftermath of the conflict.

These forums are historic, said Ruth, “because there has never been a serious, deliberate dialogue between the two conferences on this problem.”  The current dialogue, he added, could be transformative “because the core of the Gospel we profess is reconciliation.”

Forum One (March 29, 7-9 pm):  In this forum, Franconia Conference historian John Ruth and Eastern District Conference historian Jim Musselman will explore the differences that led to the 1847 split and the birth of the Eastern District.  A time for questions and conferring will be structured into the forum where participants will be invited to consider how this split has impacted our two conferences for the past 165 years.

Forum Two (May 24, 7-9pm): This Forum will focus on the current realities of our conferences.  What are the present-day similarities and differences in the vision and mission of our conferences?  What are the strengths and weakness of our two conferences?  Are there ways the 1847 split continues to cause tension between our conferences?  What have we learned from each other?  What are the next steps for our continuing dialogue?