Tag Archives: Lois Gunden Clemens

On Being Both Local and Global

By Stephen Kriss, Executive Minister

My first trip in my role with Franconia Conference over a decade ago was to Guatemala.  I traveled with a group of persons from our Conference who began to invest in the lives of communities in rural indigenous villages through Agros International.   It was my first glimpse into the global-mindedness of our Conference in both official programs as well as through individual or familial relationships.   Though we are rooted firmly in Bucks and Montgomery County, wedged between the metro areas of Allentown, New York City and Philadelphia, we think often like global citizens.

Thomas Friedman, in his well-known book about global economicsThe World is Flatsuggests that to survive and flourish into the new millennium, organizations will need to think of themselves as both global and local.  This is not new for us.  Our immigrant and settler mindset remains with us in many ways, though we’ve been in Pennsylvania for hundreds of years and in some areas the road names bear our familial surnames and reference even our own congregations and faith (see Mennonite Road in Collegeville).

In a time of America first, we know and live otherwise.  We live with a sense of the reality of “to whom much is given much is required”.  For us in Franconia Conference, as the world became more accessible, we became more aware.  Our unusual geography and clusters near major cities on the East Coast provide us ready access to transportation that can take us around the world in 24 hours.  With the massive migration of the last decades, the world has also come to us.  Sometimes these changes make our heads and hearts spin as we listen to unfamiliar languages in the aisles while shopping at Landis Supermarkets.

Lois Clemens
Lois Gunden Clemens (1915-2005)
Clayton Kratz (1896-1920)

As a community in Franconia Conference, we honor the legacy of those from our heartlands who in the early 20th Century, saw the world coming closer and felt compelled to take and live the story in places like Norristown, Rocky Ridge and Bristol.   We honor the story of people like Clayton Kratz who in the early 20th century, disappeared in the Ukraine while trying to find ways to assist Mennonites in a time of intense realities.  We tell the story of Lois Gunden Clemens, who is recognized as “Among the Righteous” by the state of Israel for her work among refugees during World War II in France.  These are our stories and our blessed heritage.

We have invested heavily in the Anabaptist community in Mexico City.  Through the MAMA Project, we continually support the health and wellness of communities in Honduras.  We’ve built bridges with Anabaptist communities in Indonesia that have transformed us here in the States.  We support workers in diverse places through various organizations, as well as regularly sending and supporting longer term initiatives through Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Central Committee.   Currently, we have four credentialed pastors who are working outside of the United States in Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Mexico.  We regularly produce publications in English, Indonesian, Spanish and Vietnamese and all of the translation is done by partners who live in Asia.

This is one of the things that continues to intrigue me about us.  It makes me wonder how we might continue to use these legacies of global connection and our ready points of access through increased ease of transportation and communication, financial resources, along with our communal and individual astuteness and acumen, in our sense of calling as followers of Christ to be both wise as serpents and as innocent as doves in extending the Good News to all people.

London skyline from Shadwell Basin

This week I returned from London, building on relationships that we have cultivated through the Anabaptist community there.  I was there days after the Manchester bombing and preached in London the morning after the incident at London Bridge.  The Gospel of Christ’s peace that we know, that we have been given, continues to be brilliantly relevant in these tough times.

God has uniquely situated us at Franconia Conference with global connections and global capacities, hearts provoked to love and care for the places where we are from like Bally and Bridgewater Corners, Souderton and South Philly, while at the same time connecting us to places, people and possibilities globally.   In a time when much of the world retreats into fear, we remain people of hope, continually willing to share with neighbors both nearby and faraway, to share this peace that goes beyond comprehension with family, with friends, and even with those who might be called our enemies.

Reflections on Lois Gunden from a Mennonite Jew

by Barbie Fischer

Lois Clemens
Lois Gunden was the first woman to teach Sunday School at Plains.

There has been a buzz around the past few weeks as news came that Lois Gunden, the first woman to teach a Sunday School Class at Plains Mennonite Church and one of their first elders, was to be honored as Righteous Among the Nations at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. on January 27. She was first given the award in 2013, but only now was the ceremony taking place, the first such official ceremony held in the United States. Lois and three others were honored at the event in which President Barack Obama spoke. She is one of five Americans to ever receive the award. The award is given through the Yad Vashem, a living memorial to the holocaust, a prestigious award in the Jewish community.  When I heard the news of the ceremony, it was a joyous moment and one that provided me with a renewed sense of hope.

The past year has been a roller coaster for my identity. With discussion in MCUSA and our conference around the on-going war between Israel and Palestine, the findings discussed at Mennonite World Conference that Mennonites may have played an active role with the Nazi regime in World War II, and the fact that more and more people seem to be assuming that being Jewish means you support the state of Israel, I have been led to often stop and contemplate: is it really possible for me to hold these two pieces of my identity together, can I really be a Jewish Mennonite?

JuifI was raised in an Anabaptist home and when it comes to being Jewish, my family is far more Anabaptist then Jewish. My parents were both raised as Christians and don’t observe any Jewish traditions. However, at a young age I became enamored with stories from the holocaust and reading about the lives of Jews in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I was struck by stories like Lois Gunden’s of people who risked their own lives to save others.

I remember my father once saying that Jesus was a Jew and the Gentiles were grafted into the olive tree, so Judaism is the trunk and roots of Christianity (Romans 11:11-24). It was soon after that that my family allowed me to begin to observe some of the Jewish traditions. These traditions have always been life-giving to me; times of reflection and deeper contemplation on God’s word, often reaffirming my faith in Jesus Christ.

Recently, however, I have found this piece of me often in conflict with my more-predominant Mennonite side and it has been difficult for me to grasp why. James Hamrick, of North Suburban Mennonite Church in Libertyville, Ill., recently wrote an article that appeared in The Mennonite entitled, Jesus was a Jew: A challenge to anti-Judaism in our churches. As I read the article it resonated with me. I have felt this growing tension between my being a Mennonite and a Jew. It is not a new tension — after all I am the descendant of recent German immigrant and a European Jew. Recently, though, as we work to stand with the Palestinians and bring voice to their plight, our words and actions have felt harsh to my Jewish side. As a peace church we work so hard to stand with the oppressed and right now in the Middle East, it is clear the Palestinians are more oppressed than the Israelis. Yet this war has a deep complex root system that I think we often fail to recognize. As Mennonites we also have a deep complex history when it comes to the people involved in this conflict. There is a tension here, a tension to pick sides, yet as a peace church, as peacebuilders, are we not called to build bridges between the sides?

The President began his remarks at the Righteous Among the Nations ceremony with a teaching from the Talmud I have posted in my home: “if a person destroys one life, it is as if they’ve destroyed an entire world, and if a person saves one life, it is as if they’ve saved an entire world.” The teaching says “person”, not Jew, not Israeli, not Palestinian, or any other people group — just person.  When I look at my best friend’s husband, I do not see a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, even though that is who he is. I see my brother, my fellow Christian, my friend, a person.

Lois Gunden went to France in October of 1941 in her early twenties to work with refugee children. As deportations began, she protected the Jewish children from inevitable death at Auschwitz.  President Barak Obama stated at the event, “The four lives we honor tonight make a claim on our conscience, as well as our moral imagination.  We hear their stories, and we are forced to ask ourselves, under the same circumstances, how would we act?  How would we answer God’s question, where are you? … Would we have the extraordinary compassion of Lois Gunden?  She wrote that she simply hoped to “add just another ray of love to the lives of these youngsters” who had already endured so much.  And by housing and feeding as many Jewish children as she could, her ray of love always shone through, and still burns within the families of those she saved.”

As we look to the on-going war between Israel and Palestine, as we go to the margins, as we live out being the peace church we are, sharing God’s love, may we acknowledge our own role good or bad in history and present day, may we learn from the past, and may we remember the story of Lois Gunden and others like her. As she did, may our rays of love always shine through, to all people in all places.

To read more about the life of Lois Gunden in France click here: https://themennonite.org/feature/righteous-gentile-lois-gunden-righteous-gentile/

For more on how Lois was nominated click here: http://franconiaconference.org/lois-gunden-clemens-named-righteous-among-the-nations/

For a transcript of the Presidents remarks visit: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/01/27/remarks-president-righteous-among-nations-award-ceremony

Women and changing roles in the church

by Helen Lapp, Plains

PlainsChange can take a lot of time. And it is very unsettling for many—no surprise there! This past summer Plains congregation (Hatfield, Pa.) decided to explore together, during the usual Sunday school hour, some changes the church has weathered in the past several decades. Several of these changes are:

  • Musical choices: They can bring us together in worship but also can divide.
  • War and peace: It has impacted many lives in our congregation; a number of young men chose not to participate in war, but some also shared stories of serving in the military.
  • Rural to suburban: The trend of moving off the farm brought profound changes to our church.
  • Becoming a diverse church: People from a variety of countries shared the challenges and blessings they experienced as they became an enriching part of our church community.
  • Divorce and remarriage: There was discussion of the sadness and pain of divorce, as well as stories of healing. Joyful remarriage meant more change for our caring community.
  • Gender: The changing roles of women in the church

For the session dealing with changing roles of women at Plains, I led a panel of six women of various ages in sharing of their own experiences at Plains. We reflected on how the Bible we valued was written chiefly by and for men, and also taught by men. Candid sharing about the impact wasn’t easy. And, our own personal journeys continue.

Lois Clemens
Lois Gunden Clemens was the first woman to teach Sunday School at Plains.

The women listed some of their role models and helpers along the way; One was Lois Gunden Clemens, who was the first woman to teach a Sunday school class at Plains—the “young adults,” that is. Lois later served as one of our first elders. She was the editor of “The Voice,” the first church periodical specifically published for women. In 1975 Lois also released her book, WOMAN LIBERATED, a gentle guide during the time the secular liberation movement was also finding its voice.

It was clear that most of the women who took part in our panel grew up as loved little girls and privileged women.

My own story was similar.

After I married my husband, Sam, but before coming to Plains Mennonite, I had attended a small country church where the women seemed to make the wheels go round, and I remember them with appreciation and affection. I did notice that only men stood behind the pulpit—several leaving an imprint on my heart with their sermons. But I did weary of a male-centered church, and hungered for more.

During my college years at Eastern Mennonite College, having several women professors brought a learning curve; teaching English for several years likely also pushed me.

And I have always been touched by Jesus’ open-hearted conversation with the Samaritan woman.

A turning point came for me when Sam and I lived for two years in mid-Kansas while he finished his undergraduate college work. While there I met wise Mennonite women, Elaine Sommers Rich and Katie Funk Wiebe, who became mentors and role models as they explored and wrote of God’s clear calls to women in today’s world.

On that Sunday morning panel, all six women shared stories. Generally, personal change happened with little fanfare. Several told of courageous personal choices.; most of these choices led to welcomed role changes. At times change was scary, and sometimes annoying. Was it easier, some wondered, when little was asked but the care of our children?

Panel members found that congregational life had been enriched by having women as pastors alongside Pastor Mike Derstine during the past 15 years.

We acknowledged on this August Sunday morning that both our sons and our daughters accept most of this role flexibility as the new normal. And with God’s help, we usually can also. Healthy change requires open hearts and minds and a commitment to live in love with our fellow life travelers.

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.