Last night my mind kept reviewing the many years with Rhoda from the early courtship years to the last weeks of our lives together. Of course, I have regrets, but there were many joys. We knew the power of forgiveness that kept the bonds of love in tact.
We met at Eastern Mennonite School when we were high school sophomores. Neither of us were dormitory students, so we studied in the nighttime study halls. It was in those halls that our love began. In that first school year together she became to me the beautiful rose Rhoda,
In our junior year Rhoda left EMS for Lancaster Mennonite School. One of the best decisions of my life was to write a letter to her on her 16th. birthday. She agreed to correspond with me and that was the beginning of a long courtship by letter. After my junior year I filed for a farm deferment with the local draft board, but was denied and was drafted into Civilian Public Service as a Conscientious Objector.
Not to continue in high school might be counted the worst decision of my life. Still, the CPS experience was good for me, possibly more formative that more formal schooling.
In retrospect, I think that one of the greatest disappointments of Rhoda’s life was that I did not join her as a college Bible student at Eastern Mennonite College. But we both wanted to get married, and so we did. She quickly became involved in my life as a small time farmer, raising chickens, growing vegetables and berries, and as a beekeeper. And we became the parents of a beautiful baby daughter that we named Rachel.
We also became involved in the life of the Marion Mennonite Church and helping to plant the seeds of mission in Chambersburg in what was to become the Cedar Street Mennonite Church.
But our hearts were not in farming, but in mission work. The Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions saw this and asked us to go to Tampa, Florida to be superintendents of the Ida St. Mennonite Mission. Rhoda and I enjoyed the next ten years in that role. She was an excellent pastor’s wife, a neighbor to the people in our community, teaching bible and sewing classes, and cooking meals for the tourists who traveled from North to South and visited Mennonite missions en-route. Many of them were on their honeymoons. We both became involved in Sharon School. She as teacher and I as a bus driver. We did this only on an emergency basis. Both of us felt that this interfered with our primary task of church building.
Richard and Gail Kling in Alabama and Rhoda and I became close friends. Richard and I had met in CPS. In 1957 we gave ourselves a six week long camping trip to the West coast as a sabbatical. This was a real camping trip. Being missionaries with little income we resolved to spend little money on sightseeing. We majored on sites and scenery that were free. At the end of the trip each couple had spent only 16 dollars on lodging. Rhoda, Richard and Gail, all three of them, are gone. Only I have the wonderful memories of that trip.
Rhoda reluctantly accepted the role of a bishop’s wife. Being the daughter of a bishop, she knew too well the hardships endured by a bishop and his wife and it was not her ideal way of serving the Lord. But she fit in well as my traveling companion, reading to me as I drove, or driving while I slept.
We took many children who were in need temporarily in our home. One of them came to us at two months of age, and Rhoda became a mother a second time through adoption. We named him Jonathan Conrad, which we understood to mean “God has given good council.” He and his sister, Rachel, were friends from the beginning. Now when we traveled Rhoda did not read to me, but to her little boy. The Narnia Series became an early favorite.
Many changes came to the Mennonite Church in the nineteen sixties. The churches of the Southeast were often on the forefront of change because they were on the geographic fringe of the denomination. Some of these changes were not easy for Rhoda. But the expanding role for women in the church was something she could appreciate and support. In retrospect, I had the authority to put her in the pulpit on occasion, but didn’t do it. Now I wish I had.
When we moved to Sarasota and settled on Bahia Vista Mennonite as our home church, pastor Stanley Kauffman saw in Rhoda the person he was looking for. He wanted a pastors spouse who understood the work of a pastor to work in the church office. He asked Rhoda to be a secretary. She became an administrative assistant to the pastor doing many chores that allowed him to focus on study and counseling. When I retired from Conference work, Rhoda continued to work in the church office through pastoral changes. She thrived in the shadow of others.