When President Sara Wenger Shenk extended the call to worship at the commencement program for the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary; when Dr. Lydia Neufeld Harder gave the commencement address; when Rachel told me that her friend Sharon Norton had received an Award for Excellence in Hebrew Exegsis, I thought long and lovingly about Rhoda, my wife and Rachel’s and Conrad’s mother.
For when Rhoda married me she gave up a potential career as a Bible scholar. She was one of the first women to enroll in the Bible department of Eastern Mennonite College. You will never use a degree in Bible studies, the Dean warned her; you will get married and have babies! But she insisted, and she cherished for life the notes taken during Greek studies. She kept them beside her in her personal drawer.
We found the notes soon after she was gone, and realized anew the significance of her choice when she chose me and my love, to become a city pastor’s wife, and the mother of Rachel and Conrad, and the grandmother of their children.
I’m not sure how much of this was in Rhoda’s thinking, but I was aware that Mennonites with college degrees were often sent to missions overseas. But Rhoda and I both felt called to serve as home missionaries, for we had seen the needs of our home land, and were dedicated to serve here.
While in college, Rhoda had seen the needs of Appalachia by going every Sunday as a mission worker to Mutton Hollow, a small community in the mountains of Virginia that could be reached only on foot. It was a mission sponsored by the Virginia conference.
While in Civilian Public Service, especially while in Gulfport, Mississippi, I had been exposed to the needs of the rural South. I visited small Mennonite churches in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Arkansas.
So, without college degrees we were asked to go to Tampa, Florida to serve together as mission workers. As the man, I was to be the superintendent and pastor, but she, as a woman was to work alongside of her man in the mission ministry. That is how it was to be according to the common Mennonite church understandings of the bible in the fifties. We knelt side by side in the Vine Street Mission in Lancaster, and again in the Marion Mennonite Church in Franklin County, Pa. as hands were laid on both of us as the two of us were commissioned for service, but it was I who was to be ordained 12 months later.
Several years after serving in Tampa, Florida, and before being ordained bishop we were asked by Henry Garber, president of the Eastern Mission Board, to consider a call to go to Ethiopia as missionaries. Our call to serve the homeland held firm.
Now in his 87th year the Old Fool rejoices when churches welcome every sexual orientation, color, and culture and join other Christians to persuade Americans of every party to forsake the love of power for the power of love.
So tonight I honor Rhoda for her choices to be my wife, mother of Rachel and Conrad, and to serve the church in the capacities offered her. And I rejoice that the church allows gifted women with names like Sara, Lydia, and Sharon to develop and use the gifts given them.