Prairie View

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Cousin Bertha and the Muslims

I want to share a story I heard yesterday after my Uncle Perry's funeral--from J---, who is married to my cousin L----.  They live in eastern Ontario and work among many immigrants.  After having lived and worked for many years in Turkey, they have language skills and cultural insights that add to the effectiveness of their work.  Many of their friends and neighbors are Muslim. 

One of the community leaders among the immigrants is a Muslim man from Somalia.  I don't know his name, so I'll call him Mohammad, for convenience's sake.  He has been extremely welcoming to L--- and J---- and invited J----- to join a small group organized to provide assistance to struggling members of their community.  "I want you at the table," he said.  Mohammad reiterated this welcome even after J---- reminded him that, while she is happy to share in helping the Muslim community, she does so personally as a follower of Jesus rather than as a Muslim. 

Later, after a Christian who is a former Muslim began to conduct meetings to share his faith with others, a need developed for a new meeting place.  In another astonishing act of generosity, Mohammad allowed the facility he was in charge of to be used for this purpose.  I'm almost as impressed with the transparency of the Christians as I am with Mohammad's generosity and goodwill. The Christians made very sure Mohammad knew who was asking for the meeting place and what kind of activity would be conducted there. As J---- told  more of the story, I marveled at what I was seeing.  Humble acts of service by Christians, for Muslims can be extremely effective and far-reaching, with both immediate and long-term positive outcomes.  Political influence and maneuvering compare poorly with this approach.

As J-- told more of the backstory of Mohammad's  surprising openness to Christians, his family's story intersected with mine and L----'s, via a cousin of both my mother and L----'s father (siblings).  Their cousin, Bertha Beachy,* had served for many years at a hospital in Somalia, under Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).   Other non-government organizations (NGOs) were also active in the country at the same time.  Then a Marxist government came to power in late 1969, and all the NGOs fled, except the Mennonites. 

Staying, however, to keep the hospital and other help available to the Somalis could happen only if the Mennonites relinquished all control of the work they had begun and the facilities they had built.  What happened next was apparently retold for many years.  Mohammad was born perhaps 30 years later and heard the story from his elders. 

Instead of being in charge, the Mennonites became servants to the Somalis in every sense of the word.  The new leaders had few skills and little training in medicine or administration, but they stepped into their roles with the full support of those who had once been in charge, and the work went on.  As Mohammad heard the story, for seven years the Mennonites were the only NGO's in the country.  The Muslim community never forgot this powerful demonstration of humility and love. 

"Why did you stay?" Mohammad asked later of former Mennonite missionaries to Somalia, whom I will call James and Martha.  He was visiting a couple in a nearby nursing home in Ontario, with L----- and J----- having connected them and being present at the visit.

I don't know how James and Martha answered, but for L---- and J----, the answer provided one more reason for hope that someday the Muslim community in Ontario will have a Christian leader in Mohammad.   Humble service by faithful Christians all those decades ago in Somali had planted a seed that sprouted half a world away in Canada.  L--- and J--- are nurturing that plant, and someday God may cause it to bear fruit. 


*I remember when my mother hosted Bertha Beachy in Kansas.  Mom had served on a committee that planned a World Day of Prayer observance in cooperation with other Mennonites in the area.  At her suggestion, this committee asked Bertha to speak to this group.  On the Day of Prayer, the group met at Yoder Mennonite Church.   

Thursday, October 10, 2019


Last week during the days I spent at the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita, we met regularly throughout the event in groups of five or six people who had been previously assigned to help each other work on our individual challenges.  My group was very diverse, but it included several people who had unusual perspectives on education, the general topic of the challenge I was seeking help on. 

After I had presented the facts of my case, one of the other members of the small group asked a simple question:  "Is there diversity in your educational community?"  The person asking the question had every reason to be concerned about this aspect of people's lives.  She is an African American woman who exudes grace and dignity.  Her professional career began as a middle school teacher.  At some point she became part of the city council in Wichita and served later as the mayor of that city, one of the largest in Kansas.  I overheard her tell someone that she had "termed out" in one of those positions, meaning, I presume, that she had been re-elected until her term limits expired. 

When I asked for clarification about how she was defining diversity, she confirmed that racial and ethnic diversity is what she had in mind. 

Several problems surfaced quickly in my mind as I formulated an answer to this question.  Should I describe the situation in our attendance policy at Pilgrim (where admission at this point is actually limited to children from the families of people in sponsoring or supporting churches because of space limitations)?  Should I describe the mix of people who typically attend our church services?  Should I go into how adoption of children from other countries has diversified the racial makeup of families in the sponsoring and supporting churches?  I knew that I could not easily convey how families, churches, and schools are intertwined. In the end I listed racial and ethnic identities different from my own among the school-aged population, although I realized later that I had missed a few.

I took note since then of the mix on a typical Sunday morning in our church.  Of interest to me is that in every case, the non-typical identities are present because of adoption of children by a family from the dominant identity, or marriage between someone inside and someone outside of it.  In most cases,  immigration to the United States  is involved.   Last Sunday, as is true of most Sundays, these minority groups were represented in our morning worship service:  Asian (India and Japan), Hispanic, African American, and Native American.  Middle Easterners are not represented, and, of course, people of Western European descent are represented in great abundance.

The big idea I'm taking away from this observation is that we are incredibly blessed by this diversity.  While it's nice to be able to give a satisfactory answer to a concerned and powerful African American from Wichita, the main benefit is far more precious, although it can seem nebulous.  Every time we consider how our attitudes and ways of doing things look to someone whose background is different from our own and we engage these people with respect and kindness, we think and act in a way that is more nuanced, balanced, and effective than otherwise.  Because we actually live alongside people who are different from ourselves, we have many opportunities to be reminded of the necessity of openness to other people and other ideas.  Today I give thanks for this great privilege and pray that we don't squander it. 

Monday, October 07, 2019

Beachy Family History Tidbitrs

I updated some details below after my sister Linda provided them.

This past weekend, when my cousin Marland and his wife visited in Kansas, we shared bits of information about our common ancestors and relatives, mostly about our grandparents and Marland's mother, my 96-year-old Aunt Fannie Jane.  I decided to record these details here, mostly in order to make them available to others in the family.  A few may have showed up in past posts, and some are details that did not come up in conversations over the weekend, but they are known to me from other conversations.

My grandparents' names were Ananias J. Beachy (March 27, 1889-June 27, 1971--age 82) and Ella Mae (Shetler) Beachy (December 20, 1893-December 7, 1991--almost 98).  My grandpa was often called A.J.  and my grandma was often called Ellie, especially when people were speaking Pennsylvania German.  After her marriage, she was often referred to as "Nias Ellie," in the manner familiar to people with a similar heritage.  This custom may have begun as a simple way of distinguishing between women who had the same given name.  Giving the husband's name in conjunction with hers would have served as a useful designation.

My grandparents raised their family near Kalona, Iowa, and both of them are buried in the East Union Cemetery nearby, close to their family farm.  I believe they were both residents of this area before their marriage.  Although my information is not quite complete, I'll add here that my Shetler great grandmother's maiden name was Eliza Jane Kempf.  My Beachy great grandmother's maiden name was Fannie Miller.


Marland says that he heard from someone that one of my grandparents would have liked to leave the Old Order Amish church, but the other did not concur, and they never did so.  Marland did not know which one preferred to stay.  I'm guessing it was my grandmother.  I base that on the fact that she seemed to be happiest on her own turf, and did not enjoy travel and adventure as my grandfather did.
Later note:  Linda believes that this information may be conflated with the story of my Shetler great grandparents, whom I never knew.  It is said of them that one of them wanted to leave the Amish and the other didn't.

Linda also tells me of a strange twist in my grandparents' church affiliation that I wasn't aware of.  Ananias was actually part of the Mennonite church at one time, perhaps at the time when he and his sister Martha (my mother used to call her Sylvanus Martha) lived in California for a time.  Aunt Esther reported this. 


Neither of my grandparents was physically imposing.  My grandmother was even shorter than my mother who was 5' 1".  Marland told me that Grandpa was known to pick up his wife and twirl her around in a circle.  I really wish I could have seen this perfectly acceptable Amish dance move. It may have been my cousin Ella Jean Zook who witnessed and reported this.  During Ella Jean's childhood, she lived with her family in the house adjoining the "Dawdy" house where our grandparents lived, so it makes sense that she would have been among the most likely to observe this out-of-the-public-eye activity. 


While Grandpa's travels do not seem extensive by today's standards, for his time, he was a well-traveled man.  I remember him stepping off the train to visit us in Kansas on his way home from a trip to Mexico.  He had gone there as a member of the Amish Colonization board.  This group apparently explored options for new locations for Amish communities.  To my knowledge, the Mexico option never materialized.  Another one that did not materialize was one that my parents considered:  Uruguay.  Their interest was likely piqued by my grandfather's involvement in colonization efforts.

Much earlier, Grandpa donated a heifer to a farmer in Europe after World War II.  Unlike most other people who had donated livestock, Grandpa decided to travel to Europe with the heifer.  A newspaper photo survives from that experience.  Grandpa is standing next to an on-board stall with the heifer inside.

Even earlier than that, Grandpa traveled almost as far northwest as possible in the United States, and spent a season as a "migrant" worker who worked in the fruit harvest.  Letters to his girlfriend at the time survive from this experience.  He later married the girlfriend, Ella Mae Shetler.


The details below are recorded in the book containing Beachy family records.  Linda shared them with me in an email.  I've pasted part of it below.  My Beachy great grandparents moved around a lot.  From Indiana they moved to Illinois, then to Ohio, then to Texas.  From Texas, they moved back to Indiana and then later to Ohio again.  Fannie died in Ohio and Jonas moved to Iowa, but was buried beside Fannie in Ohio.  My great grandfather Jonas Beachy died eleven days after I was born. 

Jonas S. Beachy  April 24, 1860 - June 20, 1952
Fannie Miller  June 6-1866 - February 20, 1944
...were married on August 6, 1885

and Jonas and Fannie Beachy and their family lived in

1885-Ca. 1887 Newton County Indiana. Samuel was born there.
ca. 1887-1903  Arthur, IL.  Eight of their twelve children were born there.
1903-1910- Plain City, OH.  Three of their children were born there. Joseph died there and was buried the day after what would have  been his 3rd birthday.
1910-1913 Texas
1913-1915 Kokomo, IN
1915-1946 Sherwood, OH  --  Fannie died in 1944 and was buried there
1946-1952- Jonas moved to Kalona with his daughter Catherine and husband. After Jonas' death in 1952, he was buried in Ohio beside Fannie.


Because of the Amish customs of the times, I marvel that my grandparents gave nine of their ten children two names, a first and middle name, in addition, of course, to their Beachy surname.  Only one, Joseph (Joe), reflected the common practice of assigning the initial of the father's first name to the children as the middle name.  Thus Joseph is Joseph A. (for Ananias).  Less commonly, the mother's initial was assigned.  As I recall them, they gave the following names to their children:
Ray Edward, deceased (married to Anna May Miller--Iowa, deceased)
John Emery, deceased (married to Edna Mae Gingerich--Iowa, deceased)
Glen Everett, deceased (married to Susan Mae Yoder--Iowa, deceased)
Earl Jason, deceased (married to Mary E. Bender--Iowa, deceased)
Fannie Jane (married to Eli C. Miller--Ohio, deceased)
Jonas Paul, deceased (married to Magdalena Hershberger--Iowa, deceased)
Joseph A. (married to Mary Miller--my father's sister--Kansas)
Mary Elizabeth, deceased (married to David L. Miller--Kansas, deceased)
Jesse Samuel (married to Betty "Ruth" Miller--Indiana, deceased)
Esther Viola (married to Henry Zook--Virginia, deceased)

The above list is given in order of age.  Several observations:  The three oldest sons all married a woman whose middle name was Mae (or May), the same as their mother's middle name.  "Mae" must have peaked as a popular middle name in my parents' generation.  Joseph is the only surviving "child" whose spouse also survives.  Joe's wife Mary is my father's sister, so this is a double blessing for my siblings and me.   

In spite of some innovations in name choice, my grandparents did the expected thing also in choosing names by naming their children after their siblings and parents.  John was a namesake for Ella's  father and brother.. Fannie Jane's first name honored both grandmothers and an aunt.  Fannie was the name of Ananias' mother and sister, and Jane was the middle name of Ella Mae's mother.  Jonas was a namesake for Ananias' father.   Esther was a namesake for Ananias' sister, Mary for Ella's sister, and Jesse for Ella's brother. 

Although my mother and Jesse were the only children of my grandparents who lived outside of Iowa during most of their adult years, the Iowa siblings were soon spread out in various church groups.  Glen and Earl are the only "children" who stayed Old Order Amish  Glen was ordained as a minister in the Old Order church when he was in his fifties.  Ray, Fannie, John, and Jonas joined the "Conservative Mennonites" early on, as did Joe later, but Jonas and John and their families withdrew from that group and became part of what is now known as "Nationwide" churches.   Ray's family also withdrew eventually and became associated with the Shiloh group, thought of by many as a fringe group with cult-like tendencies.  Esther's family in Iowa and my mother's family in Kansas were Beachys for many years.  Then Esther's family joined Salem, a group somewhat like our local Prairie Chapel.  Jesse married a Beachy girl (from Woodlawn in Indiana), but was ordained in the Conservative Mennonite church conference--in Wisconsin, I believe.  Later they parted ways with the "Rosedale" group.   Virginia was their home in later years.  If this all sounds pretty complicated, I'm not surprised.  It feels that way to me too.

Family stories and memories will come in a later post.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

According to Precedent

The Autumnal Equinox happens tomorrow.  In Rudyard Kipling's words (spoken by the elephant's child) very soon there will be "nothing left of the Equinoxes, because the Precession ha[s] preceded according to precedent. " While I'm not sure that making big deadlines out of times when creation rhythms and dates on the calendar intersect, for some reason it feels right to get caught up on a bit of blogging before the big event.  Within the next two weeks loom four events on my calendar that guarantee some extra busyness, in which time getting back to blogging is unlikely.


This Wednesday my sister Linda and I plan to take a day trip to the Flint Hills with Heritage Tours from Yoder.  This region is about two hours east of Reno County, in east central Kansas.  The topography is rolling, and the vegetation features Tallgrass prairie plants.  These grasses are at their most beautiful at this time of year.  Little Bluestem, the state grass of Kansas, is the signature grass of this area, although it's not the tallest grass in the region.  Indiangrass, Big Bluestem, and Switchgrass are all much taller and are present in great numbers.  Of all these, however, Little Bluestem provides the most highly favored forage.   

More rain falls there than here, but the soil overlays limestone formations fairly close to the surface, so the land is more suitable for grazing than cropping, unlike the deep level Reno County soils.  The grasses and skies are magnificent.  If you've ever read Little House on the Prairie, you can probably picture the grasses reaching higher than the head of the horses that pulled a covered wagon.  You may also remember stars so close that Laura felt like she could reach out and pluck one right out of the black sky at night.

One thing that other people in the world know about the Flint Hills is that this is the site of the only Tallgrass prairie that is part of the National Park system.  What is even more unusual is the congenial  relationship between the national government and ranchers who have owned the land for decades .  The ranchers are recognized as the experts in grassland management, so much of the land is used for grazing cattle just as has been the case for decades.  A portion of it, however, is grazed only by bison and deer, both Mule and White-Tail. 

I've seen the Flint Hills area listed as one of the very best sunrise and sunset viewing spots in the world.  It made the Top Seven in this list.  This is another thing that people elsewhere in the world know about Kansas.

One more signature event in the Flint Hills lures people from far and wide.  It features an outdoor concert presented by the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra.  The concert is timed so that attendees can witness a sunset as part of the event.  One of the major presenting sponsors is the BNSF Railroad (Burlington Northern Santa Fe), which passes right by our house.  Read about the event here.


On Saturday of this week, I plan to attend the regular meeting of Kansas Authors Club, District 6.  Jason Probst will be the presenter this time.  He has a background in journalism and worked for The Hutchinson News before it shrank to a shadow of its old self.  He works now as a state representative, having been appointed to finish out the term of his friend, Patsy Terrell. 

Drama preceded Probst's service in the House of Representatives.  Terrell died suddenly of natural causes during the night after one of the biggest victories of her short legislative career.  A Democrat in the extremely conservative administration of Sam Brownback, Terrell was part of a bipartisan vote to overturn the governor's veto on the year's budget proposal.  The tide began to turn with this vote, when Republican and Democratic lawmakers acted to fill in what had become gaping funding holes in state programs.  .

Terrell was a free-lance writer.  I frequently saw her writings in community publications.  I remember visiting briefly with her when she stopped by our Farmer's Market booth.  Before this, she once left a comment on one of my blog posts.  I have no idea how she found her way there.


The next upcoming event is the fall follow up to the Leadership Reno County classes I attended between January and May.  The sessions are held at the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita from Wednesday morning to Friday noon during the first week in October.  I understand that this event brings together people from various parts of Kansas who have participated in local classes much like I did.  Driving back and forth to Wichita three days in a row is not high on my list of fun things to do, but it's part of the package of having been privileged to take the LRC class, and I'm grateful for the opportunity, so I'll find a way to make the next step happen. 


On the day after the Leadership classes end, my niece Heidi plans to marry James in a block-party-style wedding in front of her house in Hutchinson.  Siblings of mine and other family members plan to arrive here before then from Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Virginia.  They'll come also from Labette County, KS and the Kansas City area.  I'm sure that a host of the couple's relatives and friends are coming from many other places.  The wedding meal will be served by food truck vendors.  I'm sure that prayers for nice weather on October 5 have been offered for some time before now and will continue. 


For the first time ever, writing has become part of my daily routine.  Writing and routine haven't usually occurred in the same sentence in  my experience.  The trigger for this was an intervention staged by Hiromi when I began to talk about having a writing cabin built.  He attempted to dissuade me, arguing that it would be a waste of money.  I thought he was being difficult, but I cooperated by putting the idea on hold. 

On his own, he set about cleaning out the seed house so that I could use that for my writing location.  This is a shed-style building about 10' x 10' with the tall south-facing wall glazed with double-wall polycarbonate (think greenhouse plexiglass).  I've used it in the past for seed starting.  It's fully insulated and can be heated and cooled.  The table tucked under the low side of the slanting roof  is my writing surface.  I am using an office chair from school where I had taken it and then left it when I retired--because I didn't know where to put it at home.  Gradually I have been furnishing the table with the supplies that make it an efficient work space.

At first the seed house was alive with crickets.  I put down glue boards for that problem--eight of them.  I stopped counting when I got to 100 crickets caught on those glue boards.  I still hear crickets there, but I can live with this level of infestation.  I'll keep putting out fresh glue boards as long as I hear them though.

The seed house has often been my happy place in the past.  It's full of natural light, and often has plant babies being born and then growing into garden-ready plants.  The seed starting function is continuing in conjunction with my writing efforts.  In fact, for the first time ever, I feel like I have a good place for the books and papers that are needed for seed starting records.  I see hope for the house becoming tidier with this change.  I hope to also create a flower arranging space out there.  That would help me keep my dining room clear of flower "clutter."

Right now I have at least 200 mini soil blocks planted with seeds of "cool flowers."  These are for fall planting, with the expectation that they will winter over and bloom early next spring.  They are a mixture of Hardy Annuals, Biennials, and Perennials.  I wish I had gotten started earlier this year, and this season will be a trial run of sorts. 

My inspiration comes from a book by Lisa Mason Ziegler.  Cool Flowers is the title.  She's the first writer I've read who has spelled out how to do what I have often idealized--spreading out the flower seeding and growing tasks over seasons other than spring and summer, and secondly,  utilizing the benefits of self-sowing flowers. 

I came to peace about continuing to use the "seed house" name for this writing place after I realized that ideas for writing are really a lot like seeds for gardening.  They start out small and grow into something bigger.  They take on a life of their own, sometimes morphing in surprising ways as they grow.  Providing favorable conditions for germination is important, as is nurturing seeds and ideas after they've germinated.  I'll be asking a lot of that seed house space and I'm confident it will deliver.


My praise for glue boards as effective cricket traps is tempered by the distasteful reality of having to see them in operation and dispose of them appropriately.  The horror of using them ramped up almost beyond my tolerance level when we caught several mice on the ones I had placed inside the house for crickets.  Hiromi carried those out.  "Don't ask," he said when I asked what he did with them.  I wish I had thought of that myself. 


We took the first nature walk of the season last Friday.  One of the fun finds along the banks of Salt Creek was identifying a Bullfrog and Plains Leopard Frogs from the bridge on Centennial Road.  The list of things we identified was much longer than I realized when I listed them at home afterward.  they included animal tracks, grasses and forbs (weeds and wildflowers), trees, birds, a mollusk (clam), clouds, and the afore-mentioned amphibians. 

The week before, the grandchildren had seen a Black and Yellow Argiope (the huge garden spider of fall), catch a hover fly in its web and "run" to secure it.  On that same day we had identified two kinds of toads:  the Woodhouse's Toad and the Great Plains Toad.  Shane's boys had collected them from their window wells. I hope we have a chance next spring to listen to their calls and identify what we're hearing.

If I had gotten started sooner with this interest in identifying frogs, I could have taken a class at Dillon Nature Center this past summer and become a member of the newly-formed local chapter of Frogwatch, a national citizen science organization.  Monitoring their populations provides clues about the state of their habitat and ability to survive.  One very basic bit of information I gleaned by reading and conversing about amphibians on Facebook is that toads are a subset of frogs. 

Abundant rains early this summer produced a bumper crop of frogs and toads.  I'm not sure if the abundance of rain is also a reason for an abundance of dragonflies, but they are as ubiquitous as the amphibians here this summer. 


Last week before one of our walks along Trail West Road I labeled zipper-top bags with the names of all the kinds of grasses I had seen on earlier walks.  Hiromi carried the bags and a scissors in his pockets, and we stopped and snipped off seeds heads whenever we came to a place with a concentration of one kind of grass.  Since I didn't know for sure if I was harvesting them at the appropriate time for maturity of seeds, I hoped to repeat the process later.  It was not to be because the ditch mowers passed since then and everything lies on the ground, chopped into featureless litter.  I am unhappy about this destruction of natural beauty, but Hiromi says he thinks I would have a hard time convincing anyone in public words to back off on what I see as over-zealous mowing.  It's as though when you have a mower, everything looks like something to chop up. 

Grasses provide much of our fall color.  This fall alone, I've enjoyed three kinds of purple grasses, each of them with the color name of the seed head or the foliage in the grass name: Purpletop, Purple Lovegrass, and Purple Three-Awn.  "Blue" foliage colors are common.  Bluestem is a grass with many adjective modifiers:  Big, Little, and Silver are the common ones here.  Little Bluestem foliage turns orange and red later in the fall.

What could possibly be lost if mowers mowed only the shoulder of the road, or mowed only from the edge of the road down to the lowest part of the ditch?  I understand the need for good visibility when approaching a road from a private driveway.  I also understand the necessity of providing a safe place for vehicles to pull off the road when needed.  Making provision for that would still allow the "back" side of the ditch to be left unmowed.  What am I missing?  Right now I think I know what "they" are missing, but "they" might have a perspective I haven't considered.

I go through this "rage" every year.


My daily routines include heading outdoors twice a day to sit in one of the chairs that are strategically placed to make it easy to watch the sunrise and sunset.  In the mornings I take a songbook along and sing into the coloring and brightening sky.  This morning a Great Horned Owl appeared undisturbed by my singing.  That was considerate.  I like to find where the moon is located in the morning. I'm only beginning to notice patterns in where it appears.  Often I see it as I'm returning to the house.

In the evening I also take the Common Prayer book and focus on certain parts of the daily readings.  The cat seems to come looking for me when she hears me sing.  Tonight I found an evening song written by my friend Lucy A. Martin.  I tried to sing it, but my sight-reading skills need improvement.  The cat was not alarmed by this.  The two evening songs for which I can easily sing all the verses by memory are "Savior Breathe an Evening Blessing" and "Day is Dying in the West."  Hymns of the Church has a section containing beautiful evening songs, beginning around page 63. I'm gradually learning some of them.

I've learned the morning song "Still, Still With Thee" by memory, although it was more of a struggle than usual because the first part of every score is sung in chant style on a single tone.  This means that no rhythm or movement in the tone can be of any memorization help.  In the morning I usually sing through the songs that were sung in church the Sunday before. 


My own Facebook posts are running some competition with blog posts.  Some of what I used to post here is now being posted on Facebook in short snippets.  On one hand, I regret the erosion of this blogging effort, and on the other hand, I'm happy that I'm getting something put out there, even if I don't feel that I have time for a full-blown blog post.  Maybe I should occasionally do a blog post with a "Facebook repeat" label.  It would essentially mean pasting here what I wrote there. 


Much that I've written about did not really occur much according to precedent, but I love Kipling's fun use of words like equinoxes and precession, so I seized on this excuse to quote him.


Saturday, August 10, 2019

Calling a Few Good Innovators

I first heard about Pliny Fisk III from my late brother-in-law, Matthew Schrock, who had met Mr. Fisk on a flight to Central America.  Matthew told me that his seatmate told him some amazing things about his work in creating building systems utilizing local materials in a resource-and-energy-efficient way.  He had at that point already created a concrete-like material using mainly fly ash (a waste product from coal-fired power plants) and caliche (surface mineral deposits of salts or carbonates mixed with sand or clay--usually found in arid regions).  Mr. Fisk was on his way to one of the Central American countries to provide help for people who needed housing.

Hiromi told me this morning that China uses fly ash from Japan to create concrete.  On Japan Yahoo, Hiromi read recently that China now has concerns about radioactivity in some of the fly ash from Japan--presumably absorbed when radiation was released from a power plant severely damaged by a tsunami several years ago.  Fisk has worked extensively in China to develop the process of using fly ash for concrete, so our breakfast table conversation provided an interesting confirmation of what I've learned about Fisk from various sources.

Since the dawn of ready internet access, I've learned a lot more about Pliny Fisk III than the bit that Matthew told me.  If I could still do so, I'd ask Matthew if hearing from Fisk nudged him toward seeking degrees in architecture. That's one thing I can't learn from the internet.  Like Matthew, I couldn't forget Fisk's unusual name, and to this day I wonder how on earth anyone had the chutzpah to name a child Pliny--not once, but three times.  Pliny the Elder of Roman Empire fame is the only other Pliny I've ever heard of, although I know now that it's also the name of a Russian beer.

Pliny Fisk III was born (in 1944) into a prominent banking family in New York.  Rather than pursuing the family business, however, Pliny headed off to study architecture and landscape architecture under Ian McHarg, a Scottish professor  whose book Design With Nature suggests his area of expertise.  Russell Ackoff also exerted a substantial influence on Fisk, with his pioneering work in the systems sciences (think management).  He taught at the Wharton School of Business in the University of Pennsylvania system.  On Purposeful Systems is the book that perhaps best explains Ackoff's work in his own words.  Fisk and his wife later co-authored a book called Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems: 35 Years of Serious Commotion.  I love the "serious commotion" part of the title.

Fisk has taught in universities in at least four states:  Indiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas.  In Texas, he has taught at both the University of Texas and at Texas A & M.

Fisk and his wife co-founded a non-profit in 1975 near Austin, Texas called the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (CMPBS).  Originally, this place served as a lab for the University of Texas--Austin, but became established later as an entity apart from it.  Sustainability is the one-word label for the main emphasis at CMPBS.  Many interns have worked at CMPBS.

To me, one of the most impressive aspects of the work at CMPBS is the readiness with which they collaborate with others.  For example, they often offer their expertise to expand existing systems rather than to invent entirely new systems.  They rely on input from people with a great variety of backgrounds and influences for help to design systems. Identifying local resources is a big emphasis at CMPBS, completely at variance with what happens too often:  someone with a "perfected system" imposes it long after that system no longer makes sense, or applies it in settings in which it doesn't make sense.  No wasted energy in turf wars here.  That's refreshing.

Why all the focus on Pliny Fisk III and CMPBS?  Because I see in their approach a model that I believe offers some hope for addressing what I think is a serious problem in many places, including Conservative Anabaptist communities like our own:  adequate housing at affordable prices.  While some innovation occurs, I haven't seen anything in common practice for building construction that avoids the use of either petroleum products (styrofoam and other insulation), cement (a component of concrete), or wood (none of which comes from Kansas, to my knowledge). We do, on the other hand, have some of the local materials that CMPBS has experimented with--straw, for example.

Some of the more common building materials are made in Kansas.  Bricks are made not far away, and Kansas has two major deposits of gypsum, the raw material in the center of the sheetrock/drywall sandwich sheets.  Medicine Lodge has a drywall factory.  Hutchinson had a straw board factory within my memory.  I don't know what became of it.

Surely, someone among us is savvy enough and entrepreneurial enough to seize the opportunity to learn about affordable and sustainable building approaches, and learn to implement them for the benefit of families they know.  And surely, others who stand by could be inspired to provide help.  For a people known to be frugal and ingenious, with a strong sense of stewardship, this is exactly the kind of challenge we are suited for.  Ultimately, it could be a service we offer not only to our families, but also to our community and our world.

Pliny Fisk III was born to a wealthy family.  Most of us weren't, but I doubt that wealth is the biggest thing that separates us from people like him.  I suspect it has a lot more to do  with resistance to change than it ought.  I have no doubt that with sufficient humility, generosity, and vision (and a bit of help from places like CMPBS), we could do very well what Fisk has accomplished in US communities and in far-flung places across the globe.  What are we waiting for?

Friday, July 19, 2019

Entanglement in a Stage 9 Play

Stage 9 is a theater group in Hutchinson that performs plays for a public audience.  In the near future, they will perform Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.  The person in charge at Stage 9 is Lynsey, who was a Leadership Reno County classmate.  As part of the lead-in publicity activities for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Lynsey invited Hiromi and me to participate in a public question and answer or panel-style event featuring individuals involved in inter-racial marriages, since that is one of the central issues in the drama being performed.  Hiromi was not interested in participating and I was not interested in doing it without him. I did offer, however, to write something in answer to questions if that would be helpful.  Lynsey kindly accepted that offer.

 I wasn't sure either that the inter-racial aspect of our marriage was the most significant challenge in our relationship.  Lynsey assured me that what I had to say would be appreciated even if it didn't directly pertain to being an inter-racial couple.  She gave me a bit of direction on what I might write about, and I'm not sure that I did a very good job of following those directions.  Furthermore, it's much longer than they can use.  I'm giving Lynsey permission to excerpt whatever is desired, and offering to do some re-writing if that is needed.  Posting it here was the easiest way I could think of to give her easy access.  Below is what I wrote.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is a movie that was released in 1967.  I watched it for the first time early this week.  As a rule, I don't watch movies, but I made an exception here.


Hiromi and I got married with my parents’ blessing.  Getting there was not free of challenges, however, and I realize in looking back that the reservations that my parents expressed were realistic and well-founded.  I believe this “on-target” assessment on their part was possible because their perspective was largely one of openness gained from the wisdom of life experience based on a strong foundation of Christian faith.  They truly were accepting of those who were different from themselves.  Having adopted two Salvadoran children after they had ten children born to them provides evidence of this.

The only identities that would have disqualified a potential spouse in my parents’ eyes is if that person were not a Christian or if that person had been married previously, with the first spouse still living.  Since I felt the same way, this was never a source of conflict.  Hiromi was a Christian and still single by the time I met him, although he had come from a Buddhist background.  At one time, he wanted to be a Buddhist priest.  When he came to the United States, however, with papers that allowed him to begin immediately to work toward citizenship, he set out to learn something about Christian faith.  It was part of his effort to settle into American life.  In that pursuit, he attended various churches occasionally.  These experiences were not entirely satisfying, since he felt that he was hearing very little that answered questions about the basics of Christianity that piqued his interest.

Those who introduced Hiromi to Christian faith in a way that made sense to him and prompted him to embrace it for himself were people from our Amish Mennonite church near Pleasantview.  Even so, Hiromi resisted the idea of becoming a member of any specific congregation–because the idea of having different denominations never made sense to him.  He usually attended our church during this time.  I met him there for the first time during one of the summers when I left Ohio where I was teaching and returned to my family’s home in Kansas.  Others in my family had learned to know him earlier and enjoyed interacting with him.  He was always welcome at church and was never pressured to become a member.

Things intensified considerably when I returned home to attend college and I learned that Hiromi was waiting for me here.  By that time I had a very clear sense, a calling from God even, that my future lay in serving my people.  At that time, I believed it would be through teaching.  I had not quite had the nerve to pray that the Lord would keep all interference at bay, but I was really excited about the opportunity for learning and service on which I was embarking.  I saw marriage as an interference since  I was convinced that if I married I would have a career as a homemaker and not as a teacher.  Being a homemaker only was not an unwelcome prospect, but it brought into question what I should be doing “now.”  Obviously I could be a homemaker without finishing college, but I knew that if I kept alive the teaching vision in any form, I should stay in school.

At this point, Hiromi’s not being committed to any church fellowship became a major issue, given the fact that I had a growing commitment to serving my people, and he wanted a future with me.  I found rest in making it very clear to Hiromi that my future would be “here” and he was free to do whatever he wanted with that information.  I would have grieved, but I was willing to give up the relationship and the prospect of marriage rather than to give up a future of serving my people.  If I was to serve them, I would need to continue to be part of the church fellowship, and simply setting out to follow Hiromi to who-knows-where was not an option.

Long story short, Hiromi eventually joined the church I was part of, after also doing his best to allay any fears I had that he might eventually “get tired of this” and want to leave.  I did really like Hiromi and saw early on that combining our lives would nicely fill in gaps that each of us had in our ability to live well and make a worthwhile contribution to those around us.  We got married during the summer just before I finished a semester of student teaching, the final requirement before graduating from college.  I was 29 and Hiromi was 36.  We soon started a family, and I never taught school away from home again until 21 years later, and then I was involved in teaching high school for 16 years.  In the meantime, Hiromi and I homeschooled our children, and mothering and homemaking was, in general, a rewarding endeavor.  Hiromi worked hard to make a living for the family, and he never nudged me toward seeking employment outside our home.  Nevertheless, he was my biggest cheerleader when I began teaching again.

I’ve referred several times to serving my people.  After 38 years of marriage they are still my people, but they are not in every respect Hiromi’s people.  Hiromi no longer regularly attends church with us, preferring instead to attend a nearby community church.  While he did not find our distinctive lifestyle onerous, he became disillusioned with our disinterest in abandoning centuries of tradition regarding the practice of women wearing a headcovering.  While this practice is deeply rooted in Scripture as we understand it, and living by brotherhood agreements is also an important understanding in our tradition, to Hiromi it seems that superior scholarship (his, specifically) should carry the day.  Simply put, our own level of scholarship seems to us to provide sufficient justification for our practice, and, bolstered by having experienced many years of blessing in it, we see no need to abandon it.  I believe this scenario is close to what my parents imagined as a possibility when they felt some caution about our marriage.  Both my parents and I, however, proceeded in trust that the future was safe in God’s hand, and that our lives should not be ordered by fears of the unknown.

In the drama, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the prospective groom John was portrayed as a perfect young man whose only “problem” was being black.  From John’s parents’ perspective, Joanna’s only problem was being white.  In real life, most people have more than one “problem,” and it may not be the most obvious surface “problem” that ends up being the biggest challenge.

Hiromi grew up in a culture that generally places a high priority on abiding by group expectations, as did I, halfway around the world.    Gender roles are as unambiguous there as they are in Amish Mennonite society, and intact family structures, even across generations, are very common in both societies. Before we married, Hiromi’s mother had told Hiromi after one brief meeting between us that she thinks it’s wise for him to marry an American if he plans to live in America.  When we visited Japan later, with one child in tow, their hardworking habits, yet quiet, gentle, deferential ways of relating to each other seemed very familiar and endearing.  Hiromi’s mother told her sister-in-law while we were there that she is very comfortable with me as the mother of her grandchildren. Our cultures seemed like a good fit–better, in fact, than either of our cultures meshed with American society in general.

Over time, however, I learned that Hiromi was in many ways an outlier in his culture of origin. Hiromi was known as a “lone wolf” when he was a child.  Yet in school he was often at or near the top of his classes academically, and he often led the way in student government in high school and college.  His mother and her five siblings grew up with a mother who had never been married.  Yet Hiromi grew up in an intact family.  I began also to realize that on some counts I was an outlier in my culture of origin, chiefly in that I was a woman who graduated from college and already had family members born in a foreign country. Between the two of us, finding common ground was easier because of some of these things.   For example, having a spouse with a college education was important to Hiromi.  If I was going to marry someone as unlike me as Hiromi was, I was glad it was someone who was as adventuresome and willing to take on new identities as Hiromi was.  He did, in fact, merge almost seamlessly into our faith-informed culture initially.  Because we lived near where I grew up, marrying Hiromi allowed me to carry on much as I always had.

In my outlier pursuits, I had always carefully maintained my connections with my people, just as my father had done.  He went on to become a trusted leader in our group.  Hiromi obviously could not manage this as an immigrant with no community of Japanese people here to become part of.  He had language barriers to overcome.  Although English was not my first language, no language barriers were present for me by the time we met.  In Japan Hiromi was recognized for having superior academic and communication skills.  Not so in America.  My outlier status gave me communication skills and opportunities that were atypical for most Amish Mennonite women.  This situation gave our marriage similar outlier status in terms of expected gender roles for both of our cultures.

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, one of the major concerns of John’s and Joanna’s parents was for their future children. Discrimination against us or our children was never a problem to my knowledge, perhaps because we lived in a different time than 1967, but more likely because we lived in a generous, accepting family and community environment.  Our children, and now our grandchildren, are a delight to us, and they are making their own good contribution to life where they reside.

I attribute Hiromi and I having an intact marriage with many good years of life together to the blessing of God.  The glitches we’ve encountered I attribute to our being human beings who are still far from perfect and who are, in some respects, actually deeply flawed.  I believe the challenges we face are not unique to couples with significant cultural background differences.  Yet, I imagine sometimes that most of our challenges would disappear if we had both grown up in my culture.  But what would be the fun in that?  Much of the richness that we enjoy in our relationship could hardly have happened if Hiromi’s Japanese identity were missing from his persona.

Both my parents’ caution and their optimism about our marriage were well-founded.  Nothing about acknowledging that keeps me from feeling grateful for 38 years of a shared life.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Miriam And The Dance

Whenever I read Bible stories about Miriam I'm reflective about who she was and who I am in comparison to her.  When I hear these stories publicly, I wonder if others are doing the comparing as well, and I sometimes feel a little squirmy and uncomfortable.*  Here is a link to a site that summarizes the story of Miriam in the Old Testament.  The Bible passages that mention Miriam are found in Exodus 2:1-10 (her name is not actually given here, but scholars agree that the sister mentioned was Miriam), Exodus 15:19-21,  Numbers 12, and Numbers 20:1.

My reason for thinking about Miriam just now is that in the past few days I have been toying with the imagery of singing congregants in church being engaged in a dance led by the song leader.  Miriam in the Bible led other Hebrew women in singing and dancing in praise to God for his deliverance from the murderous Egyptian army pursuing the Hebrews as they crossed the Red Sea.  She was, in effect, a song leader who also led others in dancing.  "Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dancing.  And Miriam sang to them: 'Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.'"  Exodus 15:20 and 21.

This Exodus account appears to me to have many parallels to what I witness whenever an effective song leader (conductor) leads a responsive audience in worship through song.  I've witnessed this again the past weekend during the Kansas Mobile Music Camp*.  In a similar way, I experience it frequently during regular church services.

I often hear from others that our son Shane is an excellent song leader.  I agree (and by saying so I probably shock many of my readers with my lack of humility).  I'm pleased, of course, at his success, but I'm even more happy that under his leadership, many ordinary people are repeatedly able to participate in creating something that is truly beautiful and deeply satisfying spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.

Shane has a big voice, and when he increases his own volume and enlarges the sweep of his arm, the audience sings louder. In this mode, praise, resolve, and certainty of truth are accentuated and magnified. When his gestures diminish in scope, his voice drops, and his hand moves into a hushing gesture, the singing softens.   This effects sober reflection and, at times, lament. All these results are components of true worship of a holy God.   The tempo can be varied as well to match the message in the words of songs, faster in the former case and slower in the latter.

Singing in four-part harmony is the default singing pattern in our church.  Mennonites are quite in love with this way of singing, and most people find their place in this all-church "choir" fairly effortlessly as they grow up by simply participating regularly, usually within listening range of someone who sings one of those parts very well.  Having segregated seating (men on one side and women on the other) probably helps with this skill transmission process.

Interrupting this four-part harmony routine with an alternative is another effective way of accentuating the words sung during congregational singing.  That alternative is singing in unison.  Unison singing can sound like a plaintive crescendo or a long intense petition.  Sometimes it sounds like a shout of triumph.  Transitioning  back to four-part harmony after singing in unison feels like relief, resolution, and rest.  Shane uses these variations to good effect in leading congregational singing.  In this case, he gives brief instructions before the song begins, and people usually remember and follow the instructions.

Recently I've noticed something curious.  Even when Shane is not leading the singing and the leader gives few signals beyond keeping a steady rhythm, sometimes the audience sings exactly as Shane has led them in singing that song in the past, with volume variations. This suggests both a good thing and a bad thing.  On the positive side, people have apparently internalized the message of the words deeply enough to remember how to express the message in their singing, even in the absence of prompting from the leader.  On the negative side, they are probably not paying a great deal of attention to the leader in front of them at the moment.  Also on the positive side, when the less experienced leader hears the effect coming through despite his lack of ability to convey it in his song leading, he no doubt feels energized and motivated to keep on developing his skills.

A light came on for me when I noticed this curious phenomenon.  Good congregational singing depends heavily on the singers' willingness to sing mindfully, thereby searing the meaning of the words deeply into collective experience and memory.  When this happens, the quality of the singing can be maintained even in the absence of a skilled and familiar leader.

The dance, though, when it happens, is magical, or in more spiritual language, transcendent.  In this partners dance, leader and singers move in passionate responsive synchrony.  The effect is the same as when the ancient Hebrew women's choir led by Miriam worshiped in singing and dancing.  God is glorified.

*Below I have inserted separately many of the intrusive thoughts that assailed me in the attempt above to create a cohesive post.  I gave up on linking them decisively to the exact text in the main post to which they correspond, and simply listed them roughly in the order they occurred to me as I was writing.  I hope their randomness is not too distracting.

I may explore in a later post what I make of having the same name as the ancient Hebrew Miriam.

KMMC is a satellite event for what has happened since 2007 in Harrisonburg, VA.  That event, Shenandoah Music Camp, was organized with the heavy involvement of two former Kansans, Lyle Stutzman and Wendell Nisly.  Both of them were on staff at Pilgrim during my years of teaching there.  In a sense the KMMC event felt like the SMC event was coming home.

Singing in Amish church services is always in unison.  With roots in Gregorian chants, this singing has become symbolic of the highly esteemed ethic of group consciousness and unity which are expressed also in many other facets of Amish life.

Shane also sometimes varies his upper body position while conducting.  He tilts his head, or bows slightly, or even sways a bit from side to side.  This tendency was on display briefly during the KMMC weekend when Franklin Miller kindly critiqued publicly six different conductors after they led parts of songs in front of a gathered audience.  When it was Shane's turn, Franklin suggested that he limit his movement to his arm, which for a conductor is the main instrument of communication with the singers in front of him.  Upon that suggestion, Shane did a second "run-through" after which Franklin added a slightly rueful comment like "but we still want Shane back."  I believe he was validating a leader's unique personality and style by this comment.

I heard that Leroy H. labeled Franklin as a world-class conductor, based on what he saw in his ability to bring together a mass choir to produce a stunning performance after only a few practices.  The choir included some who have no outstanding singing ability, and who have only minimal training and experience.

The "dance" happens in our church most reliably now when Shane leads the singing.  This has not always been the case.  In the past, it happened also when Lyle S. led the singing.  In the future, I believe it will happen when some of the conductors-in-training assume leadership roles.  During KMMC, it obviously happened when Franklin led the mass choir.  I also believe it could happen now for other song leaders in our church if the audience paid more careful attention to the person who leads the singing.

Some of these next observations are offered a bit tentatively (note the abundant disclaimers and over-explanation), since I know they are very subjective.  Furthermore, they may seem to make too much of God-given gifts and natural abilities and personality, none of which are present by a person's own effort.  Am I the only Amish Mennonite who reflexively resists highlighting such things because of the potential for pride in the possessor of them and discouragement in the person who lacks them?  Also, am I the only one who is beginning to understand that when we resist this we may be robbing God of glory that He deserves?  We may be missing an opportunity for celebration and cultivation of  a spirit of gratitude as well.

Shane has a deep resonant voice, dark hair and eyes, a smooth but decisive manner, and is people-smart (a term borrowed from the Multiple Intelligences framework for categorizing individual differences between people).

As applied to song leading, this means that people can hear what he wants because his voice carries phenomenally, even if they aren't watching him for visual cues.  That's a plus in a group that has within my memory transitioned from singing without a song leader at the front in church.  His distinctive facial coloring makes his expression easy to read, so  if people are watching him, they catch on quickly what he's asking for.  People whose eyesight is diminishing benefit from this, even if their eyesight is no worse than mine.  Smooth manner?  I don't know how to describe this further, but I believe it comes naturally to him and it makes people feel comfortable.  People smart?  Ditto.  He just knows how to get people to happily follow him.  I'm not sure how or why, but the word charisma comes to mind.

Shane also cries more readily than some men do.  He cried more at his own wedding than I did, for example, so he clearly sheds tears while experiencing a variety of emotions.  This ability to feel deep emotion no doubt affects his ability to perceive how songs can be interpreted expressively.  While I doubt that Shane is proud of this, those who follow his lead in singing no doubt reap the benefits of this capacity for feeling deep emotion.

Some of what makes Shane effective as a song leader is due to positive character traits.  His open, friendly expression reveals personal integrity.  I believe this comes from appropriate humility and a heart at peace with his Creator and Lord.  Clear-eyed self-acceptance is part of the package.  Personal integrity is important in order to be an effective leader.

Perfection still eludes Shane, as it does all of us.  Witness the need for improvement that Franklin pointed out.  I'm sure he would wish to be rid of the facial tic (one raised eyebrow) that sometimes intrudes without warning.  It first appeared when he was an adolescent.  No doubt Shane could list many more imperfections and struggles with song leading than most of us know about.  This did not happen recently, but on one occasion, his young son refused to stay seated at his place in the audience when it was time for Shane to lead the singing. So he trotted to the front alongside his daddy and then wrapped his arms tightly around one leg when Shane had to let go of his hand in order to hold the song book and direct the singing.  The child must have found it overwhelming enough not to do a repeat.  After that, he stayed sitting.

Finally, what works so very well for Shane in leading congregational singing at Center might suffer in translation to other settings.  At Center, the congregation is very responsive to Shane, and the people are attuned to following his signals.  Other audiences would be less so.  The acoustics of the sanctuary at Center are great, although I doubt that all of those who helped in its construction even knew the term acoustics.  In acoustically dead sanctuaries or much bigger spaces, the effect would be less affirming.

What I've written here is not meant to minimize the considerable contributions made by other song leaders, the contributions and skills of our other sons, or the contributions of all who offer their gifts in different ways to the body of Christ, and who serve other people well in other capacities. 

For both song leaders in church and for those in the gathered group, I hope congregational singing can be an enjoyable and worshipful experience.  For all ordinary people who live for the Lord, I desire times of worship in the company of others, whether or not it involves enjoyable congregational singing.  If you've never experienced the worshipful dance though, between song leader and congregation, I hope you participate expectantly in whatever role is open to you.  In this way, you'll be ready when transcendence manifests itself in your presence.