Finding home and harmony: The first preacher I ever heard
My posts this week have centered on my faith journey (Part 2) and connections as a Eastern Mennonite College (Part 1) student. The president of EMC at the time (now EMU) was Myron Augsburger, and my personal history with him goes back to my very first days as an infant. He was the first preacher I ever heard the winter I was born in Sarasota, Florida.
My family the winter I was born in Florida: Linda (Pert), front left, Nancy, right, Mom, me and Dad. Our brother Terry would join us four years later who is the only one of us who now lives in Florida. But we all have that sand in our shoes.
My parents had a long love affair with Florida which began on their honeymoon. Mom bargained hard for a honeymoon to the romantic, semi-tropical state that she had only heard about, a perfect place to escape to if your wedding was, like theirs, in the dead of winter in northern Indiana.
They almost didn’t make it because of budget and car breakdowns, but they soldiered on at least in part because “Your daddy promised he would take me to Florida.” They definitely ended up with sand in their shoes and went back to try farming (like many other northern Mennonites) there for about six months in 1951-1952 the winter I was born. They also spent time living in northern Florida for eight years, and wintered in Sarasota for four-five months in their later years, roughly 1992-2002. Altogether roughly 12 years in the Sunshine state.
Myron was a budding evangelist who at the age of 23, with his bride Esther, was invited to move to Florida to pastor Tuttle Avenue Mennonite Church—a church plant associated with Virginia Conference. It had only 40 persons in May 1951; by Jan. 1952 (the winter I lived there as an infant), the attendance was around 500 (of course winter was and is high tourist season in Sarasota). In Roots & Branches: A Narrative History of the Amish and Mennonites in Southeast US, 1892-1992, (Cascadia Press, 2010) Martin Lehman describes Myron as “an eloquent speaker. He had a gift for evangelism, and his preaching resonated with Mennonites and non-Mennonites alike.” Martin points out that “some 200 [attenders] were of non-Mennonite background.” The whole history and book is rather complex and doesn’t shy from the conflicts which played out.
Augsburger left Tuttle Avenue in July 1953 to become campus pastor at EMC and to continue his schooling (although he spent another period of time pastoring in Florida). But Mom and Dad so much loved having him for their preacher, that all through my childhood, I often heard my Dad say, “I would sure love it if one of my children would go to Eastern Mennonite where Myron Augsburger is.”
That is NOT why I went to EMU but now I wonder if kids ever lean unconsciously towards paths their parents “wish” for?
Many years later I was asked to write an article for the EMU alumni magazine Crossroads when Myron’s long time assistant Peggy Shenk (indeed she served as assistant for three of EMU’s presidents) retired. Peggy recalled her and her husband’s (Michael) long friendship with Esther and Myron, and how as young women dating Michael and Myron they confided to each other that they hoped “the Lord wouldn’t return [to earth] until they got married.” I also enjoyed the opportunity to work with Myron doing “developmental editing” on one of his many books, The Resurrection Life, (Evangel Press) published in 2005 where I mainly broke up his trademark paragraph-long sentences to more manageable chunks. And yes, I got a little pleasure out of editing my former college president’s work. I also had the fun of interviewing both of them in their home about an assignment in India and got to know more about Esther’s remarkable work in art and its theological connections for her.
Myron was only one of three Augsburger brothers (there were five in all and one sister) who had an impact on my life: Don Augsburger was my pastor and high school principal for a number of years in Goshen, and in fact baptized and instructed me in the faith, and my father worked closely with him as a deacon of North Goshen Mennonite Church. Don’s pastoral gifts of tending a congregation, writing and memorizing poetry, and the ability to listen well and between the lines make him also stand out in my spiritual journey. Their brother David, whose creativity and booming bass voice (both singing and speaking on the long running Mennonite Hour radio program) contributed to the success of Mennonite Broadcasts Inc. for a period from about 1966 to 1975 (he left right before I joined staff in 1975). David was still a guiding force as we contracted with him to write and record various Choice radio series he birthed (one series on Living More with Less re-released as recently as 2011). For one series, I served as ghostwriter and Dave said he got a kick out of reading the material because I “out-Augsburgerized David Augsburger” or something like that–had made it sound so much like his writing.
So this Indiana Mennonite farm girl, whose Midwestern roots went so deep she somehow harbored hopes for many years of someday moving back “home,” ended up with even stronger connections to Mennonites of the southeastern U.S., especially Virginia (through my work for the Mennonite church) and Florida. Along with, yes, what shall we say, longtime formal membership in the Presbyterian Church and awesome local congregation, Trinity, and my husband’s deeply rooted Virginia family? Yes, it’s complicated. It has also led to my lifelong search finding harmony among these various threads.
I remember when I first realized I had a new home in Virginia setting: as my colleagues and acquaintances were aging and moving on, I went to funeral or memorial services and looked around and realized that I likely knew more people sitting in those pews than if you suddenly plunked me back in my home Indiana congregation. These were my people. I knew them much longer than my relatively short 17 years in Indiana. And Presbyterians have also become my people: my pastor Ann Held (the longest preacher I’ve ever had, almost 24 years) can play a pretty good “Presbyterian Game,” always striving to connect people. Her special gift.
Truly, any place can become home when you put down roots. But like the song says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”
How have you put down roots? How much does your church family play a role?
If you love that great Mennonite Hour a cappella music, here’s a link to a bunch of YouTube videos featuring the music (nevermind the visuals, just listen to the music.)
And for my tribute to the wonderful new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God (designed by a Mennonite, so there), check here.
And when I get homesick for Sarasota, Fla. and Amish & Mennonite filled-Pinecraft, I go here.