Awesome Aunt: Susie Roth, Mennonite Bible School Teacher Extraordinaire
Aunt Susie Roth pouring through her scrapbook collected from 44 years of teaching Summer Bible School.
Every child needs an awesome aunt. Awesome aunts often don’t have any children themselves, and therefore have time and energy to put into holding, playing with, babysitting, taking their nieces and nephews on special excursions, and engaging in a lot of one-on-one mentoring—without ever calling it that. There are awesome uncles too who love to play with their nieces and nephews but as one of my male relatives has said, “The main function of an uncle is to be a rascally scoundrel so as to make the father look great in comparison.”
Today I want to tell you about one of my awesome aunts, Aunt Susie Roth of Emma, Indiana. She did have children of her own and she lived the longest of all my aunts, 100 years, spanning1899 to 1999. Glaucoma took her sight in later years. Toward the end, her walk with Jesus was so close she talked about she was “having cookies with Jesus.” But she was also lucid enough to tell her pastor when he came to visit that he needed to take some time off now and then to get some rest—almost the patient counseling the pastor.
But what made her awesome in my book is her amazing record teaching thousands of youngsters over 44 summers of traveling here and there to help smaller Mennonite churches who were stretched quite thin in having sufficient Summer Bible School teachers.
My aunt Susie, bottom left, at Grandpa and Grandma Miller’s (center) 60th wedding anniversary in 1953. My father, bottom right. Back row, l to r: my aunts Adeline, Elnora, Arlene, Irma and back row, Uncle Truman. Note that Aunt Susie was the plainest of my aunts who remained an “old Mennonite” all her life, while my other aunts were in closely related churches but not as plain (note the cut hair hair and earrings on most of my aunts.)
At that time in the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church, many older established churches from heavily-populated Mennonite areas took on “Big Brother” roles with smaller outpost congregations in areas that had few Mennonites. Whenever a call went out “We need Summer Bible school teachers…” in conference newsletters, Susie heeded the call to this mission field with good hearted zeal and a genuine love for children–and the many lessons they taught her. She would be gone for 6-8 weeks to different locations helping in the local programs: Indianapolis, Chicago, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, southern Indiana and Kentucky. In addition to teaching in her own church, Emma Mennonite Church and others as asked.
I was privileged to travel to teach with her in Chicago and Upper Michigan, and then one year she and her husband, Dan, traveled to Kentucky to teach with me where I was stationed in Voluntary Service. Her work in Chicago was in association with a women’s and family shelter called “Gospel League Home”* and my experience teaching there in a gated facility in a rough area of Chicago where she sometimes confiscated knives from little boys in her classes–gave me a tantalizing introduction to life in the inner city—and also its heart wrenching needs. We rode Chicago’s “L”, went to the Loop, and she assured us that if we stayed long enough, we too would get used to the noise of city traffic, sirens and blaring horns all through the night. I marveled at this small town aunt so wise to the ways of the city.
I once wrote an article about her for Purpose magazine (July, 1981) called “The Peripatetic Teacher” (Peripatetic was the editor’s word, not mine, I had to look it up, which means “traveling”). It was 1980 when I interviewed her for that and she told me with a satisfied glint she had traveled to teach “44 years in a row.”
To some, who’ve been arm-twisted into teaching in Summer Bible School, that sounds like years of torture. I’ll wager that most of these programs were the full two-week, morning-long Summer Bible Schools that took dedicated planning and preparation each afternoon and evening, punching out the little take home Bible memory verses on cute memory triggers like a hammer for the verse from first Thessalonians, “Work with your own hands.”
She recalled one little girl who was supposed to tell the story of the Good Samaritan for the closing Bible school program. In practice the child kept inserting that the Good Samaritan bought the beat up man he was helping an ice cream cone. The little girl was dutifully told to leave that part out because there certainly wasn’t any ice cream in the Bible. Susie recalled the girl’s clear calm voice while reciting the piece and twisting the hem of her little dress. Susie held her own breath as the child neared the ending and announced “So the Good Samaritan took care of the man, left him some money, and bought-him-an-icecream-cone,” she said in her Revised Child Version of the Bible, before dashing off the platform.
But Susie’s educational methods were what helped Susie cope even in keeping classes as large as 23 children (the biggest class) engaged and occupied. A wallpaper hanger and painter by occupation (along with raising two sons and a daughter), she had some teacher training (Goshen College) but more important was that she knew the need of children to wiggle.
Susie, right, and her sister Irma, left, who were dressing up circa 1916: she knew how to have fun.
How did she cope with 23 in an improvised classroom? “When I saw that they’d had all the listening they could take, I’d silently motion to them that they should get up and follow me. I wouldn’t tell them where we were going and they’d get quiet as church mice, they were so scared. I’d lead them around the church sanctuary four or five times, all without speaking and then we’d file back to the room. The exercise was good for them and it helped to quiet them down.” She expressed this philosophy of teaching as “When the kettle is full, the kettle is full. You can’t tell them anymore.”
In 1980, at the age of almost 80, she was invited back to the Gospel League Home to help teach. “Oh you can’t use me anymore,” Susie hesitated. “Oh yes we can” was the reply and Susie went in an assistant teacher role, making 22 years she served at the Gospel League Home. Over the years she also volunteered as a cook at church camps, meaning she would spend 8-11 weeks away many summers, just coming home weekends between stints to clean up her garden and flower beds. And her husband, Dan, did not seem to mind. That was Susie.
It was a model of service and love that I’ve never duplicated but treasure for the spirit of her service.
I wish I had pictures of:
- Her beautiful backyard flower garden, complete with stream and trellis
- The sweet cherry tree we enjoyed picking from
- The ongoing “rummage” sale she hosted in their garage to help raise money for her beloved Gospel League Home
- The time she busied my young children on a visit to her home where they were growing bored and restless and she put them to work cutting out quilt patches for one of her dozens of quilts pieced together over many years. That was Susie at her finest, sensing the boredom of children, and putting them to useful work (that they thought was great fun). I don’t have a photo of that but I do have one of the three lovely quilts that came to my daughters, her grand nieces.
An awesome aunt. I had others but I don’t think anyone else matches her record of Summer Bible School teaching 44 years in a row: not just for one or two weeks, but 6-8 weeks at a time.
Were you privileged to have an awesome aunt or uncle or special relative? I would love to hear their story. I will consider using your stories in an upcoming Another Way Column (If permitted).
To “enter” the Emma General Store much as it was in the 50s when I loved to visit Aunt Susie and Dan (right next door to their house in the unincorporated town of Emma), check out the Emma Cafe website here.
For a history of Summer Bible School or Vacation Bible School in the Mennonite Church, check here.
*Finally, I learned that the Gospel League Home was an arm of the more famous Pacific Garden Mission but eventually the Chicago Tribune reports here (sadly) what happened to the property in 2006.