By Aleta Schrock, Part 1
I hated to see the end of my eighth-grade school year. Learning was fun, but the expectation was that after the eighth grade my formal education would end and I would either work at home or get a job. I worked up the courage to ask my mom if I could go on to the ninth grade. Her answer, of course, was “no” and I knew better than to ask again.
I grew up in the Old Order Mennonite church in Goshen, Indiana. We drove horse and buggy, but the main differences between us and the typical Amish church was that we worshiped in church houses, wore clothes with small or medium size print (not just solid colors), the men were clean shaven, and official shunning consisted of not being allowed to take communion with the church anymore.
I was the middle girl between two brothers. My dad passed away from cancer when I was 4 years old. My mom never remarried. Dad had started a small engine repair shop to work in evenings after his factory job. When he realized he would probably not survive the cancer, he taught my mom how to take over the business. Consequently, I didn’t grow up in the most typical Old Order Mennonite home. Thankfully the shop was on our home property with its side door about ten feet from our house and we were in and out of the shop all day while she worked. My mom did a wonderful job of providing for us physically, emotionally, and financially. But I didn’t grow up with the opportunity to cook and garden with my mom as much as my female cousins and friends did, although it gave me the advantage of having lots of playtime while she worked.
My childhood was a delight of reading books, writing stories and poems, exploring the woods, swamp, and railroad tracks, sewing doll clothes on our treadle sewing machine, drawing, painting, and creating things with an abundance of scissors, glue, tape, crayons, markers, paper, and large cardboard boxes from Mom’s shop. I played school and, according to my younger brother, taught him everything he needed to know for first grade. Reading and writing were my favorite activities. I loved learning and quietly dreamed of continuing my education into college. It was a dream I did not expect to fulfill with my eighth-grade schooling. When I was seventeen, I worked with several girls who went to the Whistler Mennonite and Old Brethren Churches, and they invited me to join them in getting their GED. My mom allowed me to do that.
One evening my mom and I were picking green beans in a cousin’s garden, when I announced that I was going to be a teacher. My mom responded, “Oh, Aleta, teachers don’t make much money.” I shrugged off her comment and insisted that that was what I intended to do. “Teachers have to work long hours,” she added. I merely reiterated with determination that someday I would teach and she never opposed me again. My mom wasn’t a greedy, money focused person. She merely knew that the church schools paid minimally. What she didn’t know was that something deep inside of me just knew that that’s what I would do. It was beyond merely wanting. It was knowing. I came home from fourth grade that day just knowing I would be a teacher someday.
Around the same time as I awakened to the desire to teach, I also began to awaken to thoughts of God and a desire to go to Heaven someday. As a ten- or eleven-year-old, I knew the response to my concerns about God and Heaven would be: “Just be a good girl and obey your parents and when you’re sixteen you can get baptized and join church.” Ages sixteen to eighteen were the average ages young adults typically chose to join church. My heart longed for more than merely being a good girl, but I didn’t have the understanding nor the words to express what I was feeling. I only knew that I longed for God. But there was one obstacle. I wore plastic rimmed glasses and the plainer families in our church dressed their children in wire rimmed glasses. I was scared that if I surrendered to those longings for God, he would require me to switch to wire rims. Night after night, I knelt by my bedroom window with my pink and white checkered curtains flowing behind me, my eyes gazing toward the stars, my heart struggling to surrender to the thought of wearing those unstylish wire rimmed glasses. Eventually I couldn’t bear it anymore. I desperately wanted God. The night my heart finally surrendered to whatever God would require of me, I went to bed filled with peace. And God never asked me to wear those wire rims.
When I finally turned sixteen, I was too busy having fun with the stolen pleasures of listening to country music on the eight-tracks hidden in the boy’s buggies, to think about joining church. The young folks got together every Sunday evening at someone’s house to sing hymns and then square dance. The wildest parts of our rum-springa was done by those of us who chose to sit out in the buggies on Sunday nights listening to country music and kissing and waiting to go into the house until it was time to square dance.
Things were not so peaceful among the adults in the Old Order Mennonite Church. A lot of men put rubber tires on their tractors to do their farming and then exchanged them for steel wheels in time to take communion with the church. The bishop wanted to allow rubber tires to eliminate this hypocrisy, but the rest of the ministers said that it would only lead to people using those rubber-tired tractors like a car. The tensions became palpable and the church quit having the biannual communion services. During this time, I tired of country music and meaninglessly kissing boys, but because communion was on a temporary hold, so were Unarichta (Sunday afternoon services to prepare young people for baptism and church membership), and therefore, no one could get baptized nor join church.
The church unrest continued for several years. For a second time I entered an elusive search for God. Being baptized and joining church were the only ways I knew how to get closer to Him and the longing for it consumed me. I reassured myself that God knew my heart and I was okay with him until that next step became possible. Eventually the church dissension was resolved with a split. My immediate family went with the bishop who allowed the rubber tires. It was a tiny group and I sat alone on the front bench for the Unarichta on Sunday afternoons with the tiny band of church members filling a small portion of the benches behind me. I barely noticed the empty seats next to me as my spirit hungrily consumed the messages our bishop preached. He was known to preach the love of God, and I hung on to each word as they satiated my spirit.
On a Saturday morning when I was eighteen, the day before our fall communion service I knelt alone by the front pew of the church. The bishop’s wife took off my prayer covering and the bishop poured a little water onto my bowed head with the words, “Getauft mit Wasser im Namen des Vaters, des Sohnes, und des Heiligen Geistes…” (Baptized with water in the name of the father, the Son , and the Holy Spirit) Sometime before the bishop’s wife put my covering back on and before the bishop finished with the words, “…Gept mich deine Hand, steh uch zu einen Neuanfang, zu einen neuen Lebenswandel,” (Give me your hand, stand up to a new beginning, to a new walk in life) I sensed a presence hovering above, forward to my left. It swooped down into my chest with an explosion of love. I don’t remember the remainder of the service. I only know that, that afternoon I went to work with the knowledge that my plain dress and my horse and buggy had nothing to do with my salvation. That knowledge did not bring rebellion. I was content to remain with the church. I had no intention of ever leaving. It was merely a little tidbit of information conveyed by Holy Spirit.
When I turned nineteen several Old Order Mennonite teachers invited me to join them to attend the Amish School meetings in Shipshewana, Indiana. We made the forty-mile journey in a horse and buggy and stayed the night with an Amish family. I received an invitation to teach at an Amish school, but my mom was concerned I’d fall in love with an Amish boy and join the Amish church, so I declined. Then I received another invitation from an Old Order Mennonite church school in Shiloh, Ohio, and my mom approved. I spent four wonderful years teaching in that one-room school on Free Road. I taught grades 1-6 the first year and later grades 1-4 along with 7th and 8th. Teaching took every ounce of energy I had, and I loved it. On my first day of school I dismissed the students for recess and as I was straightening things up on my desk, the three sixth grade boys ran back into the building and laughingly dangled a dead snake skin in my face, waiting for my response. My gut reaction was to grab the snake skin and when they ran, I chased them around the school building. We all ended up laughing and I never had any serious behavior issues with any of the students. The children were a lot of fun. In the classroom I was the most me I had ever been. Life flowed beautifully as I fulfilled a part of the destiny God had created me for.
Then, in my early twenties, that elusive longing for more of God returned. I went on long Sunday afternoon bike rides and spent evenings watching sunsets, my heart crying out to know God as a Father, rather than merely as a holy untouchable being locked up in a China cupboard like our precious Sunday dishes. My older brother lived in Missouri and went to a Pentecostal church and I believed my answers were somewhere in reach. I spent a year in private emotional torture making that final decision to leave. What if I went to hell for leaving? But what if I never got to really know God because of not leaving? The quandary of life’s what-ifs.
At the age of twenty-two, filled with heartbreak for leaving my students along with the anticipation for more of God in my future, I quit my work as the Free Road School teacher, moved back home to Indiana, and joined a Pentecostal Church in Elkhart. When I told my mom of my intentions, she invited preachers from the Old Order Mennonite and Whistler Mennonite churches to come talk me out of it. We all sat in a circle on kitchen chairs, me, my mom, and about six preachers. They attempted to convince me of the evils of leaving the church and I used the Bible to explain my decisions. Eventually they told me to quit reading the difficult portions of the Bible such as Revelations and just stick with the simple Gospels. They were at a loss for words when I explained that most of what I told them came from those Gospels. When I shared that I had already been baptized at my new church, they all shook their heads in recognition of their failure to convince me and left. My mom laid on the sofa sobbing uncontrollably. It was a moment of hell for both of us. She didn’t deserve to hurt like that. But I knew I had to make my choice for spiritual/religious growth.
My mom told me that as long as I continued to dress Old Order Mennonite and didn’t get a car, I was welcome to continue living at home. I looked in the local paper and found an apartment for rent four miles away in Wakarusa. A family from my new church in Elkhart, Indiana, picked me up for church services and helped me get my driver’s license.
Within weeks I was rebuilding my relationship with my mom. We have come to agree to disagree in some areas and have a close relationship. It’s not the same relationship we’d have if I had stayed Old Order Mennonite, but she is proud of me as a public-school teacher and she told me that she believes I too have the hope of entering Heaven someday as any Old Order Mennonite does. On an interesting side note: about twenty-five years later my mom retired and she and my Grossmommy (Grandmother) moved to Virginia. My brother and aunts living in Virginia all go to various conservative Mennonite churches that drive cars. Shortly before Grossmommy passed, she asked my mom, “Are you going to get a car after I’m gone?” When my mom timidly affirmed, Grossmommy gave her blessing. As my mom told me this story, she apologized for having been so hard on me for getting a car. I held no hard feelings. She had done the only thing she knew at that time. Currently my mom attends the Whistler Mennonite Church in Virginia. They only drive black vehicles and dress very similar to the Old Order Mennonites, but they do have radio, computer, and cell phones.
To be continued…
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