This reflection with an updated postscript by the MW USA Executive Assistant, Berni Kaufman, was originally published by her in the September/October 2006 issue of Timbrel magazine and was titled, “Valentines come in many shapes.”
In the twelve years I lived away from my home community in the Midwest, I veered from the expected path of marriage and motherhood. Experiences brought me into a new landscape of self-acceptance as a single woman whom God gifted with ministry and a family fashioned from many adults and children.
When I returned home, the edges of that transformation were stretched even further, as I grappled with what it meant to share my gifts as the woman I had become. There were some rough times in expressing my renewed sense of self among people who knew me as a young adult still unsure of her identity.
One of those rough times came when I served as a deacon at the church. As deacons, we prayed for, discerned with and challenged the church family. I felt I was a vital part.
Each November, the deacons meet to reflect and do vision work. The deacons’ retreat my first year was a good one. We worked, worshipped, prayed and laughed together. We applauded accomplishments and set goals.
As per tradition, spouses joined us later in the afternoon. With their arrival, my day changed. I knew spouses were scheduled to bring in and join us for the evening meal and fellowship.
We continued our work as they arrived. One by one, I noticed expressions of acknowledgement between spouses – smiles, nods winks. Suddenly, I was different. At the end of the meeting and before supper, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. I felt a self-imposed bubble of isolation around me. I needed fresh air. Society’s expectations overcame me and I needed to find my true self again. I stepped outside and instantly felt my tiny place in God’s vast universe. I found my touchstone of belonging. I prayed for composure; I had to get through the rest of the evening. In the silence, I felt God’s presence as a warm cloak around my shoulders. I wasn’t alone.
I traveled a long journey to find my place in God’s world. Growing up on a farm in the Midwest, I was raised believing a girl grew up to be a wife and mother. I learned to clean and cook and to care for family members. It was good practice for the adult vocation of family matriarch; from a young age I was conditioned to seek the path to wedded bliss.
I graduated from college and became a teacher – an accepted job as a single woman. My relationships with my students provided a great place to express my familial love.
Holidays were still hard. When practicing for the Christmas program during my third year of teaching, one of my fourth graders noticed I was down in the dumps.
“Ms. Kaufman,” he said, “I know what you need.”
I didn’t know I had a need. I couldn’t imagine to what he was referring. “Oh, really,” I said, “What?”
“A Mr. Kaufman,” he said, believing he held the key to my depression.
Later that year, this student initiated one of the most precious gifts I have received. He, along with a couple of other students, secretly collected money and the class gave me my first box of Valentine’s chocolates. It wasn’t just a little six-candy box. It was a huge box! Enough, in fact, that I could share it with the class. You don’t have to be one person’s sweetheart to receive Valentine wishes.
I taught through my 20’s. I proved myself as a responsible person, a “good catch.” In society’s eyes, the right man hadn’t come along yet.
This place in life afforded me some independence. At 28, I moved to Indiana to pursue seminary studies. I yearned for a forum in which to speak. Seminary would prepare me.
During seminary in the 1980’s, I contemplated what it meant to be a single woman in Mennonite church ministry. My first declared area of study was missions. After all, this is a noble ministry for women. Within weeks of interacting with the seminary community, I realized God was not calling me to missions. The next year my studies were geared toward Christian education, a nice complement to my undergraduate work and previous work experience.
After two years at seminary, I realized that living my faith is what gives me purpose and shook the desperation to marry. I had not felt the need to be married, but I felt the societal pressure. Discovering what gave me true purpose, I no longer needed to fit societal standards; I found completion in my faith as a person of worth.
I discovered, defined and declared myself not by family name, church membership or societal status but by the essence of my inner being as created by God. My prayer during my late 30s and early 40s was, “God either give me a husband or give me peace as a single woman.” You can hear I still had that bargaining edge, not yet owning the transformation.
Now, in my 50s, I can honestly say I am fulfilled as a single person. My church family also values who I have become. In the decade since I’ve moved home and reconnected with my childhood church, we have come to know each other as loved, beloved and created by God.
Early in 2006, a young mother and her family, new to the community, had recently become members of our church. She approached me and shared that as she was listening to a program that morning, she thought of me. The speaker was talking about spiritual mothers.
“That’s who you are for my children,” she said.
Do I need children of my own? No, I can make memories, share my love for God and give and receive hugs with all children.
Am I called to be single forever? I don’t know. But I do know I am called to be faithful. For now, I can best live, work, love and serve God as a single woman within the family God gives.
I was invited to drape the cross for Palm Sunday 2014. Each Sunday during Lent, someone from the church family places a different colored drape on the cross. It was such an affirmation to be invited. I know my place in the church as far as what I can offer by way of interest and talents. This was different. I was invited to participate in an event that has traditionally been done by family groupings – a two-parent family with children, a married couple, grandparents with grandchildren, a single parent with children, etc. Groups that, in some way, belonged together. It was incredible to be recognized as a viable family unit, worthy of participating. My lip service of being part of a church family reached my heart and soul that week by that simple act of embracing the cross during Lent.
I had been asked by Derek King, our new pastor of three months who is a young adult. And I thanked him by email for asking. Here is his email response:
“I don’t really know what to say. I was very moved by your email. Thank you for sharing a piece of your reflection on the experience. I pray that we can continue to challenge ourselves to affirm all people for who they are as beloved image-bearers and repent from our tendencies to judge based on societal (and sometimes religious) expectations of what it means to be “whole”, “family”, “male”, “female”, etc.”