by Anita Hooley Yoder
Let’s start with some numbers. Since I began this project last September, I have sorted through 29 binders and folders of material from Mennonite Women USA’s previous co-directors. I have read (or at least skimmed) nine books and 15 scholarly articles. I have spent 43 hours in archives and historical libraries and surveyed 40 years of Voice, Window to Mission, and Timbrel magazines. I learned that “two cents a prayer” became a $95,717 Missionary Pension Fund, that over 200 families served by Mennonite Disaster Service have received quilted wall hangings, and that the International Women’s Fund has supported the studies of 86 different women.
But this project is not really about numbers. It’s about people.Without a doubt, the highlight of my work so far has been talking to women (48 of them so far, plus one man, if you’re wondering) from different eras of the organizations. These interviews have taken many forms, and I often feel that I enter sacred space as we talk together. Here is a sample of the conversations I’ve had so far.
My first interview was with Marian Hostetler at her apartment in the Greencroft complex in Goshen, Indiana.
Hostetler seemed delighted for the opportunity to reflect on her work as executive secretary of WMSC, even though people said it was a dying organization. She remembered compiling reports of sewing and service projects sent in by the district groups. “It just overwhelms you when you think of all the stuff that was happening and also the good relationships that were happening,” she said.
I received a letter from Lora Oyer, a leader in Women in Mission in the 1960s and 70s. Through a subsequent phone conversation, I learned about the impact of the women’s movement on the direction of the women’s group. I heard her concern, still strong at age 93, for the young women emerging as leaders in the church.
I spent several hours with Maria Tijerina at her home in Archbold, Ohio.
We paged through piles of documents from her 40 years of involvement with what is now Conferencia Femenil Hispana Menonita. She told of the struggles and blessings of relating as a “minority” to the dominant culture group—and offered a prayer of blessing for me before I left.
I had four separate phone conversations with women who were on the executive committee of WMSC during the same time period. They each mentioned the “hilarious” times they had traveling together to meetings around the United States and Canada. Donella Clemens said, “Working together was the big satisfaction and the joy. Meeting the women across the church—that was great fun.”
Rhoda Keener hosted me for several days at her retreat-like home in Pennsylvania.
There I learned about Rhoda’s personal journey of hurt and healing. I heard the story of the halting beginning of Sister Care, which has blossomed into the most vibrant and recognizable part of Mennonite Women USA today, in this country and around the world.
Carolyn Holderread Heggen’s reflections as a co-leader of Sister Care, which I heard by phone, came more in the form of images: women taking off their masks, literally and figuratively, in Colombia; the gift of a dress from a woman in Trinidad who felt inspired to reconnect with her gay son; a deep embrace with an illiterate indigenous woman in Bolivia.
I visited Steve Bustos at his workplace in Goshen and heard treasured memories of his mother, Mary Bustos, the passionate organizer of the first Hispanic women’s conference. These conferences have happened at least every two years since 1973 and are still going strong.
Grace Brunner treated me to the best rhubarb pie I have ever tasted while we talked at the Water’s Edge restaurant in Hesston, Kansas.
Five women who served on the WMSC executive committee with her became pastors, in a church that was just opening up to women in leadership. “I am sure that had I never done WMSC I would never have been ordained,” Grace said. “I mean, my whole life changed because of WMSC.”
I was moved by Elsie Flaming’s tears as she spoke in a video call about Women in Mission demanding female representation on General Conference commissions in the early 1970s. She said, “I remember the three women going to speak to the executive, and the rest of us staying in the room. . . . They came back and they were just beaming, that they had been accepted.” Flaming was an early female representative on the General Conference Commission of Overseas Mission and the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission board.
Elaine Widrich called to tell me about the faithful quilting sessions, luncheons, and “Ruth-Naomi” relationships of women in small churches in rural New York State.
Jill Miller shared how Indiana-Michigan women’s retreats have ministered to her soul at times of personal and community crises.
Through a phone call, I learned of Angie Williams’s passion for inspiring others in their faith. She served two terms as vice-president of WMSC in the 1970s, one of few African American women in church-wide leadership at that time. “One of the most exciting things was when we decided to have an emphasis on spiritual growth through silent retreat, writing in our journals, that type of thing,” she said. “I tell people that this has been the single source of the most spiritual growth in my life.”
Through a video call, Carol Roth spoke about the challenges of Native Mennonite women and their place within the denomination. She remind these women to draw on the resources from the Sister Care seminar held at the Native Mennonite Ministries gathering in Winnipeg.
Doris Schmidt wanted to be interviewed with someone else, so we met at the Newton, Kansas, home of Sara Reiger, coordinator of Women in Mission in the late 1980s. Both women brought out photo albums, and Schmidt shared poignant words she had written at the farewells for several women she worked with in over a decade as administrative assistant for the organization.
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A character in The Red Tent, after she hears the story of a friend, says, “Dear one, I am so honored to be the vessel into which you pour this story of pain and strength.” For some, their time with the women’s organization was a relatively small piece of their lives; for others, it was a life-altering experience. Either way, it is a privilege to be a receptacle of sorts for these memories. I feel honored to have the task of creating a vessel to hold these stories, images, and reflections, so that they can inform and inspire us for years to come.