This article was originally written for Mennonite World Review in July 2017.
By Laurie Oswald Robinson
ORLANDO, Fla. – In the late 1890s, as Mennonite historian John Ruth tells it, a teacher once asked a local Sunday school boy a leading theological question: “Who can do anything?”
“Mary Mellinger,” the boy replied.
Mellinger organized one of the earliest recorded gatherings for mission and service in the late 1890s for Mennonite women in America. Ever since, Mennonite women have persisted in bearing the fruit of the Spirit as they did what needed to be done with their hearts, hands, pocketbooks and prayers.
About 250 people at the Mennonite Women USA centennial celebration July 5 honored women who for more than 100 years have served in mission and bonded as sisters in fellowship. Through stories, songs, poems, litanies and drama, presenters showed how these women demonstrated a holy persistence in carrying out God’s call.
From left, Marlene Bogard, executive director of Mennonite Women USA, and Alma Orvalle, board member representing Iglesia Menonita Hispana, present the drama “Book Talk” at the Centennial Celebration held July 5 at Orlando 2017. It was based on the centennial book, Circles of Sisterhood, by Anita Hooley Yoder.
They created quilts and tied comforters for the world and comforted each other at home. They discovered their leadership gifts among each other and offered them in a formerly male-dominated Mennonite church. They raised financial support for women theologians around the globe and raised awareness about issues ranging from human trafficking to child and spousal abuse to the environment.
The evening theme – “Fruit from the Vine” – focused on how women of all eras and ethnicities share a communion of sisterhood because of sharing life in Christ (John 15). In “Martha and Mennonite Women,” Patty Shelly, outgoing moderator of Mennonite Church USA, told her story about how an 83-year-old woman affirmed her as a young associate pastor at First Mennonite Church in Denver in 1983.
“As I was getting ready to return to the office [after our first lunch], Martha took my arm and said, ‘When I heard that we were getting a woman pastor, I didn’t know what to think. I know what I was taught, but I decided to keep an open mind, and to ask you over to lunch and get to know you.’”
Oppression as well as openness has been part of women’s experience. Sara Bixler, an adult worship leader at Orlando 2017, gave voice to this by reading her poem, “It Stops with Me.” An excerpt:
Years after grandpa gave up his plain suit,
I sat alone with grandma. She fingered her covering.
“Sometimes I wonder why I still wear this thing,” she confided in me.
I was taught that it stood for humility,
based on biblical principles
and that I could wear it, too,
as a sign of respect for the older generation.
As I grew, I wondered what else is symbolized.
Why Mennonite women could be picked out of a crowd
but Mennonite men could not,
why Mennonite women gave talks and testimonies, not sermons.
Why Mennonite women were excellent Sunday school teachers
but not elders or bishops.
Carol Duerksen, author of Hillsboro, Kan., with Marlene Bogard, Executive Director of Mennonite Women USA, blended these themes and more in the drama, Book Talk, presented at the gathering. They created the drama from the centennial book, Circles of Sisterhood, written by Anita Hooley Yoder, an author and campus pastor in her early 30s.
Yoder narrated how women created different groups in two former denominations – the Mennonite Church (Old Mennonite) and the General Conference Mennonite Church. Those denominations merged in 2003 to become Mennonite Church USA, in which Mennonite Women USA is lodged.
Yoder articulates how the many gifts of women of color are increasingly shaping the sisterhood. One of those women of color, Alma Ovalle, is a board member of Mennonite Women USA as a representative of Iglesia Menonita Hispania. She also serves as vice president of Southeast Mennonite Conference’s Executive Board. Her mother, Elizabeth Perez, founded the first Hispanic women’s group 44 years ago.
“Women in the Hispanic culture have always been oriented toward forming spiritual friendships and working alongside each other across generations,” Ovalle said. “We cooked together for fundraisers, because we didn’t do the sewing like the Anglo women. I am grateful that we as Hispanics are now working more side-by-side with sisters from other backgrounds.”
In the book, Yoder explores the experience of Hyacinth Stevens, a pastor in New York City and an African-American Mennonite Association representative on the Mennonite Women USA board. On page 240, Yoder writes: Hyacinth Stevens remembers walking past the Mennonite Women dinner at previous denominational assemblies and seeing no women of color, many women with head coverings and quilt hangings on the walls. ‘Even though it said Mennonite Women, my assumption was that I must not be one,’ Stevens said.
From left, Angie Brockmueller, of Hesston, Kan., and her mother, Peggy Martin,a board member for Mennonite Women USA representing Mountain States Mennonite Conference, attend the Centennial Celebration on July 5 at Orlando 2017.
That is changing. In 2014, Stevens was the keynote speaker at Central District Conference’s “Black Mennonite Women Rock.” She encouraged women to overcome their discomfort with differences and to accept that they need each other.
Yoder also tracks the transformation of women’s groups from sewing circles into groups that also sponsor Bible studies, retreats and more. She demonstrates how the inner and outer journeys are integrating. An example is the creation of Sister Care, founded by Rhoda Keener, former executive director for Mennonite Women USA, and current Sister Care director. Seminars help women to provide emotional and spiritual healing ministry to each other. Keener, and Carolyn Holderread Heggen, a therapist for those experiencing sexual abuse and trauma, have given the seminar throughout the United States and around the world.
They are now training others to give the seminars, especially in Latin America, where Sister Care has caught on like wildfire. The seminars as well as the Mennonite Women USA-sponsored International Women’s Fund, has sparked creation of a global network of women theologians.
Bogard in the past two years has helped to bring Sister Care to colleges. “We need to celebrate the courageous women who have walked before us,” she said. “We must also note that all around us are girls and young women who will be taking their own steps. Those of us who have a few decades on us need to step up and mentor the generations that will continue the Mennonite Women USA legacy.”
Yoder’s book’s epilogue is one indication that the baton is being passed. “Like many people of my generation, I have often found myself disillusioned with the Mennonite church … and the Christian churches in general,” Hooley said. “But then I spent the better part of two years researching and crafting this history. Hearing the stories of women who have participated in church-related efforts for sixty, seventy, or eighty years gave me hope. Their faithfulness, honesty, courage and humor have helped me want to stay in and contribute to this broken, beloved denomination and the larger Christian body.”