I remember meeting Maxine Fast on my second trip to Newton, Kansas in November of 2000. I was just starting as the Mennonite Women executive director and knew very little about denominational organizations, or the General Conference (GC) or Mennonite Church (MC) women’s organizations. I was 49 years old and had just left a job as a psychotherapist so I could work in the Mennonite church.
As a former MC member, I didn’t know anyone in the GC church offices where the Mennonite Women office was located. With lots of doubts swirling through my head about why I gave up my job in mental health to do something so nebulous as attempt to lead a denominational women’s organization, I found my way to the home of Maxine and Orlando Fast in Newton, Kansas.
Maxine and Orlando often hosted out-of-towners and their home became my regular place to stay in Newton, sometimes for a week or longer. Each arrival was met with a warm welcome. I joined their morning ritual of a devotional reading and prayer before breakfast and then set out for my day at the office. Maxine was always ready to greet me with genuine questions about how my day went when I returned in the evening. Our emerging friendship became more special when we discovered we shared the same birthday, June 15. We talked about the differences in the ways we grew up in the MC and GC churches, particularly in regard to beliefs and practices regarding the role of women in the church.
Realizing how little I knew about the women’s organization, Maxine invited the executive committee of Western District Women in Mission to her home so I could get acquainted with them. When I was invited to speak at the first Western District and South Central Conference women’s Sunset Supper held at Eden Mennonite Church, Maxine drove me there. I remember she first showed me the land where she and Orlando farmed for many years. When we drove through Moundridge she pointed out that the very slight hill as you go across Main Street is how Moundridge got its name.
Each year Mennonite Women USA hosted a resource gathering event for conference MW leaders. In those early years they were all held in the Newton-Hesston area. One year (since I enjoy cooking), I thought how nice it would be for me to prepare one of the meals for the group of 30 (as well as lead the meeting). I remember shopping for the food and beginning the preparation for my chicken, broccoli, and corn soup in Maxine’s kitchen. I soon realized I had over-committed and could not possibly serve a meal and lead a meeting. Maxine graciously stepped in, finished the meal and then served it.
Perhaps the time when I needed Maxine most was after a late flight to Kansas on Feb. 2, 2003. I was flying from Chicago to Wichita and it was 3 days before Colin Powell’s anticipated speech about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I sat beside a man carrying a large computer hard drive that he put on the floor between our seats. He told me that he was a general in the U.S. army and on his way home for a few days before going back on duty. I asked him if we were going to have a war with Iraq. He said, “Yes. The orders are in that box,” and he pointed to the computer at our feet. He added that the war would start in 6 weeks; later in March I realized that his prediction was only 3 days off.
I was shaking as I drove from Wichita to Newton, praying that Maxine would still be awake so I could tell her what I had heard. She met me at the door and soon we went to her computer so I could write down the conversation. Her emotional support that night forged a deep bond between us.
After she and Orlando moved to Ivy Court, we frequently went out for lunch when I came to Kansas. She continued encouraging me, often saying, “can you believe how the Sister Care ministry has grown.”
Maxine died on December 13, 2017 at the age of 89. I was traveling internationally that week and had sent a Christmas letter with our family picture to Maxine and Orlando before leaving. I knew she would enjoy the picture because she always asked about Bob and our children. Just before Christmas I received a card from Orlando, saying, “Maxine did not get to read your Christmas greeting. She would have been so glad to hear from you. She was truly one of your best friends.”
Yes, Maxine was a true friend. We were birthday “twins” and I often thought of her as my Newton mother. I will always be grateful for her friendship and support.
Rhoda Keener is the Sister Care director for Mennonite Women USA.