In this collection of one man's stories and reflections, we see not only the process of a mind at work, but something of what abides in Hubert Schwartzentruber's heart and soul also. Jesus in Back Alleys is clearly autobiographical, but the details of his life are not as central to the book as is the articulation of his Christian faith. What Schwartzentruber believes and why is the essence of this small memoir.
Schwartzentruber was raised on a farm in Huron County, Ontario, where the "pace was slow enough to see the beauty in stones as well as the color of the leaves and the new-mown hay." Chapter One describes his early life: the love of his parents, the culture of rural life, and the beginnings of his faith in the Zurich Mennonite Church. He attended Bible school and Bible institute in Kitchener, Ontario before traveling to Harrisonburg, Virginia for his education at Eastern Mennonite College (now University). He married June Lambke; they had two children, Michael and Lorna. After twenty-seven years of marriage, June died, and he later married Mary Rittenhouse, who resides with him in Telford, Pennsylvania.
The majority of the book describes his experiences as a pastor that shaped his understanding of the gospel, "found so often less on Main Street that in a society's back alleys."
Schwartzentruber's first job was to develop a new congregation in St. Louis, Missouri working with Mennonite Board of Missions. He writes, "For a farm boy with Amish roots, fresh out of college and newly married, the inner city seemed like chaos. But what I viewed as disorder was also a new fresh, orderly context for me to hear the Scriptures work."
Schwartzentruber next worked with peace and justice education with Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries; he later served as mission minister for the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada, helping to establish twenty congregations. Interestingly, he takes issue with the phrase "church planting," saying that the church has already been planted, and that "our task is to be a presence in a community, to gather together people ready to join in community with other searching people."
The next leg of his professional career was pastoring a Pennsylvania congregation, in addition to working for Franconia Conference. He was also an overseer for a number of congregations. One of those, Germantown Mennonite Church, was removed from membership in Franconia Conference because of Germantown's welcoming stance towards gay and lesbian members. Schwartzentruber's witness to this sequence of events, a pivotal moment in modern Mennonite history, is compelling and I recommend readers pick up the book themselves to know more.
In contemplating his faith, Schwartzentruber writes that while he is still exploring many complex issues, one idea exists which he is ready to carve on stone. It is a "sin to discriminate against any person for how they were created by God," he writes. Some of his strongest passions emerge when he speaks out against racism and sexism. In this spirit of inclusion, he questions a "hardline position which discriminates against believers who are gay and lesbian."
Such a perspective seems significant in light of how Mennonite Church USA, to which Schwartzentruber now belongs, has put in its forefront the inclusion of people of color while sidelining people who are gay and lesbian.
The last several chapters are more advisory in style, starting with a call for churches to be caring congregations, places where people can freely share hurt feelings and feel supported. He also urges churches to empower prophets, persons who will avoid thinking like "the world" while still involved in worldly affairs.
Plain talk is not always a characteristic of a so-called plain people, but Schwartzentruber is refreshingly candid and blunt. I enjoyed also the perspective of someone who has lived a joint Canadian/American identity.
I like the feel of a slim volume, something that can be picked up and easily read, and then tucked away until you reach again for a few wise words. Jesus in Back Alleys is such a book.
Ardie S. Goering
Albuquerque, New Mexico