When my Canadair Regional Jet touched down at the Wichita Mid-Continent Airport on Sunday, March 31, 2002, it was the first time I’d been in Kansas for fifty years. It was 12:07 P.M. as I stepped out of the aircraft and descended the steps and stood on the concrete. I was very tired because my trip from West Bengal had been a long one, and I was glad it was over. First there was the train from Darjeeling to Calcutta. Then Lufthansa from the Dum Dum Airport to Frankfurt, Germany. Then Delta to Atlanta and Delta to Cincinnati. And then the Canadair Regional Jet to Wichita. And I still had the thirty miles to Newton before I’d be home.
I walked the long concourse from the jet to a wonderful, shiny metal sculpture called
Flight and turned right to go to the baggage claim, even though I had no luggage. My younger
brother Benjamin Ananias Wiebe was waiting there for me as we had agreed in the one telephone
call that I ever made from India to the U.S. He shook my hand, hugged me and said,
Pluperfect, you look pretty good for a seventy-two year old man. India must have been good to
you. I told him that we could leave right away. I had no luggage because I didn’t bring home
anything from India, my mission field for fifty years. In fact, I told him, I sold everything I had
and could sell in order to afford the ticket home. I reminded him that I had never been home on
furlough from my mission station near Darjeeling since I went to India in 1952 and that I had
expected to die in India and be buried there. He asked me why I had come home and I told him
that I came home because my wife Bharati had died and because my three sons Hananiah,
Mishael and Azariah had rejected Christianity and had become Hindus. Then Mother Teresa got
the Nobel Prize for Peace. To top it all off, my sponsors gave up on me because I didn’t come
home and show slides and make reports so they could see what they were getting for their money.
So I came home at my own expense.
When we walked out to the terminal parking, the Kansas wind was ripping at our shirts and hats. I’d forgotten how strong the wind can be in Kansas. It was never like that in India. I tried to hold my rotted shirt shut, but the wind unbuttoned it and left me bare-chested. Gladhand laughed and told me that he had some safety pins in his car and I would be able to close the front of my shirt with them. He asked me what that cross was on my chest. I told him that I had the cross tattooed on my chest so that I wouldn’t forget that I was a Christian and why I was in India. I didn’t tell him how much I was attracted to Indian culture and beliefs. I didn’t tell him about my near apostasies.
When we left the airport parking lot in Gladhand’s 1976 Plymouth, which rattled and
smoked as if it were on fire, he asked me if I wanted to drive to Newton on the old highway, not
on the expressway. I said,
Sure. Let’s follow old Highway 81, the Mennonite Highway.
Gladhand drove east on Kellogg Avenue and turned north onto Broadway. We passed the
Snodgrass Funeral Home and Vietnamese restaurants and turned east onto Twenty-First Street so,
as Gladhand said, he could show me where the stockyards, the packing plants and the Stockyards
Hotel used to be. Sure enough, they weren’t there. The only remnant of the once large stockyards
was the pale green office building which now seemed smaller than I remembered it from when
we detoured past it on Friday, April 11, 1952, on my way to the airport and my flight out to India.
There was a small refinery farther on down the road and it gave off that smell that always used to
tell us when we were arriving in Wichita. We turned around, turned back north onto old Highway
81 and headed toward Newton. As we drove, Gladhand explained that there was a new
expressway to Newton, but he liked to drive old 81 because on the old road you could still drive
thirty-five miles per hour and not be crushed by a semi.
My brother’s real name is Benjamin Ananias Wiebe, born in 1935. My older sister
Rachel Sapphira Wiebe was born in 1927 and for as long as I can remember she was always
Pillows. It was she who wrote me that Benjamin got the nickname
Gladhand when he
ran for the Newton City Council in 1965. He tried to get elected so that he could work to put up
birdhouses along Sand Creek so that purple martins would nest there and eat the mosquitoes. His
campaign motto was
No Fogging. He got eight votes, all from our family, and gave up his
political career, but the name stuck, as did my pride in his efforts.
My reader must understand a certain cultural phenomenon in and around Newton in my
youth. So many people had the same name that it was necessary to sort them out. The confusion
was solved by labeling each one with a nickname. The nicknames were never used, of course, in
the presence of the nicknamed, but everyone knew who was meant by the label. For instance,
when I left Newton on Friday, April 11, 1952, there were seven John Wiebe’s in the phone book.
There was, first of all, my father John Abiram Wiebe, who was always called, not to his face, of
Bad Debts Wiebe. There was John Ahab Wiebe, called
Spittoon Wiebe. Then John
Arioch Wiebe called
Nag Hammadi Wiebe, and my older brother John Eutychus Wiebe. Then
came John Nabal Wiebe, called
Praise God Wiebe, who was a bad drunk. John Nadab Wiebe
Junk Wiebe. Finally there was John Uriah Wiebe, called
Pistis Sophia Wiebe, who
was a member of a family always referred to as
The Flycatchers. No one
knew how some of these names came about, but there was no question who was meant. I asked
my father once why they were called
Die Mückefänger. He said he didn’t know. He said that
the family was called that in the Molotschna Colony in Russia before they came to the U.S. When
the Mennonites came to Kansas the name came right along with them. It all showed how you
can’t escape your past. It’ll follow you along, if in no other way in a name.
Those nicknames lasted a lifetime. I remember once hearing my mother Sara Rhoda
Wiebe, who was always called
Dear Me, say,
I watched all during the offering and I know
Pistis Sophia didn’t put anything into the collection plate. I remember one time when I was
standing at the corner of Sixth Street and Main Street right by the J.C. Penney Store I heard
Did you hear that Nag Hammadi gypped Spittoon out of fifty dollars when he sold
him that Guernsey cow? Another time I heard on the street,
Did you know Praise God had a
hernia operation? And once,
Junk’s sow had a litter of sixteen little pigs. All that with no
confusion even though all those referred to were named John Wiebe and all were in the telephone
book right in a row and mostly with one New Testament name and one Old Testament name in
case both Testaments were valid.
My older brother, John Eutychus Wiebe, born in 1925, was called
Jew Wiebe at first
because of his initials. All that changed when his male hormones erupted at the age of sixteen into
pimples and passion, when his testosterone boiled up like lava from Mount Etna, when his whole
life became focused on girls, when his every moment included nuzzling and feeling, sniffing and
licking, snorting and poking, all of which did not go unobserved by the flaccid citizens of Newton
until John Eutychus Wiebe was given the name of
Hotpants. So Hotpants it was and Hotpants it
is to this day.
I got the nickname
Pluperfect when I was a sophomore in high school. One day,
Frederick Delbert Roberts, who was always called
Pete, asked me to help him with something
he had written for an English class. I read the paper over and said to him,
Here you should use
the pluperfect instead of the preterit. The next day everyone in Newton High School was calling
Pluperfect. The name stuck and now, fifty years after leaving Newton, my nickname was
still with me.
As we passed the road that ran east to Kechi, I tried to remember my trip to India. I flew
from New York to Labrador, to Shannon in Ireland, to Frankfurt am Main, to Saudi Arabia and
then to Bombay. Took a train to Calcutta and then to Darjeeling. What I do remember most
clearly is that the year after I got there Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay
made the first successful ascent of Mount Everest. Almost fifty years ago now, the event in 1953
seemed to shake the earth. The grand and glorious Himalayas conquered by two humans. What
excitement in all the world. And I wondered what my mountain would be and would I conquer it.
Would I ascend to the highest point that was still unconquered in the mission field? I thought it
was all human will and luck (read
grace) and having the right guide. I had my guide, I had my
luck and all I had to do was to climb my mountain.
As we passed the road to Valley Center, Gladhand asked me how many souls I had saved
for the Lord in India. When I said,
About ten, he stepped on the gas and hit forty miles per
hour. He blurted out,
Pluperfect, that’s five years a soul. I said,
That’s right. It takes about five
years for a Hindu to change his mind. What you have to do to get him to believe in the Trinity,
the resurrection of the dead, the Sermon on the Mount and the Four Last Things is to give him a
job, provide a house for him and his family, and feed him and his family for five years and he just
might see the light. Can you imagine how foreign Christian belief is to the Hindus? Can you
imagine how strange Jesus is to them? Can you imagine them hearing the stories of the miracles
without laughing? There’s a terrible arrogance in the idea of a missionary, and it requires a lot of
patience to make that program work. What would you say if someone came into Newton and told
you you were going to Hell if you didn’t accept his beliefs and join his church? We have the
command to go into all the world and bring souls to God, but native populations have their own
ideas about how to do that. We expect them to accept our beliefs while we scoff at theirs. Ten’s
not bad considering the mountain of superstition that a missionary has to climb.
Gladhand slowed down to thirty-five miles per hour as we passed the oil fields and the
road to Furley and began telling me how two Mormon missionaries had come to Newton and
tried to recruit the stultified citizens to Mormonism. He said he was surprised that the
missionaries didn’t convert the whole town given the fact that the people of Newton have nothing
in their heads, not to mention their souls. He was surprised that the hats, the ties and the suits of
the Mormon missionaries didn’t convince the people that the missionaries were right. He was
surprised the citizens didn’t accept the message since they don’t believe in
Articles of Faith anyway and have never even given a thought to articles of faith of any kind.
We drove along old Highway 81 and past the road to Sedgwick and I asked Gladhand
how Hotpants was doing up in Winnipeg. My sister Pillows had written me that Hotpants had
gone up to Winnipeg and started his own church after Elsie Thieszen from over by Walton had
given birth to his and her son. Pillows wrote that the church had some 2000 members and that
Hotpants preached each Sunday on
Is it the will of God that all men should be saved? He
preached that eventually all people, even Satan, will go to heaven. A merciful God would not
burn someone eternally in Hell. God didn’t create mankind to be fuel. I said,
know we are prone to evil and children of wrath? to which Gladhand replied,
preaching to Hindus.
Gladhand then told me that Hotpants now drives a large olive-colored Mercedes-Benz
and the members of his flock always scoop the snow off his driveway if there’s no dead moose. I
hesitated to ask, but I said anyway,
Dead moose? What’s that all about?
Well, he said,
moose once came into Winnipeg and died on Hotpants’ driveway. The flock tried to remove it,
but it was too heavy even after freezing. So they took up a collection and hired the Louis Riel
Removal Company to come and get the dead moose. They just hooked the dead moose to seven
Ski-Doos and dragged the corpse away to the banks of the Tahara River and left it there for the
It sounds to me as if he’s gone off the deep end. I think I’d better go up to
Winnipeg and see this thing which has come to pass. Gladhand said,
He doesn’t think he’s
gone off the deep end. He says he’s the last Mennonite because he’s the last non-conformist. He
says all the other Mennonites look and think like insurance agents or car salesmen. He says they
even teach in universities, which to him is the unpardonable sin. He says you can be a Mennonite
and pretend to know something, but you can’t be a Mennonite and pretend that you know more
than someone else and can therefore tell them what to think and how to write. That’s just plain
blasphemy to him. I said,
You mean he thinks that to be a Mennonite you have to be dumb?
No, no, Gladhand said,
It’s the pretending that you are smarter than someone else is what’s
wrong. That’s arrogance. And that’s worse than stupidity. That’s sin. But that’s not so bad
because you’ll only burn in Hell for a short time for arrogance, that is, long enough to incinerate
the Ph.D. after your name.
Gladhand said that Hotpants was still thriving. He still had the 2000 or so members and
he still preached on the same topic every Sunday when he preached. He said that he and Pillows
had gone up to Winnipeg in 1980 to see Hotpants and his church. He said,
Out in front of the
church there was one of those trailers with white lights behind black lettering. The lettering said,
Is it the will of God that all men should be saved? Next to the sign that is always lighted, there
is another trailer, larger than the message board one, that has yellow lights that flash on and off,
day and night, a great big
I asked him where the church was located in case I decided to pay him a visit. He said the
church was at 118 Origen Avenue, right above where the Tahara River flows into the
Assiniboine. When I asked him if the members were Mennonites, he said,
I guess so. They all
have Mennonite names like Janzen, Wiebe, Friesen, Tiessen, Weier, Redekop, Neufeld, Nickel,
Epp, Dyck, Klassen, Schroeder, Driedger, Loewen, Mierau, Reimer, Brandt, Waltner-Toevs,
Birdsell? I said.
That’s not a Mennonite name.
I don’t know, he said.
probably what they call up in Canada
Métis. Hotpants lets in anyone.
Gladhand said that when Hotpants built his church, he built it on some open ground so a
road had to be opened to it. Since it was his ground, he got to name the road and that’s when he
Origen Avenue. He justified the name by saying that we name streets after hockey
players, so why not name one after a Church Father? Now Origen Avenue runs right up to and
past the huge parking lot for the Thirty-Third Mennonite Church of Winnipeg and Apocatastasis
Unlimited. After it passes the parking lot, the road runs down to and stops at the shore of the
Tahara River where Hotpants immerses his new members on Pentecost Sunday after they declare
that they have read and accepted
The Mennonite Articles of Faith and after they have recited by
The Apostles’ Creed.
Hotpants must be getting pretty old by now. I’m seventy-two so he must be about
seventy-seven. Can he still preach?
Well, Gladhand said,
He doesn’t preach much anymore.
He has three sons who do most of the work. The oldest son is the son born to Elsie Thieszen from
over by Walton in September of 1946. When Hotpants moved up to Winnipeg in 1947, she
followed him up there and has lived with him ever since even though they’re not married. The
oldest son is named Andrew Absalom Wiebe and he’s called
Bullmoose because of his huge
voice. I understand that he preaches most of the Sundays. He’s about fifty-five, I’d guess.
Hotpants and Elsie Thieszen from over by Walton have two other sons since they moved to
Winnipeg. The second oldest is Joshua Judas Wiebe. He’s the song leader for the church and is
Dove Tonsils. The youngest son is Philip Abimilech Wiebe and he’s called
because he does all the janitorial work in the church.
We passed the road to Potwin, a place I’d never been. I asked Gladhand about Potwin
because it was strange territory to me. I said I might try my hand at converting some of the
Potwinians to Christianity. Gladhand allowed how it would be a challenge since the people in
Potwin mostly couldn’t read or write.
Besides, he said,
our church sent a missionary to Potwin
in 1962. After ten years of sponsoring him and with no slide show or report on souls saved, the
church leaders discovered that the missionary was living in Wichita with a woman named
Elfrieda Ratzlaff from over by Buhler. I thought,
What a mountain Potwin would be for me
even though I had fifty years of experience in mission work. I felt the call, a little, but decided to
investigate the territory before making a decision.
We passed the road to Whitewater and Gladhand asked me what I planned to do now that
I was back home. I told him that I had no idea what I could or would do. I suggested that there
wasn’t much opportunity for employment for a seventy-two year old ex-missionary. Gladhand
asked me if I had any money and I told him no. I explained again that I sold everything I had in
West Bengal in order to have enough to buy a plane ticket home. I even sold my extra clothes so
the only clothes I had was what I was wearing. That too was why I had no luggage. I said,
out with nothing and I came back with nothing.
When Gladhand asked me where I was going to stay, I said,
The Lord will provide.
Gladhand said that he doubted that anyone in Newton was interested in providing anything to
anyone. He asked me to stay with him and his wife Bathsheeba at our old home farm until I could
get situated. He said Sheeba would be glad to see me and would welcome me to Ardat. I said,
What’s that? Gladhand smiled and said that Sheeba had named the farm when they moved onto
it after our parents died. He said,
We even have a large sign by the driveway;
Ardat. Speed limit 15 mph.
Is your wife’s name really Bathsheeba? He said it was. I said,
Was she the
Bathsheeba Voth that we used to tease at church? He said it was she. I recalled for him that
when we were kids we used to say things to her like,
How’s David these days? and
you hear from the front? Gladhand said that she was teased so long that she changed her name to
Susanna so, as he said, she would not be asked again and again what it was like to be buck-naked
and be watched by some man while she bathed. Except that the boys started singing
Susanna whenever she came around.
The road to McLains reminded me of our home farm where I grew up because our farm
was not far from McLains. Our Wiebe family lived east of Newton on an eighty acre farm. That
wasn’t enough farm to support my dad, my mother, my two brothers and my sister. Dad often
worked for others and we got along right through the Depression. We got butter and fruit from
government handouts. We ground wheat in a coffee grinder and made a porridge from the
cracked wheat. It was delicious, but we had it for breakfast for ten years. On Sunday mornings we
all loaded into our Model-A Ford and drove west on First Street to the First Mennonite Church
where the Reverend Peter David Quiring, called
P.D.Q. by everyone, preached peace and
reconciliation. He was a first-rate preacher, even though his sermons, like every sermon I’ve ever
heard, were too long. Mennonite ministers in the 1930’s and 1940’s preached long-suffering and
patience and then gave you an object lesson with the sermon.
Gladhand told me that he and Sheeba were married in 1955 and how they lived in
Newton while he worked on garbage collection. When our parents both died in 1969, he took
over the home farm and he and Sheeba raised their three sons there. I said,
Three sons? I didn’t
know you had three boys. Where are they now?
Well, he said,
the oldest one Adam deals
Blackjack on a river boat on the Ohio River in southern Indiana. The second son Abel is the head
football coach in Coy, Oklahoma, and is undefeated in three seasons. The youngest son Jubel
plays tenor sax in a dance band in a night club in Wichita called When I asked if they were still Mennonites, Gladhand said that all three studied
The Abomination of
The Mennonite Articles of Faith, went through all the questions in the catechism, memorized
The Apostles’ Creed and were baptized on confession of faith in the First Mennonite Church of
Newton. He said they were all Presbyterians now because the Presbyterians don’t believe in sin.
We passed the Mile Corner and drove up north on Kansas Avenue toward First Street. As we entered the town, I remembered my youth on the farm east of Newton. Somehow it all came back to me in the form of dust and chaff. It came back to me in heat and wind. I couldn’t forget the brutally hard work we did, even as youngsters, as we tried to make a living on eighty acres of ground. I remembered the horses dying in harness. I remembered butchering hogs and chickens. I remembered my mother Dear Me washing clothes by hand. I remembered watching our vegetables and flowers wither away after our careful tending and watering. I recalled a lost youth that had nothing attractive about it, except Sundays. Sundays were our salvation. We went to church, not to the field. We communed with someone other than our dismal fate. I recalled how holy the church seemed to me after being out in the field all week. The dimness of the sanctuary, the three stained-glass windows over the choir loft, the singing of hymns, all remained in my mind as what was blessed in my youth. It was easy for us dried out and wind-withered folk to believe when we joined together in worship. When the service was over, we walked out into the blistering heat and the eye-shattering sunlight, and we drove home full of God and wondering at what we had just gone through.
When we stopped at First Street, Gladhand asked me if I would like to see our old church
before driving out east to Ardat. I said,
Let’s stop a while, so we drove west on First Street and
turned left onto Muse Street. Gladhand made a U-turn and parked in one of the slanted parking
spaces marked along the east side of the street.
When I left for the mission field in 1952, the First Mennonite Church was unfinished. Now in 2002 A.D. the west wing, the Sunday School wing, was finally finished and there was a south wing. Houses were gone from the south side and from the east side of the church and parking lots were there instead of the houses. I remembered that when I left, the slanted parking spots on Muse Street were the only off-street parking for the congregation. I wondered to myself if the new Sunday School wing smelled like fresh concrete.
When I said,
Let’s go in and look around, Gladhand said that we couldn’t do that
because the church was locked up.
Locked up? I said.
Since when is our church locked up?
He explained that because of vandalism the church was kept locked up to keep out the high
school athletes who liked to go around and trash the churches. He said we could go around to the
back door and speak through a microphone to the secretary, if she was there, and she might let us
in. I said,
Never mind, and reminded him that when I left in 1952 the church was always
unlocked and you could go in anytime to pray, meditate or just get out of the cold, the heat, the
rain. The church was always open for anyone looking for God or a respite from the weather and
one chandelier was always lit so that the sanctuary was not completely dark. There was always a
little light for those who wanted to pray for forgiveness or wipe the rain off their glasses.
While my brother Benjamin Ananias Wiebe and I sat there in the slanted off-street
parking slot, I recalled exactly my catechism class, the day I was baptized and the day I received
my call to the mission field. Our catechism class met for the first time at 9:30 A.M. on the first
Sunday in September of 1945. We met in the basement of the First Mennonite Church, like all the
Sunday School classes. I always sat in the back row with Pete Roberts and Runt Unruh. Runt
wasn’t a midget, but he did push the lower limits of normal size. His father sold shoes at the
Montgomery Ward Store. Our class was right at the foot of the stairs that led up from the
basement to the small vestibule by the west side back door and the short set of stairs up to the
choir loft. We were twelve young men who were candidates for baptism--the young women had
their own class--as we sat among the smell of uncured concrete, a smell that permeated the
basement even though the concrete was poured in 1931. We were handed a copy of
Mennonite Articles of Faith, Condensed and Translated (1937) from Articles of Faith adopted
and printed in Elbing, Germany, 1936. That way we would know what we were agreeing to and
what our baptism required us to believe if we joined the church. We were also handed a copy of
A Catechism, or Brief Lessons from the Holy Scriptures in Question and Answer as taught by
Mennonites. Revised 1937. General Conference of the Mennonite Church of North America.
Published by Mennonite Book Concern, Berne, Indiana. Printed in the United States of America.
We all had to divvy up forty cents for the catechism.
The Articles of Faith was on the church.
Most of us didn’t have forty cents so we had to ask for credit until the next Sunday when we
could beg some cash from our indigent parents, even if we had forty cents in our pockets, because
forty cents was eight games on a pinball machine.
Our teacher for our catechism class was my older brother John Eutychus
Wiebe, who was just some five years older than most of us. For some reason, the catechism
classes were taught by someone who was close in age to the candidates. It was always a mystery
to me as to why the class was not taught by an older member of the church. Maybe the older men
no longer believed what was in the catechism, or maybe they were no longer interested in faith, or
maybe they just didn’t give a hoot.
Hotpants came swinging in and stood before our class. He introduced himself and told us
what the class was all about. He told us that it was his job to get us ready for baptism and for
church membership. He told us we would examine all 218 questions and answers in our
catechism book and that we would all have to memorize
The Apostles’ Creed. With that out of
the way, he swung into a ferocious discussion of the first question;
What should be our chief aim
in life? Pete Roberts, who sat next to me, leaned over and said quietly,
Girls, and elbowed me
in my right ribs.
We all ripped right into those questions and answers until we came to number six;
created all things? The answer was, of course,
God. Pete stood up and said that he thought
God was a joke. Hotpants told him to sit down. Clearly Hotpants was flustered. He didn’t expect
some teenage atheist in his class. So he ignored Pete and went on with the questions and answers.
Pete elbowed me in the ribs as usual and whispered,
Your brother doesn’t know what he’s
We moved right along through the questions and answers until by Christmas of 1945 we
were up to number fifty-three;
What were the results of Adam’s disobedience? Pete responded
by saying that because of his disobedience Adam had to take a catechism class and memorize
The Apostles’ Creed. Actually, we were falling behind in our schedule of questions and
answers because we had to cover them all by Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 1946. We speeded up.
We were by then reciting
The Apostles’ Creed. Pete was great with the recitation. He was the
quarterback on the Newton High School football team. When he bellowed out the creed, he did it
as if he were barking out signals on the football field. I must admit, he was the first one to know
the creed by heart.
By Easter Sunday of 1946, we were up to question number 118;
Is it the will of God that
all men should be saved? We all read the question and the answer while we waited for Hotpants
to show up. While we waited there at the foot of the stairs in the smell of uncured concrete, Pete
leaned over to me and Runt Unruh and said,
What’s the difference between a woman in a church
and a woman in a bathtub? I said that I couldn’t possibly guess. Runt, of course, was of no help.
He had trouble counting to ten. Pete grinned and said,
The woman in the church has hope in her
soul. I said,
Pete, why are you in this class? You don’t believe anything we’re learning and
you’re not serious about baptism. Pete allowed as to how he was in the class because his parents
wanted him to get baptized. Pete said,
When I finish this class and get baptized, I’m leaving this
church and never coming back. And he did exactly as he said. I never saw him again in church
after his baptism.
Gladhand elbowed me in my left ribs and said that it was time to get back to Ardat, that
Sheeba would be expecting us. I said,
Wait just a bit. There’s more.
More what? he said.
Just more to it all.
After about fifteen minutes of waiting, all Hell broke loose. The Reverend P.D.Q. and the deacon Pinhead Sudermann came down the stairs and stood before our class. With tears in his eyes, the Reverend P.D.Q. said that John Eutychus Wiebe would no longer be teaching our class. The Reverend tearfully told us that John Eutychus Wiebe had committed a grievous sin and was no longer fit to be our teacher. With that he introduced Deacon Aaron Thomas Sudermann, who would henceforth be our instructor.
When Pinhead Sudermann began the discussion of number 118, Pete stood up and said,
If God wanted to save everyone, why did He create whooping cough, typhoid fever,
tuberculosis, polio and cancer? Why did he create death, judgement and hell? Pinhead bowed his
head and said quietly,
Let us pray. We all knew by then, of course, that there were two places
where you could say anything you wanted to without fear of contradiction. The two places were
hymns and prayers. Hymns could be parodied and satirized. But Pete, like all of us, knew there is
no defense against prayer. Sudermann’s prayer asked God to let Frederick Delbert Roberts see the
light, to give him belief in the face of doubt, to save his soul from the fiery pit, to accept Jesus as
his personal savior before it was too late. Pete’s question was the last one he ever asked. Prayer
blind-sided him and left him speechless.
As we concluded our discussion of number 118, the members of the adult choir began
arriving and putting on their robes. There was talking and joshing among the choir members.
They shuffled around, helped each other slide the robes over their heads and then helped each
other arrange their hair. I heard one choir member say,
Even the Mückefänger are here today. It
must be Easter. Hallelujah. Someone said,
Praise God got drunk again last night and was
arrested when he tried to drive his Model-A into Lindley Hall during a high school production of
Our Town. He told the police when he was arrested that he was on his way to the Easter sunrise
service and kept saying over and over,
Praise God. Praise God. Praise God.
When Pinhead Sudermann dismissed our catechism class, Pete, Runt and I sat in our
chairs and watched as the choir lined up in two rows on the steps that led up to the vestibule by
the west side back door and then to the short flight of stairs to the choir loft. The choir members
were all dressed in their royal blue robes, robes just recently dry-cleaned and all shiny, even
sparkling when the light hit them just right. Elaine
Rusty Linscheid, a soprano who sang like a
panicked chicken, led the row of women. She always led in the choir and sat in the front row on
the east. She was called
Rusty not because she had red hair--which she did have--but because,
as the members all said,
She needed greasing. Isaac
Goliath Sudermann, a tenor who sang
like a wounded bull, led the row of men. He was not called Goliath because he was six feet and
eight inches tall. He was called Goliath because whenever he sang he always looked as if he had
just been hit in the middle of the forehead by a smooth stone.
As the choir broke out into
Holy, Holy, Holy, the processional they sang every Sunday,
and began shuffling up the stairs towards the sanctuary, Pete leaned over and told me and Runt
what the real scoop was about my brother Hotpants. What happened was that Hotpants had
knocked up Elsie Thieszen from over by Walton and was refusing to marry her. We all knew that
it wasn’t the knocking up that was the grievous sin. It was the refusal to marry her that did him in.
That was wrong and we all knew it. Then Pete said something I’ve never forgotten. He said,
think the best part of Hotpants went down his old man’s pant leg. Then he got up and followed
the choir up the stairs, left by the back door and went home. Runt and I walked to the other end of
the basement, ascended the stairs and went into the balcony where the heat would put us to sleep
before the congregation could bellow out,
Christ the Lord is risen today.
Gladhand touched my left elbow and said that he was ready to leave. I said,
Wait a bit.
There’s more. I’m about ready.
Pentecost Sunday in 1946 was on June 9. Just a week before our baptism our catechism
class had finally finished all the questions in the catechism. We ended with number 218:
ought we to have learned from our study with respect to the development of God’s plan for
redemption? By then we were all exhausted from questions and answers and we were ready to
accept anything we were told, except for Pete. He leaned over to me and said,
Some plan. So on
Sunday June 9, 1946, we all wore our best clothes to church. I didn’t have a suit so I had to wear
one left by Hotpants when he moved to Wichita to hide from the pregnant Elsie Thieszen from
over by Walton. He left the brown suit because he never came to church again after his dismissal
from teaching our class. The suit didn’t fit too well, but it had to do. My mom Dear Me tied my
tie for me and I was ready for whatever came.
We lined up at the back of the church in the center aisle. The young ladies all in white on
the left and the young men all in badly fitting suits on the right side. We faced the front of the
church and moved forward when we were invited to come forward. The congregation sang
my life and let it be Consecrated, Lord to Thee; Take my moments and my days; Let them flow in
ceaseless praise. Let them flow in ceaseless praise. At the front of the church, the young ladies
turned left. The young men turned to the right. All in accordance with the way the men and
women sat when men and women entered by separate doors and each sat on his or her side of the
When the Reverend Peter David Quiring asked us if we accepted Jesus as our personal savior, we all said yes. Pete barked out his yes. When P.D.Q. asked if we all wanted to be part of the body of believers, we all said yes. I meant my yes because I wanted to rise out of that tawdry world of Newton, Kansas. I wanted to ascend to worth, to value, to something more than high school basketball and pledges of allegiance to the American flag. I said yes because I wanted to be a sunbeam for Jesus. I wanted my little light to shine out into that world of darkness. In my small corner, I wanted my clear, pure light to shine like a candle in the night.
We were invited to recite
The Apostles’ Creed. Frederick Roberts barked it out the
loudest just the way he called his football signals on the football field in the stadium in Athletic
Park. I spoke resolutely. I said every word clearly. Next to me, Leroy Anakim Unruh faked his
way through it with tears in his eyes, not because of remorse I’m sure. He shed tears because it
was impossible for him to learn anything, even by rote. He was failing in school and here in our
church he was failing in belief, and he knew it.
The Apostles’ Creed, we knelt on the carpet and the Reverend Peter David
Quiring began baptizing the young ladies first, starting on the west end of the front benches and
moving east. He poured water on each head three times for Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Then
Deacon Aaron Thomas Sudermann wiped the foreheads and hair with a towel.
When he finished the ladies by baptizing Abigail Magdalene Heidebrecht, he crossed over to the eastern half of the baptismal class. There the Reverend Peter David Quiring added to his ritual something about us young men being the future of the church. We young men were to carry on the work of the Lord, no matter what became of our lives. The Reverend Quiring poured three times on Frederick Delbert Roberts, three times on me, three times on Leroy Anakim Unruh. Then on down the line to Mark Amasa Regier, Paul Abner Ensz, Benjamin Jobab Goertzen, Andrew Amalek Kroeker, Joshua Judas Claasen, James Ichabod Kaufman, Timothy Saul Van der Smissen, Mathew Oholiab Bartsch and Peter Achan Neufeld.
After the Reverend Peter David Quiring had moved from Frederick Delbert Roberts and
from me Daniel Barnabas Wiebe and as he was baptizing Leroy Anakim Unruh, and after Deacon
Aaron Thomas Sudermann had wiped the water off my hair and off my forehead and while I was
still kneeling, I looked down at the three blotches of water on the carpet in front of my knees. My
Father blotch was shaped like China. The Son blotch was shaped like Africa. The Holy Ghost
blotch was shaped like India. I knew that it was a sign that I was being called to the mission field
and where. I looked up to the Lamb of God kneeling in the middle stained-glass window over the
choir loft. He seemed to smile at me. I looked up into the rafters of the church and I imagined a
ladder crowded with angels ascending and descending, the ascending angels carrying souls to
God. I said to myself,
If Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, I’ll be a sunbeam for him and shine for
him each day. I decided right then and there that I would go to India and save souls for the Lord.
I’d go to India and let my little light shine and no one would poof it out and I’d never hide it
under a bushel, no. I’d go to India and let my little light shine and shine and shine until even God
Gladhand started up his 1976 Plymouth. It rattled and smoked into running. We backed out onto Muse Street, turned right onto First Street and drove east towards Ardat. As we passed the Greenwood Cemetery, I realized where I was going and why I felt like praying.