Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Meeting With the Bishops and Deacons

It was about 9:00 pm, when out of the blue I received a telephone call. “Hello, my name is (so and so) and I was told you were the contact person for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC),” said the person on the other end of the line. “We are from the Mennonites of Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua, and just arrived by bus in Guadalajara. We would like to visit the construction project. Could you come and pick us up as soon as possible?” I had had no warning that I was to host a visiting delegation from anywhere.

Typical costume of Old Colony Mennonite men* 

I was the country representative for MCC in Mexico, directing the reconstruction program in southern state of Jalisco after a devastating earthquake in 1984. We had had some contact with the Old Order Colony Mennonites of the state of Chihuahua through an ad hoc “Hilfskomittee” (Aid Committee) set up by the more progressive Mennonite Church in the area to channel funds to MCC for the reconstruction. I had no idea who the man was who called me, and Guadalajara was two hours away. It would be at least midnight before I could meet them, and then would have to turn around and drive them back to Ciudad Guzmán where I lived.

As soon as I hung up, I called the contact that I had from the Hilfskomittee to see if these people were legit. “Oh yes,” said the voice in my ear. “These men represent the most powerful leaders in the Old Colony Mennonite Church. They are all bishops and deacons. You have to afford them your best hospitality.” We wanted to encourage their goodwill and financial participation in our rebuilding project.

I was stuck. My plans not only for the evening, but apparently for the next day were changed in a minute. Reluctantly, I explained everything to my wife and headed toward Guadalajara.

They told me that they were in a hotel restaurant in Guadalajara where they wanted to meet me. I didn’t know the hotel, but they gave me the address near the center of the city, and I was able to find it without too much difficulty.

As I approached the hotel, it struck me that it may be one of the most luxurious hotels in the city. Seemed a bit ironic since Colony Mennonites shun modern technology and superfluous spending.

There were more surprises in store for me. First, as I entered the lobby to see where the restaurant was, I noticed that to the left was a cabaret with very scantily-clad women dancing while surrounded by mostly men drinking up a storm. To the right was the restaurant. I turned right.

As I entered the restaurant, I spied six men in black coats and black hats sitting around tables. They were obviously the Mennonite men I was looking for. I introduced myself, and in spite of the fact that it was already midnight, and we had a two-hour trip ahead of us, they insisted that I sit down with them for a cup of coffee and a chat.

A completed MCC home after the earthquake
Normally I only drank coffee in the morning, but I thought of the trip ahead, and how insistent they were. As a good MCC volunteer, I knew that the relationship with them was more important than my own personal needs. Later I learned that drinking coffee before going to bed was a habit of the Colony Mennonites. “It helps us relax and fall asleep,” explained one of them to me. How different from my own sensibilities.

The conversation was rather lively. Spanish was our common language, even though we both spoke a different dialect of German—they Low German and me Swiss German. We joked and had generally had a good time. At times we switched to High German. We talked little of MCC’s rebuilding project. They were checking me out to see if I could be trusted. Apparently, I passed their test. It was after 2:00 am till we headed back to where the MCC project was located and where I lived. I put them up in a local hotel at 4:00 am, agreeing to meet them at 9:00 am the next morning to visit our projects.

Two Old Colony Mennonite girls*
I picked them up the following morning in MCC’s VW bus (Combi) and headed to the project. As I drove through the town, I showed them some of the completed homes and some of the ones currently under construction. I wanted them to get out and talk to the workers, to talk to the new home owners, and to hear stories of the people affected by the earthquake. They refused. It was too far out of their comfort zone to step out of the Combi and meet the local people.

At the end of the tour, the head bishop thanked me profusely, and directed the head deacon to write a check for the work. It was a substantial check that probably provided funds for the construction of ten new homes. My night of lost sleep and inconvenience turned out to be well worth it.

Meeting the bishops and deacons provided MCC with important contacts to move forward with not only the reconstruction projects but longer-term MCC endeavors. The meeting with the bishops and deacons gave me contacts and interesting personal friendships within a very closed community. Indeed, relationships are more important than personal convenience, and are important in building community across differences of religious and social perspectives.  

* Source of the Old Colony Mennonite pictures:

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Over My Head, I Hear Music in the Air

On a recent morning during my “meditative” walk, the words to the oldies song kept going through my head:

Five, Six, Seven O'clock, Eight O'clock rock
Nine, Ten, Eleven O'clock, Twelve O'clock rock
We're gonna rock around the clock tonight.

It was annoying. I often listen to an oldies station while I am preparing and cleaning up after dinner. Apparently, this Bill Haley song was on while doing so the evening before my walk.

I listen to music a lot. I listen to different genres of music. If you are anything like me, the last song I hear after turning off my source of music keeps spinning in my mind as I go about my daily activities. Apparently, it even carries over from the night before. Not all songs that echo back and forth in my head are annoying. Many are life giving.

Swiss choir performing Haydn's "Creation"
The spiritual “over my head, I hear music in the air,” captures this phenomenon well. When an annoying song keeps calling for my attention, I deliberately change the station (in my mind) to a prayerful song. I have a whole repertoire of these to use, depending on the most recent music that has inspired me, moved me to tears, or encouraged me. One which I often use is a hymn by George Beverley Shea:

I love thy presence Lord, The place of secret prayer.
My soul communes with thee,  and gone is earthly care.
I love thy presence Lord, to me thou art made real
As when on Galilean hills, thy loving touch didst heal.

When I place these words and the accompanying music “over my head,” a sense of the beyond overcomes me and “I hear music in the air.” When I repeat this music over and over in my mind I feel like “there must be a God somewhere.”  

After repeating this music over and over again on my meditative walks, it often stays with me throughout the rest of the day. It keeps coming back to me to remind me of God’s continual presence. This becomes especially important when I am dealing with a sensitive or depressing issue that tends to lower my spirits. Unfortunately, this has become more and more necessary in the current political climate in which we live. It has also become more necessary as I get older and am faced with more health issues. I need to “hear music in the air,” so that I can be assured that “there must be a God somewhere.”

Paul admonishes us to “pray without ceasing.” For me, the music in the air that is over my head is praying without ceasing. This is why it is so important to change the interior channel if an annoying ditty keeps running through our minds, whether it is a catchy advertisement, or a recent song we’ve heard on the radio.

The third verse of Shea’s hymn expresses what occurs for me by hearing music in the air:

O burden bearer kind, with power all divine,
The fears that tear my heart, are gladly borne by thine,
And as I seek to live, a life of ceaseless prayer,
Let not this child of thine, forget to meet thee often there.

“Over my head, I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere!”

Do you hear "music in the air?"
What is your favorite meditative music?