June 11, 2010

Anabaptists and Rednecks

Category: News — Ira @ 6:38 pm


When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

—St. Ambrose

I had expressed some reservations when he enrolled. That summer two years ago. But he’s an adult, and if he wanted to attend, that was his business. Even so, I grumbled at him a little. Since then, we’ve communicated now and then, and he stopped by to visit a time or two. He really seemed to enjoy his classes, and was always eager to discuss and debate the issues. Although the source of his conclusions was always a bit suspect to me.

So when my nephew Gideon Yutzy emailed me an invitation to attend his graduation at Faith Builders, I didn’t give it much thought at first. Faith Builders, in Guys Mills, PA. A rare place where plain Beachy and Mennonite kids can go to get a couple of years of accredited education. For teaching, mostly.

I’ve always been suspicious of the place. Stems back to about the mid 90s, or there-abouts. For some reason, I attended a Faith Builders fundraiser. Don’t ask me why. Anyway, the main speaker that night, I think his last name was Zehr, stood there and did his utmost to guilt-trip the audience into giving to the cause. He railed rather disdainfully at wealth and wealthy people. I listened. Seemed like a strange thing, to clobber the wealthy even while asking them for support. Plus, he sounded like a raging socialist to me. A man who had no clue how the free market works, as people who scorn wealth generally don’t. My guard was up. Has been since that day.

And in the years since, I haven’t been that impressed by what I heard from graduates of the place. Aggressive hyper-Anabaptist apologetics, mixed with plain dress. Which is OK, if that’s what you want. But it’s not where I am.

So when I got Gideon’s invitation, my first thought was, fat chance. Why would I drive six hours one way to attend a graduation at a school I didn’t respect?

But then, suddenly, my mind went back to another time and place. Nineteen years ago. I was an eager graduate at Vincennes University, a Junior College in southern Indiana. Against all odds, I had obtained my GED, and attended Vincennes for two years, the last of which was fully paid by a merit scholarship. I didn’t make a big fuss about the graduation. But I invited my friends around Daviess. And my family. Not that any of the family would come, I knew that. But still. You invite them.

Graduation day came. In gown and mortarboard tassled cap, I proudly marched across the stage. Received my diploma. Associates’ Degree in General Studies, Summa Cum Laude. And I knew it before I marched. But I looked out over the audience anyway.

Other than my professors and a few friends I had made at the University, not a single friend or family member was present to cheer my accomplishment.

Not one.

It didn’t seem like that big a deal at the moment. And it didn’t really bug me that much. It was corn planting time in Daviess, so all my local friends begged off. They were in the fields and all. Of course I understood. Only much later did it hit me how fragile was my support structure at that time. Pretty much nonexistent. And I had no semblance of a safety net at all.

It was what it was. And I’m just saying how it was.

In the years that have passed, I vowed to myself that if any of my nephews or nieces or siblings ever graduate with any kind of degree, anywhere, I would make every effort to attend if remotely feasible.

Well, it was feasible to drive six hours one way to see Gideon graduate. And by Wednesday my plans were made. Friday morning, May 21, I set out with Big Blue. My niece Elaine Wagler accompanied me. She and Gideon have been close friends since childhood.

And off we went, north and west. A long, long drive. By 3 PM, we pulled into Guys Mills and found the school. An old high school complex. Gideon greeted us joyfully. It seemed to mean a lot to him that we had come to witness his big day.

He took us on a tour of the place. Classrooms, dorms, the library. Gideon’s eyes sparkled as he described his two years of education. The whole experience, the late night discussions, the required readings, the small tight knit classes. The close friendships.

Despite myself, I was impressed from the first moment. It was obvious that whatever they taught here, they taught it thoroughly.

That evening, the graduation ceremony. Everything on schedule, and it went down right on time. A well-coached little choir sang a song. Sixteen graduates stood there, beaming. As class president, Gideon gave a fine five minute speech. Even the main speaker, some Mennonite preacher from Canada, kept my attention and wrapped it up before he lost us.

Afterward, we all mingled about for almost two hours, the guests and the graduates. Apparently Gideon had talked about me some, because more than a few strangers walked right up and addressed me as Uncle Ira. They knew who I was, they read my blog. I smiled and nodded and shook their hands. Even had several very good conversations. Everyone was most polite and cordial. I was equally respectful, being on their turf and all.

And I came away with an entirely new perspective of Faith Builders. A clean little school. Whatever they do, they do it with quality and character. I’m still as suspicious as ever about what they actually teach there. And I still don’t agree with most of it.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter. I don’t have to. There’s room out there for every type and denomination. Including a plain Beachy Anabaptist Junior College. The professors at Faith Builders are struggling to instill the value of education into a culture that has traditionally rejected higher learning. Or at least viewed it with extreme skepticism. An unenviable job, much like rowing upstream in a strong current. What- ever the doctrinal flaws (from my perspective) at Faith Builders, that’s admirable. And I truly respect the place.

Congratulations to my nephew, Gideon Yutzy, on his graduation from Faith Builders. May he grow and prosper in whatever life holds for him.

Last weekend was filled with much excitement. First, on Thursday afternoon, I was interviewed for a full hour on the radio show, Amish Wisdom. My friend Erik Wesner guest hosted the show. We had a lot of fun with it. I knew Erik and managed to keep the conversation as between two friends. It turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself.

And right after that interview, I headed out with the old gang for the Pocono 500 Nascar Track in Long Pond, PA. Five of us in a motor home again, just like last year. Time for Redneck City. We felt a bit more seasoned and confident, after last year’s experience.

In a spitting drizzle, we pulled in and were set up by 9:30 or so. This year, we graduated to spot right at the backstretch fence. Unobstructed view of the track. As we parked and set up, we met our neighbors two spaces over. Two couples from Ontario, Canada, not far from the Aylmer area. A younger couple and an older couple. Seemed friendly enough, but a bit standoffish. I was surprised. Canadians are usually quite genial.

We ate a late dinner, then sat around chatting. By eleven or so, everyone bunked down for sleep. Except me. I sat outside with my laptop, enjoying the sounds and the surroundings. Listening to music and typing a few notes. The Canadians next door seemed to have retired as well.

I sat there for an hour. Then two. It was getting late. Time to hit the sack. And just about then, the Canadians’ camper trailer door swung open, and the younger man slowly lurched out. Heavy set, clad in shorts and T shirt. It was more than half dark, even with his trailer lights, so I pretended not to notice. He staggered to a lawn chair and sagged into it.

And he sat there. Doing nothing, except occasionally taking a sip of beer from his vast mug. Every now and then, he emitted a half groan, half bark. Don’t know if he was trying to get my attention or what. I didn’t stir, just kept an eye on him.

He continued his weird half groans, half barks. Obviously the man was completely smashed. He sipped now and again from his mug. And suddenly, without a sound and without warning, he leaned over too far. Before my startled eyes, he rolled right off his chair. Crashed to the ground with a great thud. I looked on with extreme interest while pretending not to. I’ve heard of people doing that, rolling off chairs while intoxicated. But I’d never seen it happen before.

He slumped there against the trailer, occasionally pawing about feebly with his hand, like a fat pig in slop. No way. He wasn’t getting up anytime soon. The trailer door then opened, and the elderly woman, perhaps his mother, emerged. She stood there swaying, analyzing the situation. She then walked up, mumbling incoherently, and grabbed his hand and tugged. He lay there, solid as a mountain. Didn’t move even a fraction. After several attempts, she gave up and disappeared inside the trailer. The fat man sprawled there, an unmoving, unmovable lump.

About then I decided it was time for me to go to bed.

He must have roused himself at some point, because by mid morning the next day, he emerged from the trailer. Didn’t look half bad, considering where he’d been the night before. We pretty much ignored each other for the duration, except for late Saturday night, when Paul had to walk over and ask them to turn down their music. Which they reluctantly did, eventually.

We settled in for three days inside the oval. We feasted on steak, fish, ribs, grilled over open flames. I probably gained a few pounds. I even got a bit of writing done on my laptop. Sadly, Buddy and his boys from New York never showed up. We were quite disappointed. Scoured the campground all around us with binoculars for any possible glimpse of his old yellow school bus or the little motorized bar. All in vain. Maybe the tanking economy affected him or something. Sure wish I could have met him again.

And then of course, there was the race. Or the races. Our trackside parking space allowed an unfettered view of the backstretch. We sat on top of the motor home in camp chairs and absorbed the sound and fury of the engines.

On Sunday, after the race ended at seven, we packed up and left for home. It was time. Three days at Redneckville was just about right.