November 21, 2014

The Deacon (Sketch #17)

Category: News — Ira @ 5:31 pm


And forever the river runs, deep as the tides
of time and memory, deep as the tides of sleep,
the river runs…

Thomas Wolfe

It’s been one of those weeks, when nothing was coming, writing-wise. And by Wednesday, I was pretty resigned. There would be no blog post this Friday. I can’t force this stuff, and I won’t. So if nothing comes, nothing gets written. Then, that afternoon, my iPhone pinged. A text message. I was on the office phone with a customer. A few minutes later, I hung up. Then I looked at the message that had come. It was from my sister, Rachel. One line. Stephen Stoll died this morning. And right there, it all slid right in, the tale to tell.

Stephen Stoll. A dark man, a dark legend in my childhood world in Aylmer. He was the deacon, the enforcer of the rules. Many a strong man paled and trembled when he came knocking on the door. He wasn’t there to socialize, usually. And he wasn’t all that good at small talk. He was real good, though, at carrying out the job he was ordained for. Keeping people in line, making sure the church “Ordnung” was enforced.

I can’t remember seeing him ordained, although I probably did. I was just too young, to grasp what I was seeing. He’s among my earliest memories of church, though. Getting up between the sermons to do his job, read the Scripture of the day. He was kind of clean-cut back then, as I recall. As a real young child, I liked the man. He seemed pretty nice, to me.

I suppose it took him a few years, to reach his stride. And then, in the early 1970s, he moved with his father, Peter Stoll. All the way down to Honduras, to convert the natives. I was always kind of fascinated, that Stephen went. I guess he had that Stoll heart of his father, deep down. He wanted to spread the gospel to those who were lost. That’s why Peter went, that was his vision. And Stephen and his brother Joe and their families moved with their father.

He was out of my life, for a few years, then. But the Honduras venture was doomed to fail, as it did. And within a few short years, although they didn’t seem all that short back then, the Stoll brothers were trickling back up to Aylmer. They moved back. And when you’re a deacon, you’re a deacon, wherever you are. Stephen Stoll stepped right back into his old role in Aylmer.

I remember how startled I was, when he first stood up to read Scripture in church. He was not the man I had remembered, from back when they left. He looked all different. Dark, somehow. His beard was a huge, untrimmed jumble. He had stubble for a mustache, one of the Stolls’ pet peeves. They believed in mustaches. And Stephen, I would say, had a clearly distinct one. I was startled, too, by his voice. It wasn’t mellow, like I’d remembered. It was fuzzy, somehow, kind of gruff. And he read the Scripture that day. I don’t remember where church was. But I can still see him, standing up there, with that big old German Bible in his hands.

And I told my brothers that afternoon, after we got home from church. The man looks like a bear. He sounds like a bear, too. Grizzle, grizzle, growl, growl. That’s how he sounded. And Stephen and Titus agreed. He looked and sounded like a bear. And from that day forward, right or wrong, Stephen Stoll was known as “Bear” Stoll in our world. It just fit, the name. And, yeah, we were derisive, speaking it, labeling him like that. Yes. We were. I’m not here to make any excuses about who we were or what we did. Just trying to tell a story of a man.

He was Elmo Stoll’s older brother, Bear Stoll was. And I’ve often marveled, that those two men were born of the same mother. At least when you heard them speak. Elmo had the golden, gifted tongue. He could make you like him, even as he was taking away your rights to please his furious, frowning God. Stephen couldn’t speak publicly, to save his life. He stumbled and muttered and growled. But they made the perfect team, when you think about it. The gifted leader always needs an enforcer, to carry out his strident decrees. Stephen was Elmo’s enforcer. And he was real good at what he did.

They were just human, the two of them. And I want to keep that in mind. But they also hurt a lot of people, hurt them deeply. There’s simply no denying that. All because of the vision of righteousness that Elmo saw and Stephen enforced. Probably because he saw that vision, too. Aylmer would be pure. Aylmer would be perfect. That’s what they believed as they strode through life, all bold and confident.

He had one redeeming factor, Bear Stoll did. Talking through a child’s eyes, here. And that was this. He never, never preached a sermon. A deacon’s job is to get up, and read the Scripture. Way too many Amish deacons seize that moment in the sun. Here’s their chance, to get their voice in. Here’s their chance, to say something profound. It’s probably a big temptation, and I don’t judge them like I used to, back when I had to sit quietly on a hard bench and listen to a third sermon in church, when there were only supposed to be two. And to an Amish child, it’s a big deal, that a deacon sits down on time. And that a preacher does, too, come to think of it. You respect a deacon when he pretty much just does his job, at least when it comes to reading Scripture.

Bear Stoll always, always spoke his favorite Bible verse, leading up to the reading. “Ich habe Meine Augen auf zu denn Bergen…” “I hold my eyes up to the hills, from whence cometh my help…” He also had a few short stories, that he liked to share. He took only a minute or two, telling them. And the one he told over and over was this. He was born in Daviess, where his father was born. And he grew up there, before Peter moved out. And he and his brothers loved basketball. They loved to play it and watch it. And there was some big rivalry game going on one night, at the local high school. Probably Barre-Reeve. And Stephen and his brothers wanted very badly to go watch that game. After school, they approached their father. If we work fast, and get our chores done early, can we go watch the basketball game? His father looked real grieved, Stephen said. And he didn’t say anything for a little while. And then he asked his sons. “Is that where you would like to be, if Jesus came back tonight?” By this time, tears were always trickling down Bear’s dark and bearded face. And he always sobbed a little, in the telling of it. His closing line was always the same. “That was enough of an answer for us.”

That’s where the Stolls come from, from a world like that. Where a father asks his sons if they’d want to be watching a basketball game, if Jesus came back right when they were doing that. It’s a messed-up place, such a world. And that’s the world I came from, too, now that I think of it. Actually, Stephen and his brothers were far bolder and far freer with their father, than me and my brothers could ever hope to be with Dad. We would never have dreamed, never have dared, to even ask such a thing of him. Can we go to a basketball game? We would never have asked, because such a question was never even a remote possibility in our world.

I never was a church member in Aylmer, so I never had to experience the terror of a visit from the man. Still, what he pulled off now and then affected me. And I remember one particular incident. Some youth were visiting from another Amish community in Indiana. And they got the grand idea, my brothers and sisters, and their friends from Indiana. Let’s all go to the Sand Hills, one evening. We can hire a bus to take us. We’ll have a big picnic. And we’ll play softball, on the diamond, there. We figured to spread the word around, to all the other youth. Well, I wasn’t sixteen, but I was old enough to go along to a place like this. And we sent Titus out on the road, the day before, spreading the news. We’re going to the Sand Hills with our Indiana friends, tomorrow evening. And Titus made one big, innocent mistake. He told people, including Bear Stoll’s sons. Bring your softball gloves. We’ll have a good game, playing together.

The next day came, and we were all looking forward to it, eagerly. The Sand Hills. A big old cookout. And a softball game. Stephen Stoll was greatly perturbed, when he heard the news from his sons. And that day, he took his horse and buggy on the road. He stopped to see people, the leaders of the church. He grizzled and growled. And by late that afternoon, late on the afternoon of the very day we had planned our picnic, he had triumphed. He had called it off. Boys and girls should not be playing softball together. It might lead to lust. I remember vividly how shocked and disappointed I was, hearing the news. I was probably fourteen years old, right then. And the bitter thoughts and bitter words that flowed from me had pretty much the reverse effect that Bear Stoll had expected from his holy stand. I despised the man, deeply. Right there, at that young age, if you despise the deacon in your church for pulling off a stunt like that, someone’s in trouble. Either me, or the deacon.

That’s where the Stolls come from, a place like that. And no, this time I can’t identify. I think even my father was perturbed, that the picnic had been canceled on such a flimsy pretense. You think about it. There is no way you’re not serving a furious, frowning God, when you pull off something like Bear Stoll pulled off, that time.

And time flowed on, and brought what time usually brings. We moved out of Aylmer, my family. Dad did what he thought he needed to do, to keep his sons Amish. And I didn’t see much of Bear Stoll, after that. Not for years. I held the bitterness of who he was in my heart, though. They all became “Bears,” the Aylmer leaders. Anyone in my circles knows exactly what I mean, when I mention that term. Bears. Dark men, dark people, with dark hearts, pretending to live in light, up there on that shining city on a hill.

When you pretend to live all perfect like that, it’ll catch up with you. It just will, when you proclaim your purity like the Aylmer Bears did. And it caught up to them, back in the 1990s. I don’t remember the exact dates. But there were scandals, up there. Big, big sandals. I won’t go into detail. Let’s just say it was all pretty humiliating, for people who had projected all the answers before, to their world. And there was lots of humility, going on. I was pretty bitter, when it all came down. I ignored their humility, and smirked. Yeah. Take that. You deserve it.

Time has a funny way of changing how you look at the past, though. And it’s been pretty strange, looking back. The Bears of Old Aylmer are no longer what they once were, when I look back. They are human, and they are people. They always were, I suppose. I just couldn’t see it. They were people trying to live their lives before the Lord, as best they knew how. Sure, they were flawed, deeply flawed. But then, who isn’t? And from where I am today, I can see that so clearly. It’s all so plain. It doesn’t mean people don’t hurt people. They do. It just means you can let it go. And in the last decade or more, it’s been almost a fond term, to those of us who came out of that world. Bears. Aylmer Bears. It’s a connection. If you understand the term, you came from where I was.

He moved out of Aylmer for the second and final time. I don’t remember exactly when that happened. Early 1990s, maybe. A group of Aylmer people wanted to be more plain, live a more holy life. So they moved up north a ways, to Lindsay, Ontario. To set up an even more perfect place than Aylmer was. It was a disaster from day one, Lindsay was. The place has been plagued with dissension since the day of its inception. That’s neither here nor there, I guess. It’s just the place where Stephen Stoll lived out his final days.

I remember the first time I faced those men, and they looked at me without judgment. It was after the scandals. In the late 1990s. Reuben and me, and my nephew, John Wagler, snuck up there for my nephew Ivan Gascho’s wedding, on Reuben’s plane. We weren’t invited, because they’re not allowed to invite you. Somehow, I had let them know. We’re coming. And when we got there, they had a bench for us. And later, they had food, too, on a table, waiting for us. Everyone was very welcoming.

The thing I remember about that day, though, is this. They came and spoke to us, the Bears of Aylmer. And they spoke to us with no judgment on their faces. This was way before I had a writing voice, so it wasn’t fear that made them act that way. It was their hearts. They meant it, it was real. I remember especially that Stephen Stoll, and his brother, Joe, made a special effort to come to where we stood. And they just smiled and talked. Visited. I don’t remember what we talked about, much. Just that we talked.

And since that day, I saw Stephen Stoll probably three or four times. I was always increasingly shocked, when I saw him. He was gray and bent and feeble. Just an old man, struggling along. And I wondered. How could such a man as this ever strike terror in anyone’s heart? It’s the passing of time, I guess, that changes things. For both sides. For those who instill fear with force. And for those who felt that fear and force.

The original “Bear” of Old Aylmer mellowed tremendously in his old age. And I’ve heard he spoke it. He would do some things different, if he had them to do over again. He would do some things different. He realized what he’d done, the people he’d hurt. He regretted it. And he spoke that regret.

He was old and gray and frail, the last time I saw him. At a funeral. And he usually made it a point, to come over and speak to me when he saw me. And I never sensed any judgment in the man. Only kindness, and perhaps some sprinkling of regret. He smiled and talked to me. And I smiled back and talked to him.

I had heard his health was bad. And now he has passed away after a long struggle with cancer. He was seventy-seven years old.

Stephen Stoll, Rest in Peace.



  1. Grace and peace to you. That’s repeated so many times in Scripture. So worth learning from.

    Comment by LeRoy — November 21, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

  2. A story of redemption… the best kind. Thanks for sharing!

    Comment by Kathy Dean — November 21, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

  3. It is strange how the same person can leave such a different impression with a different person. I came to Aylmer six months after your family left. I came from a different kind of Amish, very disorderly, very chaos, disfuntional. The deacon lied and then lied again to cover up the first lie. And so I moved to Aylmer. I wanted a more structured church life. Your Aylmer Bears were what I needed at that time in my life. Stephen & Katie were always warm and welcoming to me, to my messed up life. I left Aylmer in 1990 when Stephen was still in black hair, black beard and going strong and this is still how I see him. He was what I needed back then. I guess our personal experiences determines our perspective.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — November 21, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

  4. Another interesting blog. Thanks for sharing!!!

    Comment by June Kinsey — November 21, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

  5. “It’s the passing of time, I guess, that changes things.”

    I can easily relate to your experience, here. I have sure seen how time has tamed some bears from my youth.

    Coming to repentance, growing to forgive. I wonder if that’s why God gave us “time.” Perhaps that’s why He doesn’t need it.

    Comment by Tammy — November 21, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

  6. A beautiful blog post. It shows how aging redeems all of us. I guess that is where the expression “older but wiser” comes from.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — November 22, 2014 @ 6:27 pm

  7. I think changing tracks in life takes equal amounts of intelligence, humility and courage. A lot of people are not even aware of themselves. It’s nice, sharing your remembrance. btw-interesting comment from Katie.

    Comment by Lisa DeYoung — November 22, 2014 @ 11:07 pm

  8. Well written description of Stephen Stoll’s life from what we remember. I remember well the day he was ordained deacon in his father’s home. He was a young man and the Bishop had in mind where he would find the slip of paper. He kept looking and looking in that man’s book. Finally he asked Jake Eicher. Where did you put it? Jake said we will just go on. Mea gane denk usht on…I hope Stephen never knew or heard that part, because he was obviously God’s chosen one…….

    Comment by Rachel — November 23, 2014 @ 10:15 am

  9. “He was gray and bent and feeble. Just an old man, struggling along. And I wondered. How could such a man as this ever strike terror in anyone’s heart? It’s the passing of time, I guess, that changes things. For both sides. For those who instill fear with force. And for those who felt that fear and force.”

    Yup. Had that happen more than once.

    Comment by Eugene — November 23, 2014 @ 7:13 pm

  10. “He was the deacon, the enforcer of the rules. Many a strong man paled and trembled when he came knocking on the door. He wasn’t there to socialize, usually.”

    I knew I was in trouble when one of them would come in my drive or darken my doorway because they didn’t come to socialize.. Or it was the only time they came..

    Comment by James Troyer — November 23, 2014 @ 9:59 pm

  11. One of the bears in my life growing up was my Amish grandpa bishop. When he preached I could almost feel the heat and smell the sulfur. My attitude to that was since I was toast anyway why not go out with a bang. Thus began the sowing, and I did it well, gave it every thing I had. I was in proud possession of my first driver’s license and that brought a visit from him late one afternoon. He caught me in the lane by the house before I could get away and in a loud voice told me what was going to happen to me and where I was going in the here after and he sounded pretty sure of himself. I moved away, time rolled on and I believe the perspectives changed for both of us. Every few years we would visit a bit when ever I got back there and he mellowed, slowly. My second wife and I talked to him for the last time a few years befor he passed on. He was in his early 90s and by then he was a kind and friendly man. I did not sense any judgment, there was only concern for us, that we were doing well and having a good life together. God bless him, may he be enjoying himself on the other side. A fine article about change and redemption with a merciful God in our lives. Peace to all..

    Comment by Lenny — November 25, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

  12. Great post Ira… My wife and I always look forward to your “fresh, honest, redemptive writing.”

    Comment by Greg Miller — November 27, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

  13. Well, I’m certainly glad a story was born though a pity it came from a death.

    It must be difficult being an Amish deacon. Enforcing rules knowing full well your visit wasn’t always a welcomed one. After a while I can see where one would become cynical, even resentful or angry toward those he had to discipline or instruct in the ways of the community. Afterall, why don’t people just do what they’re supposed to?

    It must be difficult being a young Amish man with a burning desire to flit about the world like a bird – coming and going in his own time, at his own pace. Knowing it would never be an acceptable thing…among his own people. His own blood. After a while I can see where he would become angry or resentful. Maybe even depressed.

    But to see an acceptance, forgiveness, even a little humor, I think is a gift from God.

    Hope you had a good Thanksgiving. Truly there is so much to be thankful for. Even when you don’t feel like it. Be blessed my friend.

    Comment by Francine — December 1, 2014 @ 9:51 pm

  14. Bears are in every religion and denomination.

    But thanks be to the one hundred percent Truth of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one.”

    Unless converted, the bears will never understand the meaning and gift of unconditional eternal life, sacrificially given to the sheep, through the finished work of Jesus Christ.

    Comment by e.s.gingerich — December 9, 2014 @ 3:22 pm

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