Potluck | January 4, 2022

That’s our church

Julia Gilbert wearing a white head covering and holding a book
Julia Gilbert. Photo courtesy of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives.

When a favorite sports team leaves for another city they typically take their history with them. The Baltimore Colts took championships won by the legendary Johnny Unitas to Indianapolis. The Dodgers took the storied legends of the Boys of Summer, including Jackie Robinson, to LA.

But when the Browns left Cleveland for Baltimore, the city rebelled. The NFL decided the city would keep the legacy of people like running back Jim Brown and founding coach Paul Brown, as well as the nickname Browns, along with the eight championships won during the era of four yards and a cloud of dust.

I’ve thought about that a lot these past months as our divisive culture invaded our storied church. And those who have decided to leave our beloved church can’t take our heritage away from us.

Like Ruth, an outsider, who knew her inherited faith better than her born-and-bred mother-in-law, Naomi (so well that she gleaned enough grain the two staved off starvation), I have cherished our history and heritage since 1972. That was when, having already registered as a conscientious objector, I discovered the Church of the Brethren.

From our foundation, the essence of being Brethren is the willingness of women and men to study scripture together until we reach consensus, regardless of how long that takes. Sometimes it takes decades, but we can afford to be patient. We love Jesus. We love the Word.

In 1762, Catherine Hummer of White Oak, the first woman to preach among the Brethren, enthralled people near and far with her visions of angels, God’s grace, and divine mercy. Annual Meeting stated that those who benefited from her preaching and those who didn’t shouldn’t look down on each other. That’s our church.

In 1798, Alexander Mack Jr. admitted to his friend John Preisz that he’d read the same scriptures but couldn’t see them in the same light. Nevertheless, he chose to characterize their disagreement in a positive way, comparing their differences to the way the “flowers in the garden are quiet and peaceful even though one is embellished in blue, another in red and still another in white.” That’s our church.

In 1858, a 14-year-old Julia Gilbert, crippled for life by childhood illnesses, changed the way her Ohio congregation practiced love feast because she convinced the elders their practice was not consistent with scripture. Fifty-two years later, she changed Brethren communion practice again: After decades of queries and letters, Annual Meeting finally allowed women to break communion bread with each other rather than having it broken for them by a male elder. That was because Gilbert spoke movingly before the meeting, insisting she only wanted “to be in touch with Jesus Christ.” That’s our church, too.

When Evelyn Trostle stared down a genocidal mob to protect Armenian orphans; when Dan West told Brethren farmers what starving people needed was a cup, not a cow; when conscientious objector Carlyle Frederick doggedly walked hours on the treadmill while subsisting on a few hundred calories a day during the starvation experiment of 1944-1945 so that postwar starving Europeans could be safely rehabilitated; when Don Murray’s extemporaneous comments about his years in Brethren Volunteer Service inspired Hubert Humphrey’s suggestion four years later to the newly elected President John F. Kennedy to create the Peace Corps; when the Church of the Brethren banner waved prominently during the March on Washington; when Ted Studebaker said, “Life is great! Yea!” — that’s our church!

When Ken Shaffer bent over backwards to make my research in the Brethren Archives fruitful, even providing a place to sleep while I worked on a project — doing no less than all the other dedicated leaders and administrators I have known at the Brethren offices in Elgin — that’s our church, too.

If people choose to leave our church I wish them Godspeed, but our faith, history, and heritage will stay with us — not because we’re possessive about it, but because we’re loving students of scripture in context.

Frank Ramirez is pastor of Union Center Church of the Brethren in Nappanee, Indiana