Encounters with Faith & Forgiveness in Communities of Faith
A week after Christmas 2018, my husband Michael and I loaded up a Chevy Suburban with two suitcases, our two young sons, and enough books and gear for a whole preschool class, and drove the 700 miles from Rockford, Illinois, to Hesston, Kansas, for his grandmother's funeral. After ten hours of winding highways, rolling hills, and clapboard farmhouses that then, in eastern Kansas, suddenly gave way to limestone, we pulled into Hesston, population 3,800.
Hesston was first settled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by German Mennonite farmers who had fled Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. The Mennonites were, of course, followers of Menno Simons, the sixteenth-century reformer who began his career as a Catholic priest in the Netherlands. Simons became troubled with the practice of infant baptism and the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist and found himself drawing nearer and nearer to Anabaptist circles even while remaining a Catholic priest.
Finally, crisis hit. In 1534, three hundred violent, fanatical Anabaptists attempted to take over the city of Münster and establish a New Jerusalem. The revolt was just as violently put down, with the bodies of its leaders being left to rot in cages next to the local church as a warning to any other would-be reformers. After the violence in Münster, Simons wrote, "I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith. . . . But I myself continued in my comfortable life and acknowledged abominations simply in order that I might enjoy comfort and escape the cross of Christ." Shortly thereafter, he left the Catholic Church and became an Anabaptist.
In reaction against the violence in Münster, Simons sought to maintain peaceful living while attempting to reform the radicalism that had become a problem in some Anabaptist congregations. He became convinced that it was not the place of the Christian to take up arms. Rather, "if the Head had to suffer such torture, anguish, misery, and pain, how shall his servants, children, and members expect peace and freedom as to their flesh?" And so his followers have ever been pacifists.
This was not a popular position to take up in Europe during the sixteenth century, or at any time thereafter. Nobody in Europe liked the Mennonites, my mother-in-law explained when I first met her, because they refused to participate in Europe's wars. Initially, the Mennonites were intensely persecuted, but they were later tolerated for their remarkable agricultural skills. A large group eventually settled in the Vistula River delta in what was then Prussia, upon the invitation of the Prussian nobility, with the understanding that they were to cultivate the marshy, war-decimated area. They remained there for some centuries, farming peacefully and efficiently, until new requirements for military service forced them to look for other options.
At that time, Catherine the Great of Russia was seeking farmers to cultivate the southwestern edge of her kingdom, along the Dnieper River and the Sea of Azov. With the promise of free land, religious toleration, and exemption from military service and taxes, thousands of German-speaking Mennonites made their way to Russia. They remained there for another century, until the Russian imperial government began trying to assimilate them. The final blow came in 1871, when the government passed a universal military service act, thus ending the Mennonites' ability to remain pacifist.
Some early Mennonites had heard about the New World. A large contingent was recruited by the railroads to come and live in Kansas, with, again, the promise of cheap, fertile land. Kansas had the additional appeal of being rather like the area of Russia from which the Mennonites were fleeing. And there again they made their mark: Kansas is the breadbasket of the United States, and the wheat that still makes up the bulk of Kansas agriculture is a descendent of the Russian "red wheat" brought over by the Mennonites.
As we pulled into Hesston that evening, we decided to grab a quick dinner before heading to the visitation. Michael pulled into the drive-through of a local coffee shop and looked at the menu.
"They've got bierocks!" he said to me excitedly.
I stared at him blankly. "What's that?"
In response, he ordered us two. As he bit into the pastry pocket filled with ground beef, cabbage, and onion, his face registered contempt. "Frozen," he muttered. My father-in-law had owned restaurants for most of his career, and Michael had grown up in the kitchen.
Nonetheless, I bit in. Not half bad, I thought. But what do I know about bierocks?
Fidelity & Grace
The visitation was held in a small funeral home, just two storefronts down from the Bread Basket, the restaurant my father-in-law used to own. It was a good visitation—one at which hordes of small children run wildly up and down the pews, while adults tearfully but joyfully reminisce in the reception line. Michael's grandmother had lived well into her 80s, had experienced a full life, and had died a faithful Christian. There was much to celebrate, though certainly also much to grieve. Afterward, we all walked down to the Bread Basket for some pie.
The next day, at the funeral itself, the family gathered in the fellowship hall of the Mennonite Brethren Church for prayer. The pastor asked us to hold hands. As everyone closed the circle and reached out, I looked around.
There were easily fifty people in that room, perhaps more, of all ages—with their hands clasped, their heads bowed. What struck me as I looked around was how many tragedies had hit this family. It had certainly seen its share of death, illness, adultery, divorce, anger, shame, envy—the fruits of sin in all its forms. And yet, its members remained for the most part strongly committed to the faith. They had stayed close with each other. Few had fallen off the wagon completely. Those who did seemed eventually to return.
Why? How could a family so big weather so much and remain faithful to Christ? How, in this generation, when sons and daughters so rarely continue in the faith of their parents, had my husband's family managed to remain Christian—scathed, weeping, and aching at times to be sure, but still together, and still holding to the goodness of Christ?
In Exodus 20, in the giving of the Ten Commandments, God prohibits his children from worshiping false gods. The Second Commandment reads, "For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments."
I used to feel aghast at these words. How could God punish the innocent children of those who commit sin? I have since learned that sin is its own punishment. God doesn't have to inflict a punishment on us for lying, cheating, stealing, or simply being unkind, although there are instances in the Old Testament where his wrath at specific sins was indeed rained down. But in most cases, sins bring punishment in themselves. The children born to parents who commit adultery, or give themselves over to addiction, or lie, or cheat, or steal, suffer the consequences of broken homes or learn to repeat harmful behaviors. God doesn't need to actively punish anyone.
But God's mercy is even greater, and he promises to show love "to a thousand generations" of those who love him and keep his commandments.
My husband's family had been preserved, their faith kept intact, and their numbers greatly multiplied, because God's grace is greater than all the havoc sin can wreak.
From Family to Community
In remembering that funeral in the year since, I've also pondered whether this familial piety might have reached outward until it became community piety. Not long after we were married, in 2017, tragedy struck the town of Hesston and neighboring Newton in the form of Cedric Harry Ford. A native of Miami, Ford arrived one day at Hesston's Excel Industries, where he was employed, and began firing.
He shot three people to death and injured fourteen. (It was later discovered that Ford had had alcohol and very high levels of meth in his system—enough to lead, some suggested, to a kind of psychosis.)
In most places, such shootings set off a veritable firestorm of blame—at the lack of gun control, or the Second Amendment, or the lack of funding for mental-health programs. In Hesston, the opposite happened. "In this small Kansas town of 3,700," the Guardian reported less than a week after the shooting, "it is difficult to find anyone who will speak ill of the man who shot a semiautomatic rifle at pedestrians from his moving vehicle, before arriving at his place of employment seemingly to execute coworkers at random." Instead, what the reporters saw in Hesston was an outpouring of love, compassion, and humility.
One local woman set up a coffee station for first responders across the street from Excel Industries. Pastor Brad Burkholder, head of the Hesston Mennonite Brethren Church (the same pastor who led our family funeral), told the Guardian, "Nobody deserved this, but instead of thinking 'I could never do that,' instead I pray that it's never me. Because I could get to a place where that could be me." Instead of finger pointing or blame shifting, the residents of Hesston reacted with profound humility and wisdom to recognize that sin distorts, and that we are all capable of the most heinous crimes without the saving grace of Christ.
What took place at Excel Industries did not define the community, did not twist it, just as multiple family tragedies failed to destroy my husband's—now my—family. "Showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments"—the sins of a few could not make up for the grace of Christ, for the generational faith that has protected this family and this community in the face of a thousand sins that could easily have destroyed it.
Could it be that this kind of generational piety is fostered in more communal iterations of Christianity? Is there something about community-based faith (versus the more individualized version) that incubates orthodox Christianity, allows the faith to be transmitted from father and mother to son and daughter, and even keeps it whole against attacks from outside, allowing its adherents to exercise a seemingly heroic level of forgiveness for wrongs committed?
Communities of Faith & Forgiveness
There are at least three other Christian congregations that have experienced a mass shooting in recent years in the U.S., and have then become known for the strength of their faith and for their expression of forgiveness.
One shooting occured at an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, in 2006. There, a non-Amish local resident named Charles Roberts stormed into the school, ordered the boys out, and then tied up and systematically shot eight girls, five of whom died. The Amish immediately proclaimed their forgiveness of Roberts. A mother of three of the girls, one of whom died, said that forgiveness was "not a once and done thing," but rather "a lifelong process." Members of the community took meals to Roberts's widow on the day of the shooting, and many later attended his funeral. No one affected by the tragedy has left the community. (The Amish are a seventeenth-century offshoot of the Mennonites, and thus the two communities share similar Anabaptist roots.)
Another example is the 2015 church shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, where white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered nine people at a prayer service. At a later bond hearing, many of the relatives of those killed made a point of expressing their forgiveness to Roof, as well as offering their prayers for his soul. "I acknowledge that I am very angry," said the sister of one of the women killed. "We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul." The media in the U.S. reported on this forgiveness with a sense of awe.
There is also the example of First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where Devin Kelley killed 26 people and wounded another 20 in 2017. The pastor of First Baptist, who was away the Sunday of the shooting but whose daughter was killed, tearfully preached the power of forgiveness to his congregation the very next Sunday.
Stephen Willeford, the man who bravely disrupted the shooting and pursued the gunman, was widely hailed as a hero for his actions. He later had the opportunity to meet Danielle Kelley, the shooter's widow. Kelley told Willeford that she didn't bear him any ill will, and understood that he did what had to be done. "He wasn't always evil," she said of her husband. "He just lost himself." Willeford agreed, acknowledging that evil has that power. Then the two prayed together. The church has rebuilt, grown in size, and now hosts a memorial site on its grounds. "Evil did not win" has become its rallying cry, and the phrase is printed on a sign outside the church building.
All three of these groups had a small-community aspect to them—the Amish most obviously. Sutherland Springs is also a small town, and the church is tiny. Willeford knew half of its congregants. Both of these communities were also largely rural.
In Charleston, the AME church had historically served as a center for civil-rights activity. As a gathering place for an oppressed African-American Christian minority, it formed a distinct community of its own within a much larger, urban white community. The church acted as a "community within a community," with a strong historical memory. Interestingly, at another family gathering in Kansas, a cousin who leads an inner-city ministry in Chicago told us that, to her, the inner-city black community seems more like her hometown of Hesston than does the suburban community. People in the former help each other more, and care about each other. Connections are deeper and stronger. People create memories, and pass them down.
The Amish, the Mennonites, the Bruderhof, the Hutterites, the Catholic Workers Movement, and others—all of these are exercising, to various degrees and levels, some variety of the "Benedict Option" in their lives. The common denominator seems to be that they are close-knit communities of faith, and many are in rural areas or small towns, and have a long history of social ostracism and peaceful living. (Remember the history of the Mennonites, fleeing from one country to the next to remain pacifist.) They hold to the land and, especially in times of persecution, to each other. They emphasize forgiveness because they have a sense of duty to longsuffering in the name of Christ. They also pass down their history in a strong oral tradition, so that the children understand who their ancestors were, whence they came, why they fled, and why they landed where they did.
And the faith of the fathers is preserved, and protects the sons.
Examples to the World
We have gone back to Kansas a couple of times since that Christmas—once for another family funeral, and once for a family reunion. I continue to be struck by the family's faith. At the reunion, we also celebrated Michael's grandparents as we received the fruits of their harvest in the form of a "grandchildren's trust" that was finally disbursed, as the youngest grandchild had just turned 25. Enclosed with the disbursement was the written-out personal testimony of both grandparents and this verse: "If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom. 12:18).
Our modern culture doesn't make families like this, families that preserve their faith and remain close to one another, families that receive blow after blow from the world, yet respond with forgiveness, strength, and faithfulness. But an older culture does make such families, and this older culture has been preserved in certain little corners of the world—corners like Hesston, Kansas. May they live long and prosper, and continue to live at peace, so that the world realizes the power of the faith, and turns back.
Nicole M. King is the managing editor of The Natural Family, the quarterly publication of the International Organization for the Family, and a regular columnist for Salvo.