Speaking at the university, you ask?? So how did this country boy with only his high school diploma (and just barely managed that; which to my shame was a motivation problem) manage to speak at the university?
Well, it's a long story. I will have to tell you about Clara Booker, and I can't tell you about Clara without telling you about Clara's mama. So we might as well get started.............
We learned to know Clara when we managed the dairy on Covered Bridge Road. My first memory of Clara was when she came down to the farm wanting several bales of straw for some yard work she was doing. I helped her load a few bales into the back of her SUV all the while wondering how she was going to get all that straw back out of her carpet.
Clara had just moved down from Maryland and had built a house a mile up Covered Bridge Rd. from the farm. Clara was a person you just couldn't help liking. She was a tall woman, I'd say six feet at least. She had that mellow resonant voice that is typical of so many black people and had a big contagious laugh that started from somewhere down near her soul.
Sometime later Clara's mama came to live with her. Old Mrs. Booker was probably (at least in her younger years) just as tall as Clara. And she had the longest fingers; they seemed almost an inch longer than mine.
Mrs. Booker was getting pretty feeble and was beginning to lose her short term memory. Clara worked a later shift job and worried about her mom leaving a stove burner on or about her falling while getting ready for bed, so she got Mary lined up to go up in the evenings and check up on her mama.
Now old Mrs. Booker may not have remembered whether she had left the stove burner on or not, but she could sure remember things from long ago. Our whole family would go up sometimes and she would tell us her stories.
She had lived in a coal mining camp near Beckley, West Virginia. This was before the days of the unions and some of the camps were little better than living in slavery. But the owner of the camp they lived in took better care of his people and was a stickler for keeping the housing area neat and clean. He would see to it that all the houses got a fresh coat of paint every year.
She told of a young couple that lived next door who were always arguing and fighting. One day when the husband left for work they were in the middle of yet another disagreement and the parting words the wife yelled at her husband were, "I hope you get killed in the mine today!" Well, it turns out he did. She said it was awful to hear that young woman screaming after she had heard the news.They took her away and she never found out what happened to her.
Mrs. Booker worked for a doctor and his wife taking care of their two children. She said the doctor and his wife treated her very well, but when the children were alone with her they would say racially insulting things.This went on for a long time. She never mentioned it to the parents, but one day the mother happened in and overheard some of the things her children were saying.
She was upset with her children and proceeded to discipline them. She told Mrs. Booker that she was going to spank them until Mrs. Booker said it was time for her to stop. Mrs. Booker said she thought to herself, "Lord, they won't live!"
We had gone along one evening to visit with her and Myron had taken his violin so we could do a little singing. I've always loved spirituals so we launched into "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". We hadn't got far along at all until she was adding a deep (for a woman) mellow baritone part. When we got done I said, "Mrs. Booker, you've done some singing before tonight!" She laughed and said, oh yes, she had been a been in a singing group for many years. If I remember right it was a group of four men and her.
She was quick to tell me though, that she didn't care much at all for all this new-fangled music in churches today. Way too jazzy, she said.
The months passed and Mrs. Booker's time on earth was nearly done. She landed in the hospital; it was only a matter of time. We would check with Clara every so often to see what was happening.
Not long before this Mrs. Booker had heard a song on the radio about a train; the train that would take you over to the other shore when your time was up and if you were ready. And she wanted this song sung at her funeral.
One evening just a few days before she died Clara came in to check on her mama. When she came by the nurses station she asked them, "How's mama doing this evening". Oh, they said, she kind of got out of her head this afternoon, got kind of agitated talking about some train, and we had to sedate her."
Clara told me she thought to herself, "Look at that, Mama tryin' to cross over and they done gone and sedated her!" And then that great big contagious laugh.
We made sure we went to Mrs. Booker's funeral. Clara and her three sisters sang. Four part harmony so mellow and sweet it sent shivers up your spine; "People get ready, there's a train comin'!"
Rest in peace, Mrs. Booker; I hope we get to sing together in the sweet by and by.
Some years later we moved off the farm and Clara went back to college. Actually taking seminary classes at Virginia University of Lynchburg, which happens to be the oldest institute of higher learning in the city, established in about 1890. And to make this more unusual, this was a black college that got its start less than thirty years after the Civil War.
Now I've never thought that a woman's place was preaching, but I'll have to admit that Clara would probably make a good one. She said her pastor said the men weren't stepping up to the plate so she should go for it.
One day I get a call from Clara. She is in a church history class studying the Reformation and they are having a session about the Anabaptists. Her professor was saying that the Mennonite people are all up around Harrisonburg. She said she piped up and said, "Oh no they ain't!" So she asked me if I would come and give a presentation on the Mennonites to their class at seminary.
And so I did. It wasn't as scary as it sounds. There were about seven or eight in the class counting the professor, Dr. Coleman. They were very interested in what I had to say and asked questions.
I told them how the Anabaptists were despised by both the Catholics and the Protestants. How in Switzerland, even after the death penalty no longer existed other severe measures were taken against them. How many were put in prison or sent to sea as galley slaves. How they were frequently branded on their heads to identify them as undesirables, and those who reported them to the authorities would often receive a reward. How Anabaptist children were considered illigitiment and had no rights before the law, not even being able to inherit their parents property. I got a good round of that hearty black laughter when I told them, "Yall weren't the only ones to have some hard times comin' up!"
I talked about some things like non-resistance and told them the Dirk Willems story. About our strong beliefs on the separation of church and state. On the veiling for women.
I told them that (in my opinion) we have some real strengths. But along with that we have some weaknesses as well. And sometimes the weaknesses are the downside to the very same strengths.
Like the sense of brotherhood we have. How I could travel across the country and be welcomed by people that may not know me personally, but have some connection within the vast network of friends and relatives that make up the Mennonite community. But also, that when you are a first generation Mennonite it can feel like you may never quite "fit" because you don't have that network.
And another strength is how we Mennonites get practical about applying the principles of the Bible to our daily christian walk. Which is something sadly lacking today in most mainstream churches. But then if we're not careful our focus can be so much on the applications that we lose our focus on the principles themselves. We can become a little like the Pharisees; very religious but missing some of the most important points.
So that's the story of how I got to speak at the university. I enjoyed it immensely. I look back on it as one of the highlights in my long and mediocre career!