Anita Hooley Yoder
For me, part of the fun of attending a conference in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is the drive there. It’s about six and a half hours from my home near Cleveland, Ohio, and I enjoyed taking a somewhat mountainous route and stopping to hike along the way. I also enjoyed staying with my sister and brother-in-law, who live in town.
The first day I spent with my sister, before the conference began, and she shared some past struggles that I knew little about. I thought that, unlike many of our female Anabaptist ancestors, my sisters and I had a pretty great childhood. And in many ways we did. But I suspect that all of us have stories in our past—our own histories—that we haven’t heard or acknowledged.
“Crossing the Line” was, at least in part, about honoring those kinds of stories.
One of the most poignant moments was hearing Jean Janzen, an 83-year-old Mennonite Brethren writer, share one of her first published poems, which focused on a long-buried family story about the suicide of her grandmother. “I am speaking the syllables you could not say,” Janzen read.
As part of the conference wrap-up panel, Doris Dube mentioned that Zimbabwean women often carry children wrapped tightly on their backs. Then she shared a proverb: “A weaning baby that does not cry aloud will die on its mother’s back.”
We, gathered here, are the children crying aloud on our mothers’ (mother church’s?) backs, I thought. And, we are the mothers who hear the cries and will not leave the child to die.
Hearing people’s cries—their most heartfelt stories—has become a kind of vocation for me.
I spent a large part of the past several years listening to stories of Mennonite women as I worked on a book about the history of Mennonite women’s organizations. These stories inspired me, as I encountered women who received little recognition but continued serving faithfully for decades.
Last August I started working as a campus minister at a small Catholic college. In that role I listen to students, faculty and staff, sometimes for most of the day. Their stories are sometimes painful, even shocking, but also full of resilience and serendipity and grace.
However, my experiences at and around this conference made me wonder about other stories I need to attend to. If hearing people’s stories is my vocation, how did I miss the stories my sister had been living for so long?
Sometimes it seems easier to focus on faraway stories, whether from distant times or distant lands. That was perhaps a shortcoming of this generally wonderful conference. While the presence of international attenders was commendable and clearly a focus of conference organizers, there was a lack of women from U.S. minority groups, even though there are Mennonite congregations of various ethnicities not far from our gathering place.
“We need all the women’s stories we can get,” Sofia Samatar said in her brilliant and broad-sweeping plenary address. So I am left to consider whose stories are still missing. What are the stories in my own family, my own community, my own soul that need to be heard? What about the stories of Mother Earth, the ground I drove across and walked over during my trip to Virginia?
Really hearing and honoring these kinds of stories often entails “crossing a line” of sorts, because such stories have been ignored and marginalized for so long. This conference was brimming with women and men who seem compelled to lift up all kinds of stories—the stories of undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ folks, Mennonite ancestors who had uncomfortable nationalistic tendencies. We didn’t cover everything, didn’t include everyone. But we know more stories now than we arrived in Harrisonburg, and that fills me hope for years to come.