A Young Sara Heebner Benner

Sara Heebner grad pic and info

Written Fall of 2014

I have always had a lot of respect for my mother and, truth be told, wanted to be exactly like her for most of my life.  My mom is a nurturing, generous and gracious person that lavished me with motherly care and concern for as long as I can remember.  But she was the kind of mom that empowered me to make my own decisions as well.  Obviously, I still find it hard to say anything negative about my mother, so it came as a surprise to read the blurb about her in her high school yearbook that said she played the banjo and talked “especially in study periods with a certain Eve.”  One of my mom’s gifts was talking? Wow, that doesn’t sound like the shy, studious person that I always thought she was. In fact, those same words could have been said about me since I have always enjoyed talking.

It also says she spent her time in Souderton and infers that she must have a special friend there. Mom did marry someone from Souderton, Merrill Benner, but she says “that was many years later.”  Mom admits that what the authors are referring to is how she “spent a lot of time at the Souderton Train Station, which was a popular place for young people to gather.”  Say what?  My mom hung out at a train station?  No way.

I thought I really knew my mom, but she also recently told me that she remembers playing the banjo at the Clemens Literary Society, which was a group that J.C. Clemens’ children formed and that met in a local hall.  At the same time, her sister Grace played the piano and Jonas Mininger sang a solo.  And get this, my mother sang a song about a lonely black boy without friends.  So not only did my mom sing publically as she played the banjo but she sang a song of social justice.  How did I not realize this part of my mom before?

It’s odd how you think you really know your parents and then all of a sudden a slice of their younger life rises up and hits you between the eyes.  My mom was a very social person and loved music…wow, we’re more alike than I thought. I still have to work on the selfless nurturing part, but apparently, I’m halfway there.

Giving Back What I Experienced

1953 Dawn with Carrie Noble

Written Fall of 2014

“When we were around Mennonites, we didn’t see black and white,” says Carrie Noble Duckett, the spirited 76 year old that was the first black person to graduate from Christopher Dock Mennonite High School.

“John Ruth planted the church in Conshohocken and he went around the community looking for people to come up to church. We lived two blocks away, down the hill by the railroad tracks and he came down and asked if we wanted to come to the Mennonite church. Oh yea, I wanted to go and some of the other kids wanted to go, too.”  Couples from the church would invite the Conshohocken neighborhood children to their houses for Sunday noon and then take them back to Conshohocken in time for the evening service. “ ‘Go on…and take your sister!’ my mother would say.  “She trusted John.”

Carrie joined the Mennonite church at age 12 or 13 and spent a lot of time after school at the Ruth home, talking to Roma and John and taking care of their newborn baby, Dawn. “It was something to do and I enjoyed it.” When Roma and John needed to go to Johnstown for a weekend, Carrie, at age 15 was the one that took care of Dawn.

Soon Carrie began attending high school at the newly constructed Christopher Dock.  She attended with her good friend Mary, but after a year, Mary’s family moved and she began attending elsewhere.  Carrie found the white Mennonite children at CD to be very friendly and not pretentious in any way.  “I didn’t see color and didn’t feel prejudice even though I was the only black person that attended the school at that time. I was always very outgoing and maybe that helped.” She admits to sometimes getting in trouble at school.  She remembers Pearl Schrack telling her to “stand outside for a while.”  Carrie would often stay overnight at Eileen Moyer’s house if she needed to be at evening school events.

Carrie still recalls the three-quarter length sleeves, dresses twelve inches from the floor, and the head covering she wore while she attended at Dock.  “It didn’t bother me because in those days we lived in an apartment building where all of us girls learned to sew in seventh grade and made our own clothing.  We had a fabric store right by us so it was nothing for us to make our clothes.”  Her younger sister even seemed to admire Carrie’s clothing.  Although her sister, Pearl, did not attend Dock, she liked Carrie’s clothes and would sometimes claim them as her own, taking what she needed from their wardrobe.

The only racial tension she experienced (but didn’t know about till a few years ago) occurred on the senior trip to Washington DC. The class advisors, Pearl Schrack and Ben Hess had arranged for a hotel for the class, but when they arrived, the owners of the hotel said they couldn’t stay there due to the presence of one black teenage girl.  So the plans were changed and the advisors found another hotel but her classmates never forgot how they were treated.

During Carrie’s senior year at Dock, she had to go out at Easter time to look for jobs. “I went to Bell Telephone and I applied and took the test. Then they called me and told me I passed the test and had to go get a physical. They also asked me ‘When do you graduate?’ and I said June 5th.  So Bell Telephone called and I started on June 12, about a week after graduation. That was in 1957 and I retired with a pension in 1988.”

When Carrie was 21, she married James Duckett and soon they had 2 boys, Darrell and Brian. Her mother passed away at a young age, so Carrie took in her sister and younger brother in addition to her own family. Her sister watched her boys while she worked and her husband was in the service. After her husband retired from the military, Carrie made sure he got a job with Ma Bell and he also worked there for about 20 years.  “I’ve traveled a lot all over the US. I went to Spain for a while with Bell Telephone and while Jimmy was in Vietnam, I even met him in Hawaii for some R & R.”

Carrie currently attends Methacton Mennonite Church where the former child she babysat, Dawn Ruth Nelson, was the pastor until recently.  She still keeps in touch with many persons from her 1957 graduating class. “I talked to almost half the persons from my graduating class today. I just had lunch with 2 of them.  Out of a class of 27, ten of them showed up at my husband’s funeral a year ago. My schooling helped me to get my job and my job helped me to do all the things in life that I was able to do.  But I’ve always been the kind of person to help others in need because I had that type of early influence on my life. [The Mennonites] always gave and didn’t require anything so I try to do the same today.”

A Picture Resurfaces

img053This picture of my mom’s aunt Sara Halladay is a glimpse into the past.  My mom’s aunt was apparently a teacher at Sunny Hall School which at one time was a one room schoolhouse on the edge of (the current) Christopher Dock campus.  Things my mom, Sara Benner remembers about Sara Heebner Halladay:

  • May have been a teacher at Sunny Hall School, Lansdale, Pa
  • Very outgoing personality that couldn’t do enough for you
  • Didn’t marry till later in life but kept in touch by writing letters and always signed them, “Lovingly, Sara”
  • Married Paul Halladay and had two children, Ruth Mary and Karleton
  • Merrill and Sara Benner stopped in on them when they needed a place to stay in Indiana while on vacations. One time they came late at night and brought 5 children with no prior warning.  Aunt Sara was very surprised at their arrival but was gracious.  Sara Benner had a 1 year old and when Sara Halliday wanted to give Beverly (the young baby) a bottle, Sara B said not to give it to her since Beverly would not eat any breakfast.
  • Heebner’s didn’t go very far in school, but Sara was different and possibly had more schooling than Dan or Willard (other 2 children from second wife [Katie] and Daniel Heebner)
  • Paul died unexpectedly and after he died Sara missed him so much, especially at the table. So she sat in his place at the table.
  • They had lived in Chicago for a while but then settled in Indiana.
  • Paul was an excellent singer.

The picture is circa early 1960s possibly when my parents stopped in on them while taking a family trip to Oklahoma.  Pictured are Paul, Ruth Mary, and Sara Halladay.

Hymns Live On for Hundreds of Years

Rod's piece pic
Written Spring of 2014

“There’s a reason that some music has stuck around for hundreds of years, whereas some of the things we’re singing now, in twenty years, no one will have ever heard of,” says Rodney Derstine, music teacher at Christopher Dock Mennonite High School. I sat down with Rod recently to hear his views on music in the church and how hymns seem to be disappearing from our Mennonite church worship services. “I like hearing the four part harmony.”

Rod grew up in a singing family. His mother had a strong influence on his love of music in that she listened to classical composers on the radio. He also remembers playing forty-fives of classical music over and over again. From Bach and 17th century chorales to Sing the Story, Rod loves music of all kinds.

“It’s fun to see students enjoying hymns.” Rod tells his students each year, “I’m not looking to change what you listen to, but I’m looking to expand what you like.” He tells them it’s like when he first started eating Japanese food. “The more I ate it, the more I really started to like it and then even crave it.” He feels if music is constructed well and has a good text; ultimately, the kids will enjoy it.

“Many students today have no concept of hymns or even a religious background. But I keep plugging away at it, continuing to lead hymns in chapel.” He admits some years he has become discouraged with how the singing in chapel has sounded, but he tries not to take it too seriously if the singing doesn’t go well. “You don’t have to hit a homerun every time you sing.” Rod continues to introduce songs such as #118 (Hymnal: A Worship Book), “Praise God from Whom” in chapel. “I just try to expose them to different things.”

I asked Rod if he believes that community people are more attracted to the contemporary choruses than hymns. “That’s a myth, especially if you do old hymns with texts that have depth. There is a richness and so much variety in hymns, if done well.”

Rod believes that music is most powerful when we are moved beyond ourselves. “A number of years ago when we were living in Oregon, I chose to lead the hymn “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need” on a Sunday morning at Salem Mennonite Church. I didn’t realize that Rich Reger was sitting in the back row and had been estranged from the church for many years. When I led that song, he began crying. He told me later it was that hymn that brought him home. Rich later became a pastor. He died this last year of cancer. He was a dear friend…and that hymn brought him back.”

Mennonite Music in Eastern Pennsylvania

Salford Mennonite Congregation, 1976-3(1)
Written Winter 2014

“Many people seem to desire choruses and songs with a rapid movement. [Hopefully] the Mennonites will discontinue the use of these light songs and will return to the more worshipful and doctrinal hymns… of the Church Hymnal.” These words were written by J.C. Wenger in 1937 and published in History of the Mennonites of the Franconia Conference. Today, many are upset in our churches over the influx of scripture songs and worship teams, but the desire of the younger generation to include songs with “rapid movement” has been going on for centuries here in the Franconia Mennonite Conference.

After listening to some SMC church members frustrated with the recent changes in the music in our Sunday morning worship service, I decided to find out if singing in four–part harmony was traditionally Mennonite. I had the feeling that we weren’t seeing the whole picture and that Mennonites didn’t always sing in four–part harmony. So I contacted Joel Alderfer from the Mennonite Heritage Center to hear how our Anabaptist heritage, from the Ausbund to today, has influenced the Franconia Mennonites and their attitudes toward music and worship.

German-speaking Mennonites, who settled between the Delaware and Susquehanna between 1683 and 1773, brought their music with them across the Atlantic. Using both their own Anabaptist ancestors’ compositions and hymns from other European spiritual traditions, they reprinted their old European hymnbook, the Ausbund, in 1742, and first published their own hymnbook, the Zions Harfe, in 1803. The Zion’s Harfe was widely used in Franconia Conference Mennonite meetinghouses and contained only German hymn-texts with no musical notation. In that time, the song leader or vorsinger sat near the pulpit, on one of the raised side benches, and led einstimme (in unison) the German texts to the music of old folk tunes. Since hymn singing was mainly an oral tradition with tunes passed down from one song leader to the next, it was unusual for church members to have access to their own hymn book. Songs were sung in unison and by memory, as the singing of individual parts was considered prideful.

In the mid-1800s, singing schools, a community-based movement that began with Protestants in New England, became popular among the young people of the Indian Valley region. The community came together in social gatherings held in local schoolhouses for a week or two weeks with an itinerant teacher instructing them how to sight-read German and English hymns in three-part and later, four-part harmony. The young people in the region learned not only how to sing a cappella but also how to sing the hymns that were unique to this German and Pennsylvania Dutch speaking community.

Eventually this type of a cappella hymn singing began to be accepted by the surrounding churches, including the German Reformed, Lutheran, Brethren, Schwenkfelder, and Mennonite churches. Some even started sponsoring their own singing schools. In the Mennonite church, this continued into the 20th century, even as late as the 1960’s, where charismatic singing school teachers such as Herman Godshall (Franconia), Samuel Godshall (Deep Run), Henry Bechtel (Vincent), Warren Swartley (Souderton) and Millard Detweiler (Doylestown) made reading “shape notes” a fun experience.

In addition to the singing schools, the hymns were changing due to more interest in speaking and singing English. The Sunday school movement of the mid 1800’s used English. Apparently, in this time period if a town wanted to establish themselves as a reputable town they needed to have a chapel where Union (non-denominational) Sunday school was held. An early English-language Mennonite hymnbook, Hymns & Tunes (1890), mainly with text only, was used in some congregations as a transitional book. The Church and Sunday School Hymnal of 1902 included musical notes with English words and was used in many Franconia Conference congregations. But the more conservative churches along the 113 corridor also continued to use the Zion’s Harf, featuring the traditional German language and no musical notation. Even after the 1927 Church Hymnal was published and adopted by many congregations, a special edition soon appeared with a German appendix of 150 hymns, compiled by Bishop A.G. Clemmer of Franconia.

It took a long time for some Mennonites to see spiritual value in English hymns and gospel songs. There is a story of a preacher in the Deep Run East congregation (John Gross), who wept when English hymns were sung in church. Some churches continued to sing one German hymn each Sunday in worship, even into the 1960’s, to appease the older generation.

Today, the seasoned church members cherish the four-part harmony that represents our rich Mennonite heritage, but musical trends keep changing and our younger, community-based attendees desire congregational music that honors the past while staying relevant to the present. These challenges are not new to our time and will continue to shape our Anabaptist Mennonite traditions as we live and adapt in our current culture.

Thanks to Joel Alderfer of the Mennonite Heritage Center for his research and discussion on the subject of Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Music.

If a Song Goes Unheard

Editorial pic

Written Spring of 2014

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Or better yet, if a song goes unheard, does it really matter? If music is not present in a child’s life and the child lacks proper instruction in singing, can the child ever learn how to sing a cappella?

Last Wed night I was surprised to see my oldest son, the one that in high school never sang in a choir or even acted remotely interested in singing, enter the church choir room. My jaw dropped and I just watched him in amazement find a seat among the bass section of the choir members. He sat beside his cousin and same age friend, Caleb.

Now I realize that kids often learn to appreciate things that they didn’t appreciate while living at home, like red beets and Cornish hens, but do adult children suddenly want to sing? In recent years, he has watched his cousin and younger brother go on choir tours to Europe and sing hymns in their spare time, but does that really make singing appealing? And how does one go about singing when he or she has not participated in it for many years. Is it ever too late to learn how to read notes and sing in parts?

Don’t get me wrong, Patrick definitely sang as a young boy. We played all the Wee Sing and Donut Man cassette tapes that were available and I remember when Patrick was 5 or 6, confidently telling my mother she had a gifted singer as a grandson, and that he would definitely make Touring Choir at Christopher Dock in the gap the Benner children had left behind. It was also around this age that I looked into a local nursery school program that encouraged music to gifted prodigies. But for the price, he would have been registered. Sadly, it didn’t work out as we had hoped and high school came and went without an opportunity to sing under the tutelage of Rodney Derstine.

After choir practice, my husband Ken took the burden of Patrick’s lack of singing expertise squarely on his own shoulders. He claimed it was his bout with dermatomyositis and his inability to sing for a few years that hindered the formational years of Patrick’s singing. Ken loves to sing and grew up in a singing family from Kalona, Iowa, one that often sang at church members’ funerals and weddings.

“Aww, Ken, it’s not your fault,” I said as I kissed his overly conscientious brow. Patrick just watched us with a smile on his face, insisting, “I want to learn to sing in 3 months.” In the words of a hymn, “Nothing is lost on the breath of God, nothing is lost for ever…”

Feeling Blessed

Written Fall of 2013

“I always wanted to go into the mission field. “ says Marion Whitermore with a shaky voice that does not reveal the strength within. So when she found a husband that had the same goals, it felt like marrying the man of her dreams. Together they spent 5 years at Prairie Bible Institute in Alberta, Canada before serving in Trinidad and Tobago. “We had a good ministry there for almost 10 years. But we didn’t take vacations and there was a lot of pressure on the field. I went into a deep depression.”

When they called Dr Norm Loux from Penn Foundation, his response was, “…come home and we’ll see what we can do for Marion.” The plan was for Marion to be home for a month and return to Trinidad, but “it didn’t work that way. When one member of the family is ill, the entire family is ill.” Soon her husband returned to Pennsylvania with their 2 boys and took on a pastorate position.

For the next 10 years, Marion fulfilled the role of pastor’s wife and was the picture of graciousness and immaculate housekeeping. No one knew the internal tumult she was experiencing. When her husband left her in 1972, she continued her healing process with Penn Foundation. “After 27 years of marriage, it broke up. I was alone. Those were hard years.” She provided income for her family by working at Strawbridge’s or other odd jobs while helping to establish a daycare program at her church. She had started nurse’s training after high school but never finished due to her being needed at home after her father’s death. “I helped my mother put my brother through college.” Her brother is now a professor at Bluffton College, but Marion never earned a degree.

So what held her steady? “I kept going to church.” In 1972, divorce was uncommon and the people at Grace Mennonite Church didn’t know what to say to her. She often felt awkward and took to worshipping from the balcony. After a few years, she joined the service at the lower level and eventually even taught Sunday school , Bible studies and served as a deacon.

Over the years, Marion has experienced some major setbacks in her health, such as breast cancer, melanoma, and heart disease. But she watched her daughter and two sons graduate from high school and develop careers in education, sales and pharmacy. Then at 82 years of age, “I had a bad fall and I couldn’t get up. I knew I needed to get some help.” Her daughter looked into moving her into personal care at a retirement community. It was a precarious time for her and her family, but they persisted amidst all the persons that told Marion they had no room in their retirement community at the moment. But Rick Kratz (Marion calls him “precious”) from Souderton Mennonite Homes said “Sure, we’re interested in her. Bring her in!” It all happened very quickly and before Marion knew it, she was in a beautiful apartment in the personal care section at SMH. “I had a nice apartment in Lansdale, but it was not hard to move. I love the people here. One of the aides brought me flowers today. This is the most wonderful place I know.”

Uncle Willard by Phil Benner

Written May 2013 by my brother Phil

Uncle Willard was the first of my uncles to express love openly to his wife publicly.  I remember him calling Margarie hon or honey all the time when they spoke together. That impressed me at my age of probably 6 or 7. Marjorie and he had a special marriage I believe.

He was also a good father. Jumping into the deep water to save Wayne from drowning when he couldn’t swim proved it.

How he carried Cheryl around without complaining for all those years I’ll never forget.
He had a faith that ordered his life, making him humble when he could have been stuck on himself.  He expressed that faith in later life quite freely.  At the latest Benner reunion he had some comments about the Lord’s return that mirrored that.

Lastly he was a great hunter with more skill than probably any of his brothers and was usually quite successful. His son Dave has those same hunter instincts I believe.

May our dear Uncle rest in piece, he set a good example and gave the family a wonderful legacy.

Lepers of Today


My effort at an OP-ED piece, written 2012

He came into our church and sat in the rear of the sanctuary.  He looked with eager eyes at all of us, craving love and acceptance in a small corner church, at the intersection of Mt Pleasant and Spring Garden.  He was accompanied by a friend, a woman who had stood by him through his recent prison sentence for molesting a young boy.  She had reported him after finding him fondling one of her sons as he gave him a bath.  Too much temptation, way too much temptation for a man that was abused as a boy himself.  Many years earlier, he had been walking home from school when a neighbor man called him into his house and released a passion Rob had never known…and changed his life permanently.

But church was a place of refuge, a place where he was asked to play the church organ as a young man.  Now he was an older 50-something, but still loved the acappella singing and the rich blend of instruments present in a worship service. So, when I turned around to see Rob and his girlfriend at the back of the church, it’s no wonder he looked thoroughly happy.  He felt free at last and wanted to give God thanks. 

“Rob Meyers has been asked to wait to attend our church,” an elder informed us the next Sunday.  We sat stunned listening to how a probation officer had called to make us aware of Rob’s past offenses and the risk of relapse.  It was Meghan’s Law in action to protect the public, especially our children, from victimization by sex offenders.

We as a church were not prepared.  In 2002, we did not have any background checks or criminal checks in place for any of the persons working with children. Voices clamored for attention: those with young children, those with a history of sexual abuse, and those feeling led to minister to Rob. There were a lot of ultimatums being thrown around like “if Rob comes, we’re leaving,” “There are no second chances for sex offenders.” People shared about their own sexual abuse stories and how they “would never” let anyone like that near their children. “We need to protect our own rather than let someone new in that could cause harm to our children.”

Then in the fall of 2003 a new pastor was installed and we were glad to bring all the frayed edges and frazzled nerves to new leadership. Our conference minister and other members of church leadership spoke at congregational meetings to discuss Rob’s possible attendance. The faces changed for each meeting, but none of them seemed to prevent our desperate fall into an abyss of dissension, distrust, and judgment. We filled out surveys about how we saw the issue and whether it was important enough for us to leave the church. I felt confident that our pastor would come to a good decision.

“I think it is best if Rob not attend our church at this time and that we find other ways to ‘be church’ to Rob,” our pastor said in March of 2005.  

I was Church Council Secretary at the time and a few days after this decision, we had a church council meeting. I felt physically sick over the decision and let them all know it.

“How could we decide this? How can we not allow him to come to our church?” I ranted and raved about hypocrites, homosexuality, and child molesters.  The next day I felt spent and depressed.

I believe it was during this time that I stopped having faith in the goodness of humanity.  I started expecting all people to respond to others in a wary, suspicious manner… even among Christians who go to church every Sunday, even among my family, even among my friends. Fear is a powerful adversary that usually wins… even in churches with a history of persecution and exclusion.

“I’m tired of waiting for a decision and will not be coming back,” Rob said at the end of 2007. When he said this a part of me died. For the last 5 years about ten of us from church had been meeting with him in an off-site location for the Sunday school hour, praying that he could someday attend our church. But Rob decided he no longer wanted to have anything to do with our church or any church that subjected him to an Inquisition of review and distrust.

Where do sex offenders go for support and sustenance?  Whether it’s in prisons or in churches, they often feel like the lepers of our society, forced to live in the outskirts of our cities, forced to alert others of their presence with a bell.