Naomi Lehman was born in 1914. She’s lived in Berne all of her life and has been a member of the First Mennonite Church since she was baptized at age 14. In 1982 she wrote a book entitled Pilgrimage of a Congregation. This 439-page paperback is the definitive history of First Mennonite church. It documents its growth from the first 82 immigrants in 1852 to becoming the largest Mennonite congregation in North America with over 1200 members. Naomi now lives in the Swiss Village Retirement Community west of town. She enjoys listening to books on tape and playing scrabble. This conversation was recorded on March 6, 2006.

What inspired you to write Pilgrimage of a Congregation?

Kenyon Sprunger.

How so?

He came to me once and said, well, I had written several historical pageants you know…

Those are like plays?

Yes, the big pageant that we did for the 100 years history of the community, A Time to Remember, I wrote that one. But back to the book, Kenyon came to me and said, “Naomi, you ought to write a history of the church.” And I said, “Oh goodness, I never thought of such a thing.”
I said, “Kenyon, I won’t forget it. You won’t have to ask me again. When I have time I will come to you.” And so, when my term expired as president of Women in Mission, I went to him and said I was ready to start.

How long did it take you?

A couple of years. Les was so helpful. He bought me a little tape recorder and took me places to interview people. One of my finest interviews was with Milton Sprunger, out in Washington, Illinois. He was so good.

Do you still page through the book sometimes?

If I could read I would. I can’t see anymore to read. And it’s such an effort to use magnification. My vision is really very poor. But I’m glad for what I have. I get around. I can still eat but once in a while I’m not sure what something is! But our food is really very good here.

So, what endears you to the church?

Well, let me think…I certainly love my church. I have all my life. There are very many fine people there. We’ve had some outstanding pastors.

Do you like the fact that it’s a large congregation?

It’s the only thing I ever knew. I started going when I was a four-year-old child in Sunday School. To me, a big church is the way churches are!

As you perceive it, how has the church changed over the years?

Well it certainly has… goodness; I remember when we used to kneel in church. That’s a little thing but I think we have broadened an awful lot in our concept of what the church is all about.

Insofar as people’s opinions on what the church means?

Perhaps so. In our outreach, in our caring…I think we’re a much more caring church. People helping, people going down to Louisiana, all the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) relief sales over the years. We had much better attendance years ago than we do now and that’s hard to understand. Since the church has made progress you’d think it would make progress in that area too. But for some reason it doesn’t. I’ve tried to analyze why there aren’t more people there on a Sunday morning. I don’t think that having two services has helped us any. In fact, I was opposed to it but I guess that’s because I’m old. Have you been to the young service?

No, I’ve just been to the older one. Did you ever go?

No, in fact I don’t even go to church anymore. I watch all of the services here and it’s so wonderful. On this fairly large screen I can see much better than I can in church.

What do you hope for most for the Berne church?

You know, I should really have a quick answer for that. More interest, better attendance, being a Christian and showing it in your practice and your working… wholeheartedness. I always thought we were a real bulwark around here (Berne), people would know that the Mennonite Church cares about them. And I think they do. I think the church is trying to do more inclusive things. We belong to Christ and we ought to show that.

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?