AN OLD JOKE — A born-again Baptist dies and goes to heaven. He is met by St. Peter, who begins to show him the wonders of heaven: water of life, golden streets, personal mansion, a special pew in the heavenly choir.
But something odd happens as they approach a very small compound surrounded by high walls on the outskirts of heaven. St. Peter holds his finger to his lips and begins to tiptoe past. The Baptist looks at his guide curiously but follows him.
“What was that?” asks the Baptist.
“Oh,” says St. Peter. “Those are the Conservative Mennonites. They think they’re the only ones here.
AS I WAS ENTERING MY TEENS in the mid-70s, my church community hosted tent revivals each summer.
A large circus tent was raised on the grounds of Hartville Christian School in Hartville, Ohio each summer.
The revival organization was owned and operated by the most memorable evangelist I knew — Andrew Jantzi, a Conservative Mennonite. I loved him because he could tell stories.
Jantzi was unafraid to bare his emotions in public. I can’t remember whether or not his hair was brown or blond, whether he was clean-shaven or had a beard, whether he was heavy or thin. But I do remember that when he told a story just before the invitation, his face was soaked with tears.
Jantzi understood the power of tears.
I USED TO THINK THAT people make decisions logically. Jantzi understood better.
Consider this situation — a woman is beaten again by her out-of-control domestic partner. She realizes that the relationship must end, and she has a list of additional reasons for leaving. All of her friends also tell her she should leave. So she leaves. Right?
Wrong. Every year, millions of spouses choose to stay with abusive domestic partners. Why?
Because there’s nothing logical about co-dependency — or about any decision we make.
ONE NIGHT TOWARDS THE END of his sermon, Jantzi told us about a story about a wayward husband. I think his name was Jake. He was in his early 30s, but he refused to give his wife children. Instead, he spent his money drinking, smoking, and gambling. He was destroying the marriage bond with his wife Myrtle, said the Evangelist, through his ungodly behavior.
What hurt even more was his profane attitude towards faith. Myrtle took seriously the biblical edict that commanded wives to submit to their husbands in order to win them to the Lord. Whatever he asked, she would do.
One night, Jake was out drinking and gambling with the boys, and the subject of their wives came up. The three other men complained about the way they were nagged, but Jake sat quietly. One of the men finally turned to him.
“Jake, what are you smiling about? We know the way you treat your wife. Don’t tell me she doesn’t nag.”
Jake kept counting his cards. He didn’t even look up as he spoke.
“Nope. She don’t. And I’ve never laid a hand on her in anger.”
The room exploded. The men simply didn’t believe it. Jake dropped his cards on the table, face down. He rose to his feet.
“Gentlemen,” Jake said. “We don’t need to play cards to gamble tonight. I’ve got a better idea. A side bet, if you will. You’ll even get a meal out of it.”
They went silent, looking at him. He pulled out three $20 bills and laid them down on the table, one at a time as he spoke.
“I’m willing to put this up — you get in at $20 each — against the lot of you. Winner takes all.”
That got their full attention. In 1975, $20 was a lot of money.
“For what?” asked Big Bill, removing his black stogie from his mouth. It was unlit, as usual.
Jake looked at his watch.
“Gentlemen, it’s two in the morning,” he said. “I’m willing to bet my money against yours that if you come home with me, right now, and I order my wife to fry up a full chicken dinner for all of us, she’ll do it.”
Jake looked around the room. He saw their faces.
“And she’ll do it without a single word of complaint, too. Or I lose the bet, and you divide the pot.”
There was silence. Jake slammed his fist down on the table. It made the glasses of whiskey leap into the air. One of them spilled into the lap of Little John, who tried to leap away but only managed to fall awkwardly onto the floor into the spilled whiskey.
“It will be the best chicken dinner you’ve ever tasted.”
Jake looked over at Little John, trying to wipe the whiskey off himself. He suddenly roared with laughter, slapping his thighs. The men looked at each other. And all at once, out came their $20 bills.
JANTZI PUT DOWN the mike and wiped his brow with a handkerchief. It was a hot Sunday night, mid-August. He took off his coat, his white shirt soaked in sweat, his black pants held up by well-worn suspenders.
Jantzi had eaten at my parents’ house more than once during these revival meetings. I knew his kindness, his willingness to listen to me. I had gone forward the night before during the invitation. I had no doubt — every word he spoke was true.
Before me, Jantzi had picked up the mike and was now pacing the platform, surrounded by curtains. I knew that my uncle sat behind those curtains, recording each sermon on tape. There were chairs set up back there as well, two by two, ready for those who came forward to repent and pray.
The Evangelist continued his story.
IT WAS ALMOST 3 AM when the caravan of beaten-up cars and trucks pulled into the long driveway of Jake’s farm. The men trooped towards the darkened kitchen door, and Jake unlocked the door, letting them in. The dining room was neat and clean and smelled of apple pie. Jake went to the foot of the stairs and spoke loudly.
“Honey,” Jake said. “Are you there?” The men heard the bedroom door open.
Jake turned to look at the men. He spoke again.
“Well, my friends are here. We’re playing poker. And I want a chicken dinner. Now!”
The men looked at each other in shock. They looked at the outside door, still open. Each thought about how his own wife would react to such a demand. Little John moved back to the door, holding it open, ready to run. But Jake seemed confident, already setting up a card table. And then they heard her voice, sweet and clear as a bell.
“I’ll be right down, dear.”
And with that, Jake gestured imperiously. He pulled out folding chairs and set them up around the table.
“Well, what are you waiting for?”
Big Bill and Dave sat down. A moment later, the two men stood up again as Jake’s wife Myrtle entered. A light blue dress reached to her knees. An apron wrapped around her trim waist, and her long blonde hair was tied up in a bun under a white covering. Myrtle’s face looked clean, and there was a smile in her blue eyes. Jake glanced at her, and then sat down, beginning to shuffle the cards. Without a trace of judgment in her manner, Myrtle leaned down to kiss Jake cheerfully.
“I’m glad you’re home, Jake. You should bring the boys more often. Welcome, gentlemen. Make yourselves at home while I prepare the meal.”
Jake looked at the men as his wife disappeared into the kitchen. Their mouths hung open. He chuckled and got to his feet.
“Oh, let me get you drinks,” he said. “What kind of a host am I?” With that, he ambled over and opened the dark wooden cabinet located against the west wall. He spoke over his shoulder.
“Shut the door, Little John.”
His buddy sprang into action, closing the door and locking it as Jake pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniels, along with whiskey glasses. It all seemed at odds, somehow, with the sign hanging on the wall: “Prayer changes things.” Jake poured a generous shot for each of them, pushing it towards them.
“Let’s play. Do I smell victory — or is that just the chicken dinner?”
IT WAS HARD TO CONCENTRATE on the game, and Jake took almost every hand. The men were silent, and only one of them, Dave, was drinking. The rest simply toyed with their glasses, passing on bid after bid.
From the kitchen came the sounds of chicken frying, of food boiling on the stove, of a mixer preparing the mashed potatoes. Soon the smell of a delectable chicken dinner wafted into the room. And Jake kept winning each round.
And then the sounds moved to the dining room with silver and china clinking. Soon, Myrtle entered, framed by the doorway. Her apron was stained, but that was the only indication that she had even been working. A smile lit her face.
“Gentlemen, your meal awaits.”
The men got up and followed Jake into the dining room. At the entrance they paused. A full chicken dinner was spread before them, framed in white linen, polished silver, and white china. Perfectly fried chicken on a platter. Clear gravy steaming in a boat. Creamy mashed potatoes, fresh green peas from the garden, and lightly browned white rolls — all with butter melting over them.
The men took their seats, and Jake began eating. His wife, seated beside him, briefly bowed her head for prayer. Then she raised her head and began passing the food.
“Eat up. I’m so glad you all stopped by.”
The men looked at the clock. It was 3:45 AM. They let her fill their plates with heaping portions. But none of Jake’s three friends moved to eat. Myrtle looked at them, questioningly. They refused to meet her eyes. They looked around her, over her, and above her. They looked at each other. Finally, Big Bill rose to his feet. Dave and Little John followed suit. They all stood for a moment, watching Jake eat.
“Okay, Jake,” Big Bill said. “You win the bet.”
Jake looked up and smiled. He raised his drink of whiskey, and then went back to shoveling peas into his mouth. Myrtle looked around her, confused. Jake glanced over at her.
“Good chicken dinner, Hon,” he told her, his mouth full of peas.
ON THE PLATFORM ABOVE ME, the Evangelist stopped his tale to take a drink of water. He wiped his brow with his handkerchief again. He looked back at the ancient canvas sign behind him that read “God is Love.”
He turned to face the audience before him, packed into the rows of folding chairs. On one side sat the women, dressed in long, modest dresses, their hair covered by white bonnets. On the other side were the men, many of them dressed in black suits buttoned all the way up.
The evangelist continued his story.
BIG BILL CLEARED HIS THROAT.
“I’m going to tell you, Jake,” he said, “you’re a fool. How can you treat your wife like this? She’s a saint. You should be ashamed of yourself. Ashamed.”
Jake set down his fork carefully. But Myrtle reached over to lay her hand on Jake’s. Her touch calmed him.
“Please don’t talk like that to my husband, sir.”
Big Bill turned to her in surprise.
“Lady, how can you say that? Don’t you see the way he treats you? He’s despicable.”
But Myrtle rose, smiling at her husband through her tears. She stroked his hair, smoothing it down. He sat silently.
“You don’t understand, sir.”
“What don’t we understand?” asked Little John, sinking back into his seat. Big Bill also sat down, pulling out his cigar from his pocket, instinctively. He put it into his mouth. Only Dave was still standing. He picked up his whiskey and gulped it all down.
“I treat my husband kindly in this life,” Myrtle said, “because where he’s going in the next life, he’ll never hear a kind word. So I want to make his life on earth the best life he can have.”
With that, Dave sat down. All three men stared at their food, unsure of what to say. Little John finally pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose, loud as a trumpet. Then he pulled out a $20 bill, setting it down on the table. The other men did the same. And then individually, they got up and left.
Jake stopped eating. He watched them go.
THE ROOM WAS ABSOLUTELY STILL. Over a thousand people gripped by the power of the Evangelist’s appeal.
“That night,” Jantzi said, “another child was born into the kingdom. The power of a woman’s faith and submission — her obedience to God — won her husband to the Lord. Never doubt it, ladies, those of you whose husbands are uncommitted. God works in mysterious ways.”
Jantzi nodded to the song leader, who announced the page number of the invitation hymn. His voice was soft but clear as he began.
Just as I am, without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me
And as Thou bidst me, come to thee
O Lamb of God, I come. I come.
The Evangelist drank a glass of water as we finished the first verse. He blew his nose, using the clean part to wipe his eyes. Then he considered his audience. He spoke again, gently, into the microphone.
“Many of you here are saying to yourselves, ‘Wait awhile. Think about it. Take your time.’ But who knows what could happen, even tonight,” said Jantzi, his words clear and authoritative. “God gives us no assurance that we will even live through the night.”
He nodded at the song leader, who began the second verse. And now, a stream of people, mostly young, had begun leaving their seats and coming down the aisle. Counselors joined them, some putting their arms around them and leading them off to the side.
And then the service was over. Each of the supplicants had found someone to talk to. Some were kneeling already at chairs or benches, some around the back of the curtain.
They would leave that night feeling good, feeling forgiven, feeling like they were the center of God’s universe.
WHAT CAUSES THE VASE to tip over and break, spilling the victim’s last reservoir of grace? When does she suddenly realize that there’s no hope for the relationship? When does she realize that her life isn’t Life? It’s hell.
When does she begin thinking about practical things like money and bus tickets and money and overcoming her fears and mixed feelings about him and her own bank account and clothes and money, and leaving at a time when her abuser won’t return for awhile to give her a head start?
How does it feel to her — that moment when a feeling of independence rushes in to take the place of fear?
What interests me most is not the leaving — instead, it’s the moment of decision, which was made weeks or months before she actually left. It’s rarely a logical decision, made rationally with lists of pros and cons.
Who makes life-changing decisions like that?
You might remember a moment when you suddenly knew what you needed to do, just as surely as you knew that you wanted your coffee black this morning, rather than with the cream you usually put into it. And then it became merely a question of how to do it.
WHEN WAS THE PRECISE MOMENT I decided to leave the world of my birth?
The reality is that I never intended to leave. I went to college just like I went to first grade: I wanted to learn. When I began college, I didn’t see the world of the conservative Mennonites as repressive. I had grown up in that world, and I knew it intimately. I was a youth leader.
But my musical talent gave me an unusual window into a variety of Christian denominations. My friends and I performed on Sunday mornings and evenings at Christian churches, locally and on national tours, singing at churches that ranged from hard-core Baptist to United Methodists to evangelical Friends. Each denomination firmly believed that they, and only they, knew the true route to heaven.
I must have wondered: was it that way outside of Christianity, as well? Did Muslims choose to be Muslims mostly because they were raised that way? Did Jews choose to practice Judaism primarily because of their bloodline?
When was the moment when it all came together? When did I realize that 99% of people chose to practice the faith of their birth world — simply because that is the god they know? When did it dawn on me that inertia alone tied most people to a religion?
THE MOMENT OF DECISION, the emotional Rubicon I crossed, occurred during a conversation with a Muslim girl in London, England in April 1989. I was attending Richmond College, living on the Kensington campus. I was 25 years old.
I don’t even remember the young woman’s name. The two of us were standing in the common room, waiting to collect the day’s mail. It was almost the end of my year abroad. A classmate from my Chaucer class had just introduced us, and we were having one of those random conversations that suddenly goes deep. She had asked me about my world and reciprocated by telling me about her own strict and loving father and her own birth world.
Although she was dressed like any Western girl, my new friend told me that when she returned to Egypt, she would take off her clothes and put on the garb of her father’s culture. The demands of modesty she would face made the women’s apparel within my own Amish-Mennonite world look positively slutty. And then, as I listened to her describe the patriarchal world of her birth, it finally hit me.
I realized that although the trappings of her birth world were different, and the theology read in a different language, the religious principle that put men in control of her world was the same.
That moment caramelized all of my questions. Suddenly, my life changed, forever.