Oak Grove Mennonite Church — a profile in God’s faithfulness
By Paul J. Miller
By 1815, at least 16 Amish families were landowners in Wayne County, Ohio. The small community had its first resident minister, Christian Brandt, who was ordained in Switzerland. Bishop David Zook moved into the region from Mifflin County, Pa. With ministerial leadership present, the Amish families began to meet as a congregation by 1818. By 1820 there were 25 families in the congregation.
Today, 200 years later, Oak Grove Mennonite Church of Smithville, Ohio, continues to serve the Wayne County community. Douglas Zehr pastors about 380 members. Miriam Zehr, associate pastor, is minister of worship and Christian education.
Oak Grove is marking its bicentennial with three special weekend celebrations. The first — a Historical Reflections Weekend — occurred on April 14-15. July 14-15 marks a celebration of music. Pianist George Bixler will present a concert on Saturday evening. On Sunday afternoon a congregational singing will sample the hymnals used at Oak Grove in the 20th century. Also, a birthday party is planned for the church.
Oak Grove’s Harvest Home celebration on Oct. 13-14 will feature a choral music program directed by former member Byron Kauffman, now of West Liberty, Ohio. A Sunday school reunion is planned on Saturday afternoon and evening. Sunday worship will be led by Mark Schloneger, pastor of North Goshen (Indiana) Mennonite Church. Mark is son of Bob and Enid Schloneger, members of Oak Grove.
Jason Kauffman, Director of Archives and Record Management for Mennonite Church USA, Elkhart, Ind., was guest speaker for the Historical Reflections Weekend. Jason, born and raised in Dalton, Ohio, attended Orrville Mennonite Church. A graduate of Central Christian School and Goshen College, Jason earned his doctoral degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
A two-century timeline of Oak Grove history was unveiled at the Saturday observance. The timeline follows three strands — historical events in the life of Oak Grove; significant developments in the broader Mennonite and Christian Church; and world events. Art Neuenschwander plotted the timeline on a digital design program, and the printed panels are mounted around the church sanctuary. A short historical booklet, Sketches of God’s Faithfulness, by historian Levi Miller, also was released. Miller interwove sketches of current members with past members, the great “cloud of witnesses” of God’s faithfulness.
Jason Kauffman suggested three reasons for considering our history. First, as observed by John Roth, Goshen College history professor, Mennonite theology has been shaped by story. History puts us in touch with those stories. Second, history provides tools to clarify our identity. And, third, history helps us reassess and come to terms with difficult issues of our past.
Kauffman noted that Oak Grove has numerous collections of documents, photographs and files in the archives at Elkhart. Several themes make the congregation an interesting study for researchers. Oak Grove early on revealed a distinct congregational approach to authority and leadership. Second, Oak Grove developed an early and sustained support for Mennonite higher education, particularly Goshen College and Bluffton College. Third, there was early and sustained support by Oak Grove for mission and service.
On Sunday, the Christian Education hour was devoted to sharing legacy stories. Kauffman recounted the life and service of Crissie Yoder Shank, born in Holden, Missouri, but raised in the Smithville community. She married Charles L. Shank, and then they went on a mission to India in 1915, returning in 1919 after a daughter’s illness. Crissie was the missions editor for The Christian Exponent periodical, and published a journal of her experiences in 1924, Letters from Mary. Kauffman observed that she was the first published female author in the Mennonite Church. Crissie filled many roles in the life of the church, but in particular served as chair of the Ohio sewing circles. Among her children many served in various capacities of church life and mission service.
Paul Miller recounted the lives of four young men of Oak Grove, all contemporaries in the early 1915-25 era. They were Jacob C. Meyer, Vernon J. Smucker, Jesse N. Smucker, and Orie Benjamin Gerig. Jesse was ordained as a minister of Oak Grove at age 23, while he was a student at Goshen College. All of them went to Europe in reconstruction service, except for Vernon Smucker, who was appointed by the Mennonite Church to a team to go to Europe and investigate service options. They joined their passions for Young People’s Conferences, and came home to participate in three such gatherings before the conferences died under the criticism of church leadership.
During the worship hour, Kauffman assessed the impact of the Young People’s Conference Movement. Though the movement failed by 1923, it called for renewal and practical applications of a nonresistant peace stance. And though some did not evolve until years later, the development of the Civilian Public Service program, Mennonite Central Committee, a broadened missions program, Mennonite Disaster Service, Mennonite World Conference, and seminary education programs for ministers can be traced to the concerns of the movement. Kauffman asked what lessons can be learned from the Young People’s Conference Movement as the Mennonite Church deals with a new era of conflict and disagreement. The Church must navigate new areas of tension between factions and generations.
Guests — some registering from New York, Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin — joined local Oak Grove congregants for the three sessions of historical reflections. They browsed the foyer filled with displays of multiple avenues of service through the years.
Pastors and ministerial student interns shared memories. Three were present and shared briefly — Bob Schloneger, a student intern and recently interim pastor with Enid Schloneger; Lawrence Yoder, who interned in 1987 and then served as a missionary with Shirlee in Indonesia before returning to teach at Eastern Mennonite University; and Sher Speigle Byler, associate pastor from 1988-92, now a counselor in Canton, Ohio. Other pastors sent greetings.
All are welcome at the upcoming July and October bicentennial observances. For more information, check the Oak Grove website, www.oakgrovemc.org.