Reflections on Mennonite Heritage Sunday

This year on Mennonite Heritage Sunday, we asked three people from our community to reflect on what was going on in the story of the church and the story of their own lives when they first arrived in our community. Jennifer Graber reflected from 30 years ago, Ann Speyer from 20 years ago, and Jonathan Hershberger from 10 years ago. Video and audio of the reflections can be found here.

Jennifer Graber’s reflection:

In June 1993, my husband Kevin and I moved to the Bay Area for him to begin his neurology residency at Stanford and for me to complete my pediatric residency there. We came to visit in March that year and on Sunday attended FMCSF. We recall being warmly welcomed by a small group of earnest young Mennos, some of whom invited us out for dim sum after church. John Flickinger, Doug Basinger and Dan Flickinger took us to Yank Sing in downtown SF. It was delicious, exciting and, when the bill came, horrifying to us poor residents. The divided bill would have come to $16 per person. As we were contemplating this, our new friends quickly paid, ever generous as they always are. When we moved out in June we returned to church in San Francisco, which was then meeting at the Dolores Street Baptist church on the corner of Dolores and 15th St (where a lovely newish condo building now stands). The next Sunday, that building had burned down and the church had to find a new place to meet. 

After a brief stint worshipping in a Presbyterian church fellowship hall with lights on a timer that went off mid-service, we found refuge in Golden Gate Lutheran church on Dolores and 19th St. across from Dolores Park.  It was a very large, dark, church-shaped building with stained glass windows and a pipe organ. Our group filled ~the front third of the sanctuary, wedged in time between the Lutherans and their dogs and another church group. As a newly minted pediatrician and soon to be mama, I was very interested in the children of the church and their activities. We had a children’s choir on occasion, infant dedications, baby quilt making, and Sunday school classes for different ages of kids (including classes that were taught by men—Gary Barber, Joel Tarman, and David DeRosa). In addition, particularly beloved by many, were Christmas hymn sings led by Vance George, a Goshen grad and director of the SF Symphony Chorus. The floors of the building, especially in the basement, were often pretty grimy. Fortunately we had a growing number of young kids by that time (Morgan, Lydia, Levi, Aaron, Sahalie, Tess, Miriam, Abby, Emily, Rose, Adam, Adrian, Charlotte, Siena, Thea, Liam) who cleaned the floors and other surfaces by scooting, climbing, and crawling around on them. The ramp at the front of the sanctuary was loved by our son Aaron who would run up and down it endlessly during the worship service behind whoever was speaking. The fellowship times there always had coffee, sometimes a single box of donuts and a sugar dish full of sugar cubes that were a favorite of the early elementary school crowd (Isaac, Luke and Leland). 

Because we were such a small group (15-20 people on a Sunday morning) it was sometimes difficult to have robust singing. Depending on who was present, Kevin, as a bass, could feel rather alone in his part. He recalls that Pat Plude was frequently excited by new hymns that she discovered in the hymnal and was amazed that so many people in the congregation were already familiar with them.

The pastors of our group turned over relatively often in the 1990s. When we arrived Joyce and Don Wyse were co pastors with Joyce doing the preaching. Rebecca Slough joined them and continued for a bit after they left. Then John Miller was with us for 3 years. An interim pastor, Lee Loots, then shepherded us for a year until Sheri took the reins in 2000. Our children grew up in a church mostly pastored by women and I like to think it shaped their thoughts about who was welcome and valued as well as giving them progressive ideas about who is capable of doing this important work.

We have attended the yearly church retreat regularly since we began attending FMCSF. We remember being at the Quaker Center in Ben Lomand. It was a lovely, wooded tract with slippery trails.  The Quakers declined to host us again after one of our members slipped and broke his leg there, increasing their insurance premiums. For one year we went to Hidden Villa, a farm in Los Altos Hills, that was known to Minka van de rZwaag and Darlene Hilton-Nickel. There we were responsible for preparing all the meals and cleaning up afterwards. We divided the work, of course, but it was still a bit of a job. Then in 2000 a search committee found Redwood Glen Retreat Center near Loma Mar and the church has been having our annual retreat there ever since (except for the first year of the pandemic). The retreat committee of Eveline Kernen Gerber, Judy Georges and Ann Speyer started the tradition that continues until this day. Remembering that place and the games, singing, puzzles, outings, comforter knotting, hiking, playing ultimate, snacking, and becoming more connected are some of my favorite memories of our almost 30 years among you all. 

Ann Speyer’s reflection:

Thanks so much to Jennifer for those descriptions of what this church was like 30 years ago.  There are so many stories to tell: my story weaves into our story, which weaves into the larger Mennonite story.

In January 2000, I moved to San Francisco to begin my Mennonite Voluntary Service term.  New millennium, new city, new chapter of life.  I was 22 years old, ready for adventure, and actually had no idea what a Mennonite was, but it was time for me to leave my sheltered Dutch Christian Reformed community of origin in West Michigan in search of the more fabulous queer colorful world my heart knew was possible.  San Francisco seemed like the place, based mostly on my first magical Halloween visit here in 1997 and another visit in the fall of 1999, and I’d heard about San Francisco’s MVS program from a friend at the Oregon Extension.  So I showed up here hoping to establish myself in a new chosen home, definitely not looking for a church community.

I quickly realized, though, that community didn’t just happen automatically anymore, now that my school days were over.  And the church people were just so hospitable, and seemed quite interesting really.  Plus, unlike everyone back home, they did not know multiple generations of my extended family, and seemed interested in supporting and hearing from me as a young adult in my own right – a very new experience for me!  So, more often than not, I ended up making the Sunday morning trek from the MVS house to our meeting place at the time: Golden Gate Lutheran Church at the corner of Dolores & 19th street, just three blocks from here.  (show of hands: who has never been in that space?)

Built in 1910, this house of worship seemed to be feeling every year of its age, and saw all manner of folks come and go through its doors in an average week.  We were one of three different congregations that met there for worship each Sunday, and during the week numerous 12-step recovery meetings convened there, as well as sometimes a homeless shelter in the downstairs space. I remember threadbare carpet and musty smells… the dimly-lit sanctuary felt downright cavernous, and the 25-30 people who showed up for a Sunday service gathered in the frontmost pews.  The handful of children would squirm around or read on pews farther back, and folks from the street would wander in from time to time.  One of the most memorable repeat attenders called himself Spaceman O.T.  He would arrive by bicycle at random times during the service, always wearing a helmet and some sort of black bodysuit ensemble with lots of loud clanking metal accessories.  He typically had something to share during our time of joys and concerns, not always linear.

We had a room that we used for our office space and also our tiny multi-age kids’ Sunday school class, and I remember another room we would use for occasional adult education discussions. We had fellowship time downstairs, and the restrooms were down there, too – also dimly lit, and with signs posted requesting that people please not shave or bathe at the handwashing sinks.  There was a door to the street on that level, too, and folks would sometimes wander in and help themselves to the coffee and snacks we set out.  I have a vivid memory of watching a man who clearly had a very difficult life (and a very strong odor about him) selecting pieces of cheese with his dirt-filled fingernails.  I wasn’t aware of any sort of intentional connection that our small band of Mennonites had with any of the other groups that shared the space, and it was definitely a very different experience than here at Sha’ar Zahav!

Clearly the space made quite an impression on young Ann Speyer, but the community and all we experienced together made an even bigger impression, drawing me in and molding me (much to my own surprise) into the total church lady you see before you now.  20 years ago, there were about 60 adults and 10-15 kids with some connection to FMCSF, and varying degrees of involvement.  [Exhibit A: Jan 2002 FMCSF directory]  Sunday services were small and intimate, and I remember quite a bit of socializing outside of church: shared meals, wine tasting, sushi making, fondue, quilting… the church felt like a family to me, and anytime a group activity was happening, everyone was invited.  Russ was the first person I spoke with when he interviewed me for MVS, and Judy Georges, a beloved former member of this congregation, was my other point of entry as a fellow alum of the Oregon Extension.  But it wasn’t long before others became dear friends, and I was planning church retreats and joining committees and singing in small ensembles.  The months sped by, and I joyfully and frequently changed my hair color.  [Exhibit B: hair color photo montage from the early aughts]

There were also many pivotal events in our shared history and my own life during that time:

  • In 2000, after interim pastor Lee Loots stepped down, we started the interview process with Sheri and she began as our pastor in November of that same year.
  • In late 2000 or early 2001, Joe Grubb, the landlord from whom we’d been renting the MVS unit for several years, announced his plans to sell the building.  He wanted to give our church the first opportunity to buy it if we wished, and after much discussion, a small group of folks from our church, with support from the community, decided to put up the money for the down payment, with a plan for the church to pay them back over time.  Our MVS unit still exists today in no small part due to that decision and the investment our community has continued to make in that space ever since!
  • On Pride Sunday, June 2001, I gave my faith story before going to the parade and the festivities downtown.  Sorry most of you missed it!  The Indigo Girls were on my bulletin cover, and I’ve brought a copy for you to look at.  [Exhibit C: FMCSF bulletin from June 24, 2001]
  • The violent attacks of September 11, 2001 rocked our nation and our city, with fears that San Francisco landmarks might also be targeted.  I remember gathering the following Sunday in shock and grief, recognizing that our view of the world had shifted in some profound ways.  My new group of MVS housemates, including Amy Bolaños (then Krehbiel) were at their MVS orientation that week, and arrived in San Francisco soon after.
  • In fall of 2002, I met Christopher DeJong, after his mother (who had been my high school French teacher back in Michigan) gave him my phone number, and he called me one evening.  We had both moved to San Francisco after growing up in the same religious community in Michigan, so we had much in common.  Now that we’ve been hanging out for 20 years and married for almost 17, we have even more in common!  He is still connected to this community as well.
  • Check this out: On Mennonite Heritage Sunday in 2003, I gave a reflection, and I still have the print-out of what I said then!  Unfortunately I didn’t discover it until I was almost done writing this one, otherwise I could have just read the same one again.  [Exhibit D: 2-page reflection for FMCSF Heritage]  Perhaps I’ll be invited to reflect on this topic again in another 20 years… 
  • Sometime in the latter part of 2005, again after MUCH discussion, we decided to leave Golden Gate Lutheran Church and begin renting space from Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.  It was a significant transition, and seems to have worked out quite well on the whole.

So you see, as I said at the beginning, there are so many stories: my story weaves into the story of our congregation, which weaves into the Mennonite story, Mennonite heritage.  This past summer I visited Eveline Kernen-Gerber, another longtime member of this community, in her hometown of Bern, Switzerland, and we explored some of her history, woven into the rich Mennonite heritage in the Jura mountains.  One place we visited was the historic Anabaptist Bridge, which spans a small beautiful gorge where Mennonites met to worship in secret, centuries ago.  As I walked across the bridge, I said to Eveline “Maybe this makes me a real Mennonite now.”  She laughed, replying, “Oh Ann, I think you’ve been a Mennonite for a long time already.”

There’s so much more that could be shared, but I’ll hand the story off to Jonathan, who will recount another chapter.