A new and inspiring biography tells the story of a pastoral couple with a deep love for God and the Mennonite Church. With lives spanning most of the 20th century, Harold and Arlene Eshleman navigated a time of cultural change and adjusted their ministry approaches in each successive era.
Harold Eshleman (1911-1998) supported his family as a public schoolteacher for 43 years, served as a Mennonite pastor and overseer for close to four decades and had a heart for missions. His wife, Arlene, (1911-2008) was a skilled typist, supportive church worker and godly homemaker.
Using interviews and well-documented records, Kenneth L. Eshleman’s biography of his parents reveals that Harold was an innovator, perceived to be on the progressive side of issues. In the early 1970s, while pastoring at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va., he gave up the plain coat and became an overseer in the Harrisonburg District of Virginia Mennonite Conference. He helped start Mount Vernon Mennonite Church, Grottoes, Va., and dealt gently with Mennonites who changed dress patterns and lifestyles — such as wearing wedding rings, women cutting their hair, and new business involvements — during the 1960s and 1970s.
When Harold was ordained by the lot in 1945, he began as pastor at Chicago Avenue Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg. Early on he had tension with his bishop, who wanted to put Harold on a calendar system and have him rotate to a different church each Sunday. Harold insisted on settling down in one church, Chicago Avenue. Harold won out, and that began a process in Virginia Conference of ministers being located in one congregation.
This biography reveals the tension Harold experienced between teaching in the public school system and serving full time in Christian ministry. When asked to be the pastor at Chicago Avenue, he decided it was best to keep teaching, which he did for more than 40 years. He earned his living by teaching school. During the 1950s and ’60s he was missed at home and school when he went away for weekend revival meetings in distant states or when he had to leave the classroom for a funeral.
Arlene Heatwole met Harold Eshleman while they were high school students at Eastern Mennonite School during the 1920s. Arlene learned bookkeeping and typing, which enabled her to work in the business world. She supported Harold’s church work with the production of bulletins and newsletters and keeping church records.
Married during the early years of the Great Depression, Harold and Arlene lived frugally and saved money. A formative event in their marriage occurred when Harold was teaching school in Elkton, some miles from their home in Harrisonburg, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Harold asked his mountain host family where he could borrow money to make a down payment on a house in Harrisonburg. Banks were reluctant to make loans. His hostesss, Etta Meadows, asked how much he needed. Harold said $500 would probably be enough. She reached into her apron pocket, counted out the cash and lent it to him. In later years, the Eshlemans lent money to others because of the generosity their hostess showed to them in 1933.
The Eshlemans were committed to missions. Harold served for 27 years on Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions. Their work with Laotians at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church exemplifies how they were ministers to many. In retirement, they began to teach, support and help a growing cluster of Laotians in Harrisonburg. The group grew, and the Eshlemans became a favorite and trusted couple among the Laotians.
In the early 1990s, I taught Phoune Liambounheuang at Eastern Mennonite School. The Eshlemans had supported and helped her to attend EMHS. When I recently asked a ninth-grade student of Laotian descent about the Eshlemans, she had heard of the couple, 20 years after Harold’s death.
The first four chapters can be omitted if the reader wants to get directly to the story of this dynamic couple. And if one wants to read of the Eshlemans’ mission activities, turn to chapter 14.
The late Lee Eshleman, Ted Swartz’s partner in the well-known Ted and Lee acting duo, was Harold and Arlene’s grandson.
Libraries and churches should include this inspiring and well-researched 230-page biography in their collections. For a copy, contact the author at 909 Hawthorne Ave., Mechanicsburg, PA 17055, or by email at keshlem@ comcast.net.
Elwood Yoder is a writer and teacher from Harrisonburg, Va.