I met Urbane Peachey about 20 years ago. I’d just accepted an invitation to serve as interim pastor for Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster, Pa. He was one of the pastors at Akron Mennonite Church, the congregation that birthed Community Mennonite. Both belonged to Atlantic Coast Conference. So our paths crossed from time to time. As a new pastor, I looked to pastors like Urbane to help me negotiate the dynamics of congregational ministry. He was a wise and generous mentor and colleague.
In his memoir, More Than One Thing is True: Agony and Ecstasy Below Cloud Nine, Peachey shares wisdom gained in pastoral ministry and in several years with Mennonite Central Committee in the Middle East. He does so with a light touch, telling of his experiences and what he learned from them without claiming to have the last or only word.
In his introduction, Peachey says he wrote the book “to better understand and reflect on selected milieus of a lifetime, and to revisit what I did and who I became in the cauldron of the Middle East and the diverse, stimulating and sometimes polarizing impulses of the congregation I loved and served as pastor.”
The book is divided into three sections. The first focuses on Peachey’s experiences as MCC representative in Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon from 1970 to 1975. The second provides anecdotes and thoughts on the commonalities between Islam and Christianity. The third offers reflections from his 15 years of congregational ministry from 1986 to 2000. Each section combines storytelling with Peachey’s reflections on what he learned from them, both about himself and about the contexts in which he served.
In the first section, Peachey relates a number of stories from his time with MCC in the Middle East. He and his family arrived in the region in 1970, an especially tense time. Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had just died, creating a wave of mourning that sometimes erupted in violence. Peachey is able to zoom in and out, describing the specifics of beginning an MCC assignment while keeping the larger social and political backdrop in mind. An awareness of the larger matrix of events is essential to understanding his experiences.
In his time with MCC, Peachey oversaw a number of projects designed to improve the lives of the people in the region. He gives credit not only to MCC but also to the aid workers, government officials and citizens who helped those projects come into being. There’s plenty of detail about the projects themselves, and the negotiations required when working with a mix of players. But Peachey never loses sight of the full and complicated humanity of those working on and affected by those projects.
In the second section, Peachey offers vignettes about his experiences working with and living among Muslims. Here too, the storytelling is leavened with humility, as Peachey seeks to learn how Christians and Muslims can work and live together. He contrasts this with the suspicion and hostility too often expressed by Christians in the United States when talking about Islam. Peachey’s experience offers a hopeful corrective to those attitudes.
As a pastor, I especially enjoyed Peachey’s stories from his years at Akron Mennonite Church. He reflects on walking with congregants through life transitions. He names the tension pastors face, placed as we often are between the boundaries established by denominational necessity and the day-to-day needs of folks in the pews. Pastors negotiate the space between the two, and Peachey speaks honestly about the difficulty inherent in that.
He writes: “I came to appreciate the importance of welcoming people to faith and the church, following their search and validating their experience and spirituality without imposing ‘official’ views.”
This third section would be a useful tool for young ministers and seminarians seeking to catch a glimpse of the personal aspects of congregational ministry.
One of the gifts of the memoir is Peachey’s willingness to identify what he did and how he did it while also reflecting on his own growth. There’s a humility in the writing that invites the reader to engage Peachey intellectually and theologically. In a time when much of our public discourse, in both church and society, is characterized by oversimplification and black-and-white thinking, Peachey’s insistence that more than one thing is true is a breath of fresh air.
Looking back on a full and varied life of ministry, Peachey reminds us that truth is not a zero-sum proposition that divides the world into winners and losers. The quest for certainty, for final answers, is a worthy one and, indeed, a human one. We all look for and need a place to stand in the world. The trick is to find that place to stand without insisting that it’s the only place and that everyone who stands elsewhere is wrong and therefore an enemy.
Peachey’s memoir is a nudge toward a deeper, more compassionate engagement with the world around us in all of its diversity and complexity. It may be in the midst of that complex diversity that we truly learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Ron Adams is pastor of Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church.