Howard Raid was a leader in the General Conference Mennonite Church who stressed reaching out a helping hand.
We live in times filled with uncertainty, fear and power struggles on many levels, but are these times unique?
In the preface to his 1967 book on Mennonite mutual aid, Howard Raid writes: “We are inclined to think that our age is the only or at least the first to experience change.
Every age was an uncertain one until it was past.”
To look at the past is to discover the future. In reflection, the way for today unfolds. The life of Howard Raid, ordained Mennonite minister, college professor and president, builder of numerous Mennonite organizations, businessman, church and community leader and Mennonite historian, provides a reference point for us in these uncertain times. Raid’s many personal relationships, whether with struggling students, the town outcast, top businesspeople, government officials or significant church leaders, grew out of his Christian commitment to the biblical principles of community, mutual aid and stewardship. These guiding principles, along with his practical, hands-on, dig-in-the-dirt style, coursed through his veins, forming the lifeblood of his choices at critical times in his life.
In the July 14, 1992, issue of The Mennonite, Raid wrote: “In contrast to a world that rewards power and individual rights, we are called to speak boldly and practice Christian mutual aid as a clear alternative. Mutual aid can be a tool in building Christian communities and God’s kingdom as we ‘bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2).” This biblical principle guided Raid, a poor Iowa farm boy, through 91 years of faith-filled living.
Gone. Lost. In 1926, Raid’s family lost their Iowa farm. A few months later, his father, a sometimes farmer and traveling salesman, disappeared. As the eldest of five children at age 14, Raid assumed the responsibilities of raising his siblings and supporting the family with the help of his mother, Clara.
As an adult reflecting on these experiences, Raid writes, “He (Harvey) was not a role model I wanted to follow … his leaving made me strongly determined to prove that we could make a success of our lives.” As a young teen, Raid’s feelings must also have included anger, fear and frustration along with what emerged as fierce determination.
Zion Mennonite Church, Donnellson, Iowa, provided a safety net for this family. The church hired Raid as custodian for $100 a year. While he fired the coal furnace, he read C. Henry Smith’s Story of the Mennonites and other books. He discovered the history of his mother’s people. He was thrilled to read about their convictions against war, about confession of faith as an adult, about living simply and speaking the truth with simple yeses and nos. He read about mutual aid, caring and concern for members of the faith. He realized that what his family without its father was experiencing in this congregation was part of something bigger. There were Mennonites around the world, and he belonged to them. His early enthusiasm for Mennonite history and beliefs prepared him for the time when he would teach in the same college as the famous C. Henry Smith and take the last class of Mennonite history Smith taught there. Speakers from Bluffton and Bethel colleges and Mennonite missionaries also helped form Raid’s lifelong interest in service, church, education and learning. These experiences helped shape him for when he would assume key roles as a leader and builder of Mennonite programs and organizations.
During college days he drove an early morning and late evening milk delivery route and worked in a bakery. For several years he taught and served as superintendent at rural Iowa schools. With the draft and war fever high, as a conscientious objector, Raid was pressured to leave teaching. He changed the rural context from teaching to preaching at Bethel Mennonite Church, Fortuna, Mo. There he started a model farm to help locals increase productivity and diversify.
The larger body of Mennonites again inspired Raid during the 1945 General Conference (GC) sessions at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan. Following that conference, both E.G. Kaufman and Lloyd Ramseyer, presidents of Bethel and Bluffton colleges, respectively, offered Raid a teaching position. Raid walked through the door that opened at Bluffton after completing his master’s degree at Iowa State University. Later he received his doctoral degree from Ohio State University. Both degrees were in agricultural economics.
Teaching in a Mennonite college, a longtime goal, became a reality when he began teaching at Bluffton (Ohio) College (now University) in 1947. At Bluffton he developed the business and economics department, the first in a Mennonite college. The practical always preempted the academic. Raid soon realized that most of his students wanted education so they could facilitate more productive farms or businesses already in the family. Building strong Mennonite communities depended on these young people’s commitment to biblical teachings of mutual aid and service along with their education. Business and faith belonged together.
At a time when investing in the stock market was suspect, he organized the Boom or Bust Investment Club to teach students about markets and money management. He purchased the Bluffton Slaw Cutter factory and set up the Business Management Lab to give students hands-on experience in all aspects of running a business. This model proved a forerunner to internships. During his 35 years of teaching and after, he served as a strong mentor for many students. They remember Doc Raid always having time for “his boys.” “Give 10 percent, save 10 percent and live on the rest.” “Remember your family, church and community.” “Honesty is the best policy, but if it’s the best policy, it’s not honest” were among his favorite and well-remembered sayings. Howard practiced what he preached.
In 1949, to help young farmers and businesspeople stay in the community, Raid worked with the four Bluffton/Pandora Mennonite churches to start Mennonite Brotherhood Aid, a program of economic assistance and financial counseling. By organizing the Bluffton Swiss Historical Society and writing a weekly newspaper column for 14 years, he helped preserve local history.
In his home congregation of Bluffton’s First Mennonite, he served in leadership roles, including writing The First Seventy-Five Years history. Howard and his wife, Pauline, befriended several refugee families sponsored by the church. His wood-working shop provided hands-on interaction, overcoming language and cultural barriers.
The Central District and GC denominational Board of Business Administration, where he served for 12 years, benefited from Raid’s business background and experience. He served with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) coordinating travel to Mennonite World Conference in Amsterdam in the summer of 1967, then from 1967-1969 as president of Freeman (S.D.) Junior College.
Part of the builder generation, Raid played key roles in developing Mennonite organizations, including Mennonite Mutual Aid, Association of Mennonite Aid Societies, Mennonite Foundation, Goodville Mutual Casualty Company and Menno Travel. His was often the lone GC Mennonite voice among strong (Old) Mennonite (MC) leaders, including Orie Miller, Harold L. Swartzendruber, Samuel S. Wenger and Guy F. Hershberger.
Raid’s business skills and training as an economist were critical to these organizations, yet he felt marginalized because he was GC, a business person and from a poor family. J. Winfield Fretz and Elmer Ediger became GC colleagues and allies. Raid drew on his growing-up experiences and challenges he faced with his brothers in 1946 when they formed the Raid Brothers’ Construction Company, an Iowa limestone quarry business to help support their growing families. “Look for the areas of strength and build on those; weed out the dead areas that are choking growth,” Raid advised them.
In July 1955, MCC sponsored a conference in Chicago on mutual aid with Orie Miller as spokesperson. At that first joint (MC-GC) mutual aid meeting, one of the (Old) Mennonite members remarked, “There is still a lot of curiosity about each other. I took a good look at everyone and discovered that you GCs weren’t so frightening after all. We have a lot in common when it comes to issues for the brotherhood.” A low laughter rippled through the groups as they imagined GCs and MCs looking each other over. All agreed that their purpose for organizing was to serve a need for Christian witness for the church and not to fulfill purely economic needs.
Raid wrote that he was elected the chairman of the group that year. “That election was amazing, as I was of the GC Mennonite church. The politics showed at the next conference, when it was arranged for an (Old) Mennonite to chair those sessions.” A builder of bridges, Raid never sought personal power. Following the biblical call for mutual aid and stewardship meant service was more important than chairing a committee.
Raid looked for meaning in life experiences and common threads for weaving a strong faith community. His deep roots in the Zion Mennonite Church, Donnellson, Iowa, led him to write the family histories of his forebears, such as his great-great-grandfather Henry Ellenberger, the first ordained Mennonite minister west of the Mississippi River, and that of Raid’s wife, Pauline Krehbiel’s family. These ancestors were instrumental in founding the General Conference Mennonite Church. Raid chaired the centennial celebration of that founding in 1960 and helped plan a study conference, “Christian Unity in Faith and Witness.” Delegates and friends came from all parts of North America to hear John Howard Yoder, E.G. Kaufman, William Klassen, Erland Waltner, Olin Krehbiel and others speak and preach.
The original purpose in 1860 was “to unify all Mennonites and strengthen their efforts in missions, publication and education, … for greater unity in faith and witness … [and] a polity of congregational government, thus recognizing variety.” Unity in diversity, building bridges of faith, fit Raid’s model of Christian living in a complex world. That study conference’s influence extended into the integration process of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the (Old) Mennonite Church, now Mennonite Church USA.
After retirement from Bluffton in 1979, Raid served as volunteer archivist, establishing archives for the college and Mennonite mutual aid organizations. An interesting Pen Pal friendship developed with comedian Phyllis Diller, who attended Bluffton. She was looking for her Ohio family and religious roots.
Faithful living, adaptability and building bridges through the biblical principles of mutual aid, stewardship, peace and service, Raid’s core values, were again tested and stretched in his later years. During Pauline’s terminal illness, Raid was grateful for the mutual aid extended to them.
His own years of growing old mirror some of the tragedy of his growing-up years. Yet his strong faith accompanied him, even as the prophet promises in Deuteronomy 33:25b: “As your days, so shall your strength be.”
At age 91, he sat at his desk, book in hand. The walnut desk he made in 1941 looked out of place in his small room in the care facility. Gone were the letters from friends, family and former students. Gone were his files on family history, church organizations and college and business associates. Only his well-marked and worn Bible remained. His life seemed as empty as his desk. Wearing a white shirt, tie and dark trousers, his standard professional dress, he presented himself with dignity.
The doctor’s pronouncement of Alzheimer’s met his blank stare.
“Reach out a helping hand,” among the last words he uttered, speak to us today. If Raid could continue this conversation, he might ask church leaders how they are following biblical principles of mutual aid, peace and service. He might challenge them to encourage youth and provide practical hands-on ways for them to contribute to church and community. He might ask each of us: “How are you reaching out a helping hand to those around you? What bridges are you building that strengthen Mennonite Church USA for witness in the world?”
Elizabeth Raid is a member of Bethel College Mennonite Church, North Newton, Kan. She has written a biography, Howard D. Raid, Innovator, Entrepreneur and Pioneer: Man of Faith and Vision, Foreword by Robert S. Kreider, and is looking for a Mennonite publisher. She may be reached at email@example.com.