This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “The presence of beauty.” For more stories on this theme, see the May issue of The Mennonite.
“Mariah, I wish you were my mom.” These are sweet words to hear fall from the mouth of a little girl, until you remember that this particular little girl doesn’t have a mom.
Rewind a year and a half, and I am interviewing at a little country church tucked in the woods of Bristol, Indiana. I have just graduated from seminary and am about to get married. Everything is going to change. I remember the moment I knew, in my bones, that Bonneyville Mennonite Church was the community for me. During the interview process, I learned that a member of the church was in a fatal car accident. This left siblings Willow (now five years old) and Joshua (now eight years old) without a mother. Their grandparents John and Stacey and great-grandparents Bill and Sandy all attend Bonneyville.
Conflict brewed when Joshua’s absentee father swept into town and took Joshua to live with him until he could gain custody. Joshua and Willow’s family strongly believed keeping Willow and Joshua together, clinging to a shred of normalcy, would be best for both children.
So, the family went to court. Upon hearing about the trial, the Bonneyville community wanted to show their support. They packed the courtroom. Those who couldn’t be there in person wrote letters, urging the judge to keep this family together.
When I heard about how this community showed up for one another, advocating and fighting for the well-being of these children, I knew that joining Bonneyville would be like becoming part of a family. I was right.
After five weeks, Joshua was returned, and his grandparents began the process of adoption. Joshua was back in his family’s embrace, but his time away left him scarred. He became fearful his dad would come and take him away again. Occasionally Joshua would begin to panic, his coffee-brown eyes pleading, “Don’t send me back, please don’t make me go.” Joshua thought that when his dad took him that he was being punished. His grandparents gently tried to explain that they loved and wanted him. They wouldn’t let him be taken away again. Joshua began to sink into this safety, yet his fears occasionally surfaced, and he clung to his grandmother in crowds.
Despite this crippling anxiety, Joshua told Stacey that Bonneyville is one of the places he feels completely safe. He runs around the building carefree. My spouse and I are always greeted with giant bear hugs and pleas to come play as soon as Willow and Joshua see us. Willow even joined me one Sunday as I preached, crawling under the pulpit, making me fight a smile as I tried to stay focused. Church is both a playground and a sanctuary where they can share their pain.
Willow and Joshua are staggeringly open and honest with their grief; sadness sits on their skin. During a sermon I asked, “What do you want? What do you wish for most in the world?” In response Joshua whispered, “Mom. I want my mom back.”
Stacey says they are not afraid to talk about Mom with the kids, refusing to make her a taboo topic. Willow, who was barely three when the accident happened, has begun to forget things about her mother. She will ask her grandmother to tell her about mommy’s eyes, describe what her hair looked like. Willow is the spitting image of her mother. Same open, rosy face. Same caramel ringlets. Same celestial eyes so wide you could drown in them. Willow’s mom lives on in her features.
I am constantly moved by the way Willow and Joshua’s family has allowed them space to grieve their mother. They associate her with the sun. Willow will giggle, watching the rays break through the clouds, and announce that her mom is playing peek-a-boo with her. It is not unusual for the family to bring food to the gravesite and picnic with Mom. Once, Willow insisted they leave a taco on Mom’s gravesite “so she can have a snack too.” Death and tacos, a strange yet stunning mixture of mortality and vitality. Bonneyville Mennonite Church also fits this description.
Bonneyville is a small, quirky group with a wide diversity of beliefs. Many would consider it a “dying church.” There is no doubt we are aging, yet there is also no denying our vibrant spirit. The love we have for one another is palpable. Raw beauty shimmers when a community holds a family together as they fall apart.
Yes, we see death and suffering everywhere we look. Church numbers are declining, pillars of the community are getting older. Two children grow up without their mother. But as we see in the Bible, and in life, God’s medium for transformation is often death and suffering. There is struggle and there is perseverance. God sits with us in the depths of our despair and is a God of new life, of resurrection. Unspeakable loss dances with resilience.
The church is dying as it lives and breathes, dead and resurrected. We bear witness to God’s resurrection power in the faces of two mourning children who don’t pretend to be OK when they aren’t. It isn’t sanctuary if you can’t lay your wounds on the altar. Willow and Joshua embody the truth of the church: it is at once broken and whole, hurt and vibrant, weeping and playful. A people accepted, loved and held in their suffering.
The day we celebrated Willow and Joshua’s official adoption, as I got on my knees to make the sign of the cross on Willow’s little forehead, her face split into a smile. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. She looked around, memorizing the faces of everyone surrounding her. My finger, glistening with sweet-smelling anointing oil, traced the shape of the cross on her forehead, blessing her in the name of her Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. As I moved to Joshua, I repeated the same words of assurance: “You are supported, encouraged and empowered. You are home.”
Mariah Martin lives in Goshen, Indiana, and is pastor of Bonneyville Mennonite Church in Bristol, Indiana.
*All names used with permission.