An apology 75 years in the making was music to the ears of Lehman family descendants when they received a letter in December.
Nearly a century ago, Virginia Mennonite Conference banned ordained ministers from keeping musical instruments in their homes. The measure — intended to prevent the erosion of biblically appropriate a cappella congregational singing — meant Chester and Myra Lehman’s much-loved piano was taken away immediately after the 1927 conference meeting. His brother Daniel took his organ apart for scrap wood and hid his violin in the attic. His sister Elizabeth Lehman Kurtz had to get rid of her piano as well.
The ban stood for two decades, until the conference determined in 1947 that the restriction unequally focused on ministers and decided to leave the matter to each person’s conscience.
Bishop George R. Brunk (1871-1938) and son George R. Brunk II (1911-2002) held considerable sway in Mennonite circles in those years, not just in the conference but also through their traveling revival meetings. In light of their ancestors’ influence, Brunk descendants felt compelled to apologize on behalf of their father and grandfather when they learned recently of the emotional pain the 20-year instrument ban still carried.
“In recognition of this history and of the serious harm that was, and continues to be, felt, we the grandchildren and children of these two church figures wish to express to you, and all affected, our deepest sorrow and regret for this harm,” wrote siblings Gerald, George III, Paul, Conrad and Barbara Brunk Gascho. “And, in recognition of the fact that it is often later generations upon whom the responsibility falls to apologize for ‘the sins of the fathers,’ we offer to you and to all our sincere apology for the actions of our forefathers in this sad history.
“We have reason to believe that, were our father alive today, he would join us in this apology for his own role.”
The letter was received by the Lehmans’ daughter Dorothy Lehman Yoder and grandchildren Kathie Weaver Kurtz, Carol Ann Weaver and Dorothy Jean Weaver.
Two families intertwined
Speaking on behalf of the family, Kurtz said she and her siblings were surprised to receive the letter.
“It was very heartwarming and moving, just that they recognized what had happened and took the responsibility, which they didn’t need to take,” she said. “We never expected anything from them. We’ve had multiple relationships over the years as friends and colleagues and playmates. . . . Our families have had cordial relationships, which I in part attribute to my grandfather, who never had enemies on either side. He certainly didn’t agree always with Brunk, but they never had a falling out.”
The Brunk and Lehman families were neighbors in Harrisonburg, Va., and the girls played together. Dorothy Lehman Yoder, now 97, remembers the piano being taken away when she was 2. It was her first memory.
Later in life, Dorothy Jean Weaver was hired to teach at Eastern Mennonite Seminary by George Brunk III, who was dean. Conrad Brunk and Carol Ann Weaver were faculty colleagues at Conrad Grebel University College, where he participated in her hiring as a professor of music. The two attend Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ont., where Weaver plays music in worship.
“We grew up next door to Carol Ann and Kathie,” said Conrad Brunk, who recalled that his own mother and grandmother lost their piano and organ, and he and his siblings were not allowed to take instrumental music lessons, despite their interest. “We played on the sidewalk, and we knew well that all the music instruments had been removed from their house and their grandfather’s house.”
The Lehman children, parents and grandparents grieved the loss of music from their lives. Chester Lehman led choral groups at what was then Eastern Mennonite College. J.B. Smith, the college’s first president, left his role rather than conform to the ban on instrument ownership. But Lehman stayed, often hosting groups of students on Sunday afternoons at his home, where he introduced music from his expansive collection of records — his lone financial indulgence — which were not banned by the conference.
The family would pounce on any available piano on visits to relatives in Pennsylvania. So it was a significant event when the conference amended matters in 1947.
Family legend recalls that the households of Chester Lehman and his sister Elizabeth Lehman Kurtz each bought a piano within a day of the decision.
“It was just experienced as a deficit, which could not be recovered, because once you’re an adult, you’re not going to learn the piano as you would at 6 or 7 or 8 years old. It’s like learning a language,” Kurtz said. “I think for us, the ramification was somewhat positive in that my grandpa was determined that his grandchildren would have a piano. He personally bought a piano for each of our families.”
The duty of a legacy
While always closely aware of the events of the 1940s, Brunk family members learned more fully of the restriction’s legacy in 2018 when Kurtz wrote about the pain the family felt in an article published by Eastern Mennonite University.
“This is not an abstract case of, say, a nation having done a wrong and future citizens of that nation addressing that,” Brunk said. “This is concrete personal relationships over a lifetime.”
His family felt they could do something when it became clear that the Lehman family still felt hurt, attributable to his family.
“The Brunk family has a legacy,” Brunk said. “When you are a part of a legacy, you have a responsibility. There’s a hurt. There’s a harm. There’s a wrong. Is there anything that can be done to address it or ameliorate it? It became clear to us that a public acknowledgment of the harm from the Brunk family would be extremely important for the healing.”
Brunk said what makes an apology real is when people take responsibility and address harm. That goes for a nation, such as Germany apologizing and making reparations to Jewish people after World War II, or the United States apologizing for interning Japanese Americans in camps during the same era. It can also work for families.
“If the effect is to call people’s attention to the importance of sincere apology and responsibility-taking and the role that has in restorative justice and reconciliation — if that can be understood, then it’s worth taking,” Brunk said.
The family felt comfortable saying George R. Brunk II would have joined them in the apology if he were alive today and knew the impact he had. Although he never budged on his opposition to musical instruments in houses of worship, he was swayed eventually by Russian Mennonites in Canada to allow a piano in his revival tent to accompany congregational singing. Late in life, he purchased an organ for his wife, from whose parental home an organ had been removed, and taught himself to play it.
The impact of an apology
Can children meaningfully apologize for ancestors’ actions? Brunk says the answer lies not in the apology but the response.
“The Lehman family’s letter of response powerfully demonstrates how an apology can be graciously accepted as healing and restorative,” he said. “That is often the hard part for people.”
“None of us can change the past,” the Lehman family wrote in its acceptance of the Brunks’ apology. “But all of us, both of your family and ours, have come from those years of restriction with perhaps an extra measure of determination to make the most of all creative opportunities, especially musical ones, evidenced by the number of music lovers and professional musicians within our families.
“What a gift to have emerged from these sad circumstances!”
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