In an effort to highlight the many Anabaptists engaged in important work and ministry across the country and around the world, we’re starting a new series. Most Thursdays, we’ll publish a seven question interview with a different Anabaptist talking about their life, work, spiritual journey, etc. You can view past interviews here.
Name: Lon Marshall
Occupation: Marriage and family therapist
Congregation: West Union Mennonite Church, Kalona, Iowa
Hannah Heinzekehr: What’s your first memory of attending a church?
I’ve always been in church, so I have these family pictures of being dedicated in the church and being taken to church probably the first Sunday that my mom was able to go after I was born. I don’t know that I have one memory.
As I was thinking about it, I have memories in my mind about times when I felt close to God, but they were never in church; they were always in nature. I have this memory of the first time when I felt like I could swim. I was floating in the water and feeling very close to God.
I grew up in Colorado, so there were times of being up in the Rocky Mountains and feeling close to God. And there were times by the ocean, when I used to live in California. But I have lots of memories of potlucks and revival services and times of serving and events in youth group.
HH: What does a “normal” day look like for you?
My day pretty much consists of walking into a room with someone with a problem and trying to talk them out of it, just hour after hour. I’m a marriage and family therapist. I have a master’s degree in counseling and psychology. I meet with everybody that calls, so that may mean couples, families, individuals, adults, children, teenagers, elderly people, and even toddlers. You might think of it as a general practice.
HH: How do you think your experience as a therapist informs your faith and your theology?
I’ve given that a lot of thought. My bachelor’s degree is in theology and I was ordained in the Church of the Nazarene in a past life. When I first got out of graduate school, I spent time as a pastor. I knew counseling was my calling, but I wanted to see what it was like to be on the “inside of the fishbowl,” because I wanted to work with churches to do counseling and to work in areas where faith is a resource for people in the healing or change process.
There’s this notion of incarnation. I am trying to learn the language of the people that come to meet with me. I’m trying to learn their culture. I’m trying to join them in the discourse that they are situated in. For me, that’s incarnational. That’s what God does with us. In a way, I’m trying to be a type of Christ; a bridge; to help them feel welcomed and that we have established an alliance, so that they can get some new ideas about how to solve their problems or to recover their courage.
Also, I would say that I being a marriage and family therapist especially has given me a special window into what it feels like to not be the group in power, because marriage and family therapists are treated like the ugly stepchildren in the mental health field. I’ve felt discimination from other professional mental health providers.
I meet with all kinds of people. One of my offices is in a city that is more diverse than a lot of Iowa. I see people from other countries and different ethnic groups. I’ve tried to develop my practice in a way that is open to diversity. We try to make our services accessible to all economic levels. In this work, you have to listen well. You hear people’s stories and understand a little bit about what they’ve been through. You develop empathy and compassion when you do that. Getting to know them like that forces you to see them as people. It forces me to live a great deal of time out of the bubble where everyone is like me. That has kind of pushed me to seek out different kinds of opportunities and to associate with different kinds of people that, in turn, changes my theology.
HH: Dave [Boshart, who recommend Lon for an interview] tells me that you made a fairly recent move from the Nazarene church to West Union Mennonite Church. What drew you to this congregation and/or the Mennonite church?
My wife went to Iowa Mennonite School for high school. She grew up Nazarene and we met in college, but she always loved her experience at IMS. When we moved back to Iowa, we moved to Cedar Rapids and we lived there for 16 years. She kept telling me, “Let’s move to Kalona.” But I thought. That’s not very practical. When our kids got to high school age, I finally said ok and we moved to Kalona and now I wish we would have done that years ago, because I love it so much. I’ve always lived in the city. But I just love Kalona. Kalona’s a unique place and you’re surrounded by a Mennonite ethos.
There are other kinds of things that have drawn me to Anabaptist theology that have literally transformed me in the last 10 years. Even before we made that move, it was a process happening in me. There are so many things about it that I love, but the thing that’s maybe most attractive about it to me is this idea of taking Jesus seriously and going to the margins to find him. Anabaptist writers do a wonderful job articulating this. Mennonites have missed opportunities and made mistakes, but the theology is beautiful and there are so many good things being done by them. I understand that’s the way the church works. It’s not perfect. But every once in awhile you see these amazing things and say, that’s what church is supposed to be like. That’s what keeps bringing me back.
HH: Tell me about West Union. What’s special about your congregation?
Before moving to Kalona, I went through this dark night of the soul spiritually and was really searching. Sometime after 9/11, I started thinking about things differently and started reading different authors. My theology was shifting. I wasn’t sure I could stay in the tradition I had been in my whole life. Because of my wife’s experience with IMS, I wished there was a Mennonite church in Cedar Rapids.
We moved to Kalona and my wife knew how disaffected I was, so she said, “Why don’t we go to a Mennonite church?” I was all for that. We visited all the churches and we just loved West Union. The people—they were just so friendly and welcoming and just have been blown away from the very first time that we went. All the time we’ve been there, going on six years, I just continue to be amazed when I get to know more people or find out about the things our church does. It’s just a very deep, deep well of faith, theology and uniqueness. This is a rural church on a gravel road, out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a vibrant place with people of all ages lots of experiences.
In the last few years, there’s been some very difficult conflict. That really surprised me. I still am trying to wrap my head around it. That’s been very painful. But that’s church for you. People are going to puzzle you like that and those kind of things happen everywhere
HH: I know you attended the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City as a delegate. What were your impressions or experiences that week?
This was my first time for any kind of denominational gathering, so convention was new to me. Plus, it was interesting to see how Mennonites do it. They really are always trying to flatten out the structure, with the table [groups] talking and the cards [delegates used red, yellow and green cards to signify their level of agreement with resolutions] and giving as many people as possible an opportunity at the microphone.
I went to a few workshops that blew me away. I saw Ted Schwartz’s [play], Listening for Grace. It was so moving. And I got to go hear Drew Hart talk a couple of times. I went to morning prayer one morning and met Alex Awad [from Bethlehem Bible College] and he was just amazing. The grace he extended to us after we voted to wait two more years to decide whether to stand with Christian Palestinians for equal rights. It can only be explained by love.
I may have picked the wrong convention to start with. The resolutions that were being voted on were very disappointing to me, watching how it played out in the way that it did. It was so obvious to me that there’s this whole group of young, vibrant Christians that were being left out. And that was so heartbreaking for me. And so again, there are these things that aren’t perfect in the church. I am trying to figure out some way to make sense of that and to be aware of my own biases.
There are amazing things happening in the Mennonite Church. In MC USA, in our Central Plains Conference and at West Union Mennonite Church; transformative theology being written and discussed, peace and justice work that is so exciting; communities that are led by the Holy Spirit in joining the new creation right now. I am revived and hopeful about the future. Coming to the Mennonites has engaged my spirit and been healing to my soul.
HH: If you had to recommend to someone your top three most important texts (books, songs, Scripture passages, etc.), what would they be?
- Josh Garrels, “Zion and Babylon”: There’s a lot of albums by Garrels that I love, but if I have to go with one song, it’s “Zion and Babylon.” I like all of his stuff, but that song is really powerful. The lyrics talk about moving from the Kingdom of this world to that of God’s Kingdom.
- Drew Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen: I just finished Drew’s book recently. It just blew my mind. That is a very important word for the white church.
- Luke 7:44: Since I’ve been hanging out with Anabaptists, I’ve been drawn to scriptures where Jesus is addressing people on the margins. So you know there’s so many of those, but I’m drawn to this passage where Jesus is eating at the tax collector’s house and he says to the tax collector, “Don’t you see this woman?” I love how he talks about that. It’s really a metaphor for all of the people that we don’t give the chance to be human in our eyes.
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