Sunday, February 16, 2014

Letter from Harrisburg--On Sending Steven to EBI

 It’s no easier sending the fifth child off to Bible school than it was the first, but just as necessary and right.

This time it was Steven, our youngest son, 19, filling out the application for six weeks at Elnora Bible Institute and asking me whom to list as references. When Dad is not only the dad but also the pastor, principal and employer, it’s hard to find references. Also, it’s a sign that his world needs to get bigger — soon.

Steven and his friend Bryce decided to drive to Bible school in Steven’s car. Oregon to Indiana, in winter. I said maybe 20 percent of what I thought of this idea.

“Call me!” I said, tearfully, hugging Steven goodbye.

“What for?” he said.

How do you answer that question? Preferably not like I did, with a pitiful, “Because ... because you might get into an accident and DIE!”

“Wow, Mom, way to think positive. You always were the positive one.” Then he laughed, hugged me with his big arms, picked up the box of snacks I had packed, and left.

They drove to Colorado and spent the night with Bryce’s cousin Beth. Her husband, Cameron, sent me a reassuring message the next morning: “Your boy just left. He’s clean and well fed, and after coming over the pass the worst of the winter driving should be behind them.”

Steven sent a brief text when they arrived at Elnora. Then silence, but I knew enough about Bible school to know that that was OK, and he was entering some of the most intense weeks of his life.

It seems to be a uniquely Mennonite practice, sending young people off for a short term of study in winter, usually from three to six or maybe 12 weeks at a time.

The Old Order Amish don’t provide schooling beyond the eighth grade. The more progressive Mennonites have colleges — Goshen, Eastern Mennonite and Hesston. The wide car-driving-but-still-plain Anabaptist spectrum in between has Bible schools around the country where up to 100 young people gather at a time to learn and socialize and become established in the faith.

On their applications, these young people often say they want to come and study God’s word. The other reasons are more nebulous but still valid — to expand their world, to be an adult away from home for the first time, to make friends. And to establish what they believe, to find out where they belong, to affirm that living apart from the “world” is a valid choice, when so many voices say it’s not.

These schools generally have names pulled from scripture, some more obscure than others — Calvary, Maranatha, Sharon, Messiah, Bethel. But they go by acronyms — CBS, SMBI, MBS.
Steven is at EBI, an anomaly in that it’s named for the little town of Elnora rather than a Biblical reference.

When our oldest, Matt, went off to EBI at age 19, I expected his experience to be totally different from mine, way back in 1981, when I attended CBS, a Beachy-Amish school in the hills of Arkansas.

It wasn’t, despite cellphones and laptops and very different dress codes. As were Amy’s a few years later, and then Emily’s and Ben’s.

The intensity of it, the rules, the friendships, the opportunities, the learning — all were similar. And the awfulness of coming home, that was the same, too.

All Mennonite Bible schools have rules — about clothes, curfews, Internet use, dating and much more. In my day, the girls’ dresses were measured when we first arrived. I stood with my arms out while a patient matron judged whether my dresses reached halfway between my knees and ankles or were too short. Too-tight trousers were in fashion, so the guys had to drop a small glass bottle down the waist of their pants and it had to clatter out at their feet unassisted.

By comparison, the rules at EBI are ridiculously lax, yet my children find them just as confounding. “No T-shirts in class? What’s with that? How come we gotta dress up so much?”

Across the range of schools, there are unwritten rules about rules. Your school always has too many, and you laugh about them privately. But at least it’s not like Messiah or Bethel, where your cousins go. It’s understood that even the most strait-laced kids bend a rule or two. Calvary Bible School didn’t allow caffeinated drinks, so I kept a stash of contraband No-Doz pills in my dresser drawer, for emergencies. A well-behaved son of ours once climbed out a dorm window at night for some remarkably tame adventure. But it’s understood that you don’t deliberately flout the rules all the time. Rebels are not cool or spiritual.
I’m told that the social dynamics are the same at Bible school as they ever were. For example, it’s good to be “deep,” the term used in ways seldom heard outside that little universe. “Deep” kids have intense discussions on apologetics and eschatology, and the “deep” guys are always called on to ask the blessing before meals. They pray the most impressive prayers of thanksgiving you ever heard as you are all standing in line before dinner, and also they have the most amazing large blue eyes with curly eyelashes, and so, if you are anything like I was, you fall in love with them. 

Later that evening, in the privacy of the prayer room, you make a deal with God that if you and Mr. Blue Eyes are both on for dishes in the morning, it will be a Sign. Sure enough, you are both on the list, and your faith and your heartbeat reach new heights, but then as he is spraying off dirty dishes at the sink he doesn’t notice you at all but “accidentally” squirts water at the pretty and very shallow girl from Georgia with the cute accent and the little gold swirls on the side of her glasses. She shrieks and they both laugh and, disgusted, you vow to be done with signs forever. That is also a rule, in its own way, and not found in any Bible school manual.

Dynamics in the dorm are just as intense, with heights and depths not experienced before. I found belonging there: in a candle-lit, late-night meeting where we “shared our hearts” and were safe to talk about secrets and doubts never aired before but surprisingly universal. 

And not belonging: loaning and borrowing dresses was a big deal in the CBS dorm, but no one ever wanted to borrow mine. Feeling superior: the girl in the next bed smelled bad and didn’t shower enough. Feeling inferior: The Pennsylvania girls had “cool” down to an art form that I would never attain, with their chic little bolero jackets and big eyeglasses.

And, yes, Bible school also involves learning, both academics and things of the spirit — how to pray, how to believe, how to hear God’s message to you in scripture. Classes have a way of leading to opportunities. I had often thought of my life as a hallway full of closed, locked doors, but when Ervin Hershberger, the white-bearded principal and Christian writing instructor, read my essay to the class and smiled, one door in that hallway opened and eventually led to many more, so many I couldn’t explore them all.
Our son Ben’s class in missions led to his teacher urging him to volunteer at a small mission in Toronto, which led to a year of cooking at a Native American restaurant in Toronto, assisting a small church and big-city experiences a world away from sacking grass seed in Oregon.

Mennonites value community, and one of the best benefits of Bible school is the lifelong connections. Sometimes, your best dormie dates and marries your cousin from Ohio. You attend the wedding and meet not only all your Bible school friends, but a man scouting for teachers for the church school. So you teach there for two years and marry a guy in the youth group.

Then, theoretically, 30 years later you meet the cool girl from Georgia who has had five children and is plump and warm and down-to-earth. You confess your past jealousy, and she admits that you always seemed so exotic because you had gone to a public high school. The guy with the blue eyes comes to preach at your revival meetings but he is stuck in 1981, with thinning hair but the same feathered hairstyle parted in the middle, plus he has bad grammar that you never noticed back then, so you fervently thank God for not answering those prayers as you had hoped.

Bible school always ends, much to the disappointment and even despair of students. In 1981, I flew home from Arkansas and went back to my work as a teacher, high on a cloud of spiritual enlightenment.

Reality was not kind to me. Sermons were dull, hymns were slow, and the adults in my life could think only of insubstantial things like the price of farmland and picking up prescriptions and why wasn’t Bertha in church on Sunday? I longed for the intensity of Bible school, of “sharing” what was “on my heart” with people who truly “got” me.

When the euphoria faded, I was still a better and wiser person for having gone.

My children, bless their hearts, were exactly the same. 

They came home and walked around in a distant, heightened reality, humming the new praise songs they’d learned and constantly on the phone with their new friends, the only people who understood them. 

They acknowledged that Paul and I were saved, yes, but hinted much more: Wasn’t it sad how we were so lukewarm and content, so absorbed in minor earthly details when God had so many heavenly things for us to grasp? Then they eventually came back to Earth with a new resolve to make a difference in it.

It stretches my imagination to think of Steven coming home in such a state, but Bible school accomplishes remarkable things. Whether he comes to understand why his mom wants phone calls so badly, or not, he will be a better man for having gone: his horizons wider, his faith deeper, his connections stronger, his determination to do good to others more solid than ever.


  1. Oh, how I laughed. So much truth to this. I went to CBS for the first time 17 years ago and thought it was a small piece of Heave on earth! Then it ended and to be dropped back into the dull and boring life at home was ever so traumatic!
    One good things about Bibleschool was meeting my husband-to-be. They say most of those romances don't last but I'm glad this one did. :)
    Such good memories.

  2. Correction: "Heaven on earth" :)

  3. Wow, this brings me right back to Bible Camp! Or rather, coming home from Bible camp, when I was 15. Nobody at church that Sunday had a clue about what real spirituality was! I remember staring hard at our minister during the sermon, trying hard to telegraph to him that yes, I really got it! His sermon wasn`t completely lost on all these sad people.


    Summer Bible Camps were some of the best times of my life.

  4. 100% accurate. Oh to have Mr Deep glance your way after you "shared" a prayer request in small group.

  5. I'm so glad to have Bible schools explained! I'm of the Goshen etc. stripe and my connection to Bible schools has been CDs of a cappella hymns by various Bible school choirs. The music is so lovely but I couldn't make it fit in my mind with what I know as Bible School - little kids, flannel graphs and red Kool-Aid for a week in the summer.

  6. This is especially poignant today as I read this several hrs after arriving at CBS to teach. You precisely describe the highs and lows and how we think we'll die when we get home again. It was Ervin Hershberger who opened writing doors for me too. I love the Bible school part of our culture.It's a taste of heaven.

  7. Another well-written post Dorcas! --And especially meaningful as our daughter is out at EBI as well. I had to send her a link so she can understand her mother and father! :)
    Regina Hess

  8. What a gift to be able to express what so many of us experienced but couldn't really put into words. And how encouraging to know that our young people are still benefiting from the Bible School experience! I was privileged to attend one of the first ones back in 1959. Oh, and by the way, did you know that even before that the colleges you mentioned held "short term" winter Bible Schools? Here is a very interesting link on the history of it all:

  9. I know you don't know me - I've commented maybe twice in 5 years - but was pleased to hear you went to CBS in Arkansas. We live in Arkansas, and just recently heard the CBS choir perform at Lighthouse of Faith Mennonite Church.

    I also wanted to let you know that the euphoria-followed-by-letdown that you described is also experienced by Evangelicals upon going to "youth camp" - a 1 or 2 week stint in the summer for high school students.

  10. What!?! No mention of Bible schools being shoe factories? Going in for your sole and coming out in pairs?

    Yep, I went to RBI determined not to date any Mennonites or farmers and met a guy coming off a broken engagement who was also determined not to date. I married that Mennonite dairy farmer 2 1/2 years later. :)

    Thanks for the blast from the past!