Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Guest Post-- 22 miles down Peoria Road: The challenge of living in disconnected worlds--by Ben Smucker


Ben Smucker

It seems strange to think of a stoplight as a portal between two worlds. Yet for the last decade of my life, the stoplight at Peoria Road and Highway 34 has been the invisible border between my Mennonite world and my academic world. 

From the small farming town of Harrisburg, Peoria Road runs 22 miles until it tees into Highway 34 just outside Corvallis, a college town of about 60,000 people and home to Oregon State University. The road itself is a beautiful drive. It gently weaves its way between fields, occasionally giving glimpses of the Willamette River, but mostly giving views of distant hills, cottonwood trees, and the greenest grass you ever saw. (It is also home to Country Bakery, which is the most common Mennonite reference point for many non-Mennonites in the lower Willamette Valley).

But metaphorically, Peoria Road is the portal between two
distinct worlds that I have spent a significant portion of my life in. I grew up just outside of Harrisburg as a part of the Mennonite community there. I have spent the last 10 years of my life at Oregon State, first as an undergraduate, then for seven years as a graduate student while I got my Ph.D., and for the last year as an instructor (a faculty member who teaches classes but does not do research) in the mechanical engineering department.  

Anecdotally, when most people think of the conflict between these two worlds (Mennonite and academic), it’s often thought of in theological terms, as a conflict between faith and science. While those tensions do exist, they are often overstated, particularly in the sciences (on a side note, in conversation with Christian professors older than me it seems that the sciences have become notably less hostile towards religion in the last several decades, but that’s a subject for another day).

Instead, the divide is much more cultural: these are worlds that are foreign to each other. They effectively speak different languages. They value different things. And as a result, few Mennonites know anything about academia, and few academics know anything about Mennonites (“They’re kinda like the Amish, right?”).

But like C.S. Lewis's Digory and Polly in the Wood Between the Worlds, there is an inherent tension that comes with trying to occupy two worlds that seem to have little to do with each other. Ultimately, there will come a point where we will need to resolve the tension. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in an increasingly lonely place, where you are never fully known or understood by either world.

I highly doubt the idea is original to me (few good ones are, and I’m not even sure this is a good one), but I like to think of our social lives as a series of spheres. The number, size, and overlap of these spheres depends on the individual, but would include family, neighbors, church/religious community, work/school, social activities, etc.. Some spheres may be very interconnected (such as when your friends all go to church with you) or completely disconnected (like when you work with people you never see outside of work). 

As spheres increasingly overlap, they can become indistinguishable until they effectively meld into one single sphere. The Fellowship in Wendell Berry’s Port William is a classic example of this, where folks within the tight-knit community grow up and grow old together. They work, worship, and weep together. The Shire in Tolkien’s world is also representative of this, where everyone knows everyone, and where you explain who someone is by how they are related to you or to someone you know.

It’s no coincidence that both those communities are agrarian and either pre-industrial or not fully industrialized, where one is connected to the land and to each other in ways that seem foreign to the modern suburbanite. One’s identity is forged not so much by who they are individually, but by who they are relative to the rest of the community. While these communities may have some individualistic tendencies (particularly in the U.S.), they often operate much more as a collective.

In many ways, this describes the Mennonite community I grew up in. My dad was my boss, my pastor, and my high school teacher. My school friends were my church friends. And with a mother who was a famous Mennonite writer, to the broader Mennonite community I was “Dorcas Smucker’s son.”

On the other extreme, you can have the post-industrial suburban commuter who works in a large city 40 minutes away, lives in a cul-de-sac with a dozen other commuters who work at 12 different companies, and who attends church in another suburb 30 minutes away, if they attend church at all. This person’s social networks exist largely independent of each other, such that if they died or some tragedy occurred, people they see on a routine basis may not know about it for weeks or months.

However, the suburban commuter has an individualistic autonomy that is just not available to those within the tight-knit community. She can pursue whatever career she wants, choose whatever religious community she wants based on reasons that may range from very Biblical to very superficial. If she feels a calling towards a particular occupation, she can choose to do that without alienating the community.

Corvallis has many people in this mold. While they may live close enough to work to commute by bike, they probably don’t have deep roots here, though there are a pretty substantial number of people who have lived here for a decade or more. The number of people in Corvallis who are from Corvallis and the surrounding area is pretty small. Among faculty at Oregon State, it’s even smaller. And on the whole, it is highly individualistic, and people generally live pretty disparate lives where their spheres of life don’t overlap a lot.

There are beautiful things about the sense of belonging and identity that can come with a strongly collective community, but it can be really challenging and exhausting to be the outlier (or the outsider) within that community. In the individualistic group, being an outlier is seen as an inherent positive, a means of distinguishing yourself from the normies. Yet people often miss the sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.

At its best, I believe the church has the opportunity to cut across the dichotomy posed by individualism and collectivism, valuing both the individual and the community. As we “go into all the world,” we will need to step out into spheres that seem disconnected from our tight-knit communities, yet we have the opportunity to forge close communal bonds with our fellow believers, even when they come from different ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Fully fleshing this out would probably be the subject of a book that I would be unqualified to write, but the following paragraphs describe how this tension has been working itself out in my own life.

For better or for worse, when I chose to pursue academia, I was largely guaranteeing that I would never live in some modern-day equivalent of The Shire. However, I did not understand that as a Mennonite in academia, I would increasingly feel like an outlier within my Mennonite community, and that it would become an increasingly lonely place. But when COVID came, I realized how disconnected I had become from my Mennonite church, and I ultimately left that church. 

By the grace of God, within my first few months of graduate school in the fall of 2016 (four years prior to leaving my Mennonite church), I got connected to a Christian grad student group on campus. It was (and is) a small student-led group of 5-10 grad students that met weekly for prayer and Bible study, while taking advantage of the fact that we were all young and childless to do fun things together on weekends. It has been among the most life-giving groups I have been a part of, and some of my strongest friendships have come from that group.

It also opened my eyes to the breadth of Christianity that existed beyond the tradition I grew up in, but it also made me realize just how important embodied Christian fellowship is. I now am a part of a small Anglican congregation of about 80 people, largely composed of younger families. They are an amazing group of Christ-followers that I am blessed to be a part of, and they make me feel included even if I am one of about 4 single people (me, my two roommates, and one other guy), and if I’m the only one who grew up Mennonite.

My present world feels less disconnected than it has in a long time, probably since high school. I live, work, and go to church in the same town for basically the first time in my life. Two of my roommates also attend the same church, and are also a part of the Christian grad student fellowship. Two of my best friends from the grad fellowship go to church with a colleague I will be working on a project with next year. The leader of the Christian Faculty group also goes to my church. I meet monthly with a retired professor from the Christian Faculty group who was in the mechanical engineering department for 30 years. If I meet a fellow Christian who has been in Corvallis for at least several years, I can probably find a mutual acquaintance.

But this level of connectedness has not come easy. It has come from being a faithful presence in the same place for an extended period of time. It has come from showing up every week to groups I am committed to. It has come from going out on a limb to talk to people (or more commonly in my case, from other people going out on a limb to talk to me). And sadly, it has come at the cost of leaving the community I grew up in, which I feel a twinge of guilt about every time I read Wendell Berry. Yet I believe this is where I am called to be, and those sacrifices are worth it.

While I was working on this blog post, my parents and my sister Amy came and visited my little Anglican church in Corvallis. This was the first time any of my immediate family members had come to church with me there. When my worlds collide, I tend to have a (probably illogical) fear that both sides will find the other strange, and find me strange in the process.

Instead, we found how much we have in common. Most of the songs that Sunday were hymns that we sang growing up. We read the Lord’s Prayer together, just like we used to recite it prior to meals. We worshiped the same triune God I worshiped in my Mennonite church growing up; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Afterwards, the people at my church extended the same warm welcome to my family that I had received when I first started going there. 

But in a strange turn of the tables, I was no longer known as “Paul and Dorcas’s son.” This time, they were known as “Ben’s parents.”

Dr. Benjamin Smucker


  1. Amazing thoughts and comments from a young man who seems brilliant! May God continue to guide you on your life's path. Kudos to your mom and dad for doing such a good job raising a special young man.

  2. This wisdom applies and comforts me. A 66 year evangelical who still struggles with theses issues.

  3. Blessings!

  4. Enjoyed your post Ben!

  5. Ben, I resonate with your conversation with us about two worlds. When I was in grad school over 20 years ago, a Mennonite homemaker, I found myself in two worlds and in the margins of both. And then I found “Making Strange” written by he Irish poet Seamus Heaney. I include it here:
    Making Strange

    I stood between them,
    the one with his traveled intelligence
    and tawny containment,
    his speech like the twang of a bowstring,

    and another, unshorn and bewildered
    in the tubs of his Wellingtons,
    smiling at me for help,
    faced with this stranger I’d brought him.

    Then a cunning middle voice
    came out of the field across the road
    saying, ‘Be adept and be dialect,
    tell of this wind coming past the zinc hut,

    call me sweetbriar after the rain
    or snowberries cooled in the fog.
    But love the cut of this traveled one
    and call me also the cornfield of Boaz.

    Go beyond what’s reliable
    in all that keeps pleading and pleading,
    these eyes and puddles and stones,
    and recollect how bold you were

    when I visited you first
    with departures you cannot go back on.’
    A chaffinch flicked from an ash and next thing
    I found myself driving the stranger

    through my own country, adept
    at dialect, reciting my pride
    in all that I knew, that began to make strange
    at the same recitation.

  6. Louisa Seapy4/19/2024 5:20 PM

    This sounds so familiar. I spent 4 years at WSU, only an hour but also a world away from my Mennonite community. I wish I had had some mentoring for the fence riding. I'm glad to hear that you have landed in a life-giving place. It sounds like a good mix of academia and faith.

  7. Thank you. I always appreciate your family's work to share your life in a faith community.

  8. I resonated with a lot of this post. The tension of living between 2 "worlds" (in my case, the dividing line came from cross-cultural experiences/living overseas) the tension between individualism and community, and even the switch to a small church of about 70-80, where I am one of a handful of single people. Faithful presence is something I’ve only recently started to recognize as valuable for my own experience of community. It’s worth the work & consistency it takes.
    Thanks for sharing!