The whole family crams into the gray 1951 Studebaker: Our family of five, Daddy, Mommy, Janice Jean and I (Mark isn’t born yet), Aunt Ruthie and Grandma–seven stuffed into an airplane cockpit, it feels like. We don’t take two cars because we are frugal. It saves gas if we all go together.
Tonight is the first night of the Brunk Tent Revival. Two brothers, George, the evangelist, and Lawrence, the song-leader, have brought a huge, unstriped tent all the way from Virginia in a tractor-trailer truck. As we approach the tent, I think we’re going to a circus except that there are pine plank benches crunched down on sawdust and spiral-bound, red, white, and powder blue songbooks on the seats. The crowd, of course, doesn’t look like circus-goers. They are polite, plain people, some pious-acting, but others even laughing. I notice the pig-tailed girls I play with when we have a “bunch” over for Sunday dinner: there are the Garber sisters, the Oberholtzers, the Brubakers, and Kraybills. We exchange shy smiles and find seats by families.
Since I was six weeks old, I have been taken to Bosslers’ Mennonite Church way out in the country where roads run at right angles according to each farmer’s acreage. In the corner of a white hanky, my mother always ties a shiny copper penny that I put into the little metal pig in my Sunday School class when we say, “Dropping, dropping, dropping, drop-ping, hear the pennies fall, every one for Jesus, He will take them all.” I like the pictures of Jacob and the Ladder of Angels or Joseph and his Coat of Many Colors I paste into my lesson book. We gather in the meetinghouse for sermons amply illustrated with biblical quotes from our pastor, Martin Kraybill. He is intent on inscribing our mental tapes with scriptural quotations. I am just beginning to join in with the four-part harmony I hear, blending with the sopranos and altos from the women’s side, and the tenors and basses on the men’s side of the aisle: I like the way the basses move up the scale to join the tenors in the hymn “More Holiness GIve Me” and the way the sopranos and altos get to sing two bars of music without the bass clef in “O Worship the Lord.”
Tonight at the revival service we also sing a cappella, keeping pace with the song-leader’s energetic gestures. Then Brother Brunk comes to the lectern, a hefty Bible in one hand. He starts off with a joke or silly comment, which my Grandpa Metzler criticizes with the comment, “He even makes the people laugh!” He then preaches about our guilt because of sin and God’s loving plan to save us through his Son Jesus. His words pierce my consciousness, and a sense of need fills my heart. I can visualize Jesus standing before me with outstretched arms.
Will you receive Jesus into your heart and have Him cleanse you of your sin tonight? Now is the day of salvation. Come to Jesus now!”
The invitation for people to come forward sounds like an appeal directed only to me. I begin to cry softly, tears falling onto the lap of my lavender and white dotted Swiss dress, hoping someone will pay attention and tell me what to do next. I cry louder and notice my parents discussing what to do with Marian. Daddy walks with me down the aisle and ushers me into a “prayer room,” a miniature tent off to the side. There I meet kind Anna Ruth Breneman who shows me more Bible verses and prays short phrases that I repeat, asking Jesus to come into my heart, take away all my sin and fill me with new life. I feel cleansed, happy, relieved.
There is another step in the process. Next, I am led to a platform where I as a nine-year-old make my first public speech, a testimony of four simple words: “I’m glad I’m saved.” Aunt Ruthie meets me after the benediction and gives me a kiss on the cheek, which takes me by surprise. She has never before shown much affection. Apparently she approves of my decision.
On the way home, I sit on the back seat next to the window and look up at the clear, starry sky and full harvest moon. I feel euphoric. Later on, I go to bed and see that same moon casting a shaft of pure radiance in through the window-panes, bathing the oak headboard with mellow light. It traces the interlocking circular patterns punctuated by an upright sprig of laurel on each bedpost. Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright with the shaft of light that has penetrated the panes of glass magnifying the joy in my heart.
Years later, I learn that the proper word for this moment is epiphany, a manifestation of divinity in the life of a simple, trusting, Mennonite girl.