Book review: ‘Wholly, Holey, Holy’

Mar 27, 2017 by

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In his self-published memoir, Melvin D. Schmidt reflects on his life and nearly 50 years as a Mennonite pastor. It is a page-turner, wonderfully written with hundreds of anecdotes, picturesque language (beware of swear words and graphic farm examples) and an engaging pace of story, humor, family, service and witness that keeps the reader interested and, at times, surprised.

"Wholly, Holey, Holy": Reverent (and not so reverent) recollections of a reverend

“Wholly, Holey, Holy”: Reverent (and not so reverent) recollections of a reverend

The playful title is translated as “wholly,” the whole story; “holey,” things missing; and “holy,” sacred narrative. A gifted writer and storyteller, Schmidt loves words and the beautiful narrative of God’s love of the world (specifically, the environment) and of humanity. His vocation as a pastor is shaped by decisions to follow a path different from the one expected of him.

Schmidt devotes the longest of eight sections to his childhood on a farm near Goessel, Kan. He rejected the “hayseed conspiracy,” which he understood to mandate a life forever on the family farm — a mantle often demanded of the eldest son. From early childhood he knew he was going to be a preacher. He preached to the chickens and practiced his oratorical skills in the echoing cylinder of the barn silo.

Despite role models of Sunday school teachers and gifted preachers in his home congregation, Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church, his parents offered no encouragement for his pastoral dream. In fact, his father discouraged it. When Schmidt extended a word of thanks to his mother, then nearly 100 years old, for writing out Bible stories so he could memorize them and present them in public settings, she objected: “Don’t you dare go pinning that one on me! You were supposed to be a farmer.” His father, depicted as a nasty, foul-mouthed man, was vicious with wounding words, tirades laden with profanity and criticism of Schmidt’s youthful ineptness at farming.

However, the emerging reverend pursues his dream with guts. Schmidt reflects that his father was a desperate man gripped by his own disappointments and culture. Schmidt determines to follow a path to the pastorate that leads through college (Hesston and Bethel), service (Mennonite Central Committee) and seminary (Yale Divinity School).

As the story progresses, we observe how Schmidt’s troubled growing-up years contrast with his own marriage and three daughters, who now all live within blocks of each other in Maryland.

“The Indonesia Interlude” is packed with descriptions of Schmidt’s work in a culture foreign to a Kansas farm boy. When MCC accepted him, he raced to the college library to find Indonesia on the map. In Jakarta, he plans for his wedding to Charlotte Graber, a Beth­el classmate and now a nurse. It took 16 months for her visa to be approved. After Charlotte’s long freighter cruise trip, they were married twice: a civil wedding at the American Embassy and then a church wedding just 15 days after her arrival in Jakarta.

“The Yale Years” reveals a love of study. Schmidt reveled in history, theology, ethics and biblical studies. But it was a psychology class that compelled him to deal with his relationship with his father.

The next four sections cover four pastorates: First Mennonite Church in Halstead, Kan., Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in Wichita, Kan., First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio, and Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Maryland. Readers from those congregations will especially enjoy the recollections.

The first pastorate was the one where Schmidt, like most pastors, gets his pastoral identity and wings clipped. He writes: “It was the summer of 1967. I was fresh out of seminary, 30 years old and having most, if not all, the answers for what the church needed to do in those tumultuous times we call The Vietnam Era.” Ah, yes, guts! Embedded in this section is a sermon, his favorite Advent reflection.

Now a father with three young daughters, Schmidt’s restlessness with routine church events was evident. He wanted the church to be engaged with social justice and found ways to push the church to be like Jesus — unafraid to love. He helped organize (with Pastor John Powell in Wichita) Hispanic and African-American children to come 30 miles to Halstead to use the new swimming pool, an alternative to the whites-only ones in the city.

As Schmidt became outspoken and engaged in civil rights, he began to realize he did not fit among the very people who had raised him (family and church): “I could not go home again to my rural upbringing.”

“The Wichita Years” (1970-1983) is full of joy and development. His pastoral identity is shaped by a house-church experiment where the Schmidt family joined with several other units to live in community. The other major theme of this section is death — the ritual of funerals and the pastoral work that grief demands. The decision to make simple pine caskets was born. There are poignant stories of Lorraine Avenue church members building caskets when a member died.

Other themes show a pastor deeply committed to justice and peace. Schmidt became active in the General Conference Mennonite Church and Western District Conference witness against the death penalty. He advocated for women in ministry, which led to hiring a woman, Rosie Epp, as associate pastor.

In “The Bluffton Decade” (1983-1993) Schmidt shares a moving prayer that offers an exquisite plea to God to aid the people to be compassionate. A tender part of this decade was the death of Schmidt’s father, and he offers deeply moving reflections on their tortured relationship.

“Hyattsville: An End and a Beginning” brims with urban vibrancy and emotional tugs to be an inclusive church. Discussions about homosexuality and women in leadership plague and energize Schmidt. He shares his memorial meditation after his mother’s death at age 105 in 2013. It is loving.

Schmidt’s memoir reminds us that pastors are human beings with complicated lives, emotions and issues. He presents aspects of his life that others might reserve for intimate conversations. The goodness of pastoring — including the joy of preaching — stayed with him, and he rewarded each of his congregations with vigor and creativity. His narrative weaves together guts and goodness.

Schmidt writes: “In the final sense, the ‘wholly holey’ becoming the ‘holy’ is what a redemptive life story is all about.”

Well said, Pastor Schmidt.

Dorothy Nickel Friesen, of Newton, Kan., is a retired pastor and conference minister who succeeded Schmidt as pastor at First Mennonite Church in Bluff­ton, Ohio.


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  • Herbert Reed

    Thanks Dorothy for this review. I also appreciated this book. Mel is my former pastor and I was eager to read this book as a way to understand him better. Many of the stories I had already heard but there were new things and in particular details about his difficult relationship with his father. I appreciated his almost brutal honesty at times – something not always found in a memoir. And some of it is just laugh out loud funny.

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