A few years ago the Jewish writer, Philip Roth, told of the Conversion of the Jews. At the time I was similarly working on a recipe to save my own. As always when dealing with Mennonites, divine inspiration charged the keyboard as follows:
Forty years ago when Steinbach suddenly was called Stain-Back and the Löwens became Laywins, the Dücks Doo-Ecks and the Töws Taves, many other things happened that were hard to believe. Almost overnight Steinbach was no longer a Russian-Low-German-Mennonite village but an American satellite. And because it was the American evangelists who did the damage, I want to tell you how this all happened and what was then to occur up till the present day.
The Kleingemeinde or Small Congregation no longer wanted to be little but became big overnight and launched tremendous missions all over and far afield. The Holdemen said that money was almost as big a sin as the Small Congregation while the Mennonite Brethren, who always knew the only right way and called all the other Mennonites Children of the Devil, compiled a new Registry of Sins.
Many new churches cropped up overnight and most of them believed that human history started right now and with them. And that's the reason why each group had to build a really big church because the Holy Ghost had no use for old ramshackle; the dear God preferred to build his nest in new and expensive churches.
Up to now such evangelists came from the States once a year and preached themselves hoarse and foamy in the tabernacle, skimmed money cream off every can and then took off. Usually these evangelists came from Nebraska but wherever they came from, they preferred to thunder around when the weather was good and to preach not only to farmers but preferably to businessmen. Later word got around among these holy men and then the evangelists came mostly from Texas. Regardless of where they came from, they had one thing in common: not one spoke Low German but all a bit of English, just like Jesus. Also, not one of them had a pocket watch in his vest but conspicuous shiny watches under their cuffs and these watches they checked every five to six minutes. And on every watch there was to read: It's now five to twelve for the very last time! Since it had become so very, very late everyone had to hurry, hurry, hurry and go to meetings and to church three times a week, at least, and to hand out tracts the rest of the time, watching carefully for stragglers and backsliders. It was also necessary to come to God's daily assistance by helping to pass judgement and moralizing, if need be, and sticking your nose into everything until it was red.
Yep, that's how it was. People adjusted or got into real trouble with the church fathers. The Reimer girls, for example, had already bought themselves mens' pants to milk in the winter and to work outside. These were now returned to Eaton's and the womenfolk again hauled out their bloomers and skirts. Marten's Mary had already bought herself some nail polish and lipstick but she now had to hide all this fancy stuff in the left back corner of the lowest drawer in her dresser.
Men, who liked to roll their own while having coffee, now had to repair to the biffy for a smoke. Preachers who previously smoked a pipe, had to turn in their Old Chum for jelly beans.
But then in 'forty-nine something very special happened. One of the preachers who had always surfaced only in late Spring in Steinbach remained behind in the village as a minister. Hard to believe but he stayed all the year round. He was a Jacob Banman from Kansas, a pot-bellied fellow with three different kinds of smiles on his round face and every day of the week he wore a white shirt with a black tie and a Bible in every pocket. Preacher Banman combed himself every five minutes even if he was very busy; yes, he always looked like Sunday. His wife, Naomi, also had a variety of smiles and together they had five and a half children. Or almost three quarters. "I have never had a question," said Banman, "the Holy Spirit has given me all the answers. And you can share such common knowledge and happiness. But now it's time to get to my next meeting." And off and away he went.
Banman had been a travelling minister, "an itinerant man of God," said his wife. But now he wanted to start his own church and so he associated mostly with the Reimers, Penners, Loewens and Barkmanns, all businessmen to whom he preached the genuine Word. These men all collected money and then some more and then issued pledges and next spring a church was built as big as the one in New Jerusalem, the size of which Preacher Banman knew to the square inch.
When the new church was consecrated people came from far and near in their new and shiny cars for the Holy Sacrament that was to be conducted that very evening. Peter Barkmann had already visited Snuffy, alias Johnny Wölke, the bootlegger in Grünthal, and bought two gallons of wine for the holy occasion, just as he had done in his former church. But, as we have already said, Steinbach was no longer Steinbach, all things had become new and wine for the Sacrament was taboo.
"But Jesus also made wine at a wedding" insisted a few stiff-necks.
"Do you want to tell me that it was wine which Jesus made at the wedding in Canaan? Brethren, how can you be so lost? This curse has to stop once and for all. Wine has to ferment and this takes months and that is why it is impossible: no, no, Jesus made not wine but grape juice. And nothing but. And nothing else. And that's exactly what we will do. And if we can't manage to locate enough grape juice we will have Coke or Wynola. The meeting is closed. Amen!"
Word of this got around. Now Wiebe's Yils from the Sommerfelder and Yodel Janzen's Abraham from the Old Colony Congregation and Braun's Peter from the Chortitzer said what Banmann had said about wine and juice was "blasphemy, pure and simple." "Things are going too far," they said, "something has to be done here because Banman will manage to make God real mad. And then everything is over. This Banman simply does not believe in the Word!"
Soon many arguments and quarrels erupted and much talk. People met each other in Steinbach and no longer said, "Good Day!" but "Wine" or "Coke" and got very mad at each other. Soon there were people who refused to greet each other at all and whenever they saw someone from the Wine or Coke Congregation, they simply took to the other side of the street. And gave a whip to their pace. But that was not nearly the end of the matter.
Yils, Abraham and Peter wanted to resolve the theological conflict with Preacher Banman but Banman was much too busy to talk with such "lost, erring drunkards and smokers" and left. Braun's Peter was a bit of a learned scribe ever since anyone could remember; indeed, he even knew who Martin Luther was and he now discussed the whole history of the Reformation with the chronicler Peters and other men of learning. He came to like Martin Luther so much that he fancied himself a bit of a relative to him and inserted an M.(artin) between Peter and Braun whenever he signed his name. "Martin Luther was a man of order and so am I," said Peter.
Peter reflected on the whole matter for a week and then he said, "Steinbach will soon get it's own Reformation" and to Preacher Banman he said on the telephone, "Howdy Jake, I think we have a case," and hung up. Pastor Jake was suddenly sore afraid.
On June 5, 1951 on a Sunday morning, when all the world smelled of lilacs and other blossoms and a million bees hummed merrily and all of creation was a-buzz with hope and new life and seven hundred Steinbachers were on their way to church, an old car suddenly drove around Steinbach with a loudspeaker going full blast. It's message came in Low German and announced, "Will all of you please come to the mill right away, today is the day of reckoning."
And, hard as it is to believe it, people turned around and headed for the mill, probably because it is no real sin for Christians to be a little nosey. When most of the Steinbachers had assembled at the mill, some of them tried the door, but the door was barricaded from within. But then suddenly from way up the window opened and Peter M. Braun poked his head out of it. "Goodday to you all on this fine Sunday morning. Nice of you to come. And now there is something I would like to tell you, so please pay attention. All of you who believe that Jesus made only grape juice instead of wine, please step forward a bit." Some three hundred people moved forward, looking through the bright sun towards the voice at the great height, to Peter. Most of the spectators shaded their eyes.
And then Peter commenced, "If someone were to fall from this trapdoor window, would he hurt himself?"
"No, he wouldn't hurt himself, he would be killed," said the Mrs. George Derksen.
"Even if he were a preacher?"
"Preachers don't fly better than normal Christians either," said Mrs. Derksen.
"And how would it be with this holy brother?" Peter asked and shoved Preacher Jake Banman's head out of the opening.
"Not much would remain of him because he is very druglich," said Mrs. Derksen.
"Fine and good, then," said Peter, "and since this has been clarified, we shall now ask him a few questions from the catechism! And all of you now pay close attention. And don't anyone get any stupid ideas because we have, in addition to God up here, a few other brothers who also are not lost, right, Yils and Abe?"
Now these two poked their heads out of the window and spoke down from the top a bit and said, "Howdy!"
"Well then," said Peter, "who has created heaven and earth, Preacher Jacob?"
"Our heavenly Father," says the preacher.
"A little louder, so that the people down below on earth can understand you a little better."
"Who built this village and what is the name of it?" Peter asked.
"Our heavenly Father built this village and it is called Stain-Back." Immediately the powers that were shoved the preacher out of the hole right up to his belt and just as quickly the preacher remembered that the village was called Steinbach. He was allowed to stand on his own two feet again.
"How long did it take our heavenly Father to build the whole world?" Peter asked.
"Six days," the preacher answered.
"Can you all understand way down below?"
"Yes, but we had no idea that Preacher Banman spoke Low German so well," answered the people, and Mrs. George Derksen was to be heard above all the rest.
"Does the good Lord know Low German just as well as English?" Peter asked.
"Yes, the good Lord knows Low German quite nicely," says Banman.
"Does that mean that even the American God can do most everything?" Peter asks.
"But wine He can't make or doesn't He want to?" asks Peter.
"He prefers juice," answers the minister.
In a flash the preacher suddenly emerged totally out of the trap door with the boys above holding on to only his feet. He was swinging and flapping around wildly like a rag doll and promised almost everything you can imagine; indeed, the preacher almost became creative.
"But wine He can't make or doesn't He want to?" asks Peter, "and make it snappy and a loud and clear answer, please," says Peter.
"If He wants to He can also make wine," the minister shot right back.
"Strong wine or thin vinegar?"
"Twenty percent alcohol, if He wants to," the preacher answers.
"Is drinking wine a sin, preacher?"
"No big sin," he said.
"Is drinking wine in Steinbach a sin?" asks Peter.
"Well," says Peter, what do you people down below think, did this fellow answer the catechism questions to your satisfaction?"
"Yes," everyone yelled back.
"One more question," said Mrs. Derksen from far down below, "may my George light up my pipe once in a while or does that remain a sin?"
"I would dearly like to smell his Old Chum again!" said the preacher.
"Well," says Peter, "we will let this fellow go again for a day or two. However, it would be good for Preacher Jakie and all his blind donkey disciples to remember that your theology verged on stupidity and blasphemy. What is the world coming to when you insist that an omnipotent God can and did create the entire universe in six days out of a handful or two of matter and that this same God is too silly and incompetent to make wine in less than many months, eh? This is theology at its shoddiest and no thinking Christian will tolerate such nonsense, verstanden? And now off to church you all go. But as for me and my boys, Jakie, we will attend your church today to make sure you paid attention to our little Bible lesson with you, yoh?"
"Well then, off to your churches," says Peter, "and let peace and love prevail."