I was born in a funeral home! My parents—Herman M. and Bessie King Yoder of rural, Kalona, Iowa—effectively met the public of a small town through a modest funeral business. They modeled ministry to people in need; our living room informally became public space. They both were graduated from a two-year college in Hesston, Kansas. We four children (myself the third) could use our home’s “back stairway” or make “bread soup” meals when both parents had professional duties to perform or friends of the deceased came to ‘view.’ My tasks with the funeral-cum-ambulance business were to uncover and open/close the caskets or wash the hearse. Aware of speed needed to respond to an ambulance call, I also sensed the interplay of life with death. I will always be grateful that my parents exposed me firsthand to this reality.1 Both parents have now died, Mother twenty years after my father. She addressed five hundred alumni of Hesston College on the occasion of her 80th class reunion.To observe parental compassion and ease with people in grief left me uncertain about that skill until I had the privilege of working with Central Christian Church (Disciples) in Elkhart, Indiana, during a seminary year of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). Assigned to grief ministry with that congregation, I learned the difference between intent to say the “right thing” and genuine interest in hearing and responding to what a person in grief reveals. Related principles of listening enable interreligious dialogue, I now discover.
CPE, a significant segment of seminary training, enabled self-learning, insight into death and grief, stimulation through planning Grief Team meetings, and counseling skills. My ability to recall verbatim accounts of conversations impressed my supervisor. Basic CPE proved to me that I am “a priest,” whether or not the title would ever be ‘ordained.’ By then, being a prophet came ‘naturally’ too.
My parents came from two very different families—one as quiet as the other conversant. Mother, from a family with nine children, lived in a small college town with exposure to drama, debate, and music events. My father and his four siblings were not ‘permitted’ to attend high school until they were age 21. With degrees from a Mennonite junior college, my parents became leaders in their rural Iowa community. As with Mother’s family, they hosted many friends, for meals and overnight.
John and I have followed this pattern of hosting people, notably friends from India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka in addition to local folk. To live during the coronavirus pandemic reveals how much we value inviting people for curry meals, how limits to having guests is a negative. Guests often remark about the conversations that take place during those occasions. At times we value bringing near-strangers together; other groups have similar interests. While John is the primary cook at the stove, I do more of the chopping of veggies, getting the table ‘spread’ or broader setting ready. Curries generally are valued by western guests; college students from Asia tend to devour them. To prepare curries, in part due to my summer vegetable garden supply, costs fewer dollars than other meals would. The gift of hospitality has been reciprocated. For example, during eleven weeks of travel in seven South Asian countries in 1993, we spent nights in only two hotels. From my journal I recall: “We . . . had quality time with families of over twenty students who have attended Goshen College.”