My Mennonite memoir had a Lutheran birthplace: Valparaiso University.
I was a Senior Fellow in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts (LFP), headquartered at Valparaiso, in 1994-95.
The name Valparaiso means Vale of Paradise.
Mark Schwehn, who led both Christ College and the LFP when I was there, wrote the book that gave us the language for year-long conversation: Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America
My only teaching obligation was to create a year-long Colloquium for younger Fellows and Mentors. I chose the theme of spiritual autobiography and encouraged each member to probe the origins and conflicts in their spiritual lives.
I got to write and read and think — great luxuries in any life. I also felt my first stirrings of the call to write memoir there.
I made friends — deep, spiritually connected friends — with Fellows Tom, Jim, Beth, Susan, Paul, and Stephanie, all with dissertations to complete and new identities as professors to forge as they left graduate school behind and tested a vocation in undergraduate teaching and research.
In short, I got to be a mentor. I loved it.
I loved them. All of them.
I also had my own mentors: Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass, two of the most insightful, engaged, devoted Christian teachers and scholars I have ever known.
June 6-8, 2014, I came together along with many other former Fellows to celebrate twenty years since the publication of Mark’s book Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. Mark also worked with many others at Valparaiso to create the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts. The first director of the program, Arlin Meyer, was also present to celebrate both the program itself and Mark’s retirement from his current role as provost of the university.
I felt a little weepy all weekend.
I wept because Mark allowed himself to weep as he thanked us, his many protegés who rose up and called him blessed.
I wept because Stephanie Paulsell, one of the Fellows in “my” class 1994-95, who is now Houghton Professor of the Practice of Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School, has moved me so often with the softness of her voice combined with the sharpness of her mind. She spoke twice at the conference. Listen to her describe friendship in this video. I think you’ll understand what I mean.
In the middle of the conference I took a walk back to the place where I lived 1994-95, Linwood House. My eyes got a little misty here, too.
Every Monday afternoon twenty years ago, we Fellows and Mentors sat together in the Linwood Living Room and shared our spiritual autobiographies.
More than once, there were tears as each person told us the stories of how they had been formed or deformed by faith and what they longed for.
In that context I told a story about my father’s death that I had never told any other group of people, a story that I had pondered in my heart for fourteen years.
Because of that story, I eventually wrote Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. And because of that year I returned to Goshen College and then to the Fetzer Institute with a renewed vision of my calling.
Because of their stories, each member of the Lilly Fellows Program, went deeper into his or her own exploration of vocation. I am deeply grateful for that year, for those stories, and for each person whose story wove itself into mine and strengthened the tie that binds each of us in the mysterious created world to each other.
As we said often together in the Chapel of the Resurrection, “Thanks be to God!”
If you were to choose an Edenic year from your life, which one would it be? What made it so?