Peter Hoover: Radical Anabaptists Today - Part 3

Radical Anabaptists Today: Part 3

Pilgrimage Valley

Harry and Grace, who by now had thirteen children, sold their farm and packed their belongings into crates (filling up the cracks with seed grain) to ship from Newark, New Jersey, to Belize City. The Jerry Troyer family, already living in British Honduras but up for a visit, travelled down with them in an old school bus, driven by Harold Horst and Roy Zeiset. Christian, the oldest of the children had turned fourteen. Next came Warren, then Virginia (already a big help to Grace), Harry Jr., Kathy, Edward, Philip, Darlene, Timothy, Daniel, Rosanna, Grace, and the baby Mary, not quite six months old.

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On leaving, they stopped in at Lancaster County for tearful good-byes at Grace's parents' place, David and Annie (Stauffer) Horst. Grandma Horst, who loved the children and to whose house they had always eagerly come, individually gave every one of them a little gift to remember her by. Grandma found it especially hard to see her daughter, Grace, setting out on such a long trip, knowing how she suffered from car-sickness. But the time for parting came, and the bus pulled out the lane, leaving Pennsylvania like Abraham had once left Ur in the land of the Chaldeans.

The long trip to Central America, stopping at numerous places along the way, crossing the border and following the Gulf Coast of Mexico, filled the little ones' eyes with wonder. Sea mist rolling in through palm trees along the coastal plain. Thatched-roofed villages among expanses of sugar cane, flat and green, beneath the shimmering snow-crowned peak of Citlalt petl.

Vendors in shaded stands along the road sold bananas, and the Wanners found plenty of fresh fruit to go with the meals Grace and Virginia prepared from "bent and dent" cans they had brought along.

Crossing the Rio Hondo into British Honduras, the children noted a marked contrast at once. Crudely hand-painted road signs greeted them, indeed, in English. But the villages, if anything, looked even more like something out of Jungle Doctor than the ones in Mexico. Especially since the children playing under breadfruit trees and giant blooming hibiscus were black. Lurching southward through pot holes and bus-sized puddles on the white caliche road, dodging pigs and chickens, everyone, on arrival was exhausted. And hungry.

But the special treat, papaya ice-cream, served by the welcoming families of the Pilgrimage Valley Community, tasted so unusual the children did not know if they could eat it. Edward's ninth birthday, 20 November 1969,the day of their arrival in British Honduras would forever be engraved upon their minds.

The house on the farm the Wanners had purchased stood on stilts, with a little kitchen off to the side. Chickens ran about beneath it, and clusters of banana plants, some already drooping heavy with fruit, stood around the outside. In the days following, Harry and the boys eagerly set to work on the land, planted in pineapples, while Grace and the girls unpacked as best as they could in the tiny house with all the little ones. The house had one main room and two bedrooms, not much sleeping space for seven boys and six girls.

Two weeks after their arrival, Grace and the children were working in the garden when a messenger came in with a letter. A letter from North America! Eagerly opening it, Grace's eyes flew open, when a lock of hair fell out of a note written to comfort her. What could it mean? Only the next letter, that had travelled more slowly than the first, explained how Grandma Horst had died suddenly after their departure, one day, in fact, after their arrival in Central America. Grace cried, but had to get over it quickly. So much to do! So many lesser sorrows to attend to, and joys to share with the little ones around her day after day.

The atmosphere at Pilgrimage Valley, the Wanners soon learned, was one of living expectation for the downfall of Western society, for Jesus' return and redemption through his blood. Everyone earnestly believed that Jesus would soon snatch his bride, prepared and kept shining pure, out of this sinful world. And under the fiery preaching of the Stoll brothers, Victor and Harold (Harold serving as bishop), who could have doubted that the new church at Pilgrimage Valley was indeed the surviving remnant of Jesus' Church in 1969? Harry Wanner also preached to the little group, Victor and Esther Stoll with their family, Harold and Mary Stoll with theirs, Bill and Sally (Martin) Stoll and the Wanner tribe, barefooted but dressed in clean everyday clothes, that met in one another's homes, and visitors began to show up from far and near.

Daniel Bauman from Canada, who had taken part in the move to Muddy Pond, got rebaptized (for the fourth time) among the renewed Church in Pilgrimage Valley. Other visitors arrived from North America, but the biggest number, every Lord's Day morning, came from scattered farms and villages around them.

Eager, smiling, attentive to the lively preaching, even though their understanding of English stayed minimal, Belizean farmers and their families came week after week, from 25 to 30 or more people, every time.

Harry and Grace, with their children, found quick and wonderful rapport with the Belizeans (British Honduras changed its name to Belize in 1973). Working with hand tools in pineapple fields and gardens, they found togetherness with their neighbors in a way they had never known. Sitting on one another's verandas on tropical evenings when night birds called and the fireflies came out, they shared what they had, both material or spiritual, one as easily as the other. Fruits in ready abundance. Help where needed. Kerosene for lamps that dimly glowed in open-walled kitchens under palm thatch, after dark. Words of comfort and direction from the Word of God.

When Juan, one of the neighbors, needed a way to take his produce to town, Harry made a wooden cart for his horse. Juan's double-grip handclasp, his tears of gratitude more than paid the effort.

Nevertheless, all the Wanners were startled when a young father, Rafael, brought his sick child for them to attend. Having no money or transportation, far from whatever medical attention the baby could have received, he felt it his only hope. Grace did what she could. But the baby died within days, and the parents gratefully buried it in a wooden casket Harry made.

Pilgrimage Valley, what a great opportunity to serve Jesus and build on earth a model of the Kingdom of Heaven! But to keep all the Wanner children decently clothed and fed, during the pioneer stage, did not prove so easy. In the summer of 1970, Harry and Grace hired two Belizean drivers to take them north in the old school-bus to pick tomatoes and apples as migrant laborers on Pennsylvania farms.

To America and Back Again

The Belizean drivers, on entry into the United States, drew back in terror. Such busy highways, and fast driving! One of them refused to go any faster than 35 mph on unfamiliar highways. By the time they got to San Antonio, Texas, both drivers had given up and returned home. Harry called a former neighbor, Gene Nace from Snyder County (once a member of the Hoover-Graber group, now with the Holdeman Mennonites), who flew down to bring the bus the rest of the way home.

After a busy and profitable summer, during which Harry and Grace's oldest son, Christian, found the Lord, they cheerfully returned to Central America, eager to continue with the new friends they had made. But things did not continue as they had begun. Paul Lavy, a minister from Mammoth Springs, Arkansas (who later established a church community near Lobelville, Tennessee), had been seeking fellowship with the new group in Pilgrimage Valley. But a misunderstanding regarding one of his letters (a letter Harry had received but failed to share with the rest) led to disunity and disappointment among the believers.

Before they knew it, Harry and Grace found themselves once more outside the fellowship. They thanked the Lord, however, that those of the old group in Pilgrimage Valley lived nearby. In an open-walled palm thatched meetinghouse just down the road the Jerry and Joe Troyer families, old Albert Stolls, David Martins, John W. Martin's widow, Fannie, with her children, and Chris Millers met to worship. Harold and Orpha Kratzer, with their family, moved in a little later. Some distance to the east John Shirks and Titus Martins had settled with some Plattdeutsch-speaking families from the Shipyard and Spanish Lookout Mennonite colonies. Right next to the Wanners lived Joe and Mary Ellen Miller from Hartville, Ohio, with their eight children, and with them, the Wanners became fast friends.

The Millers loved to sing. So did their children, and meetings with them, if anything, were even more joyous and meaningful than before, albeit with their focus slightly changed. The more Harry talked with Joe, the more the idea of starting all over again with the Church of Christ, establishing an "only Church", did not seem like such a good one. Yet in the hearts of both the Wanners and the Millers the longing for radical Christianity, truly separated from the world, reaching out to the lost, had grown stronger than ever. "Why not go back to Pennsylvania and join the group under Noah Hoover and David Graber?" they finally asked one another. Plans soon took shape, and with another driver (Ervin Stoll) the old bus set out, rattling and lurching on white dirt roads to the north again.

Change of Plans

Reaching the Mexican border at the Rio Hondo, Harry dug about in his bag for the bus registration papers. What? Why should they not lie in their place with the rest? Everyone grew quiet as the search went on.

Grace shook her head, "They're not here."

Nothing left to do but for everyone to sit at the border in the sweltering heat, waiting, while Harry paid a Belizean with a small vehicle to race back with him to Pilgrimage Valley and look for them. Stepping into their abandoned house, he found two things. The bus papers plus a letter from Daniel Byers, a River Brethren friend from Franklin County, Pennsylvania.

Several years earlier the Daniel Byers family, who had tried living in Snyder County (where they came to know the Wanners), had rented a farm and moved to Campbellsburg, Indiana. There she had turned sick, things had not gone well on the farm, and in the letter Harry now held in his hands, the Byers pled with him to come and visit them, at least, on their way north.

Harry and Grace could not refuse. How would the Lord bless their further plans if they left the Byers, in distress? So, after a little conference at the Santa Elena border crossing into Mexico, they decided to go first to Indiana.

That was as far as they got.

The Wanners found the Byers in unhandy circumstances indeed. But what they had not bargained for was how much they would like the Campbellsburg area themselves. Level farms between wooded ranges of hills, 120 miles south of Indianapolis, toward Nashville, Tennessee. Almost before they knew what was happening, they had made arrangements for the Byers to live in a rented house nearby and by March, 1971, the Wanners took over the job on the dairy farm themselves.

Please click on the following link to go to Part Four.

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Peter Hoover. “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you,” Christ told his followers. And a few fishermen, a tax collector, and a motley group of believers set out to change the world. In fact, they succeeded.

In 16th century Europe, the Anabaptists preaching in cities by night, on back streets, and in secret corners behind rail fences set out to do the very thing the apostles had done. They, too, turned the world of their day upside down. What was the secret of their strength? In this book, Hoover explains what gave the Anabaptists their incredible spiritual strength.

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