Holy restlessness leads to home in Christ
Gene Herr became a spiritual father to many people in his lifetime.by Laurie Oswald Robinson
A few days before he died on Jan. 1 in Hesston, Kan., the late H. Eugene (Gene) Herr said to his daughter, Ellen Awe, “I don’t understand why I am not going anywhere.”
The comment didn’t surprise Awe. Her father, a leader and visionary in the Mennonite church, had always lived with a holy restlessness. It was born from his passion to follow God’s call, even when to do so required leaving safe and familiar lands for daring and new territories.
To his family and friends, he seemed he was moving as a pilgrim on his way to the promised land. They saw his movement as not born of one who was lost and trying to find his way “home” alone. They believed it as born out of passion for being truly found in Christ. He desired to give himself so fully to Jesus that no mile of God’s intended journey for him would be left untraveled.
But on this day, it was time for him to rest a bit before traversing the final leg of his earthly trek.
Awe replied to her father, “It’s because you really can’t go anywhere right now, Dad. It’s OK for you to just be here and to let us love you. …”
Gene Herr at the 25th anniversary celebration of The Hermitage in
August 2010. Photo by Laurie Oswald Robinson.
“He accepted this and put his trust in us and graciously let us make decisions for him,” she says. “The concept of his ‘terminal’ illness included both moving and resting. … He was terminal but not as in an end. He was in a terminal, the place where one waits for the next leg of one’s travels.”
As he battled brain cancer for two years, it seemed God was calling Herr in his final days to integrate his doing with being. The integration was a model of the Christian discipleship Gene and Mary, his wife of 56 years, shared with fellow believers in the Mennonite church and beyond.
They believed this “being”—or contemplative —focus was a balancing and complementing element to the active, service-oriented lifestyle they had imbibed as Mennonites. Contemplation involves becoming still, praying, listening, journaling and reading the Christian classics, all with the goal of pursuing one’s call in Christ more fully.
Paradoxically, his forging this deeper union of being in Christ led Herr into an active life as a pioneer of many new ministries in the Mennonite church, along with Mary. He offered his gifts of innovation, vision and pioneering in various roles through five decades of ministry.
From left, David and Naomi Wenger,
co-directors of The Hermitage, and Gene and Mary Herr at the 25th anniversary
celebration of The Hermitage in August 2010. Photo by Laurie Oswald Robinson.
These included that of pastor of several congregations, churchwide youth ministry leader, spiritual director, Christian education director in a local congregation, a participant in reconciliation ministry in Ireland and a minister to the homeless in Newton.
“I so appreciated how he dared to pursue those things that were not always in the now but a vision to be realized in the future, as well as his living out what he believed needed to be done in order to realize those dreams,” says Mary Herr, who lives in Newton, Kan., where she still offers spiritual direction to fellow pilgrims.
“He was always starting things that others said couldn’t be done and putting flesh on the ideas that others didn’t dare to dream about,” she says. “There were many times I helped ground these visions in the practical realities we faced along the way.”
Blazing new trails with focus on both outward and inward discipleship
As the couple pursued their visionary calling, the wider church did not always understand or affirm the new territories they explored. Eventually, however, many pastors across the church came to appreciate the pastoral nurture they received from the couple at The Hermitage, the retreat center they founded in the mid-1980s in Three Rivers, Mich.
“The spiritual direction that I received for 17 years from Gene profoundly impacted me,” says Duane Beck, pastor at Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church. “He really helped me go deeper into my inner spirit and into my relationship with Christ.
“In my times with Gene, as well as when I spent time in listening prayer and writing in my journal, I came to understand that as a pastor I minister primarily out of my relationship to Christ and not out of my book learning or academic, professional education.
“Gene and Mary launched our deeper practices of prayer throughout the church and helped us all balance our outward discipleship of service with an intentional attention to our inner spirit, where Christ is forming us.”
In decades prior to their retreat ministry, the theme of balancing the outward and inward aspects of the Christian walk also marked other trails the couple blazed. Those trails included Gene’s helping shape new discipleship programs for young people across the former Mennonite Church’s Mennonite Youth Fellowship (MYF) ministry.
“Our paths crossed years ago, when Gene was the first executive youth secretary for the former Mennonite Church, and I was a college student and then elected to the churchwide Mennonite youth cabinet,” writes Marion Bontrager, a faculty member in the Bible and ministry department at Hesston (Kan.) College.
“Gene was a visionary, positive leader who looked to the former Mennonite Church and beyond for church and youth ministry visions and models for calling youth to Christ and nurturing them in the faith,” Bontrager writes. “In a number of ways, Gene was a person ahead of his time in the church.”
The Herrs further fleshed out the theme of discipling young people by founding a new Voluntary Service discipleship program in Phoenix, Ariz. They guided young adults in discerning their call in God as they made the transition from their early lives into mature adulthood.
They fathered and mothered many such young people in the faith, including Eric Haarer, who was baptized a Mennonite and eventually became a Catholic priest. Haarer was one of many such “offspring” of the Herrs who came for Herr’s memorial service at Hesston Mennonite Church on Jan. 6 as well as his funeral Mass on Jan. 7 at Saint Mary Catholic Church in Newton.
In his homily at the Mass, Haarer said, “The theme I want to focus on comes mainly from the gospel: Abide in me. That is, make your home in me as I make my home in you. That search for the place of belonging, for home, for where one abides, and how one finds that place by following God’s call along a difficult path, is a theme that permeated Gene’s life.
“Gene was orphaned at a young age. … That wound became fuel for his life’s journey. … Gene was a restless man. … It is that restlessness that caused our Lord to leave his home in Galilee, sojourn in the desert, become an itinerant preacher, following the road to his destiny, his home on the cross.
“By being orphaned … Gene … was thrust into the desert—a step we all are called to make as pilgrim people. We are all called to leave home—that place of comfort and security—at some time in response to God’s call.”
Leaving home and coming home
In response to God’s call, Haarer said, Gene, a lifelong Mennonite, was received into the Catholic Church. Even as Gene fathered Haarer in contemplative spiritual practices, it was Haarer who in the early 1990s first entered the Catholic Church. It was years later, in 2005, when Gene took that step.
This step wasn’t a rejection of his Mennonite roots but the fulfillment of a lifelong faith as an Anabaptist, says Ivan Kauffman, who with Gene and others helped develop Bridgefolk, a movement of sacramentally minded Mennonites and peace-minded Roman Catholics who come together to celebrate each other’s traditions, explore each other’s practices and honor each other’s contribution to the mission of Christ’s church.
“Gene did not turn his back on his Mennonite heritage or on the Mennonite church,”
Kauffman says. “He continued to serve the Mennonite community in various ways to the end of his life. What he did do was find ways to make the riches of the pre-Reformation spiritual tradition, out of which the 16th-century Anabaptist movement emerged, available to 20th-century Mennonites.
“He and … Mary did so in ways that were helpful to hundreds of other Mennonites. In the end, however, Gene came to believe he should not just borrow from the Catholic tradition [but] become a full participant in it.”
Gene testifies to this perspective in an essay he wrote: “I am a Roman Catholic not because I have a file folder full of arguments to prove this is superior to all other ecclesial groups but because this is a way of living into a tradition that connects me to God’s people in a fullness of faith, hope and love across millennia.”
Forging family bonds at home and in the church
Family for their father, say his two sons, Karl and Phillip, included not only his biological family but also his adopted brothers and sisters in Christ’s church. His early sense of abandonment perhaps is what also gifted him to abandon himself to Christ and to remain present to so many people on their journey.
“Because of who he was, we always shared our dad with lots of people,” Phil Herr says. “I think this ability to connect with so many people was his special thing that he offered the world, and what touched his world so significantly as a result.”
Karl Herr says he believes his father’s struggle with following the call to be a visionary and pioneer in new territories—a struggle he wasn’t fully aware of until his father’s passing—shaped his ability to minister to others and to touch lives with the imprint of Christ.
“When I was in Kansas recently, my mother pulled out a notebook of Dad’s free-verse poems,” he says. “Many were pretty serious reflections on his personal walk with God and described that struggle, but his joy of living also came through.
“Since his passing, I am better able to appreciate the complexities—and impact—of his life. …. During the various memorial services, I was struck by the number of people who referred to him as their spiritual father. I’m very grateful for that legacy.”
Laurie Oswald Robinson is a free-lance writer in Newton, Kan., and the author of Forever Family.
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