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Book Review in the Journal of Mennonite Studies, Vol. 23, 2005.
In this delightful book, readers hear the fascinating life story of Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus in her own unique and powerful voice, almost as though hearing it face-to-face in her living room. Through many personal quotes and journal entries, readers encounter this pioneer Mennonite woman minister’s engaging personality. Ruth’s steadfast faith in God, her zest for life, her deep love for family and her quick wit come through palpably in each chapter. In the end, one is impressed with the stalwart character of this woman, born of tall and strong Brunk stock (28).
For this reason, the title A Way Was Opened strikes me as particularly unfitting for the unfolding events revealed within its pages. The passive voice of this title misrepresents the active role Ruth repeatedly took in finding ways to express her ministry gifts. Ruth gives God credit for opening doors in her life saying, “God made a way when there wasn’t any way for a woman to use the gifts the Spirit had given for public ministry” (14). Yet the story Ruth tells makes abundantly clear that she was no passive partner in this process. This woman, driven by a deep sense of inner call, actively imagined doors of opportunity and found numerous ways to test if they would open for her. For example, after Ruth imagined a radio broadcast for women she and her husband proposed her idea to a United Church of Christ minister who had connections in the radio business. Ironically, in letters to her mother and her sisters, Ruth described this turn of events as “the opportunity that has been thrown right in my lap” (85).
This savvy woman knew in her 1950s context that being too assertive was inappropriate for a respectable Mennonite woman. Later in the 1970s, she “prayed to God for strength to work for necessary change [to enable women’s speaking ministries] with caution and with charity” (215). At various points, Ruth’s memoir includes the critique she received from some men that she came across too strongly and threatened male leaders. It certainly is not the voice of one who passively waits for a way to be opened for her who writes, “I answered that I refused to strive to be incompetent, and that men would have to grow up” (229). A Way Was Opened clearly reveals that many times, God and Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus made a way where there was no way. Does the book title indicate that this ninety-year-old Mennonite minister still has to be careful not to come across too assertively in her church community?
No matter the reason for this title, I recommend this memoir to anyone interested in the history of Mennonite Church life between 1915 and the present time. Pastors and teachers should recommend this book to Mennonite young people who have no experience of a time when Mennonite women were not allow to serve as ordained ministers. The painful and amazing stories of pioneer Mennonite women pastors must be heard and remembered. Ruth’s memoir reveals the nitty-gritty of the controversy over women in ministry in her Virginia Conference context.
While not a scholarly work, this book provides historians of Mennonite history a significant window into the lives of Grant and Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus and an important chronological account of their ministries. Historians of Mennonite theology, like myself, will be disappointed that this memoir does not disclose more fully the substance of the theology Ruth embraced and proclaimed through the years. What specific beliefs about male/female roles and relationships did she communicate to her largely female radio listeners in the 1950s? What sexual theology did she and Grant articulate through their Christian Family Service ministries started in 1958? While snippets here and there reveal something of Ruth’s theology, a substantial picture is not given.Historians will find in this memoir a perspective on the well-known George Brunk I through the loyal heart and loving eyes of a daughter. Ruth acknowledges her father was involved in church controversies (35) and indicates she was aware as a child that some people did not like her Papa. She never tries to argue that her father would have approved of ordaining women for ministry saying “we must be accurate in our words about him” (276). However, historical evidence would prove her own words inaccurate when she claims “my father…never said anything about the covering being a symbol for a woman’s submission to her husband” (349). Nonetheless, historians will find Ruth’s comments about the George and Katie Wenger Brunk family of keen interest. This autobiographical account of the strong female church leader produced by this family sheds new light on their story. A Way Was Opened is a worthwhile and intriguing read.