A few years ago I invited faculty and staff to sit in on the first “spiritual memoir” class I taught at Bluffton. Of the half-dozen who took me up on it, the most faithful was the Bluffton president at the time, Lee Snyder. Unlike the rest of us, Lee never complained about how busy she was and never blew off a class unless she was out of town. She would simply settle in near the back of the room, and perhaps talk a bit to students nearby. Once we began, she generally said little, though she listened closely and recorded what went on in her small notebook. When I asked the class to choose a favorite quote from the reading, she always found something good—often she had read farther into the book than others had managed to get—and something astute to say about it.
Lee wrote some closely observed, beautifully balanced, and deeply reflective essays that semester. If memory serves me, some of that writing is to be found in the book you are holding, though in substantially different form. But the remarkable thing about Lee’s writing, like her presence in our class, is its freedom from ego and special pleading. Far from expecting special treatment because she was The President, she simply behaved as though she were just one of the group—and so truly became one of the group. Most Mennonites (as someone pointed out to me long ago) are very bad at accepting praise, but when someone complimented her work, Lee would just smile graciously, nod, and then turn the subject to something else.
When the class ended, if I remember correctly, I told her that I hoped the work she had done would turn up in print somewhere, but she was noncommittal—again, typically. So I am very grateful that now we have At Powerline and Diamond Hill.
Early in this vivid and subtly revealing memoir, Lee Snyder reflects on her conservative Mennonite community in Oregon this way:
While I never actually rebelled against the community’s strict expectations, rituals, and beliefs, I gradually began to see that the sharp lines of separation and supposedly clear boundaries were much murkier than anyone wanted to admit.
Now wait, I thought when I first read this passage: a young woman leaves her community to become a leader at two Mennonite universities and the first female president at any of them, earns a Ph.D. in English, and takes on churchwide leadership roles—this isn’t a rebellion?
Perhaps this is one secret of Lee Snyder’s success: she made her most dramatic moves in such an unassuming, unaffected way that they seem far less radical than they were. Throughout this memoir we see Lee (with husband and partner Del) taking one bold step after another as opportunities to serve and to lead present themselves. Her account of answering the phone while folding laundry one Saturday represents, in my mind, a prototypical Lee Snyder moment:
I finally had the good sense to excuse myself and shut off the washer, learning only later that this was not a call from just the board chair and the head of the Bluffton presidential search committee but that a number of other committee members were listening in as well. Later, folding towels and matching socks, I found the routines of the laundry a near perfect way to focus the mad scramble of questions as I thought about Ed’s call.
There is no politicized refusal of “women’s work” here, but neither is there a glib or easy acceptance of gender roles. Among the many fascinations of this book is its complex, experiential analysis of feminism. Snyder later quotes her mother’s question, “Will you have a good man to work for?” with wry humor, but reflects seriously on the tension implicit in her situation:
that of a faith community committed to hierarchical roles and also to a belief that individuals are called out for God’s purposes—sometimes against the grain of embedded religious and cultural strictures. The tension could be wrenching, but it was life-giving also as I matured in my understanding of what God might be asking me to do.
This luminous book, full of lively stories
of what God has asked of Lee Snyder and astute reflections on the life
that she has lived in response, makes for fascinating and instructive
reading. It is one more generous gift from Lee to the Mennonite
community and the wider world.
Copyright © 2010 by Cascadia Publishing House LLC