Winnie Weaver Takes a Stand (and sits down)

Winnie Weaver reached for a hymnal and looked over at Mary Nussbaum. They grabbed their hymnals and slid them out simultaneously.


The collective, clean, crisp scrape of the hymnals gliding over the wooden hymnal racks served as Winnie’s rooster call to worship.


Many years ago, Winnie suggested to her friends that they sit in the center of the second row so that the four-part harmonies would cascade down the pews and converge upon their ears. The group varied in size, but Winnie, Mary, Elizabeth and Constance were weekly mainstays in the second pew of Third Mennonite Church in St. Francis, Ohio. Winnie and Mary always sat together because they were sopranos, while Elizabeth and Constance anchored the row’s alto section. Constance sat near the middle of the pew, with Elizabeth on the outside, next to her husband Willard. Constance married a Quaker, and while they were happily married and did almost everything together, neither one was willing to sacrifice their original denomination. So, they worshipped at their respective congregations.

When she wasn’t song leader, Margaret Hostetler and her husband Lyle sat with the group as well. Margaret sang whichever part the spirit led her to sing, while tonally challenged Lyle sat in the middle and just listened. This group had sat in this pew for over a decade and had sung nearly every song in the hymnal together.

Then one Sunday, everything changed when Norman Yoder wasn’t in the song-leading chair. During the call to worship Winnie noticed a tall, lanky, 20-something sitting there, smiling and cleaning his wire-rimmed glasses as he listened to the scripture reading.

“Where is Norman?” whispered Winnie to Mary, who shrugged. “What’s this guy’s name again?”

“Skyler,” whispered Mary.

Years from now, people might say Skyler Garrity rode in on a white horse with an overhead projector on his saddle. Others may say that was the day the music died. Winnie forever called it “the unfortunate situation.”

Winnie could carry a tune but never felt confident enough in her voice to sing anything but the melody. Besides, her high pitch naturally fit the soprano line. Her three older sisters had become altos when they turned 10, but Winnie never had any aspirations other than to sing soprano next to her mother, whose soaring, vibrato soprano filled the rafters of their home congregation. Every Sunday night Winnie’s family would gather for a dinner of popcorn, cheese and apples, and then each family member would take a turn choosing a hymn to sign together after their modest supper. Pa sang bass, the eldest sister sang tenor, the two middle sisters sang alto, and Winnie and her mom sang the soprano melody.

* * *

When Winnie was 8, her family moved to Florida for a voluntary service assignment to help rebuild houses after a hurricane, and to perhaps sow the seeds of planting a church in the area. Since there was no Mennonite church there, Winnie’s family worshipped with a Methodist congregation. Winnie found the people to be welcoming and friendly, but they sang all of their songs in unison. It sounded OK, but Winnie missed something.

“Winifred, sit still,” her mother whispered to Winnie every Sunday in Florida. “Do you need to go to the bathroom?”

Winnie would nod her head and then go downstairs, bypass the bathroom, sneak out the door, and run half a block down the street to the Church of God in Christ. Her first Sunday there, she quietly opened the door in hopes that the choir would sing “Guide My Feet” or another soulful spiritual.

“Are you lost, little miss?” whispered an usher the first time Winnie entered the church.

“No, sir. I go to the church next door. I just came to hear some singing.”

“I don’t blame you. Do your parents know you’re here?”

Winnie shook her head.

“OK, then. One song and you’ll go back, OK?”

Winnie nodded.

“I’m Carl,” he said reaching out his hand. Winnie reached out her hand to shake and whispered faintly.

“Winnie. Nice to meet ‘ya.”

“You too, Winnie,’” said Carl. He bent down and whispered, “And by the way, the choir sings at 10:30 pretty much every Sunday.”

Winnie moved one of her hands from behind her back and gave a little thumbs-up sign as a thank you.

She stood by the back door nearly every Sunday at 10:30, waved at Carl, and transfixed her eyes and ears on the choir. The group of 20 swayed collectively, clapped, and filled the room with upbeat four-part harmonies. The group mainly sang traditional spirituals, and Winnie would lurk in the back and tap her foot, stepping deliberately as if she were trying to capture the beat permanently in her toes.

* * *

Winnie and Mary reached for their hymnals as Skyler stood up.

“Please stand and turn in your Praise Be to God songbooks, number 33,” Skyler said.

Winnie noticed an orange, soft-covered book with plastic binding. When the congregation collectively swiped the songbooks out of the pews, Winnie shivered as the binding sputtered and stumbled over the wood.

Winnie rose gingerly and looked around as the congregation began to sing in unison. Down the aisle, Winnie caught the attention of Elizabeth and Constance, who looked confused, staring at the new book as if they were looking at some complex calculus equation. Winnie scanned the rest of the congregation and found everyone to be politely singing along. She looked up at Skyler, who towered over the congregation and commanded everyone’s attention as he smiled and directed the congregation by moving his hand up and down in one fluid motion. When the song finished, Winnie and Mary instinctively reached for their hymnals again.

“Please find the insert in your bulletin and join me in the song, ‘We Praise You Oh Lord of Awesome Power.’” Skyler’s smile beamed to the rest of the congregation, who collectively rifled through the papers of their bulletin. “I will sing through one time so that you get the gist of the melody,” said Skyler, before launching into a beautiful baritone that wafted over the congregation.

Mary shook her head and Constance gave an incredulous look to Winnie that said, “Please, can someone tell me what is going on?” Winnie again looked around as if she were looking for the cast and crew of “Candid Camera” to jump out and tell everyone to smile.

During the sermon – part five of a nine-week series on the Sermon on the Mount – Winnie looked at the bulletin for the first time and discovered that there were no hymns scheduled. She showed the bulletin to Mary, who curled her lip to the side and slouched against the pew during the sermon. After the sermon and a prayer, Winnie lifted her head to the sound of a fan whirring a few feet in front of her.

“This is a new song that I learned recently, called ‘The Mighty Strength of God Knows no Bounds,’” Skyler said, while fiddling with an overhead projector. “Please stand and clap if the spirit moves you.” With that, Skyler walked over to an electric keyboard and launched into the song, rocking back and forth to the beat.

Winnie tried to remain inconspicuous by mouthing the words to the song while peering at her fellow parishioners. She did not know the lyrics but learned years ago from a friend who sang in high school chorale that if you mouth the word watermelon repeatedly, it gives the illusion that you know the words. As she mouthed her multiple “watermelons,” her eyes roamed around the congregation and caught the eye of Skyler, who smiled at her during a breath from singing.

After the service, Skyler and Pastor Marvin Miller walked off the platform together.

“Well, hello, Winnie and Mary. It is good to see you,” said Marvin, who everyone called Pastor Marv. “You know Skyler Garrity, yes?”

Winnie nodded.

Skyler, standing 6-foot-4, bent down a bit, smiled, and placed his hand on Winnie’s bicep and then on Mary’s.

“Did you enjoy the songs today?” Skyler asked Winnie.

“They were very … interesting,” Winnie replied.

“Thanks for the new songbooks,” Skyler said to Pastor Marv. They shook hands and then Skyler noticed Margaret and waved to her. He walked toward Margaret and touched her on the arm.

“I enjoyed your sermon,” Winnie said to Pastor Marv as Mary’s eyes focused on Skyler and Margaret’s greeting.

“Oh, thank you,” said Pastor Marv. “It was a struggle for some reason. It seems like a sermon on ‘blessed are the peacemakers’ would be easy for the leader of a pacifist congregation.”

“Maybe you were distracted by the song selection,” Mary said under her breath.

“What was that, Mary?”

“Oh, I just said you acted like you knew you were going in the right direction,” Mary said.

“Good to hear,” said Pastor Marv before leaving to greet the other parishioners.

Winnie turned to Mary. “Now, don’t go crazy after just one week,” she said.

Mary breathed deeply. “Fair enough.”

* * *

Winnie’s family had moved back to Ohio, just six months before Winnie’s mother died. Saddened that she no longer had her mother next to her to sing soprano, Winnie found solace in the four-part singing every Sunday, singing along with all of the sopranos.

Winnie grew up to become the first person in her family to attend college, where she met Walter Weaver at a campus-wide hymn sing. They discovered that they grew up only 30 miles apart in Ohio and had the same great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents, but Winnie and Walter never crossed paths before they met in Biblical Literature class during their first semester. They dated for four years, married one month after graduating from college together, and then immediately signed up for voluntary service in Jamaica.

Thanks to an awkward layout at their Jamaican congregation, the church choir stood in the balcony at the back of the church and led the congregation in call-and-response hymns from behind. This communal voice dropped down onto the congregation and summoned the members to respond back with the same power and conviction. There was no four-part, but everyone in that tiny church worked together to create a collective, joyous sound. What the songs lacked in harmony, they made up for in passion, tradition and cooperation.

It was in Jamaica that she and Walter started to sit toward the front of the congregation in order to soak in the beauty of cooperative song. Walter worked during the day with a group of Jamaican farmers to develop sustainable farming techniques, while Winnie worked with a women’s craft cooperative to find outlets to sell their goods for a living wage. At night, Walter and Winnie ate dinner together, talked about their days and then retrieved the hymnal they had brought with them. After they ate, Winnie and Walter each chose one hymn to sing together. Winnie sang soprano and Walter sang tenor. They engaged in this tradition every night of their three years in Jamaica.

* * *

Winnie refused to harbor any resentment toward Skyler in the days that followed his song-leading debut. She also felt better when Wednesday rolled around. A decade earlier, Winnie and her friends began quilting together every Wednesday as another way of community building. Because members of the group were friends and socialized with each other at church and beyond, Winnie named the group Quilty By Association. The gatherings provided her with a place to experience peace and fellowship with other women while working toward a common goal.

“So, what did you ladies think of the song selection on Sunday?” Mary said as soon as everyone had sat down to work.

“I knew this would come up,” Winnie said, laughing.

“My goodness, I thought those songs would meander on forever,” Constance chimed in.

“People seemed to go with the flow,” Winnie said, trying to remain objective.

“They were being polite,” Mary countered.

“Oh, I think variety is good,” Margaret said. “People are always eager to try new things.”

“Margaret Hostetler, I am shocked,” Mary said. “You wouldn’t choose those songs in a million years.”

“Well, I don’t know those songs. I only know hymns,” Margaret replied.

Brittney Grimes, the newest and youngest member of QBA, piped up. When she first joined the group, she had kept quiet, preferring to blend in and learn proper quilting techniques. She was only 25, but she had become comfortable interjecting her opinions into their weekly conversations.

“Skyler is so passionate,” Brittney said. “You all should really get to know him.”

“He seems nice,” Winnie said.

“He is still new here, so he could use some welcoming,” Brittney replied.

“Did he grow up Mennonite,” Winnie asked.

“I’m not sure. I know he moved here from Denver about a year ago after he graduated from seminary. He works for the Ecumenical Aid Society.”

“Did he grow up singing hymns?” Winnie asked

“This is starting to feel like an interrogation,” Brittney said with a chuckle. “Does it matter if he grew up singing hymns?”

“Well, if he joined our congregation as a member, he should have some sense of tradition of the church,” Elizabeth chimed in.

“And the church is no place for a noisy overhead projector,” Mary said.

“That thing is an abomination,” Constance added.

“How else is supposed to teach a new song the whole congregation?” Margaret asked. “He had inserts but copying costs and copyright laws create some challenges.”

“OK, Margaret, then how to justify the electronic keyboard?” Mary asked.

“He needed some accompaniment,” Brittney responded.

“We have a piano down on the floor,” countered Winnie.

“That’s true,” Elizabeth said. “Having a keyboard on the platform is a bit showy.”

“The boy was practically dancing up there,” Mary said. “And while we’re at it, why is he always touching everyone’s arms?” Mary asked

“He loves to connect with people,” Brittney said.

“Well, he can connect with just a smile,” Mary said. “He doesn’t need to drag my arm into it.”

“Now, Mary, be nice,” Winnie said.

“Surely, you didn’t like those songs, Winnie,” Constance said.

“They were not my taste,” Winnie admitted. “But when I was in Jamaica, those songs at church weren’t my taste at first either, but those songs grew on me. They were so steeped in passion, and everyone could feel the rhythm of the choir. Plus, that church had been singing like that from the beginning. It was steeped in tradition.”

“The only rhythm on Sunday came from those electronic drum beats from Skyler’s keyboard,” Mary said. “There’s no tradition there.”

“Not yet,” Brittney said, smiling. “Give it 10 years.”

“We all could be dead in 10 years,” Mary said.

Everyone laughed, and when calm presided over the room, Winnie spoke. “Look, it was an unfortunate situation. It was a rookie mistake. We should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

“I agree, Winnie,” Brittney said. “There are a lot of newcomers at church and they have different tastes.”

“Plus, Norman Yoder stopped as a song leader because he wanted to join the hospitality committee and didn’t think he could do both,” Margaret added. “And Skyler enthusiastically volunteered.”

“I guess it is difficult to find help,” Elizabeth said.

“We had a notice in the bulletin for a month and no one else volunteered, if that tells you anything,” Margaret said.

“He did seem passionate about the music, and there’s no shame in that,” Winnie said. “He was probably just excited to teach everyone some new songs.”

“Well stated, Winnie,” Margaret said. “I will lead hymns this week and then we’ll see what the next Sunday brings.”

The next Skyler Sunday, Winnie carpooled with Mary, who had decided to give the new song leader another chance. Until Winnie pointed at the bulletin. They read some of the song titles: “When We Unite With You, Oh Loving God,” “We Will Sing It Loud and Strong,” and “Wondrous Creator, Your Great Strength Will Never End.”

Mary grabbed a pen and crossed out all of the words but four until the song list read, “When Will It End.” Mary drew a big question mark after “end,” and showed it to Winnie, who started to snicker but then quickly composed herself. Mary passed the bulletin down to Constance, who gave a thumbs up sign, while Elizabeth mouthed the words, “Now, be nice.” Winnie wanted to wait until she heard all of the songs to pass judgment, but five songs, 418 “watermelons,” and one keyboard solo later, Winnie couldn’t help but fidget in her seat. After the service, Skyler and Pastor Marv walked down to the pews again.

“Hello, Winnie,” Skyler said, placing his hand on her bicep and squeezing gently. “Great to see you. I saw that you were singing along today.”

“Er, yes,” Winnie said. “I am used to singing hymns in four-part, so it’s a bit different to what I’m accustomed to. Have you looked through the hymnal, Skyler?”

“Only what we have sung during the service,” he said, smiling. “I should look through there for some songs next time.”

“Oh yes, I’m sure you would find some gems in there,” Winnie replied, trying to contain her excitement. “Maybe you could mix some hymns in with your songs.”

“Maybe so,” Skyler said. “I do like the hymns, but I also like to teach the congregation new songs too.”

“And people do seem to like some variety,” Pastor Marv interjected.

“Which people?” asked Mary, who moved behind Winnie to avoid the impending arm squeeze.

“There was an Internet poll on the church web site,” Skyler interjected. “Persons in the 18-35 demographic said they enjoyed praise songs. And I put this week’s song list on Facebook and 35 people ‘liked’ it. If you didn’t take the poll, you really should chime in. I would love your feedback.”

Skyler caught the eye of Brittney. He waved to her and they met near the center of the congregation and exchanged an extended arm embrace as Mary looked on.

Winnie noticed Pastor Marv still hovering nearby.

“I enjoyed the sermon again,” she said.

“Thank you, Winnie.”

Mary couldn’t hold her tongue any longer.

“Pastor Marv, when are you going to carefront Skyler about his song selection?” she asked.

Pastor Marv sighed. “I have no such plans, Mary,” he said. “He wants to be involved, and with a lot of needs, I don’t have a good reason to say no. Now I know you love your hymns, but …”

“Our hymns,” Winnie corrected him.

“Our hymns,” Pastor Marv repeated. “But if you two feel so strongly about it, you are welcome to join the song-leading committee.”

Winnie nodded.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go say hello to the other parishioners.”

Winnie turned to Mary. “I wish I could sing better,” she said.

“It might be time for a plan B,” Mary replied.

* * *

When they had finished their 3-year term in Jamaica, Winnie and Walter returned to St. Francis, where Walter decided to operate his family’s farm instead of pursuing a job related to his psychology major. They attended Third Mennonite Church, Walter’s home congregation, which his father helped to start 40 years earlier. A congregation in St. Francis had staked claim to First Mennonite Church already, and there was a Second Mennonite Church five miles away. The church’s founding fathers contemplated many names but decided that Third Mennonite proved to be the most humble, as well as the most accurate. Walter occasionally led singing at Third Mennonite but preferred to sit with Winnie, where his high, soft tenor matched well her timid soprano. Winnie and Mary became friends when Mary’s husband Tom became pastor at Third Mennonite. Since Tom was always in the pastor’s chair, Mary started to sit next to Winnie and they never left the second row.

When Walter died in a farming accident, Winnie impulsively signed up for a three-year overseas service term again. When Tom died near the end of Winnie’s term, Winnie came home early in order to be with Mary. After she returned, Winnie helped to launch the opening of a church-sponsored fair-trade store, where she served as store manager. She and Mary started Quilty By Association shortly thereafter, and Winnie never again considered leaving Third Mennonite.

* * *

“Did anyone else see the Internet poll about praise songs?” Mary asked at the next Quilty By Association gathering.

“Here we go again,” said Margaret.

“I did,” said Constance. “I put MORE HYMNS in all caps in the anonymous comments section.

“And I could only vote once,” Winnie lamented.

“Winnie Weaver,” said Margaret, half scolding and half laughing. “You would stoop to voting multiple times?”

“Wow, Winnie, I didn’t know you had that in you,” Brittney said laughing.

“Oh, calm down,” Winnie said. “I just wanted to see what would happen. I wasn’t going to sabotage anything.”

“I was,” Mary said, to raucous laughter. “And I couldn’t find the ‘dislike’ button on Facebook either.”

“You should arrive early and stuff those overhead copies in your handbag,” Constance added.

“Good idea,” Mary said, pointing at Constance.

“You are all kidding, right?” asked Brittney, laughing.

“Yes, they’re just carrying on,” Margaret said.

“He is so sweet,” Brittney continued.

“He does seem well-intentioned,” Elizabeth added.

“I’m sure he means well,” Mary conceded. “But I will say this. I am considering sitting in the back row this week.”

“Wait! What?” Winnie asked.

“I can’t do it anymore,” Mary said. “Margaret, I will still sit in the second row when you lead singing, but I will be in the back this week.”

“That seems a little harsh,” Brittney said.

“Well, it would make me more comfortable,” Mary said.

“I’m with you,” Constance said.

“Leave the second row?” Elizabeth asked. “I’m not so sure.”

Winnie stayed silent until she realized all eyes were on her. “Well, Mary, who would I sing with?” asked Winnie.

“I’ll still be in the second row, Winnie,” Margaret said. “I need to support the other song leaders. I’ll happily sit next to you and sing soprano. And Brittney, you’re always welcome to join us.”

“Yes, Brittney, please join us,” Winnie said. She pondered the situation. “I – we – have been in that row for years, Mary. I agree that it is an unfortunate situation, but Skyler said he would look at the hymnal. Give it another week.”

Mary looked at Constance, who shrugged.

“OK,” Mary said. “One more week.”

Winnie showed up early the next Skyler Sunday to arrange flowers on the platform near the podium. Every year on this Sunday, she brought and arranged flowers in memory of Walter and Tom.

“Oh hi, Winnie. Those are beautiful tulips.”

Winnie looked up to see Skyler smiling.

“Thank you.”

“I came in a bit early to set up,” he said.

“Oh, are you using the overhead today?”

“No, not today.”

Winnie flashed a grin, envisioning Skyler’s transformation to a full-fledged hymn singer, or at least a part-time one.

“No overhead? Did you find some hymns that you like?”

“Oh, no, I haven’t looked at the hymnal yet,” he said.

“It is my second favorite book, next to the Bible, of course,” Winnie said nervously. “I grew up on these hymns. They are the fuel of my faith.”

“Oh, I understand,” Skyler said, with a smile that seemed to transcend his face. “I feel the same way about my songs.”

Winnie milled around the front of the church while Skyler looked through the orange songbook.

“Skyler, I appreciate your passion, but do you think you’ll ever lead any hymns?” Winnie asked. “The congregation has been singing some of those hymns since the church opened.”

“Yes and you already sound so good. You don’t need anyone to lead you. Some of those songs you sing instinctively. Like when you sing the Dichotomy.”

Winnie stood puzzled.

“The what?”

“The Dichotomy. That ‘Praise God From Whom’ song.”

“Oh, I think you mean the Doxology.”

“Yeah, that.”

“We actually worked for many years to learn that song,” Winnie said.

“Yes, and now you know it. I’m more interested and excited to teach the congregation all of these new songs. And I’m excited about this.”

Skyler pulled his phone out of his pocket and proceeded to plug it into the church’s new video projector. Pastor Marv walked up to the front of the congregation, preparing to sit in his usual spot on platform.

“Oh, hi, Pastor Marv,” Skyler said, grabbing the pastor’s upper arm. “I was just showing Winnie my new toy. Yesterday I downloaded this app called I.PraiseU. I can plug my phone directly into the projector, and the words and music to my favorite praise songs pop up from my phone.”

“Well, I’ll be,” he said, laughing and looking intently at the phone. “What is that button?”

“Oh, that is very exciting,” Skyler answered. “If I get the right adapter, I can plug it into a smoke machine and it will disperse smoke to the rhythm and add some special effects.”

“That seems a little bit showy, doesn’t it?” said Winnie, looking squarely at Pastor Marv.

“Oh, I wouldn’t use it here,” Skyler said. “I was thinking more about using it at the next national convention.”

Winnie’s friends walked in and headed toward the second row. They greeted Winnie and saw Pastor Marv and Skyler admiring the phone.

“What’s going on?” asked Mary.

“Oh Skyler was just showing us his new application. He can plug his phone into the projector and his songs magically appear,” Winnie replied. “And sometimes it blows smoke out of its app.”

Mary started to walk away, but Winnie grabbed her hand and stopped her. “Say, Skyler, is there an app called i.Hymn or i.4Part?”

“I’m not aware of that but I haven’t really looked,” he said with a chuckle.

“Are there harmony parts on I.PraiseU?” asked Winnie.

“No, but you can always add your own. I do like unison, though – all of us joining together as one.”

“Well, in four-part we are singing as one,” Winnie countered. “We just bring different gifts that come together in harmony.”

Skyler smiled silently and then looked down and fiddled with his phone, pushing buttons and scanning for songs.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Winnie said.

“Yes, it really is,” Skyler said, looking at I.PraiseU.

“That’s not what I meant,” Winnie replied.

Pastor Marv touched Skyler on the shoulder and motioned to him to take his seat in the song leader’s chair. In an act of chivalry, Pastor Marv stood next to the second pew and motioned to Winnie and her friends. Brittney came up to the row, waved to everyone, including Skyler, and sat next to Margaret. Elizabeth followed. Pastor Marv kept his arm extended to usher Winnie into her usual spot.

Winnie stopped and thought. “Do it for Carl,” she said to herself. She started to turn.

“No, do it for Walter,” Winnie thought, before turning again. “No, do it for the congregation,” she corrected herself.

Mary nudged Winnie. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but whatever you do, do it quickly.”

Winnie nodded appreciatively to Pastor Marv. “I’m sorry,” she said, and turned and walked away quickly, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone.

Pastor Marv stood paralyzed as he watched Winnie reach the back row and stand next to the ultimate pew. Mary and Constance walked single file to Winnie, who ushered them into the back row. Brittney, Elizabeth and Margaret all turned around and stared at the trio in the back.

Winnie knew there would be no hymns today but grabbed the hymnal anyway.


About the Author

Matthew Kauffman Smith

Matthew Kauffman Smith is a graduate of Goshen College ('94). He has an MA in writing from Portland State University. “Friendly Confines” is excerpted from his MA thesis, “Mainstreamed: A Year Abroad in Texas.” He lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and two daughters and attends Portland Mennonite Church.