Steve Holland: Love, Grace and Mercy Okolona MS Mennonites
Church of God in Christ-Mennonite, Okolona, MS
May 30th, 2020     Featured Guest Authors

Tupelo, MS-The connectedness of an Undertaker is almost limitless.

Our hearts tell us, at least mine does, that it’s not my place to judge anyone. We accept and we bridge the chasm caused by death with our service to all. We work weekly with all kinds of faiths, colors of people, believers and non-believers; the old and the young, the restless and the secure. It’s an enormous juggling act and a gift of extraordinary boundaries to be personally exposed to such a cornucopia of creed, denominations and mores.

I have found myself, over the past 4 and ½ decades, to have been blessed with an incredible amount of exposure to literally everything, from Buddhist to Baptist, to Apostolic to Atheist and all other reasonable and unreasonable followers of their own Drummers. This panorama of religious and non-religious people has made me appreciate the variety of beliefs and the multiple ways to crystallize philosophies and faith boundaries. Guest Author Steve Holland

Steve Holland, Tupelo businessman and former member of the MS House of Representatives.

Honestly, I’ve found few that I didn’t appreciate, support and respect. I’ve experienced many that have rocked my foundation and made me question their seemingly awkward and baseless religious beliefs. I have many times left funeral services feeling confused and forlorn. Others, I felt anger for the guilt and persecution the messengers placed upon innocent, grieving families.

The vast majority, though, are well intentioned, positive and even exemplary in their tone and profoundness. They are so genuine, so simple and direct that you are elevated to the highest rung of generosity, grace and mercy. One such group, who I’ve been blessed to be a part of for the better part of 30 years, is the Mennonites-properly known as the Church of God in Christ-Mennonite.

In 1989, I became the quaint southern town of Okolona’s undertaker. What a journey of joy that has been. Okolona is located in Chickasaw County, Mississippi-so named for the native American Indians who proudly roamed the countryside before the Trail of Tears displaced them and sent them to Oklahoma. At the time of the War Between the States, Okolona was one of the wealthiest towns in Mississippi. This was due to the rich prairie soil that surrounded the town and its ability to produce abundant crops, especially cotton.

Like many southern towns, Okolona has withered and morphed into a town that has many of its small businesses and merchants wiped out. However, it still has the charm and character that belies the old South-wealth and poverty intertwined, a large minority population, old dilapidated Main Street structures once majestic and bustling, huge late-19th-century Antebellum homes in complete disrepair. Unfortunately, is a an identical twin to so many small Southern towns that disparagingly handled the advent of change of the l960’s and 1970’s.

In the stiff prairie soil about 6 miles south of downtown Okolona, you will find the epicenter of the Mennonite people. Just weeks after becoming the local undertaker, I was called by a Mennonite family to take charge of arrangements for a mid-40’s farmer killed in a tragic accident. Frankly, I knew “of” the Mennonites, but not much about them. I had no preconceived notions, except that I knew they kept it simple and honest. That was enough for me!!

All Mennonite services are held in their Church-it’s just what they rightly do. After all, their lives ebb and flow through their devout allegiance to Almighty God and the graces offered through his Son-the Christ. I was told at first that my role would be to drop the casket off at the Church entrance and they would take it from there. Admittedly , this is a bit different for a well trained Methodist (we believe in method, as the name implies) funeral director.

One by one, the families came to me for introduction-Jantz, Buller ,Schmidt, Koehn, Kaufman, Wiggers, Miller, Wedel. I was quickly getting the picture of the strong German heritage of these fine people. Their features were distinctively German, as well. The men are all fit and strong. This has to do with genetics, as they customarily marry within their faith, but also from a very sterile environment and a stellar fundamental education from the Church-run schools on the Church grounds. They are provided 8 years of intensive learning favoring the three R’s-reading, writing and arithmetic. From thence, they are expected to learn a trade-many follow their father’s footprint. They are perfectionists at what they do: farming row crops and catfish or earth moving; masters with their hands, such as: carpentry, home building, plumbing and welding. They don’t mind work and they excel at it.

It was love and respect on the first meeting of these beautiful souls. As the years have rolled along, they have become a great part of who I am-they have become a sense of place and purpose to me-rooted in a strong faith in God, honorable, hard working, faithful and generous!! They’re now my family!! They take literally the biblical admonitions to love their God first, and to love thy neighbor as thyself!! And, may I say, they do both with dignity and thankfulness.

They take great pains to meet each other’s needs at all times and in sacrificial ways, if needed. They laugh together and they mourn together. They are no strangers to struggle. The Mennonite ladies, absolutely masterful homemakers, just might be the world’s greatest cooks. The celebratory meals after services are a double first cousin to the Feast of the Passover. They sew their own clothes, as well as their children’s and spouses’. They respect their mates. Their head gear is a sign of uniformity and commitment to high ideals.

As a body of believers, Mennonites generally refrain from intoxicants, tobacco and carnal pursuits. They appear simple on the surface but, they are well informed, intelligent and gifted. Believing God’s gift of singing is pure, they sing in 4 part harmony without instruments and it is among the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard.

My long funeral service career has exposed me to untold kinds and types of people—all of which I’ve learned from, grown with and deeply appreciated. But, my Mennonite friends in Okolona are nothing short of amazing. I thank God on every occasion that I get to be amongst them.

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