Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Singing for Peace: An Interview with Wendy Chappell-Dick

Wendy Chappell-Dick

When I first met Wendy Chappell-Dick, I was an elementary school camper with a blonde bowl haircut and coke-bottle glasses at Michigan’s Camp Friedenswald. Wendy was often on staff, and I found myself drawn to her luminous and confident spirit. As both my parents will attest, I was in awe of Wendy because she treated me as a creative equal—and because she sang with more emotion than anyone I’d ever met.

I reconnected with Wendy at a 2002 Mennofolk music festival she helped to coordinate at Friedenswald. In my early twenties then, I felt distanced from my faith community. But the experience of that Mennofolk affirmed that artists and musicians have a place at the Mennonite table.

This year’s
Mennofolk Bluffton, slated for July 6-8, will donate proceeds to The Iraqi Student Project, The Wounded Warrior Fund, Military Counseling by the German Mennonite Peace Committee, and military recruitment counseling here at home in the hopes of helping to heal the wounds of war.  I wanted to know more about this annual event, so I turned to Wendy Chappell-Dick. She graciously answered a few questions in the midst of planning and publicizing for Mennofolk Bluffton.

Sour Cherry Pie

Becca: How has music helped to shape your faith and to live that faith out in the world?

Wendy: When I was a little girl my mother always told me that I never needed to be afraid to sing in church. She told me to look out into the congregation and to remember that everyone there is loving me, so I didn’t have to feel shy or embarrassed. That was extremely influential and allowed me to develop a deep love of sharing singing and playing as a form of worship. It also shaped my faith in that I learned to see church as a loving place, a place where a community of people is there to accept and embrace you rather than to judge or reject. I think this is a very Anabaptist way of seeing music—not one person up there as an individual singing about their individual faith, but it is an act that happens within the congregation as part of the whole body of Christ.

Becca: Today, there are several different Mennofolk festivals and concert series in Canada and the U.S., all organized by separate groups of people. How did Mennofolk originally start?

Wendy: In Southern Ontario in the late 1980s, there was a lot of talk about community among young Mennonites, and lots of music and art happening. But those ideals and activities weren’t happening within churches. Many young people didn’t choose to be involved with a congregation at all. A young adult pastor named Fred Martin envisioned a weekend gathering of Mennonite and ex-Mennonite young adults and their friends in a festival setting where their ideals could be expressed through music and art with no stipulations. I was a college student at Conrad Grebel at that time, and I attended the first festival Fred organized. It was a beautiful weekend of camping and sharing ourselves as we really were— with no mandated theology or religious expectations. The odd and magical thing about it was how spiritual it ended up being. When people were invited to share what was within them, Mennonite values and echoes of their spiritual Anabaptist roots were undeniable. Now, almost 25 years later, many of those early Menno-folkers are involved with Mennonite churches and institutions. However, at that time, Mennofolk was the only space within the church where we felt we belonged.

Becca: Mennofolk is taking place in Bluffton, Ohio this July. I’ve noticed that the information describing this event immediately reminds us that Mennofolk is not just for Mennonites. Can you expand on this idea?

Heather Kropf
Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover

Wendy: Although Fred Martin thought of Mennofolk as a space to reach out to disenfranchised Mennonite youth, it has really grown beyond that as a form of outreach. As much as we as Mennonites want to be friendly and welcoming, our theology and history of being “separate from the world,” and our tendency to cling to our ethnic traditions and focus on intellectual development can be off-putting to regular folks looking for a church home. One of the most effective ways to break down barriers is music. And one of the most special and marvelous gifts Mennonites offer as a faith community is their music. Even though Mennofolk transcends music written only for church, the musicians that come from the cradle of the Mennonite church are usually steeped in a unique harmonic sensibility and a value of group singing over individual glory. Whether our musicians are playing bluegrass, folk, or rock and roll, the same thing happens at Mennofolk today as did at the very beginning: a sense of spirituality, a love of peace, and the warmth of community dominates the festival. Anyone can be part of that experience, even those who would have no interest in going into a church service or looking into Mennonite history or theology. And the fact is, though they rarely are full time professionals, Mennofolk musicians are incredibly good at what they do. The music is fantastic, and the public responds to that. On the last day of the festival attendees will be invited to hear more from their favorite performers by joining several local church services structured around the hymn “When in Our Music God is Glorified.”

Becca: In your opinion, what can the arts (and music especially) offer the larger Mennonite church?

Wendy: I think music has already enhanced and helped create the Mennonite church, from the early hymns of the martyrs to the four-part singing and chorals that were adopted later and embraced as central vessels that help our spirits soar. However, I do think it is interesting that most of the musicians who are involved with Mennofolk do not have a space to share their music in church. They are playing in coffeehouses, farmers markets, recording on their computers, but they are not being utilized in worship settings. We have so many excellent songwriters, yet very few Mennonite composers and writers are represented in our hymnals and Mennonite camp songs.

Becca: What have been the most rewarding parts of being involved in Mennofolk?

Wendy: I have been part of organizing seven Mennofolk festivals over the years. And I have hundreds of stories of grace and love that have manifested themselves through the events and music of Mennofolk. I remember the young Shawnee woman who saw the publicity about Mennofolk and contacted me to try to learn about her mysterious Mennonite ancestor and ended up doing a concert with her Native American flute. Or the young man I met playing in a bar whose music I loved… I said to him “too bad you’re not Mennonite, because I’d love to book you for a festival!” He shyly told me that he had recently started attending a Mennonite church, was feeling many changes in his life, and was desperately trying to find venues to play his music that were alcohol-free and songs that were not focused on objectification of women. He went on to play at several Mennofolks and found a network of other musicians through the experience. I’ve seen great bands such as The Steel Wheels and Over the Rhine that have gone on to commercial success, and I’ve enjoyed some of the best music I’ve ever heard from people who only sing in their living rooms.

Readers can find out more information about Mennofolk Bluffton, including performers and registration, at

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