Narrative Summary Interview with Phyllis Bixler by Amber Cook

Narrative Summary
Interview with Phyllis Bixler by Amber Cook
Phyllis was born in Ohio during the 1930s, and spent her early years within the Old Order
Mennonite tradition. However, in early childhood Phyllis and her family moved and joined the
General Conference Mennonite Church, a more liberal sect of the Mennonite community that
emphasized education and social justice but abandoned the traditional dress restrictions. Phyllis
described this religious tradition as having three main focuses: believer’s baptism (also known as
Anabaptism), scripture as the primary authority, and passivism.
Phyllis looks back on her childhood religious experiences fondly. She described the little
wooden church she used to attend, as well as her pastor, and her father’s position as the song
leader. She remembers God being portrayed as a loving God, one who loved all people, “red and
yellow, black and white.” One summer, Phyllis went to a Christian Missionary Alliance Bible
School. It was there that the judgmental view of God “came into her life,” and she did not like it.
She left the camp crying, and her mother agreed that Phyllis did not have to ever go back.
Although Phyllis described herself as a devout child, she also admits she was a
questioning child. At a young age, she remembers asking her mother what God sat on when he
made the world. As she grew older, her questions continued. Throughout adolescence, Phyllis
struggled to integrate her religious experience with her intellectual one; therefore, she found
great comfort in religious people such as her pastor and his wife, who provided a safe setting for
her to ask questions. The couple would often invite Phyllis over for evening dinners. Eventually,
this pastor started a Wednesday evening study series on Anabaptism that was crucial in her
religious development.
Phyllis attended college at Bluffton College, a Mennonite institution where classes were
small enough that professors really got to know the students. Her professors would have their
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students over for dinner and other activities, providing Phyllis with models of religious
individuals who had integrated their religious faith with intellectual pursuits. Although Phyllis
still struggled with this endeavor, she found hope in their examples. Each summer while in
school, she did voluntary service with the Mennonites. One year she led a church camp, and
during the following years, she worked at the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief
organization, writing articles and creating brochures.
After receiving her undergraduate degree, Phyllis decided to pursue a graduate degree
from the University of Chicago focusing on the integration of religion and literature; however,
after one year, Phyllis decided she did not know enough about literature to integrate it with
religion. Experiencing an emotional breakdown, Phyllis returned to Ohio and taught high school
for a year before continuing her graduate studies, this time at the University of Kansas.
For a short time during graduate school, Phyllis was active in a Mennonite fellowship.
The group often met at her house. She started becoming very involved in her English studies, and
she often did not attend church. However, during the interview she described a time when she
decided to attend a service with Pastor D. Friesen. As Phyllis was growing up, the Mennonite
community did not allow women to serve as pastors. Phyllis always resented this, so when the
Mennonites began allowing women to preach and a local congregation had a female pastor,
Phyllis decided she must go and listen to her speak. When Phyllis heard Pastor Friesen give the
final benediction, Phyllis says she “lost it,” explaining, “I didn’t realize until that moment what it
had meant to me that this was denied to me and other women, and that a woman’s voice had
been silenced in religion for so long.”
After receiving her doctorate, Phyllis eventually made her way to Missouri State
University as an English professor. Not having a local Mennonite community, Phyllis became
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involved with a small Quaker community in the area. She found commonalities with the
passivism and social justice practices; however, after a few years, the group began to get even
smaller, and Phyllis eventually left.
The next phase of her religious life was in Buddhism. Phyllis attended several retreats at
monasteries. These experiences have taught her the importance of meditation and inwardfocused religion, in contrast to her previous social justice focused religious experience.
Buddhism has especially helped her to deal with the concept of death.
Following her retirement, Phyllis began a search for a religious community to fill the
void left by her previous work at Missouri State University. Having learned about mindfulness
and awareness from Buddhists, she felt she was ready to return to Christianity. Phyllis visited
several churches in the area, and eventually found herself in the Unitarian Church where she was
able to sing in the choir. She loved the diverse population of people who attended the church,
people who would not typically feel comfortable in other congregations. Yet once again, Phyllis
began to long for something more. A friend told her about Brentwood Christian Church, and
Phyllis decided to visit.
Phyllis is currently a member at Brentwood and loves the community. She appreciates the
non-hierarchal nature of the community that reminds her of her Mennonite roots; on the other
hand, there are contrasts between the two. While the Mennonite tradition is boundary-focused—
making a clear distinction between who is in and who is outside of the community—Brentwood
kindles a fire and allows individuals to get as close or as far from the fire as they would like.
Today, Phyllis is enjoying the freedom of retirement by reading many religious books
and living every day in constant awareness of the presence of God. She wakes up early every
morning and spends time writing in a journal. She sees her journal as her prayers to God. In
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addition, she makes sure to allow time for contemplation before continuing with her day. Phyllis
continues to view herself as a Mennonite, understanding religion as a language of which
Christianity is her mother tongue and Mennonitism is her dialect. To this day, religion continues
to have a huge impact on how she lives her life.
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