My father’s ‘generous orthodoxy’: Sara Wenger Shenk ’75 on her father, Chester Wenger ’41, and his engagement with changing culture

Chester L. Wenger is “as old as EMU, with unabated fervor.” Son of A.D. Wenger, the second president of Eastern Mennonite, he earned three degrees here: high school in 1934, associate degree in 1936, and bachelor of theology degree in 1941. He was on the board of trustees in the late 1960s, and all eight of his children attended Eastern Mennonite. The author of this article, Sara Wenger Shenk ’75, is professor and associate dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. The original version of this article appeared in the May 1, 2007, issue of The Mennonite. This edited version is reprinted with permission.

My father will celebrate his 90th birthday in April. He fits well the classic biblical description of Moses: “his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.”

Dad has not slowed down. With family help he harvests tons of grapes from his half acre vineyard every year. He cultivates a huge garden, growing hundreds of sunflowers, squash, pumpkins, melons, tomatoes. He picks bushels of apples and peaches from his trees.

At our annual family beach week, Dad still body surfs the waves, a thrill he’s loved ever since he was a boy. In turn, he taught all his children and grandchildren a profound respect for the ocean—its power and its delights.

At 80 years of age, he journeyed with several of his children and grandchildren to the 50-year Jubilee celebration of the Meserete Kristos Church, remembering how the name (Christ the foundation) was chosen by young Ethiopian believers in his home in Nazareth, Ethiopia. He had served as the first Mennonite Bible teacher after Mennonites began relief work following World War II.

I am invigorated by how my father’s reading of the Bible stays engaged with the changing culture. When Lancaster Conference dress code flew in the face of Ethiopian customs, he stood up to the bishops on behalf of the indigenous church. Later, in Pennsylvania, when his children complained about their lackluster Bible teachers, he initiated three imaginative programs: Christian Youth Associates (focusing on the arts), Keystone Bible Institute and the Paul-Timothy mentoring program. He supported his church’s decision to call a woman for lead pastor—a first in Lancaster Conference. He provides companionship with other parents of homosexual children. After viewing Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth he gave a donation so his expanding church could “go green.”

He and my mother joined an intergenerational family trip to the land of the Bible he loves this past summer. I well remember how, as soon as the translation Good News for Modern Man came out, Dad eagerly bought each of us a copy, exulting in its down-to-earthiness. He tells Bible stories with animation. Last Christmas, when he told of Mary’s visit from an angel, he used John Lennon’s song, “Let it be.”

Last April, I forgot to send him a card on his last birthday. I comforted myself with the plan to send one late, and an email saying that it was on the way. Before I’d done either, an email arrived from him. I include excerpts below, with his permission.

Dear Family, 

Our God of love in his marvelous grace has given me 89 wonderful years of life, and a most dear companion for almost 63 of these. In my wildest dreams as a younger man I never thought I’d stay around this long. In addition to all this I have 8 precious children with their spouses, 15 grand children and 5 great grandchildren. In recent years we have lost dear Chet [oldest son] and dear Nelson [son-in-law] to cancer but we are happy that both of them found in Jesus a Savior and a hope of eternal life. Now what a joy as we look forward to welcoming two beautiful young women into our family when two of our wonderful grandsons wed this summer.

You dear ones bring us much joy as you answer Christ’s call to follow him. Let’s keep in close touch with Christ Jesus. This will take constant prayer, listening for his words of instruction, fellowshipping with God’s people, and open eyes for opportunities to serve in God’s peaceable kingdom. You and I know all this but we need encouragement.

My life has had trials and testing but upon reflection it has gone from one great experience to another. In some ways life seems to be getting better all the time. I recognize the possibility however that the next stage may be more difficult but I’m sure God will be there to help in time of need. I have no premonitions but live one day at a time. As long as I live I want to continue telling others of God’s love through Jesus our crucified and risen Savior.

You are all most welcome when we are home to pay us a visit and enjoy mother’s good cooking. Let’s pray for each other. 

With much love, Dad, Daddy, Grandpa, 


From the Fall 2007 issue of Crossroads

Posted on August 18, 2016