Newly-appointed Executive Director, Brethren in Christ Historical Society. See the Spring 2019 edition of History Matters.
I was born into a Brethren in Christ family in the country of India. I knew about the Brethren in Christ mostly because of the people and events that happened from time to time. People would visit the work my parents, Bill and Mary (Hess) Hoke, were doing as missionaries. Most of these visitors were part of the Brethren in Christ family. The church I was part of also had its cycle of activities—yearly council meetings, special outreach events, times of gathering for people across the church—that helped me know I was part of a group, a community.
I share these things because growing up Brethren in Christ in India mostly meant that I was growing up Christian, as compared to the Hindus and Muslims who lived in our area. The early distinction for me was about the faith tradition I was part of, rather than a specific family within Christianity. This emphasis has been significant throughout my life, even as I came to learn more and more about what the specific Christian family called Brethren in Christ believed.
My early experiences of faith formation took place within the Brethren in Christ Church in Bihar, India. I remember Sunday school and sitting in church. I speak and understand Hindi, but I remember the language in church to be different than what I spoke day to day, especially in prayers. Eventually I started to learn these church words as well, but I never came to use this Christian language. Even as an adult when I return to my homeland I choose not to use this more formal language. This fact, then, is perhaps one of the first things that I would note that I learned: God does not need a special language in order for us to communicate. God understands our everyday conversation.
The first five years of my life I lived primarily within the Indian community of faith. Then, at age five, I started to attend boarding school. This was a great experience for me. I am the youngest in my family. I now could join my older brother, Carlton, and my older sister, Anita, as we all went to Woodstock School, a boarding school in Landour, northwest of the Brethren in Christ mission where my parents worked. This was a Christian school, and so the development of my faith was an ongoing concern. It was a school for Christians from all over North India and beyond. Here I encountered many different church traditions as we all studied and worshiped together.
One day in this context, I saw my brother and he seemed quite different. I asked him, “What happened?” He told me he had accepted Jesus as his Savior the day before. I wanted what I saw in him. That evening I went to my matron and asked her to help me confess Jesus as Lord. She did, and so I began my life of following after Jesus as my Savior and Lord.
At age 14, we moved from India to the United States so that my father could take a pastorate in Ohio. Here I now entered into a specific Brethren in Christ congregation and started to actually experience what we knew as being Brethren in Christ in North America. I lived in a small town with four congregations. Whereas the distinction in India had been between different religions, here the difference was between different faith traditions within Christianity. Unfortunately, although we Brethren in Christ may not have wanted to communicate this point, the emphasis was placed on why we were right and why they were wrong. As a result, I started to develop a specific set of teachings that needed to be part of one’s faith in order to really be a follower of Jesus. I will come back to this point momentarily.
The strong value, however, that I received during this portion of my time growing up Brethren in Christ related to the cycle of life that was part of the church year. There were three events that were very significant in my faith development: summer camp at Camp Lakeview in Michigan, camp meetings at Memorial Holiness Camp in Ohio, and revival services within our own congregation. These events were significant teaching times, but they were also significant times of learning to know other people and of hearing the voice of God in community.
In these contexts, I started to hear the voice of God calling me toward ministry. My local church was very supportive and encouraging. People spoke with me about what they saw in me and about what I might do with my life. In the years to come, I would serve the Brethren in Christ Church in many different roles: as a pastor at the Sippo Valley and Ashland congregations in Ohio and the Carlisle congregation in Pennsylvania; as general secretary of the Brethren in Christ Church in North America; as regional administrator in South Asia for Brethren in Christ World Missions; as executive director of the International Brethren in Christ Association; and as bishop of the Susquehanna Regional Conference of the Brethren in Christ U.S.
Similarly, it was in a camp meeting that I was called to a complete commitment of my life to Jesus, whatever that call might be. And it was in summer camp and in camp meeting that I came to know people from circles beyond my own congregation, many of whom are life-long friends.
I want to come back to one topic mentioned above. When I went to Ashland Theological Seminary, I came to realize that while growing up Brethren in Christ I had internalized a set of beliefs that, to me, equated being Brethren in Christ with being Christian. If you did not have these beliefs, you were not truly Christian. One of those beliefs was the call to peace and nonresistance. I thought all Christians believed this teaching and practiced this approach to life. In seminary, I met other believers who I could see were Christians but they did not see peace as a mandatory way of life for believers. This was a call in my life to know who I am in Christ but to also understand that my convictions are not what make me a Christian; only Jesus, my Savior and Lord, does that.
I am very grateful for my faith journey. It continues. My ongoing prayer is that the Spirit will “keep me in step” as I walk this life of being a Christ follower.