MORRIS SIDER. Brown Sugar Sandwiches and Other Stories: Memories from My Life. Mechanicsburg, PA: Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 2021. 201 pp. $10.00 US. Black and White Illustrations.
Brown Sugar Sandwiches ends by quoting the Psalms: “My lot has fallen in pleasant places” (16:6). This verse is as fitting an epitaph for Morris Sider’s memoir as it is for his life. This collection of stories gives a celebration of life well lived, not without acknowledging struggles and flaws, but making its burden easy and the yoke light. In clear, approachable prose, Sider welcomes the reader into his hall of memory and shepherds us from room to room, pointing out people, places, and times of special emphasis.
Sider’s recollections take a meandering stroll through his life, mainly chronologically, but not entirely so. He begins with his early childhood in Cheapside, a declining village south of Hamilton, Ontario, where his father served as a minister in the Brethren in Christ church. The reader learns that as a young boy, Sider was an avid climber of trees, but not a hunter. He proceeds to touchstone experiences to understand his childhood—especially his early education, spiritual and otherwise. He dwells on experiences of baptism and church membership—chosen young—in the Brethren in Christ and the rhythm of life such membership brought: morning and evening worship services, Sunday school, love feasts, and General Conference. He also recounts tales of youthfulness in school, remembering teachers, bullies, and escapades.
The memories continue as he grew up, beginning high school at age twelve after skipping two grades in elementary school and then working a year in order to attend the Ontario Bible School. There he first met Leone Dearing, his future wife, before continuing to college. Sider recounts his first year of teaching at Saunders School, a one-room schoolhouse, a path that sent him first to Western University and then the State University of New York Buffalo for graduate work. The storytelling culminates with accounts of Sider’s time teaching at Messiah College, coaxing students to blossom and engaging in the scholarship for which he is so well known. As the passage of time approaches the present, Brown Sugar Sandwiches concludes with a scattered miscellany of stories to round off a fully lived life before Morris Sider gives a final postscript on the correct interpretation of the memories he shares.
Sider has given us a reflection on and of the Brethren in Christ as the church underwent a transformation in the twentieth century, a shift during which Sider emerged into adulthood. Throughout the memoir, Sider offers stories of church with special attention to how kinship worked within this community. In the first chapter, Sider brings the reader along with him as he is called to the front of the meetinghouse to give confession for the first time—and more importantly, allows us to hear the quiet affirmation received days later from one member of the congregation for his willing submission. This affirmation, Sider claims, was “one of the greatest acts of brotherhood I have experienced” (20). This is followed shortly by another formative moment: the first time Sider participated in feet washing. After spilling water from the basin, the elder whose feet he was to wash reassured him that Sider was not alone in experiencing this moment of embarrassment; the elder had done the same thing previously. Sider claims this as “a kind and tactful act of brotherhood” (40). Importantly, this sense of fellowship is not confined to early formative moments, like some attempt to reclaim a lost sense of belonging in the church or nostalgia for simpler times. Reflecting on years of taking his students to experience worship with the Old Order River Brethren during love feasts, Sider remembers Myron Dietz slipping to the side to break communion bread with him: extending fellowship even without membership.
The stories of life and community in Brown Sugar Sandwiches are punctuated regularly by mention of music and singing, especially in the first two-thirds of the book, as if to provide the reader with a soundtrack to accompany the vignettes. This music runs from classic spiritual songs—“This Little Light of Mine” and “God’s abiding peace is in my soul today” sung with gusto—to the secular: “I wandered today to the hills, Maggie.” The reader learns that in their first year of dating, Sider and Leone went to a concert where he first heard “Going Home” set to the tune of the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Later, during their wedding ceremony—at a time when instrumental music in the church was still outside of the discipline—Sider and Leone arranged for a pump organ to be set up just outside the chapel door at Niagara Christian College (formerly the Ontario Bible School), so that the music could “waft into the chapel” (139).
This collection of stories, which is deliberately not an autobiography, as Sider tells us in the introduction, is an exercise of an accomplished historian who has spent a career grappling with the stories of others and is now turning with care and gentleness to his own past. In that, this is a carefully curated volume. Indeed, in the same introduction, Sider reminds us “some stories should remain untold” (1). Only confessions of the cleanest infractions are included, such as a clumsy first attempt at basketball leading to the injury of another student. Unlike some other memoirs of Anabaptists who grew up as separatist sectarians before entering the broader world, Sider takes no joy in deconstruction. In fact, there is no deconstruction at all, for the church has been his home. Sider reminds his readers, “for nearly all my life I have lived within religious circles, notably the Brethren in Christ Church. For the most part, I have agreed with its doctrines and practices. This was not by accident” (192).
Brown Sugar Sandwiches is a memoir that reflects how Morris Sider wishes to be remembered and is a testimonial to the pursuit of faithfulness from an early age. It is instructive for those wishing to know more about this preeminent historian of the Brethren in Christ and whose works serve as a mirror for the tradition. It is also a book for those who wish to reminisce about their memories of Sider or who wish to compare their experiences against his. But the book is also a kind and loving consideration of transitions among the Brethren in Christ without dwelling on academic understandings. With humility and respect, Sider reflects on how shifts—from changes in dress, in separation from the world, and in understanding what it means to faithfully live out the life to which Jesus calls his followers—affected and continue to affect individuals. Sider is clear that this collection reflects his personal convictions and values, giving at least a partial accounting for the touch of divine guidance he feels over the course of his life. For both reasons, and more, in Brown Sugar Sandwiches and Other Stories: Memories from My Life, Morris Sider has given a love offering to the church.