Jim Bishop | Clarence Peifer epitomizes life of lay ministry
Clarence E. Peifer of Bridgewater will defuse any preconceived notions of how a person who turned 95 (on May 18 this year) should appear or act.
Clarence moves at a slower pace these days, but gets around well. He wears a hearing aid but responds thoughtfully to questions. He recently passed another drivers’ test but usually rides shotgun. He only wears glasses to read the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record every day, supplemented with books and his favorite tome, the Bible, which he mines daily for spiritual gems.
That’s the every day Clarence. This Lancaster County, Pa., native’s story hasn’t been widely told, perhaps because he’s always worked quietly behind the scenes, seeking to “give the Lord the credit” for his accomplishments.
Clarence and his spouse of six years, Rhoda Neer Brunk Peifer, enjoy their cozy living space in Bridgeport Apartments with a view to the east of the Bridgewater arboretum and walking trail that they take advantage of.
The couple became members at nearby Dayton Mennonite Church the fall of 2007, having transferred from Harrisonburg Mennonite Church where they previously attended.
Clarence, the son of Clayton and Alice Erb Peifer, lost his mother in the flu epidemic of 1916 when he was 18 months old. His father later married Mary Risser, a widow at 18 with two children. The blended family moved from Manheim, Pa., to nearby Lititz and got involved in the Lititz Mennonite Church.
While attending revival meetings at age 15 at Mt. Joy Mennonite Church, he “accepted Christ” as his personal savior. One year later, he was told to quit school and go to work. He didn’t reenter the classroom until he was past 70, taking advantage of evening Bible school courses in St. Petersburg, Fla., and later some night classes at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg.
“This was a great disappointment back then, as I wanted to stay in school and get a good education,” Clarence said.
At 22, he married Betty Hostetter of Lancaster, Pa. They raised a family of five – John, Kenneth, Ann (Eberly), Elsie (Weaver) and Joy (Miller).
One of the “greatest effects” on Clarence’s life came in 1951 when he got involved with the first evangelistic tent crusade held in Lancaster County by a then young preacher, George R. Brunk II. The whole family attended every night of the seven weeks the protracted meetings were held, drawing upwards to 10,000 people.
He remembers packing all the hymn books in his Hudson automobile and transporting them from East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church to a new location near the Lancaster airport to accommodate the crowds.
“The highlight for Betty and me was the teaching Bro. George gave on the infilling of the Holy Spirit,” Clarence said. “I’ll always be grateful for the beautiful experience that we had during that crusade. God’s word became so special to me.”
Following the meetings, Clarence and Betty responded to a call to home missions work. Their “leap of faith” for the next 15 years involved starting a Mennonite congregation in Dawsonville, Montgomery County, Md., where he served as mission superintendent.
“One Sunday, around 150 people came to the worship service and the pastor suddenly got sick,” Clarence recalled. “We had to either tell them there would be no sermon today or I’d have to preach . . . The Lord gave me a message from Ephesians drawn from my study Bible.”
Clarence and Rhoda attended a 50th anniversary celebration on Sept. 21, 2003 of the Dawsonville congregation, which “is alive and doing well today,” Clarence noted.
Clarence was a successful builder for some 30 years, first in Maryland and then when the family moved to Clearwater, Fla., in the late 1960’s. He recalls one of his “most challenging” projects was a glass house he constructed in a Washington, D.C., suburb. He usually had 2-3 employees and largely did private dwellings and the occasional commercial building.
In Florida, Clarence did lay preaching at a number of churches and during voluntary service assignments. In the early 1970’s, he was instrumental in starting Lakewood Retreat, a camping facility in Brooksville, Fla., run by Southeast Mennonite Conference. While “rustic at first,” the facility has undergone considerable improvements and today serves a variety of denominations.
Clarence applied his building expertise to a series of short-term mission trips over the years. He built two churches in Belize and took on other assignments in Jamaica, the Bahamas, Haiti and Red Lake, Ont., Canada. While most trips were made under the auspices of Eastern Mennonite Missions, Salunga, Pa., he always paid his own way.
Clarence and Betty moved to Harrisonburg the spring of 1988 to retire and to be closer to family. In June that year, Betty learned she was terminally ill with cancer. She died on Oct. 12 and was buried on her 80th birthday in the Dayton Mennonite Church cemetery.
Rhoda Peifer, 80, married Eugene Neer on Oct. 10, 1947 and they lived for 53 years in West Liberty, Ohio. Over the years, the couple helped support the tent crusades that George R. Brunk II held across North America. Eugene died suddenly on June 4, 2000. Rhoda then relocated to the Shenandoah Valley to be nearer her daughters.
Some nine months later, Rhoda responded to a personal invitation from “Brother George,” himself a widower, and married him, continuing a friendship the Neer and Brunk couples had for almost 50 years. Their marriage was happy but short-lived; George R. died Apr. 21, 2002 at age 90.
In the spring of 2003, Clarence called Rhoda and invited her to a concert. A long-time friendship blossomed, and they married on Dec. 6, 2003.
“We really enjoy being closer to extended family and the children from our earlier marriages,” Rhoda said. “The highlight of each day is having devotions together,” which includes reading through the Bible in a year and reading from a book of reflections, Dew Drops, written by Rhoda’s mother, Nellie B. Weber, published in 1975 and reprinted in 2005 by Masthof Press.
Since the early 1990s Clarence has been an avid wood carver. A display case in the living room is full of his intricate figurines and animals. He is presently carving a bear from a block of pine for this fall’s Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale.
“Rhoda and I praise the Lord daily for bringing us together at this time in our lives,” Clarence said. “We pray that we’ll not only be a blessing to each other but also to our blended family, our church family and community.”
– Column by Jim Bishop