Germantown resident Ray Smith stands beside Ruth Wenger, the creator of a Black Lives Matter lawn display that has been opening up conversations in their neighborhood. Wenger, 67, said the display will remain on the front of her Herman Street yard through February in honor of Black History Month. (Photo by Barbara L. Sherf)

By Barbara Sherf

A Germantown woman was a little early in observing Black History Month this year, as her oversized holiday train lawn ornament was turned into a “Freedom Train” tribute to the “Black Lives Matter” movement in January.

Ruth Wenger, 67, put out a large “Black Lives Matter” sign on the train along with photographs of Oprah Winfrey, President Barack Obama, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T. Washington, James Baldwin and other African Americans who have made history.

“I actually reworked the train for Martin Luther King Day and figured I would keep it up for Black History Month,” Wenger said while sitting on her front porch for an interview.

A lesbian Mennonite who is white, Wenger is very much a minority on Herman Street, a block off of Germantown Avenue.

Neighbor Sandra Washington said she had to agree, in part, with the message. “Really, all lives matter, but black lives and particularly black male lives need to be respected. I appreciate her celebrating black people,” said Washington. “I also appreciate her flowers in the spring.”

U.S. mail carrier Breond Wright appreciates the statement every day. “It’s very creative, and hopefully it inspires others to take a stand. We need more stuff like this,” said Wright as he handed over the mail.

Originally from Lancaster, Wenger’s parents were Mennonite missionaries. She and her three siblings traveled to Tampa as her father volunteered to serve as principal for seven years at a small, segregated elementary school. “Our neighborhood was culturally diverse with Italians and Cubans, and that’s where we learned to enjoy ethnic foods,” she said.

When the family moved to Virginia, this concern for others continued as Wenger’s father mentored an African American family there. She clearly remembered one summer camp experience during the Civil Rights era. “I remember on one of the last days of summer camp, the Ku Klux Klan had burned a cross, and there were charred ashes in a heap,” she said, noting that white children would attend the camp one week and then black children the following week.

With a degree in health and physical education, she taught in Virginia for five years before applying for a one-year teaching position through Mennonite Voluntary Services, moving to Philadelphia in 1979. She was hired full-time at the Philadelphia Association for Christian Schools, where she taught for three years.

She tired of teaching and took a year off, working five part-time jobs to make ends meet and figure out her next steps. She then enrolled in a social work program at Temple University, where she received her degree and worked in that field until retiring recently to take up her latest career as a life coach.

“There is too much to do with this new president and too little time,” said Wenger, who noted that she was the only white person on the block when she moved in. “There was another white family, but they moved out,” said Wenger, who has five African American nieces and stepsons and two African American stepsons through her wife, Judy Wilson.

After Wenger received a diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer in October of 2015, the couple were married on Thanksgiving Day, 2015, by Germantown Mennonite Church (GMC) Pastor Amy Yoder McGloughlin. Wenger is responding to treatment at present.

Wenger was a leader within the church when the controversial move was made to allow LBGT individuals become members. “It was a stand for which Germantown Mennonite Church got kicked out of the Mennonite church denomination,” Wenger said. “I guess this train is about taking a stand too.”

Lit at night, the train display will remain up at least through the month of February. Come spring, Wenger will plant her flowers in an effort to fill the street with a rainbow of colors.

Wenger can be reached at CoachRuth4U@gmail.com. When not giving out “free hugs,” Flourtown resident Barbara Sherf tells the stories of individuals and businesses. She can be reached at CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com.

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