Rising through Mennonite shame, Reflections on Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries

Anna Wall

This post first appeared at Mennopolitan.

Life is like a Kjrinjel1: you never know how it’s going to twist.

A year ago, when I received an invitation from Abigail Carl-Klassen to participate in a panel at a conference at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, I said “YES!” before I’d even finished reading the email. The panel would showcase creative work by and about women from Mennonite communities in Mexico, discussing transnational identities and issues.

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

As the date of the conference drew closer, I became overwhelmed with fear and self-doubt. I thought, “Who am I kidding?  I can’t do this!” So I did what I always do when that happens: drop everything and read a book, because now, I can. Luckily, my friend and co-worker Sidney Bater has a library full of books that are written just for me. I picked up one of the books whose title spoke to me: Rising Strong by Brené Brown. After reading this book, I thought, “So what if I screw this up and fall flat on my face? I will rise strong and do it again.”

That was easier said than done. But I was able to stay focused enough to go through with it. It began with a ten-hour drive to Virginia from Ontario in a black minivan with four amazing women. We came from different backgrounds, yet we all had so much in common.

Upon arriving at EMU campus, I was thrilled to learn that I was sharing a room with Laura Morlock, one of the women that I had just gotten to know during the ten-hour trip. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and the reason for her company was to keep me from letting self-doubt crush me.

What an overwhelmingly humbling experience it was as I remembered George’s words: “Life doesn’t happen in the same order for everyone, and there is nothing wrong with that.”

I thought, “Finally! Not only do I get to sleep in a dorm at a university, but at a Mennonite university.”I giggled a little on the inside, because the butterflies in my stomach were going insane with excitement.

The next day, after walking around on campus in disbelief, and taking it all in, I met with Abigail Carl-Klassen and Veronica Enns, who were part of the panel. I immediately connected with both of them. The experience was deeply moving.

That evening, I sat beside my new friends Abby and Vero in the theater listening to women speak. I mostly spent the whole time fighting back the tears, because every word that was spoken touched me so deeply.

After successfully holding back my tears, I made my way to the art gallery. As I stood in front of an art piece, staring at it and trying to feel what it was telling me, a man joined me there. I glanced at him nervously, and it was none other than Canadian History Professor Royden Loewen. I recognized him because I had met him at a lecture and book signing I had attended at Conrad Grebel University a while before with my friend Shirley Redekop. As Shirley flipped through Royden’s book, Villages Among Nations, she pointed out a picture of a Rev. Johann P. Wall, and asked if I could be related to him. And that’s when I discovered that not only was Rev. Johann P. Wall my great-grandfather, but he was one of the leaders who took part in the decision to migrate to Mexico from Saskatchewan Canada in the 1920s.  

I moved on to the coffee lineup, and there I spotted another familiar face. It was the one-and-only author, Saloma Miller Furlong. I had read her memoir, Bonnet Strings, a couple of months before, and had afterwards sought out information about her online.

After reading about Saloma, I dreamed of meeting her someday. I told myself that if I ever got to meet her, I would hug her, and she would know why, before we even exchanged any words. But when I stood in front of her, I froze, and shook her hand instead. I told her many things that I hadn’t planned to say. But at the end of my ramble, she hugged me and said, “Find me tomorrow. I want to talk to you some more.”

It was hard to settle down and go to sleep after all that.

After Abigail Carl-Klassen had presented, I nervously walked up to the front to share my story. I began with the pivotal decision to cross cultural boundaries and two borders–leaving my colony in Mexico and coming to Canada. I shared that I was illiterate and didn’t speak English, and how I faced many barriers as I began my journey of finding my place in a whole new world, one that I had never been part of.

I spoke about how I began attending an adult learning center, at which point I had only even written my name a handful of times, and how simply holding a pen in my hand was awkward. I shared how ashamed I was of my literary incompetence and how embarrassing it was, as I was nineteen years old and felt like I was starting kindergarten. I said that ever since then, reading and writing have been my obsession, one of the main reasons I started blogging.  At the beginning of my presentation, I stumbled over my words and said sort of what I had written, but in mixed-up order. I reminded myself of what I had read in the book, Rising Strong, that it was alright; I should leave my mistakes behind and just continue.

When I read a post from my blog titled Fashion Faux Pas, and people began laughing with me as I read, I knew that I was back on track. That moment was the first time I felt I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. That included speaking in front of an audience about ridiculously embarrassing experiences that at one point I wouldn’t have wanted to remember, let alone tell strangers about.

It was surreal—not only being there, but being in the presence of scholars I had only read about, and discussing an art piece in Plautdietsch with a Canadian history professor. Then there was sharing with Saloma Miller Furlong my dream of publishing a memoir, and comparing our similar experiences and our struggles over how to clothe our bodies after shunning our Mennonite dresses.

I left the conference with an abundance of knowledge, hope, and new relationships. The experience has inspired me to no end. Thank you to Abigail Carl-Klassen for opening the door, and to EMU for inviting me in.

Thank you.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.


  1. From, Plautdietsch; m. (pl: s) a pretzel, twisted buns, a soft pretzel 

“Art, Migration and (Home)making: Mennonite Women, Mexico and ‘the World’” Women from Old Colony Communities in Mexico Share Their Stories and Their Art at Eastern Mennonite University’s Crossing the Line Conference

Abigail Carl-Klassen, Anna Wall, and Veronica Enns

50 years after their arrival from Prussia in the 1870s, 7,000 Altkolonier (Old Colony) Mennonites left Manitoba and Saskatchewan to form new, more conservative colonies in northern Mexico, due to conflicts with the Canadian government concerning secularization and compulsory English language instruction mandates for colony schools. The Mexican government promised Old Colony communities educational autonomy and exemptions from military service in exchange for occupying and developing remote, yet contested, territory in the wake of the Mexican Revolution. The first colonies in the states of Chihuahua and Durango were established in 1922 and 1924 respectively and grew quickly as a result of high birthrates and subsequent migrations. Today there are more than 100,000 Mennonites living in Mexico, primarily in Chihuahua and Durango, but also in more recently settled colonies in Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Quintana Roo, Tamaulipas and Campeche. Descendants of this migration have also participated in subsequent migrations and have formed colonies in Belize, Bolivia, Paraguay, and most recently Peru and Colombia.

In the early days of the Mexican colonies, residents were isolated geographically and socially from larger Mexican society; however, over time, modernization of agriculture, industry, and transportation has increased commercial contact with surrounding Mexican communities and social and commercial contact with Mennonite colonies throughout the Americas. Today it is not uncommon for colonies with modern dress, cars, Internet, and schools accredited by the Mexican education system to exist within close proximity of colonies with much more strict and traditional regulations concerning dress, education, and technology.

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Mennonites in Mexico have become increasingly mobile and transnational. In the 1970s, several thousand Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico, many of whom still retained Canadian citizenship, began migrating to Ontario while others established a new colony in Seminole, Texas. While many formed migrant worker circuits residing in Canada and/or the United States for half the year to perform agricultural work and returning to Mexico for the other half, others settled permanently. These migrations continue to the present day and impact the social and cultural landscape of colonies in all three countries.

“Art, Migration, and (Home)making: Mennonite Women, Mexico and ‘the World’” was a panel at Eastern Mennonite University’s Crossing the Line: Anabaptist Women Encounter Borders and Boundaries conference that sought to explore the personal side of this complex network of migrations and identities through the presentation of poetry, creative non-fiction and visual art.

Abigail Carl-Klassen, who grew up in Seminole, Texas, read poetry based on ethnographic research and oral history interviews that she conducted in Seminole, Texas and Chihuahua, Mexico. The poems “Freizeit” and “Self-Portraits with the Flower Women” explored the multi-faceted encounters that Old Colony women had with personal, community, and geographic borders from the 1940s to the present day. Her work can be found at https://abigailcarlklassen.wordpress.com/

Reflecting on the panel and her conference experiences Abigail noted,

When I started writing I didn’t know there was such a thing as Mennonite literature or scholarship. I just knew that I needed to tell the compelling stories of the people around me. While I was working on my thesis, a collection of poems based on the experiences of friends and family in Old Colony communities in Mexico, I was introduced to a thriving community that welcomed me into the fold. When I slip the work of Di Brandt, Sarah Klassen, or Julia Kasdorf into the hands of women I grew up with or connect someone from my community with Rhubarb or the work of Royden Lowen it’s like experiencing that joy of discovery all over again.

I organized this panel because I feel it is important that Mennonite women from colonies in Mexico be able to tell their own stories and have a space to showcase their creative work. Though Anna, Veronica and I only knew each other through social media before the conference, I felt like we had an instant connection and would be good friends. I was overwhelmed by the positive response that our panel received and am excited about new opportunities for collaboration and about the ways these connections will open up ways for women of Old Colony origin to share their experiences and creative work whether they are living in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, or elsewhere in the Americas.

Anna Wall, who blogs at http://www.mennopolitan.com/ about her experiences growing up in a conservative colony in Durango, Mexico, read a creative non-fiction piece from her blog that explored her struggles leaving the colony and as a new immigrant in Canada.  With humor and seriousness she talked about learning to read and write, earning her high school diploma, finding her identity and her current job as a community health worker and Plautdietsch interpreter in Ontario.

Anna shared her experiences as an attendee and presenter saying,

At the age of 16, I crossed a pivotal boundary, and two borders when I left my colony that is tucked away, hidden far in the mountains of Durango, Mexico. I left everything I had ever known and came to Canada. I was illiterate and didn’t speak English. I faced many barriers as I began my journey of learning how to fit into a whole new world that I had never been part of before.

At the age of 19, I began attending an adult learning center in St. Thomas Ontario. At that point, I had only ever written my name a handful of times. Even just simply holding a pen in my hand was awkward. I was ashamed of my literary incompetence and felt like I was going to kindergarten. Reading and writing have become my obsession ever since.

Three years ago, I started a blog www.mennopolitan.com I post stories of my lived experience growing up as an Old Colony Mennonite. Going to kindergarten in Canada as an adult, being torn between two worlds and finding my place in it.

When I received and email from Abigail Carl-Klassen telling me that she had been following my blog for a while and invited me to participate in a panel that would showcase creative work by and about women from Mennonite communities in Mexico. Discussing transnational identities and issues. I said YES! Before I finished reading the email.  

Within minutes of meeting both Abigail and Veronica, I immediately connected with both of them. The experience was soulful.

It was surreal. Not only being in the presence of such scholars I had only read about, but discussing an art piece with Canadian History Professor Royden Loewen in Plautdietsch and sharing my dream of publishing a memoir with author Saloma Miller Furlong, while comparing notes on similar experiences and how we are still struggling with how to dress our bodies after leaving our communities. I left the conference with an abundance of knowledge and new relationships. The experience has inspired me to no end. Thank you for opening the door!

Veronica Enns, a visual artist, and creative director at Cabañas Las Bellotas in Chihuahua, whose work can be found at http://www.veronicaenns.com/ shared her experiences growing up in a conservative colony in Chihuahua, her immigration to Canada as a young woman, and how studying and creating art allowed her to process and heal from past trauma. She also discussed what ultimately motivated her to move from Vancouver back to Mexico, close to the colony where she was raised. Currently, she runs a ceramics studio, gives community arts workshops, has exhibitions in Mexican galleries and works on collaborative projects with Mexican artists. Most recently, her work was showcased at the Festival of Three Cultures which seeks to celebrate and bring together the indigenous Tarahumara, Mexican, and Mennonite communities in the Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua region.

She spoke excitedly about her experiences at the conference saying,

Growing up [in a conservative colony in Mexico], I didn’t think that Mennonite and education went together. I never imagined that a conference like this was possible—that people went to university to learn about Mennonites and that our life in the colony was the subject of academic study or that I would be a part of that by presenting here. When I left the colony I thought I was done being Mennonite, but over the years I’ve been brought back to my roots in new ways.

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave one of my paintings to Elsie K. Neufeld, a writer, photographer and storyteller of Mennonite origin who lives in Vancouver, Canada. Elsie was curious to find out more about the artist, as she linked my last name to be Mennonite. Thanks to social media we connected a few months after I moved from Vancouver back to my roots in Chihuahua, Mexico. Elsie met Abby Carl Klassen on a writing conference in Fresno California in 2015 and shared some details about my art and experiences. This connected Abby to me and the ball got rolling.

I trusted that my presentation would be embraced at this conference. Although not knowing anyone in person and having compiled a bunch of personal stories made me very nervous; however, a few hours after arriving on the EMU campus, I felt overwhelmed with the warmth in hospitality. I was impressed with all the highly educated personalities and how humbly they shared their own personal stories as we all had walked common grounds as woman who often encounter similar boundaries. Academics and faith had never been used together before in my educational and cultural experience. I had found my tribe.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

“Crossing the Line” Reflections

Wendy Urban-Mead

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Two notable elements of the “Crossing the Line” conference come to mind: first, it was exceptionally well-planned, logistically, and flowed beautifully at a rich but manageable pace. Second, the offerings were refreshingly varied, ranging from serious academic work in the fields of history, sociology, literary analysis, and theology, but also offered memoirs and family histories, as well as a range of fine arts including dance, poetry, and visual arts. The tour to nearby notable Mennonite sites was truly beautiful and memorable. I would like to draw your attention to the photo I took of Mrs. Barbara Nkala, as she exited a church building we visited on the tour. This photo speaks to the question, “who is an Anabaptist today?” The image reaches from Old Order Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley to a Brethren in Christ Church Zimbabwean mother in the faith—who journeyed far and at significant expense, together with her sister, to participate in and lead at Crossing the Line.  The impact of this admirably well-thought-out and holistic program was to offer participants both spiritual and intellectual refreshment.

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The long supper table and delicious-looking dessert comes from our meal at the home of Janet Shank.

I came to the conference in response to urging from Jan Bender Shetler that I send in a paper proposal, and at the invitation of Devin Manzullo-Thomas, to join a panel he was proposing on BICC women in leadership. I gave a talk about Sithembile Nkala, a member of the Brethren in Christ Church, Zimbabwe, who served as pastor of her BICC church during the 1970s. The story I shared centered around Pastor Nkala’s encounter with liberation war guerrillas. She drew on what I called “spiritual muscles” to find courage to confront the guerrillas, challenging them not to believe at face value the “sell-out” accusations they heard, in spite of the real possibility that they could have executed her for speaking out in this manner. This material is based on research I did for my dissertation in history at Columbia University and which in turn served as the basis for my book, The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Ohio Univ Press, 2015.) Devin spoke about women of the BICC in North America in the post-WWII era during the BICC’s “evangelical turn.”  Also presenting on this panel was Lucille Marr, a historian from McGill University in Canada. Lucille spoke on the early life and calling of Hannah Frances Davidson, the BICC’s first foreign missionary. H. F. Davidson, Lucille’s own great-aunt, was a crucial leader of the BICC’s mission to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) See the photo of Lucille, Devin, and me—which Devin has also posted in his social media platforms.

19399675_10154676829305869_7987347151558697291_nBarbara Nkala’s talk on “Unsung Heroines” of the BICC Zimbabwe was delivered with clarity and authority. Based on her own and her sister Doris Dube’s extensive work of collecting stories of women of the BICC Zimbabwe, Barbara’s joyful spirit came through, as well as her well-honed teacher’s expertise.  A longtime secondary school teacher at the BICC’s Matopo Secondary School, she is now a publisher of Christian and Ndebele literature and serves as the southern Africa regional representative for MWC.  I had not seen Doris and Barbara since 1999; our reunion at Crossing the Line was poignant and joyful. See the photo of the three of us standing before EMU seminary’s gorgeous stained glass window. Note also the photo of the conference’s wrap-up panel, which includes Barbara Nkala seated at the far right.

19429639_10154676830320869_914360242205161917_nI may well have been one of the only (if not the only) participants in the conference who is not a member of an Anabaptist-derived church.  I felt welcome; I became more deeply acquainted with the Anabaptist tradition, and came to admire and appreciate my Anabaptist fellows in Christ and in scholarship all the more. Thank you to the conference planners who accepted my paper proposal, allowing me to partake of these riches.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Reflection on “Crossing the Line”

Anita Hooley Yoder

at book signing

Anita Hooley Yoder (right) with Doris Dube (left) and Marian Buckwalter (center)

For me, part of the fun of attending a conference in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is the drive there. It’s about six and a half hours from my home near Cleveland, Ohio, and I enjoyed taking a somewhat mountainous route and stopping to hike along the way. I also enjoyed staying with my sister and brother-in-law, who live in town.

The first day I spent with my sister, before the conference began, and she shared some past struggles that I knew little about. I thought that, unlike many of our female Anabaptist ancestors, my sisters and I had a pretty great childhood. And in many ways we did. But I suspect that all of us have stories in our past—our own histories—that we haven’t heard or acknowledged.

“Crossing the Line” was, at least in part, about honoring those kinds of stories.

One of the most poignant moments was hearing Jean Janzen, an 83-year-old Mennonite Brethren writer, share one of her first published poems, which focused on a long-buried family story about the suicide of her grandmother. “I am speaking the syllables you could not say,” Janzen read.

As part of the conference wrap-up panel, Doris Dube mentioned that Zimbabwean women often carry children wrapped tightly on their backs. Then she shared a proverb: “A weaning baby that does not cry aloud will die on its mother’s back.”

We, gathered here, are the children crying aloud on our mothers’ (mother church’s?) backs, I thought. And, we are the mothers who hear the cries and will not leave the child to die.

Hearing people’s cries—their most heartfelt stories—has become a kind of vocation for me.

I spent a large part of the past several years listening to stories of Mennonite women as I worked on a book about the history of Mennonite women’s organizations. These stories inspired me, as I encountered women who received little recognition but continued serving faithfully for decades.

Last August I started working as a campus minister at a small Catholic college. In that role I listen to students, faculty and staff, sometimes for most of the day. Their stories are sometimes painful, even shocking, but also full of resilience and serendipity and grace.

However, my experiences at and around this conference made me wonder about other stories I need to attend to. If hearing people’s stories is my vocation, how did I miss the stories my sister had been living for so long?

Sometimes it seems easier to focus on faraway stories, whether from distant times or distant lands. That was perhaps a shortcoming of this generally wonderful conference. While the presence of international attenders was commendable and clearly a focus of conference organizers, there was a lack of women from U.S. minority groups, even though there are Mennonite congregations of various ethnicities not far from our gathering place.

“We need all the women’s stories we can get,” Sofia Samatar said in her brilliant and broad-sweeping plenary address. So I am left to consider whose stories are still missing. What are the stories in my own family, my own community, my own soul that need to be heard? What about the stories of Mother Earth, the ground I drove across and walked over during my trip to Virginia?

Really hearing and honoring these kinds of stories often entails “crossing a line” of sorts, because such stories have been ignored and marginalized for so long. This conference was brimming with women and men who seem compelled to lift up all kinds of stories—the stories of undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ folks, Mennonite ancestors who had uncomfortable nationalistic tendencies. We didn’t cover everything, didn’t include everyone. But we know more stories now than we arrived in Harrisonburg, and that fills me hope for years to come.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Dispatches from “Crossing the Line”: Literary Women—The Lines They Cross

Eileen R. Kinch

Literary Women: The Lines They Cross

Panel 1: Friday, June 23, 8:30 am to 10:00 am

Three presenters gave papers on the lives and/or writing of Mennonite writers.

“Queering Tradition in Jessica Penner’s Shaken in the Water

by Daniel Shank Cruz, Utica College

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

  • Shaken in the Water is a novel that claims space for queer Mennonite bodies and is set in the early 1900s, the earliest chronological queer relationship to appear in a novel written by a Mennonite.  Agnes, the main character, has a scar on her body that causes her pain.  Not wearing clothes is far more comfortable, and Agnes discovers that only one person can touch her scar in a way that feels good: Nora.
  • The novel feels anti-Mennonite, but hopeful in that Penner is clearly writing in a (Kansas) Mennonite tradition.  Other Kansas Mennonite writers include Gordon Friesen and his book, Flame Throwers, and Dallas Wiebe, best known for his book, Skyblue the Badass.  Shaken is not a rejection of Mennonite community, but rather a wish for more flexibility for community members.
  • Magical realism in the novel pushes for non-traditional ways of experiencing the divine, and helps serve to resist the mind-body split.

“Bad Mennonites, Usable Truths, and Other Misreadings: Julia Spicher Kasdorf, Grace Jantzen, Sofia Samatar, and Mennonite Stories,”

by Jeff Gundy, Bluffton University

  • According to Roxane Gay, a “bad feminist” is one who admits her failure to embody feminist ideals, but still tries to live into the feminist project.  A “bad Mennonite” is one who admits his/her failure to embody Mennonite ideals, but still tries to, anyway.  (A problem with this, though, is that it allows the most intractable Mennonite folks to define what it means to be a Mennonite.)  The discussion will be on writings by people who might be considered “bad Mennonites,” but whose writerly concerns are related or connected to Mennonite concerns in a more underground way.
  • Grace Jantzen, a Canadian feminist theologian, argues in Foundations of Violence that the fascination with death and violence produces a  mystical longing for the other worlds.  Sophia Samatar’s fantasy novels Stranger in Olondria and Winged Histories are grounded in this thinking.  Samatar creates worlds that interrogate masculinist worldviews and form narratives about life, love, and flourishing.
  • Julia Kasdorf also works against death and violence, but is doing so through documentary poetry, a forthcoming volume called Shale Play.  Like fantasy, the documentary style opens up the experiences of folks who are caught in things beyond their control.

“Writing a Mennonite Woman’s Life: Alta Elizabeth Schrock, 1911-2000,”

by Julia Kasdorf, Pennsylvania State University

  • Feminist scholars have encouraged life writing since the 1970s.  The way a writer sees her life influences her writing and how she sees the world around her.  In terms of plot, men have the hero quest and adventure, but women have the domestic plot.  They are denied anger and exercise of power.  Kasdorf considers the project of writing Alta E. Schrock’s life to be a form of biographical life writing, and writing about Schrock’s life opens the possibility for other scripts.
  • Schrock, who had Amish roots but grew up in a Conservative Amish Mennonite church setting, was an ecologist.  She led CPS men on nature walks, taught a “Botany for Rural Service” course at Goshen, and opened her home to students in effort to foster community and family.  She also served in refugee camps in Germany.  She was the first woman to get a PhD and remain in the church.  She was something like a cross between Rachel Carson and Dorothy Day in her interests, and later lived with and helped Appalachian mountain folks.
  • Schrock lived “outside the script,” and not everyone appreciated that, including some of her neighbors.  She was also a “bintu,” someone who left the community for education, but then returned to the community to enrich it.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Dispatches from “Crossing the Line: Crossing the Line Art Exhibition

Dr. Rachel Epp Buller, curator

20170624_211435Artists are in the habit of crossing lines. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp caused an uproar by submitting to an exhibition a mass-produced urinal that he had signed, titled, and declared art. In 1989, Andres Serrano drew fire when several prominent Republicans in the United States Congress objected to his receipt of National Endowment for the Arts funding for his religiously themed photographs that achieved saturated colors through the use of materials such as blood and urine.1 The collective known as the Guerrilla Girls regularly raises a ruckus with their activist informational posters that draw attention to the disparities of gender and race representation in the art world, calling out museums and gallerists by name for their discriminatory practices. And just this year, the online art daily Hyperallergic has been awash in articles of activist artists protesting gentrification, the occupation of Palestine, the underwhelming global response to the Syrian refugee crisis, as well as many of the policies and executive orders of the Trump administration still in its infancy.

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

Artists affiliated with Anabaptist traditions cross lines in ways quiet and bold, subtle and overt. The conference during which this exhibition takes place, Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries, invited presenters to consider border- and boundary-crossings in terms of ethnic and religious heritage, gender and sexual identity, geographic borders, private and public spaces, or disciplinary expression. The artists included in this exhibition most often cross lines in order to experiment and question, to make statements, or to think back through time.

A number of the artists represented here cross temporal borders and the boundaries of memory as they engage with the stories of ancestors. In her panels from Nine Tetrameters, Jayne Holsinger collapses varied historical references. Working in a four-patch quilt block format, Holsinger crosses easily between visual echoes of fabric patterns, historical prints, and bread baking, all modes of reaching out to the women of her Anabaptist heritage. Three prints by Gesine Janzen speak to her paternal family’s history of emigration from Poland’s Vistula Delta to central Kansas. By exploring the narratives evoked by historic photographs and letters, Janzen imagines a cross-generational dialogue, moving their stories forward across the decades and offering a meditation on family, intimacy, and absence. Teresa Braun’s video, The Plaint, explores family lore surrounding a specific place. A family cemetery and the fusion of human and plant organisms feature as mythological elements in Braun’s weaving of a fragmented ancestral narrative. Teresa Pankratz’s multi-act The View from a House in Kansas, excerpts of which are included in this exhibition and other parts of which will be performed during the conference, engages with semi-fictional narratives revolving around the artist’s childhood home, which was destroyed by fire some years ago.

20170624_211429Other artists purposefully cross borders of material. Historically, the highly regarded “fine arts” materials of painting and sculpture have far outweighed the importance of craft traditions such as needlework. However, one important legacy of the Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s has been the revaluation of media long denigrated as “women’s work.” Karen Reimer employs methods of embroidery and appliqué not only to bring feminized craft traditions into a high art context but also as a means by which to question the value of certain kinds of labor and notions of originality. Reimer intentionally copies her texts from other contexts as a way to destabilize definitions of creativity and innovation. As she writes, “Generally speaking, in the art world copies are of less value than originals. However, when I copy by embroidering, the value of the copy is increased because of the added elements of labor, handicraft, and singularity–traditional sources of value. The copy is now an ‘original’ as well as a copy.”2 At the same time, Reimer’s hand-sewn texts sometimes border on illegibility, producing a bad copy and inviting us to question the relative value of such painstaking labor. Kandis Friesen seeks to examine how textiles and other materials might impart narratives about migration and exile. In Onsa Japse Jeit Jantsied, drawing sewn onto leather makes reference to both indigenous and colonial histories. Friesen draws on a clothing pattern from a Russian Mennonite museum artifact from the 1800s, one that also incorporated buffalo skin from newly colonized lands. Like Gesine Janzen, Friesen looks to visual culture as a connection between the past and the future, yet in this case she also problematizes the narrative of hard-working Russian Mennonite immigrants as she uses textiles to implicate the diaspora’s participation in colonial processes.

Mary Lou Weaver Houser and Jen Dyck cross boundaries of medium through their work with found materials. Dyck’s collages investigate dream imagery, in some cases, and in others, such as Potluck, speak to her personal experiences of Anabaptist cultural traditions. Weaver Houser, on the other hands, positions her mixed media assemblages as metaphors: as she walks an edge between varied art materials, she also imagines edges – between generations, between different world views, between what is and what could be.3 Similarly, Jessie Pohl crosses material boundaries and points to the possibility of crossing emotional bridges as well. As she incorporates the unexpected material of scrap lumber as the substrate for delicate pen-and-ink drawings, she emphasizes a contrast of strength and vulnerability.

20170624_211422Some artists cross lines as a political gesture, seeing their methods as a way to issue public statements, either subtle or explicit. In Blamed Shamed Abandoned, one from a series of 60 paintings, Jerry Holsopple directly addresses the failures of U.S. Mennonite communities to protect, believe, or even listen to the many women abused by well-known Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. Holsopple grapples in his expressive portraits with the idea of collective responsibility and he explicitly brings the issue of sexual abuse out from behind closed doors, for public discussion and accountability. Audra Miller’s The Gender Project, which is represented here by two photographic diptychs, explores what it can mean to cross between feminine and masculine gender presentations. Through Miller’s photographs, we see not only the possibilities of either/or but also of in-between, of gender identities that are not always so easily classified in a binary system.

Lora Jost regularly engages with political activism, on topics ranging from local school closures to the local and global impacts of climate change. In her piece for this exhibition, Jost emphasizes more broadly the importance of critical thinking in our world. Informed by her experiences of a Mennonite historical focus on peace and social justice, Jost uses a combination of text and linework to ask the viewer to more carefully consider, when confronted with any issue of substance, “Does this make sense?” Jennifer Miller takes on a topic with both personal and political meanings in addressing the Keystone XL pipeline. Crude, a mixed media drawing, makes topographical references to the proposed path of crude oil transfer from the Tar Sands of Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The map follows the same path traveled by Miller’s family in their move from north to south for her father’s job as a pilot for the oil industry, pointing to complicated convergences of politics, business, childhood memories, and a family’s financial security. While the pipeline was halted under President Obama in 2015, a new administration has proven more receptive to the interests of big oil and Miller’s piece becomes relevant for political discussion once again.

Our Anabaptist ancestors wrestled with the idea of how to be in the world but not of it, an intentional choice not to cross borders. The art on display in this exhibition might be seen to run the gamut between insularity and worldliness, yet each artist thoughtful engages with notions of borders and boundaries. Whether speaking to themselves and their Anabaptist communities or to much broader audiences, these artists traverse edges of materials, politics, identity, generation, and memory, and they invite us to join them on the journey.  

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.


  1.  For in-depth discussion of Serrano and the NEA controversy, see Steven C. Dubin, Arresting Images: Impolitic Art and Uncivil Actions (New Jersey: Routledge, 1994). Other texts that examine high-profile crossing of lines in contemporary art include Dubin’s Displays of Power: Controversy in the American Museum from the Enola Gay to Sensation! (New York: New York University Press, 2001) and Michael Kammen, Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 2006). 
  2. Karen Reimer, artist statement. Emailed to the author, 12 October 2016. 
  3. Mary Lou Weaver Houser, artist statement. Email to the author, 2 April 2017. 

Would There be Peace Without Mennonites?

By Anne M. Yoder

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was brought up on stories of Mennonites as peace-keepers, makers, builders, and more. There was nothing wrong with those stories, except that they left out all the non-Mennonites who were doing the same thing around the world throughout time. For me, and for many people I know, it led to a sort of blindness from which it can be hard to recover unless we are confronted with the truth.

One example of this relates to the history of conscientious objection. I remember as a sixteen-year-old reading Noah Leatherman’s published diary about being a conscientious objector (C.O.) during World War I and the struggles he had in the army camp where he was sent. My notion while reading it, and for years afterward, was that other than a few Quakers, all WWI C.O.s were Mennonites, like Leatherman. I expected that all these C.O. witnesses would have had pretty much the same narrative of being persecuted for their peace stance, and prevailing through all the difficulties with God’s help.

I would not have had any argument with James Juhnke, who wrote back in 1970: “In the past, Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren have had the pacifist action pretty much to themselves. To be sure, there were always some humanitarian and socialist pacifists around who did a lot of talking about pacifism, especially between  wars when talk was cheap. But every time war rolled around the humanitarian pacifists evaporated, and it was up to the Mennonites to provide the conspicuous majority of refusers of military service.”1

Many Mennonites I talk to in this day and age still believe this assertion. It is true that the majority of WWI C.O.s were from the Historic Peace Churches, but that does not by any means describe the full picture.

I came to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection to be its archivist in 1995. Five years later we received a shipment of boxes from Seymour Eichel, who was donating the WWI papers of his father, Julius Eichel, and his uncle, David Eichel, both of whom had been C.O.s. These texts changed my life, and became my primary research interest since then. There were diaries and dozens of letters written by both brothers, as well as other documents. Immigrant Jews from New York City, the Eichels had embraced socialism as their lens for analyzing what was happening in the world. This philosophy led to them becoming C.O. absolutists, unwilling to accept any orders from the military, and they were sentenced to prison for it

PhotImgeichel3

Eichel brothers with a friend (I don’t know which is Julius and which is David), circa 1919 [DG 131: Eichel Family Papers, Swarthmore College Peace Collection]

What a fascinating group of papers, and so helpful in expanding my view of conscientious objectors! Julius and David Eichel were extremely detailed in describing their experiences in camps and prisons, the other C.O.s they met, and their viewpoints about all that was happening on the C.O. front. They gave voice to the political and humanitarian objectors who did not have the protection of being from a pacifist church tradition. I learned to admire the depth of the Eichels’ convictions and their tenacity in faithfully holding these beliefs, despite the pressures to conform, to which many others succumbed. I started searching for C.O.s who were not from the Historic Peace Churches and found that there were far more than a few — so many, in fact, that it puts to shame any notion that without the Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren, there would be a very small number of conscientious objectors.2

The Historic Peace Churches have done a wonderful job of archiving and making known the stories of C.O.s from their traditions. But, again, this gives us a limited view of what was happening. The full account is far richer, and far more complex. Because of my unique position as a Mennonite at an archives where the non-religious C.O. material finds its way, I have the privilege of filling in some of the gaps. I’m not an historian per se, but see myself as a revealer of sources. As such, I’m currently working on a website where the personal writings of the Eichels and other non-religious C.O.s will be made available, both as scans of the original pages and as transcriptions. I hope to add some Quaker and Mennonite sources too, at some point. This site will be open to the public in October 2017, along with a presentation about it to be given at the World War I Museum’s conference the same month. I hope that it will help to round out the works about WWI conscientious objection that have been published up until now.

I recently re-read Noah Leatherman’s published diary. Once again I was moved by his witness to his faith and pacifist principles, but I was also shocked (and embarrassed) by how much I had considered unimportant in my earlier reading of the text. Many of the details had a deeper meaning to me now that I’ve been immersed in similar texts for a number of years. But I was also amazed at how many non-Mennonite C.O.s he mentioned – he was aware of them, and we would do well to note their presence as well.

Caplovitz16

Group of Socialist C.O.s at Ft. Douglas U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, 1919 [CDGA: Philip Caplovitz Collected Papers]

It is ironic to me that David Eichel was one of the most staunch in his refusal to work for the military in prison and was one of the very last C.O.s to be released, in 1920. If only he had been a Mennonite, how we could crow over it! But he didn’t use religion as his reason for being willing to endure whatever it took, for however long it took, to stay true to his convictions. We can certainly admire and gain spiritual conviction from our Mennonite forbears, but we can also open the door to admire and learn from all the others, such as the Eichel brothers. They, too, suffered much for the sake of peace. They have also passed down to us an important legacy of conscientious objection to war and militarism.

Would there be peace without the Mennonites? I would give a resounding yes to that question. I celebrate all who have been, and are now, motivated to give themselves to this cause, no matter what their reasoning may be.

Anne M. Yoder is the archivist of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.


  1. James C. Juhnke, “The Agony of Civic Isolation: Mennonites in World War I,” Mennonite Life 25, no. 1 (January 1970): 33. 
  2. I curate a database whereby I list information about every C.O. I come across, Mennonite or otherwise. This helps to document the variety of men involved, as well as the differences in their experiences (2300+ names so far; see http://www.swarthmore.edu/Library/peace/conscientiousobjection/WWI.COs.coverpage.htm).