Chortitza region, Russia, October 1922

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#1-Chortitza, Fordson Tractors, Oct 1922

By mid-1922, many of the horses and other draft animals in South Russia had died due to the war and starvation. On June 26, Mennonite Central Committee purchased 25 Fordson tractors and Oliver gang plows, plus necessary spare parts, which left New York on July 24, arriving in Odessa in late August. These first tractor-plow units went to Chortitza and Molotschna. The total cost of the delivered shipment was US$13,838.90. A second shipment of tractors and plows left New York on December 23.

Frank Peachey, Mennonite Central Committee Archives

Argentine Relics

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ArgentinianRelics1

Relics from the early years of Mennonite mission work in Argentina: Catholic religious medals and symbols “given up” by converts. T.K. Hershey carried this little collection with him when he returned to tour North American churches. Sewed on to green sateen cloth and rolled up with a black velvet tie, he could unfurl this object lesson of mission success in individual or group presentations. From the museum collection, Mennonite Historical Library, Goshen (Ind.) College.

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the arrival of Mennonite missions in Argentina. On September 11, 1917, the families of T.K. and Mae (Hertzler) Hershey and J.W. and Emma (Hershey) Shank stepped off the S.S. Vauban in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Shank had pursued a vision for mission outreach to Spanish-speaking people for over a decade. The Hersheys, inspired by the example of earlier missionaries to India, had first worked in a city mission in Youngstown.  The call to Argentina reached them in La Junta, Colorado where they had gone due to T.K.’s health.  In January 1919, after language study and scouting trips, the two families settled in Pehuajó, about 230 miles southwest of Buenos Aires.  Hershey later recalled that they were viewed as “foreigners, heretics, Protestants—despised, hated folks.”[^1] (Hershey. I’d Do It Again, 1961) In those early years, most of the Mennonite mission work in Argentina focused on evangelizing Catholics.  (See Hershey’s translation of the tract they distributed in Pehaujó during that first year).  In the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen, we have many published and other resources to explore some of the many results of those first Mennonite steps on Argentinian soil: evolving approaches to mission, influence on outreach to Spanish-speaking people in Chicago, examples of collaboration and alienation, and much more.

Joe Springer, Curator, Mennonite Historical Library

In A Reunion Like This We Can Share

Anita Hooley Yoder

History matters in the church. It matters what kinds of stories are told about our past, and who gets to tell them.

This was obvious at the recent Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, where a timeline exercise brought up some past events and issues but left out others. (See Joel Nofziger’s recent post)

As I worked on a book on the history of Mennonite women’s organizations, I found myself especially captivated by stories I had not heard before, and did not fit neatly into a typical understanding of Mennonite women. I was specifically fascinated to learn about the activities of Black and Hispanic Mennonite women, which began in an organized way in the 1970s and, to some extent, continue to today.

These activities are narrated in just one chapter in the book, but I hope the chapter I wrote is just the beginning of more writing and sharing about what happened at these events and the way God continues to work through Mennonite women of all kinds of backgrounds.

Below is an excerpt from Circles of Sisterhood, about the start of the Hispanic Mennonite women’s conferences. To read more, purchase the book! You can order online from Mennonite Women USA or MennoMedia.


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Seferina De León speaking at an Hispanic Mennonite women’s conference in the 1970s

The first Spanish-speaking Mennonite women’s conference was held in April 1973 in Moline, Illinois. Maria Bustos, wife of pastor Mac Bustos, coordinated the gathering, along with Lupe Bustos and Maria Rivera Snyder. Several reasons were given for the one-day event, which was called a servicio de inspiración. Seferina De León described it as an opportunity “to have a group of our own to listen to each other and figure out how we can help each other.”1 The organizers specifically wanted to gather women whose husbands were involved in church work and spent much time traveling, so the women could have a meaningful time together while their husbands stayed home.2 In a Voice article about the conference, Lupe Bustos wrote that the gathering arose from a concern for women who could not speak English and had never had the benefit of participating in the WMSC [the Mennonite Church women’s organization].3 As a woman of “American-Spanish descent,” she had been encouraged by attending WMSC meetings and wanted to provide similar encouragement for Spanish-speaking women.4

At the first conference, about sixty women gathered from churches in several Midwestern states as well as New York and Texas. Lupe Bustos’s article described the event as having women’s marks of creativity and care: hospitable overnight hosts, corsages for each participant, a craft project fashioning crosses out of a variety of materials. But the most memorable aspect of the event was the spiritual presence that pervaded it. The Spirit-led singing, prayer, and testimonies came to a climax when the women gathered to take communion. Mac Bustos wished to join the group for the communion service, which was led by pastor Mario Bustos. Suffering from leg pain and other health complications so severe that he was planning to give up his pastoral work, Pastor Mac was assisted into the sanctuary. Women nearby laid hands on him as they prayed and praised God. Suddenly, Mac got up and said, “Praise the Lord, all pain is gone!” He began going up and down the steps to show his increased mobility.5 “Tears just streamed from all of us,” Lupe Bustos wrote. “We realized that God still performs miracles; and a miracle happened to all of us there, because we were renewed again in Him.”6

The conference’s leaders viewed the miraculous healing of Mac Bustos as confirmation of God’s presence with them and as encouragement to continue their gatherings. At the October 1973 Minority Ministries Council meeting, they made plans for another conference and also adopted the name Conferencia Femenil Hispana Menonita (Hispanic Mennonite Women’s Conference). This is the name the group uses today, after a several-year period of using the name Sociedad de Damas Cristianas en Acción (Society of Christian Women in Action).

A 1974 gathering was planned for Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The first gathering was presumably paid for by the women themselves; Maria Bustos lists “faith” in the finances column on a chart showing figures for the early conferences.7 To help with the second conference, the Concilio leaders wrote to the WMSC requesting a grant of $3,000 for “las hermanas.” The WMSC executive committee decided to make the money available, even though it required some temporary reallocation of funds. Beulah Kauffman, WMSC director, wrote a letter to the WMSC district presidents explaining the move and reminding them of the WMSC meeting at the 1973 MC assembly. . . . At that meeting, women had expressed that they would “stand ready to help in whatever ways possible” when “clearly defined” needs of Spanish-speaking members were presented. Kauffman described this request as just such a need and expressed hope that women across the denomination would consider making the Hispanic women’s conference their annual giving project.8

The WMSC money was apparently the only outside funding received for the 1974 conference. Women from many Hispanic churches contributed through offerings, craft sales, and other fundraisers, either to support the conference in general or to fund the travel of their own members. Lois Gunden Clemens attended the gathering as a WMSC representative. She reflected in a July 1974 Voice article: “It has been good for me at various times to be a minority within a Christian group representing a cultural heritage different from mine. My heart has been strangely warmed in sensing the oneness I could feel with them. This was true again when I joined our Spanish-speaking sisters gathered together in their Lancaster meeting.”9 Enriqueta Diaz summed up her sentiments about the conference in an August 1974 Voice article: “It is marvelous that in a reunion like this we can share with each other ideas, emotions, and thoughts, all in our own language and in a cordial environment. Praise God for His love!”10

Excerpt and photo are from Circles of Sisterhood by Anita Hooley Yoder. © 2017 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va. All rights reserved. Used with permission. www.HeraldPress.com


  1. Quoted in Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 152. Maria Bustos is often referred to as “Mary Bustos” in publications, since there were many other “Marias” involved with the organization. I follow Hinojosa in using “Maria.” 
  2.  Ibid., 152–53. 
  3. Lupe Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” Voice, April 1973, 5. 
  4.  Ibid. 
  5.  This event is also written about in several other places, including Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites, 153. 
  6.  Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” 5–6. 
  7.  Mary Bustos, “Report to the Executive Committee,” November 10, 1978, box 1, folder 3, WMSC Partnerships Records, 1973–1992 (IV-20-008), MCUSAA– Elkhart.  
  8.  Beulah Kauffman, letter to district WMSC presidents, April 3, 1974, box 4, folder 19, Women’s Missionary and Service Commission Executive Committee Records, 1917–1997 (IV-20-001), MCUSAA– Elkhart. 
  9. Lois Gunden Clemens, “Editorially Speaking,” Voice, July 1974, 2. 
  10.  Enriqueta Díaz, “Hispanic Women’s Conference,” Voice, August 1974, 11. 

Half of the Story, Honestly Told: Review of Benjamin Goossen’s “Chosen Nation”

William Yoder, Ph.D.

Benjamin W. Gossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a German Era (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2017). ISBN: 978-0-691-17428-0. Cloth $49.50; eBook $34.99.

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The “invention” of a Mennonite nation is one outstanding theme in Benjamin Goossen’s dissertation, Chosen Nation. Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published by Princeton University Press in June 2017. This Mennonite from Kansas with Russian-Ukrainian roots points to the fact that the theory of a Mennonite “nation” was based on the assumed existence of a Jewish one. In both cases, a religious-ethnic grouping present in many cultures was seen as part of a larger nation transcending traditional cultural and linguistic boundaries. In the fascist-controlled, post World War I-regions of Europe, Mennonites even of Dutch heritage had celebrated themselves as champions of “Germandom.” But for obviously opportunistic reasons, the concept of a transnational Mennonite “nation” kicked in after 1945. It was used as a crux for obtaining exist visas to the Americas in post-war, anti-fascist Europe.

The Mennonite icon Peter J. Dyck (1914-2010) was honest enough to admit in 1988 that the claim of being a nation had been “a temporary cloak woven from the wool of political expediency.” The refugees from Russia had “changed their identity when it suited them. They became chameleons” (199). Dyck himself had under Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) tutelage helped fashion this construct at the end of WW II. The claim was used to spare once-Nazi Mennonites who deserved retribution. But of course, Dyck’s motives were somehow humanitarian.

In the course of the past several centuries, Mennonites had insisted on privilege. Privilege—in taxation for example—was very much a part of their decision to move to Russia (now eastern Ukraine) in the 1780s. When it was convenient, Mennonites promoted their state of privilege either by citing their Germanness or their supranational nationhood. Goossen points out that the ethnic and racial criteria prevalent during the Nazi period survived into the post-war era. Agnostics and Catholics posed as Mennonites in hopes of obtaining equal privilege for emigrating to the Americas. The criteria remained cultural and racial. He asks on page 182: “What were MCC’s refugee operations, after all, but an elaborate exercise in ethnic nationalism?” It was the Cold War’s transition from anti-fascism to anti-communism which in 1951 finally opened Canada’s gates even for Mennonite members of the Waffen-SS (181).

A particularly strong point of this book is its descriptions of Nazi fascination for the Mennonite colonies of Eastern Europe, an appeal underscored by Heinrich Himmler’s landmark visit to the Molotschna colony in October 1942. Mennonites in the USSR were one of “Germandom’s” most impressive specimens and “groundbreakers for Germandom.” Though scattered across the globe, Mennonites’ “church discipline and religious racial defense system have protected (them) one-hundred-percent against the dilution of their blood through the infiltration of foreign elements. There is likely no other confession in the world that demonstrates such a racially uniform character as the Mennonites” (131, from Benjamin Unruh, approx. 1939). Supposedly the most Aryan of all, this characteristic made them prime targets for Nazi anthropologists and Eugenicists. According to the author, Mennonites “relished the attention” these researchers showered upon them.

Goossen is to be thanked for pointing to the questionable, racist character of genealogical research as practiced by ethnic Mennonites. Though it had been strongly propagated by fascist circles, Mennonite theologian Harold S. Bender (1897-1962) wrote in 1950: “It is encouraging to learn that a permanent interest in family history remains among the Mennonites in Germany, even after the Hitler regime has long since passed away” (201).

The book points to the direct linkage between pacifism and Mennonite quietism. The Mennonite understanding with Czarist authorities assumed that freedom from the draft would be conceded if the colonies did not proselytise. Numerical growth had to be restricted to procreation; to do otherwise would have exceeded the limits of Russian tolerance.

The pacifism issue was also a source of long-term tension between Mennonites in Germany and the diaspora. Germany had no Mennonite conscientious objectors after the 1870s, and in 1912 the Danzig “modernizer” Hermann Mannhardt (1855-1927) was very much opposed to the repatriation of Ukrainian Mennonites to Germany. After all, “Mannhardt and his associates had spent the last half-century ridding pacifism from their own congregations. At the very moment that charges of cowardice were finally dissipating, it would be madness to import 100,000 colonists” (102). At the turn of the twentieth century, the pacifists were rural and traditional, located primarily in Russia and North America. It was the urban Mennonite middle-class  in Germany and Holland that had by then opted to “modernize.”

It was also the rural and traditional who best resisted the enticements of Nazism. After a trip to Paraguay in the 1930’s, the pro-Nazi geographer Herbert Wilhelmy (1910-2003) complained that Mennonites there viewed the Third Reich as “too militarist and too worldly.” These “religious fanatics consider (pro-Nazi Mennonites) as being traitors to the Mennonite cause” (142). In North America, South German- and Swiss-rooted “Old Mennonites” and Amish expressed little admiration or interest in Hitler. Yet this is not the entire story: Pro-fascist sentiment among the low-German Mennonites of Manitoba in the 1930s also included the rural.

Goossen’s treatise includes tidbits of information worthy of further exploration. Numerous Mennonites were active in Germany’s liberal “Vormärz” revolution of 1848. Krefeld banker Hermann von Beckerath (1801-1870) served as the German Reich’s first minister of finance. Indeed, Krefeld’s industrialist Von der Leyen family had been active in German politics and finance since the 1650s. (The current German minister of defense, the Lutheran Ursula von der Leyen, is married to a member of this Mennonite family.)

A particularly unsavoury set of anecdotal clips refers to Mennonites caught up in the fascist war. Heinrich Wiens, a Molotschna native and member of an SS-Einsatzgruppe, was involved in the elimination of Jews with gas vans (159). Jakob Reimer from Halbstadt/Ukraine participated in a massacre near Lublin (apparently the “Aktion Erntefest” of November 1943—see 162).

No less questionable were persons mentioned by Goossen as the close allies of Mennonites. Adolf Ehrt (1902-1975), the head of the Nazi “Anti-Comintern,” wrote his dissertation on the Mennonites. Georg Leibbrandt (1891-1982), a “long-time scholar of Mennonitism” (163), participated in the “Wannsee Conference” of January 1942 and was co-responsible for the mass extermination of Jews. Leibbrandt also served as an advisor to German chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1955 (see German “Wikipedia”).

Erected in a region of dense Mennonite settlement near Danzig, Mennonite contractors were involved in the construction of the Stutthof concentration camp in 1939. Mennonites served there later as guards. A small consolation: Mennonite youth visiting from Germany helped rebuild Stutthof as a memorial in 1973-74 (193).

Conclusion

Mennonite encyclopedic or Wikipedia entries do not mention the pro-fascist dealings of Benjamin H. Unruh (1881-1959) or the militarism of Hermann Mannhardt. Ben Goossen can therefore be thanked for inching their biographies closer to reality. Along with Peter Dyck, Cornelius F. Klassen (1894-1954) was a second icon of mid-twentieth century Mennonitism. Yet Goossen quotes on page 143, that Klassen “aligned himself with Hitler’s Germany, railing against social-democratic rot, the Communist insanity, and the machinations of the Jews.” Apparently, a part of the essential story on C.F. Klassen remains untold.

My primary criticism of Goossen’s treatise pertains to the fact that he only tells half the Mennonite story. Though the book’s title refers to “Mennonites in Germany,” solely the low-German story is told. More seriously, the story is told from the perspective of the Mennonite émigré, not also from those who “remained behind.” Surely there were Mennonites who did not desert the Red Army. I—not a specialist in Mennonite history—have not heard their story. Goossen reports that after WW I a “subset” of Mennonites joined the Bolsheviks and attempted to foment class struggle (110). That is a story which, to my knowledge, has yet to be told.

Most importantly of all, the book does not tell the Mennonite story as perceived through the eyes of their Slavic neighbors. Why, in 1920, did the anarchists and Bolsheviks of eastern Ukraine react as they did? Bolsheviks included Mennonites among the most counter-revolutionary of Russia’s minorities.

The mass Soviet deportations eastward in August 1941 were motivated by the suspicion that ethnic Germans were potential turncoats. As it turned out, those suspicions were completely justified. The communist position was, among other things, also a reaction to the German and German-Mennonite position. (These words are no defense of Stalinist behavior; they are only an attempt to understand it.) Western Mennonites have produced hundreds of treatises describing communist guilt; it is now time to hear the other half. We must hear more than only how Mennonites have interpreted themselves.

Though untold here, Ben Goossen understands that another Slavic narrative exists. Indeed, he has taken initial steps. When Mennonite farmers moved into Russia or the American frontier, they ”seized the land.” No amalgamation with native forces took place—they were simply displaced (211). Slavs were welcome as field laborers, not as co-owners. Concerned little about the good of the whole, these colonists intended to remain an ark in a Slavic sea. (Of course, there were exceptions, and prejudice ran both ways.) The author relates: Christian farmers opposed heathen nomads. Mennonite writers portrayed their colonies as “blossoming islands in the middle of Russian barbarianism” (102). Yet by 1920, Russia’s Mennonite colonies had clearly entered the globe’s post-colonial age.

Goossen refers in several instances to the Mennonite narrative’s bias: refugees were “lost” until MCC located them. Mennonites were “rescued out” of Russia—an interpretation still far from dead. The author describes the “lost” Baltic homeland as “a place of mystic tragedy.” Mennonites and other Germans have “constructed an intricate memorial culture;” minute details of their former lives are “obsolete and therefore fascinating” (191). Sadly, as we can observe since 1990, this “outpouring of minutiae” has not automatically resulted in interest for the present and future well-being of these Slavic societies. Why have almost no Mennonite refugees from Eastern Europe and their offspring chosen to move back to the “homeland”?

A further problem involves the fact that this study harbors an ideological agenda not requisite to the story. The author rejects mission as a colonial enterprise and places the word “heathen” in quotation marks (33). Gender issues, hardly ever a part of the historic Mennonite narrative, crop up in several instances. According to him, the denunciation of a Jewish neighbor in Nazi-occupied Ukraine or the shaming of the “queer” in the USA are “at least as Mennonite as bonnets, buggies and pacifism” (211).

Due in part to my perusal of the current Russian political and theological scene, I remain wary of the libertarian, individualist, pro-abortion, gender-neutral, essentially secular agenda grafted into western Mennonitism during the past three decades. Its present ideology may well be a result of the old desire of the intellectual to “be modern,” to conform. They are interested in worldly fashion, in keeping up with the Joneses. The venerable Mennonite theologian Myron Augsburger expressed to me in early 2017 his concern that Mennonite thought is no longer non-conformist: “Mennonite thinking should be with Kingdom priorities and Christ-centered in distinction from the liberal, secular agenda.”

It was the educated who brought down pacifism in Germany and Holland in the nineteenth century. Mennonite involvement in the wars of German nationalism and fascism ensued. Had German Mennonites remained “old-fashioned,” they would not have been guarding the condemned at Stutthof. Pacifism keeps believers with pro-fascist leanings—or liberals currently supporting “humanitarian” wars in the Middle East—from involvement in greater mischief.

Non-pacifism means ethical anarchy in countries with an aggressive foreign policy. In the U.S. context it meant that Mennonites dropping pacifism in the late 1950s soon had their sons dropping Agent Orange on the hapless peasants of Southeast Asia. In the context of WW II, it was the world’s rural and under-educated Mennonites who ended up prophetic, who stood the best chance of not compromising the Anabaptist witness.

The pacifists are almost always the prophets. Mennonites and Protestants in general, once they haven “broken free” of pacifism, don’t have the political savvy or acumen (“politischer Durchblick”) required to stay out of particularly questionable wars. Perhaps only some Marxists and Quakers are capable of choosing their wars carefully.

Mennonites have proven prophetic by accident. Their state was a gift of heaven, not a result of cool analysis. Connected to the wisdom of tradition, country bumpkins have proven to be the actual prophets. In Sarasota, Florida, it’s the Amish steering their barely-kosher electric tricycles across baked asphalt parking malls that point to a saner and greener form of future transport. The world is a ball, and the Amish were so far behind the trend that they suddenly ended up out front. When the professors have lost their way, the stones will cry out (Luke 19:40).

We all so through a glass darkly. In hopes of learning from past mistakes, I encourage Ben Goossen and others to press onward with their diligent research.

Originally from Sarasota, Florida, William E. (Bill) Yoder (born 1950), has resided in Russia and Belarus since 2001. He received a Ph.D. in political science from West Berlin’s “Free University” in 1991. He can be reached at kant50(at)web(dot)de”.

Intimacies and Admonishments: Some Thoughts on the Crossing the Line Exhibition

Jennifer Shenk

Many of the artists in this beautifully intimate exhibition curated by Dr. Rachel Epp Buller cross the boundaries of time. They are time travelers of a sort, seeking to open windows into the past to understand the lives of their fore-bearers, and their own, anew.

Jayne Holsinger

Jayne Holsinger, Selections from Nine Tetrameters, 1996. Oil on Canvas

Jane Holsinger, for example, frames her paintings in the four-patch quilt block pattern, a grid structure that is at once reminiscent of both domestic labor and modernist painting. Painting is a form of relationship between the artist and the subject; in this case it is a relationship characterized by a search for affinity with the hands of the women in the artist’s past.

Teresa Braun’s eerily beautiful video piece, accessible via screen and headphones in the exhibition space, also floats between multiple worlds. She combines performance, the body, film, and the digital to craft a family mythology that questions the autonomous boundaries of the individual. In The Plaint, the body is organism, architecture, and sustenance all at once, and the artist’s present identity is navigated through the characters of the past.

Gesine Janzen

Gesine Janzen, “September 11, 1817,” 2015 (top). Etching. “The Color of Memory,” 2016 (bottom). Photopolymer intaglio print.

Gesine Janzen’s prints play with the role of remnants. What happens when we glimpse the gaze of our ancestors, frozen in a photograph, or their handwriting, lining the pages of a journal? The photograph is an object that by definition is a marker of loss (in the fact that when looking at a photograph one is never when/where the photograph is taken, and can never be then or there again.) Loss pervades Janzen’s work, in the woman who is no longer here and the message that can no longer be read.

The works of Jennifer Miller, Kandis Friesen, and Karen Reimer, on the other hand, carry strong admonitions, seeking to bring attention to our forms of complicity and ask us to question the narratives we have inherited.

Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller, Crude, Powdered graphite, ink, acrylic on paper 2013.

Kandis Friesen

Kandis Friesen, Onsa Japse Jeit Jantsied, 2015. Leather and thread.

 

In Miller’s case, she is implicated in her political criticism of the Keystone XL pipeline through the personal history of her family’s involvement with it. Tension becomes palpable in the green paint, actively oozing from the surface of Crude. In Friesen’s piece, a hand-sewn drawing on leather, it is the recognition of the colonial history that has been erased from many Mennonite narratives of trauma and migration, evident in the staunch pierced leather, a material that is a product of conquest.

Karen Reimer

Karen Reimer, Socialist Worker, March 31, 2000, 2000 (detail)

Rendering a copy of the Socialist Worker, March 31, 2000 through embroidery in her piece of the same title, Karen Reimer not only elicits questions about the notion of originality and authorship (i.e. who gets to take credit for the work of art?) but also calls the status of the very art object into question, flattening the mythology of the individual-artist-genius. Drawing on the rich history of activism and consciousness-raising associated with fiber arts, Reimer’s piece, like many in this exhibition, subtly probe the relationship between the past and the present, asking us to examine the hierarchies in our own systems of value.

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.

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

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.