Regina Shands Stoltzfus
On February 10, Goshen College officially renamed its Welcome Center to honor Juanita Lark, the college’s first African American graduate. The daughter of James and Rowena Lark, mission workers and influential church planters, Juanita Jewel Lark graduated in 1943. On the day of the dedication, members of the Lark family visited the campus, and Linda Lyons, a niece of Juanita Lark, shared stories of her aunt’s time at Goshen College.
James Lark was the first black minister ordained in the Mennonite Church, becoming a bishop in 1954. The Larks planted six churches and spent much of their time in the 1940s, 50s and 60s as consultants to Mission Boards, conferences and congregations regarding planting new churches in black and urban areas.
Born in 1888 in Savannah, Georgia, James Lark was baptized there at age sixteen in a Baptist church. He attended the Quaker Institute for College Youth in Cheney, Pennsylvania (now Cheney State College). James and Rowena married in 1918, and the couple had six children. In 1927 the family made their first contact with Mennonites when they moved to a farm near Quakertown, Pennsylvania. Members of the Rocky Ridge Mission Church invited the children to Sunday School; Rowena Lark also began to attend and eventually became a member. Later on her husband and three of their children became members. Rowena Lark later reflected:
“It was the literal fulfillment of scripture that caused me to join Rocky Ridge Mission. As I saw these faithful Christians coming eight or more miles from their homes and gathering up in their cars Italians, Poles, Dutch, American Negroes, and Germans, to take them to the house of the Lord, I was made to feel that here is a group of Christians who are really making their religion practical.”1
For Rowena Lark, Mennonites represented Christians who took their faith seriously; the evidence of this was the willingness to traverse racial and cultural boundaries to bring the word of God into the lives of all people and also meet their physical needs; the willingness to rub shoulders and share possessions. This was later reflected in the couple’s own ministry, when James Lark became the first African American Mennonite minister in 1944 with Rowena a capable partner in that work.
In February 1945, the Larks had become full time workers in Mennonite mission work in Chicago. They organized and presided over children’s activities, including boy’s club, girl’s chorus, and camp program. In 1949, the Larks purchased ten acres of land in rural Hopkins Park, Illinois for a Sunday School camp for children; in gratitude, Rowena named it “Rehoboth” after Genesis 22. This was the site that eventually became Rehoboth Mennonite Church.
The 1940s continued to be a relative swirl of activity concerning the convergence of African American and white Mennonite worlds in the midwest. The Voluntary Service unit that was established in Saginaw, Michigan eventually lead to the planting of Ninth Street Mennonite Church (now Ninth Street Community Church), and the Gladstone Mission was initiated in Cleveland. That mission led to the planting of the Lee Heights Community Church. Yet the Larks found themselves frequently impatient with the slow pace of white administrators who held the purse strings and made final decisions on various urban ministries. The work was urgent; as Rowena wrote to a friend – there was so much to be done. She also was sharp with those who would denigrate Black people and Black culture. According to Leroy Bechler, Rowena Lark
“grieved and was not always patient with those who reflected an inflexible or critical spirit of the Black community or Black worship. She was a woman ahead of her time – reading, studying – learning Spanish and going to Mexico to live for a number of months after she was 70 years old.”2
The Lark family legacy, realized in part by the naming of the Juanita Lark Welcome Center on the Goshen College campus, is an important reminder of this history of interracial partnership and the broadening nature of Mennonite identity, and an acknowledgement that this work continues into the present day.