“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”: Mennonite Women in the Shenandoah Valley History Tour

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Conference organizer and professor of history Mary Sprunger organized a bus tour of Anabaptist historic and cultural sites in the Shenandoah Valley for Crossing the Line participants.

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The first stop was the Burkholder Myers House (built 1854), where participants heard from Ruth Stoltzfus Jost about her family’s role in the Underground Railroad as well as about her mother, Ruth Brunk Stoltzfus, who at the age of 74 became the first woman to be ordained in the Virginia Mennonite Conference (1989).

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Following a stop at the Hickory Hollow School of the Weaverland Old Order Group, the tour visited this Old Order Mennonite Church, including lively Q and A with Minister Lewis Martin.

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Sisters Ruth and Etta Showalter run the Rocky Cedars Store which sells goods such as these hats and broad coats to customers from the Shenandoah Valley’s three different horse-and-buggy Anabaptist groups.

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The tour concluded with a delicious meal at the home of Old Order entrepreneur Janet Shank, whose business is to cater dinners with the help of her family and neighbors.

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

In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time at “Crossing the Line”

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Sofia Samatar answering questions at “Crossing the Line.”

“We need all the women’s stories we can get.” This was the message of the third plenary talk at Crossing the Line, “In Search of Women’s Histories: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time,” delivered by award-winning novelist Sofia Samatar.

Samatar, who teaches literature at James Madison University, opened her presentation with a discussion of the poem “Annie,” published in 1912 by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire. The poem describes a chance encounter between the rakish poet and a Mennonite woman in a rose garden in eastern Texas.

“Her rose bushes and dress have no buttons,” Apollinaire writes. “And as my coat has lost two / She and I are almost of the same religion.”

Like many of us who have run across unexpected Mennonite references in literature, Samatar described the small “flash of joy” she felt upon reading Apollinaire’s poem, as well as the “sting” of wondering what, exactly, this woman in the rose garden represents. How does this short, possibly inaccurate representation reflect on Anabaptists as a whole?

Arcing through the twentieth century, Samatar took us on an insightful, often hilarious tour of Mennonites and Amish in popular media. We reflected on Witness (1985), in which Harrison Ford goes Amish to solve a crime, and learned about the thriving subgenre of Amish romance novels—so-called “bonnet rippers”—that apparently include Amish vampire romance.

Common to all these examples, according to Samatar, is the stereotyped figure of the sexualized Anabaptist woman. Chaste and coy beneath her bonnet and cape dress, this trope inherently invites uncovering by the male gaze. Think of Rachel in Witness, who memorably locks lips with Harrison Ford—or of Apollinaire’s “Annie,” based on a governess whom the poet wished to bed.

Or consider the first season of Breaking Amish, which features a young Mennonite woman named Sabrina. She is of Puerto Rican background and leaves her conservative adoptive family to find biological relatives in New York City. Long-lost sisters run a beauty parlor, it turns out, and Sabrina gets a makeover—traditional dress swapped for a t-shirt and tight shorts.

For Samatar, Sabrina’s transformation (from innocent Mennonite into sexy Latina) presupposes a narrative strategy incapable of acknowledging both aspects of the young woman’s identity. She cannot simultaneously be both Puerto Rican and Anabaptist. According to the logic of mass entertainment, she must choose.

Samatar rejects this dichotomy. Only when we welcome the messiness, the complexity of women’s lives, she suggests—when we cross lines of gender, race, religion, and language—will we be able to understand our cultural richness as well as, ultimately, ourselves.

Giving body to this idea, Samatar concluded her keynote with three readings. She chose autobiographical pieces by three Mennonite women: her grandmother, her mother, and herself. Through the multi-generational voices of Amy Kreider Glick, Lydia Glick, and Sofia Samatar, we heard unexpected, beautiful stories: of a girl growing up in rural Missouri; of a young woman traveling to Somalia and falling in love; of a brown student reading fantasy and navigating fashion at her boarding school.  

These are the stories we need. We can all look forward to Samatar’s forthcoming short story collection, Monster Portraits, as well as to her next project, an exploration of women’s experiences in a nineteenth-century Mennonite-Muslim settlement in Central Asia.

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

“Overcoming Barriers and Building Empowerment: Stories of Anabaptist Women in India” by Cynthia Peacock

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Cynthia Peacock, the second keynote speaker at Crossing the Line, gave a warmly received talk on the achievements and challenges of Anabaptist women in India. Cynthia spoke from her decades of ministry experience in India, first with Mennonite Central Committee in India and then with the Mennonite World Conference. She began her talk by describing a challenge faced during her work: how could she, and the women she worked with, build bridges across the boundaries they encountered?

She shared stories of two women in India who served as role models early in her work. The first, Pandita Ramabai, was a high-caste Hindu woman who converted to Christianity and became a Bible translator and worked to uplift women of lower caste. The second, Mother Teresa, was someone Cynthia worked with personally, as part of her work with MCC in Calcutta. Cynthia shared stories of how Mother Teresa fearlessly overcame boundaries and asked government officials for support of her relief work.

Cynthia then went on to tell stories of some of the setbacks she and other Indian Anabaptist women encountered as they tried to take on more active roles in their churches and denominational structures. For example, she and a group of women spent three years working on a constitution for an independent women’s group within the Anabaptist church hierarchy in India. They had received some support from male church leaders, but when the leadership changed they were completely unsupportive of the endeavor, and even physically destroyed the copy of the constitution the women had brought to the meeting.

She also spoke of her efforts to provide Anabaptist women in India with theological training. These efforts did not always have the full support of male church leaders. In one instance, Cynthia and other women tried to organize a women’s conference, and the male official in charge of a final logistical detail failed to fulfill his responsibilities, which caused the conference to be postponed indefinitely.

In addition to stories of setbacks, she told of women’s successes as they played more active roles in churches. Cynthia’s own church grew from a five-member house church to a much larger church with a Sunday School serving over a hundred children, in large part because the women of the congregation were free to use all their gifts in service of the church. The women in her church organize programs, preach, lead worship, and have an important voice in matters of church governance.

She ended by sharing how she had overcome barriers in her own life. God’s help, and the help of supportive friends, have strengthened and empowered her through the difficulties she has faced over the course of her own life. With God’s help, she overcame fear and shyness and began to share her story as she ministered to other women. She gave glory to God for all that has happened in her life. Indeed, she concluded, John 5:5 and Philippians 4:13 have proved true in her life. Apart from God, she could do nothing, but she can do all things through Him who strengthens her.

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

Dispatches from “Crossing the Line”: European Anabaptist Women Make Their Mark and Gender Identities and Leadership

EMU Campus

“Crossing the Line; Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” was hosted by Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

European Anabaptist Women Make their Mark

Panel 8: Friday 10:30-noon

“The Role of the Prophetess: An Opportunity to Cross Boundaries?”

By Christina Moss, University of Waterloo

  • In the first paper for the European panel, Christina Moss presented work from her ongoing dissertation, entitled “‘Your Sons and Daughters Shall Prophesy’: Visions, Apocalypticism, and Gender Among the Strasbourg Prophets, 1524-1539.”
  • Moss focused on the early female Anabaptist prophets Barbara Rebstock and Ursula Jost, emphasizing their prominent role in Reformation-era Strasbourg, including their influence on the leader Melchior Hoffman.
  • While radicals like Melchior Hoffman scoured scripture to find justification for supporting female preachers, detractors such as David Joris wrote polemics against such gender non-conformity, charging that in Strasbourg, “They hear and believe [Barbara Rebstock] as they do God.”

“Austrian Anabaptist Women of Status: The Case of Bartlme Dill Riemenschneider’s Family, 1527-1550,”

By Linda Huebert Hecht, Waterloo, ON and Hanns-Paul Ties, Bozen, Italy

  • Historian Linda Huebert Hecht—whom readers may know as co-editor of Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers—presented on work that she has been conducting with Hanns-Paul Ties, a doctoral candidate in sixteenth-century art history at the University of Basel.
  • Hecht began her presentation by asking what influence the Renaissance may have had on the Radical Reformation. She then revealed that the most prominent artist of the period in Tyrol, now in southwestern Austria, was an Anabaptist named Bartlme Dill Riemenschneider, famous for frescos, oil paintings, and ceramics.
  • By painstaking examination of court records, Hecht and Ties have followed the lives of six women associated with Riemenschneider, three of whom were likely Anabaptists. Multiple individuals in the household faced arrest (due to a denunciation by their maid), but were not immediately tortured, since their judge had himself been influenced by a radical preacher.

“‘By the Hand of a Woman’: Antje Brons and the Origins of Mennonite History Writing,”

By Ben Goossen, Harvard University

  • My presentation drew on research for my recently published book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, focusing particularly on the nineteenth-century German Mennonite historian, Antje Brons.
  • Brons was likely the most widely-read Mennonite woman of the first four hundred years of Anabaptist history, and during her day she was widely recognized as the author of the first comprehensive history of the Mennonite church, published in 1884.
  • Tracing the reception of Brons’ book in Germany and the United States, I argued that her work was successful not in spite of her gender, but rather because she successfully aligned her project with contemporary notions of German nationalism and gender propriety.
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Rachel Goossen presenting at “Crossing the Line.”

Gender Identities and Leadership

Panel 13: Friday 1:30-3:00pm

“Finding a Home: LGBTQ Mennonite Leaders and Denominational History,”

By Rachel Waltner Goossen, Washburn University

  • This panel on LGBTQ identities opened with a paper from Rachel Waltner Goossen about queer women in church leadership positions. She interviewed women who have either remained Mennonite, switched denominations, or layered affiliations since coming out.
  • Goossen conceived of this project while research the history of sexual abuse in the Mennonite church, which revealed a substantial exodus of talented female leaders to other denominations. She spoke of this as a “legacy of loss” for Mennonites.
  • Queer interviewees and conversation partners emphasized their calling to serve as well as their love of Anabaptist communities, while also highlighting the institutional and interpersonal violence they experienced because of their sexual orientation.

“Wisdom on the Edges: Hearing the Voices of LGBTQ Women in Mennonite Church Canada,”

By Irma Fast Dueck, Canadian Mennonite University

  • Speaking from a Canadian perspective, Irma Fast Dueck raised similar themes in her discussion of a listening tour conducted with Darryl Neustaedter Barg among LGBTQ individuals affiliated with Mennonite Church Canada.
  • Dueck showed clips from these interviews, which were filmed and edited to create a 30-minute video, entitled Listening Church, intended for use in adult Mennonite Sunday School classes.
  • Interviewees responded to three questions: 1) What is your experience in the church? 2) Why is the church important to you? And 3) What wisdom do you have for the church’s ongoing discernment process? The film is moving – please watch it!

“‘Love to All’: Bayard Rustin’s Effect on Attitudes toward LGBTQ Issues in South-Central Kansas Mennonites,”

By Melanie Zuercher, Bethel College

  • Opening with the well-known story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to Bethel and Goshen Colleges in 1960, Melanie Zuercher revealed that Bayard Rustin traveled among Kansas Mennonites a decade earlier.
  • Rustin was black, gay, and Quaker, and he was the main organizer of the 1963 March on Washington where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Although he faced discrimination for both his race and sexual orientation, Rustin credited his Quaker background as the source of his activism.  
  • Zuercher’s research suggests that although Rustin’s 1950 visit to Bethel College and area churches did not predispose local Mennonites to be more favorable toward queer identities, it did build bridges to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.

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

Dispatches from Crossing the Line

This weekend, June 22 to 24,  “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” is taking place at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Throughout the conference, contributors to Anabaptist Historians will give short dispatches for those who are unable to attend in person. “Crossing the Line” builds on the 1995 conference “The Quiet in Land? Women of Anabaptist Traditions in Historical Perspectives” held at Millersville University.

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Anabaptist Historians contributors at “Crossing the Line.” From Left to right: Ben Goossen, Christina Entz Moss, Joel Horst Nofziger, Simone Horst, Devin Manzullo-Thomas, and Anna Showalter.

The conference opened with a plenary address by Hasia Diner of New York University entitled: “Jewish Women in America: A History of Their Own.” The presentation was framed by how each facet of her title—“American,” “Jewish,” and “women” shaped the experience of these individuals.

While admitting that she works a very different group from Anabaptists, she noted similarities between the two ethno-religious communities, noting that both were shaped by an inability to disconnect religion and group identity, and living lives according to the demands of religious tradition while maintaining boundaries with host cultures.

Diner noted that in America, the experience took a distinct turn for Jewish women, when they began to gain influence within the synagogue. Traditionally, synagogues were strictly male public spaces, and while the men were obligated to attend, women were neither required nor expected to come. This could be seen architecturally, where women sat hidden behind thick walled screens, able to see and hear only through thin slits into the synagogue. But in America, as Jewish women observed how heavily Protestant women were engaged with church life, they too began to push for more engagement, including starting to attend synagogue. The building design then changed, with the women’s balconies opening up and more fully allowing for the women to seen and be seen. This in part could also be traced to the Female Hebrew Benevolence associations formed by Jewish women which provided social functions, as well as aid for the poor and travelers. The men of the synagogues often turned to these associations for moneys to construct new synagogues, but the money was conditional on the women, who were successful fundraisers, to have more input.

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Hasia Diner delivering the opening presentation at “Crossing the Line.”

She also noted that Jewish immigrants had a distinct experience from their contemporary eastern European immigrants. While Italians immigrated three men for every woman, and the Greeks eight men for every woman, Jewish communities migrated equally, both men and women. Especially when looking at which children to bring, Jewish families brought the oldest children, regardless of gender, while the other eastern European immigrants preferentially brought sons. Diner noted that this was because girls were not a liability in the family task of raising enough funds to bring the remainder of the family to America. In the garment industry, where many young women worked, there was no disadvantage based on gender, other than less pay. Interestingly, because many Jewish women were working in the garment industry and could clearly see that they were being paid less and facing harassment their male counterparts were not, they flocked to trade unions.

Diner noted that the question of why to study (Jewish) women was obvious: “No man was ever defined as a problem in the synagogue.” Women also had different experience than men in work culture, as well as in education. She noted a constant tension in that while the women organized and responded to local needs, the men quickly decided that the cause was “too important to be controlled by women” and would wrest control. This was the case for what has become the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, as well as the National Council of Jewish Women’s project to station receiving volunteers for single Jewish women arriving to Ellis Island.

She ended the presentation by hoping that it gave a way to think about intersectionality, and especially in thinking about how people juggle identity and demands.

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