An Honest Look at Ancestry Reveals Diversity

This is a response to “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege” by Ben Goossen.

Darvin L. Martin

Ben Goossen convincingly explains that the development of Mennonite family research a century ago was at least partially motivated by a quest for “blood purity and racial hygiene” (“Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege”). Bridging to the present, Goossen also asserts that these themes become exacerbated through the recent advent of DNA testing, “privileging the notion that Anabaptism is as much an inheritable trait as a religious conviction.” The implication is that interest in ancestry today continues to foster attitudes of exclusion and superiority, when in my experience the opposite can and should be true.

As a prime historic example, Goossen cites the Amish-Mennonite historian C. Z. Mast, who published a genealogy in 1911, and within it spent pages to express his thoughts of heredity, defending a position we now understand as white supremacist. [^1] What Mast articulated on paper, many and perhaps most of his contemporary Mennonites had also embraced, but were ill-equipped to write or to express in detail.

In a lengthy epilogue, Mast proposed that the same natural law exemplified by selecting physical vitality in breeding agricultural stock likewise applied to humans.  He further projected that moral tendencies, in addition to outward form and features, were physically transmitted from parents to their children (747). Mast endorsed the responsibility of governments to convince their populations of the natural laws of heredity, selectively improving “human stock,” by implementing and enforcing regulations against endogamous marriage, and praised purposeful spousal selection as a means to reduce and ultimately eliminate undesirable characteristics and diseases, including blindness, tuberculous, curved legs, and mental handicaps (749).

Mast argued that the remarkable progress of his contemporary early twentieth-century Americans was the expected outcome of inheriting the vitality of the most successful men and women of the different nationalities of Europe. In contrast, he gave examples from other cultures where “divine displeasure is announced.” He cited Native Americans and other “ancient tribes and races of the Orient” having succumbed to severe inbreeding, causing “their physical and mental power [to have] melted into weakness” (748).  He criticized the Catholic royalty in Spain and Portugal, concluding their congenital disorders were the product of pope-blessed marriages between princes and their nieces.  He imprecated the emirs of Turkey for producing “simpletons and imbeciles,” as they have “intermarried so long and extensively [. . .] among those who revere the memory of the prophet” (749).

To use a common and necessary tag line of our time, it is not far-fetched to clearly report that Mast’s comments are the “textbook definition” of racism.  Yet here we have them, published by our very own Mennonite Publishing House in 1911.  In his defense, Mast had merely articulated the mainstream thoughts of the scientific and intellectual community of his time, with a directed passion to convince his Amish and Mennonite cousins to extend the tent a bit wider when looking for a spouse among the community.  But his words also subsequently labeled the “other” communities as inexcusable for the very problems that he found in his own.

Goossen calls us to own the historic racism exhibited by Mast and his fellow Mennonite and Amish family researchers, as rightly we should.  Just like those who descend from slave holders, those of us who are ethnic Mennonites have our own demons to expose. We cannot pretend that our ancestors thought of their whiteness as but one variety among many.  Likewise, let’s not be haphazard in our attempt to separate family history research from racism, as this is no easy task. Especially when Mast and others have been intent on keeping these themes so tightly bound.

For myself, an honest account showcases that Mast’s supremacist ideas sit uncomfortably close to home.  C. Z. Mast’s father was a first cousin to my great-great grandmother, Hannah Kurtz (1855-1937).  They grew up in the same congregation along the upper reaches of the Conestoga River, just west of Morgantown, Pennsylvania.  C. Z. lived on the farm of our common ancestor, Stephen Mast (1800-1868), two miles south of Morgantown.

Perhaps some of C. Z.’s prowess and detail towards family history found a home in my genes as well.  I can relate.  C. Z. was only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this history, and he certainly pursued it as a way to exercise his intellectual curiosity and differentiate himself from the expected mandate to become a farmer.  C. Z. was well read, and ascribed to the basic understanding of genetics promoted in his day—that human genetics were understood as having an ideal, pure and original form; that we exhibit various stages of corruption from that pure form . . . and for some, in Mast’s warped view, the corruption is more extreme than in others.

This understanding, although now proven untrue, had filtered down through my family. Physical and mental problems were blamed on such corruption.  My grandmother (the granddaughter of the Hannah Kurtz mentioned above) scolded her younger brother when in middle-age he fell in love with a woman and decided to marry.  This brother was somewhat mentally and physically limited, had always lived with his parents, and was part of the Friendship Community program sponsored by Mennonites in Lancaster for handicapped individuals.  

From my grandmother’s perspective, marriage and the benefits and responsibilities that came with it were not to be made available to those constrained by handicaps assigned from birth.  In childhood she was told that we have a moral duty to keep handicapped individuals from having children, otherwise we inhibit humanity from rising to its full potential.  She grew up in the face of the eugenics movement, and ultimately had enough control over her brother that he decided not to marry, even though both he and his partner were well beyond child bearing age.  Both my grandmother and her brother had passed away within three weeks of each other in February 2016. These attitudes of restricting bloodlines to attain a supposed ethnic purity haunt our recent past, and perhaps have found expression in new contemporary forms.

Goossen suggests that DNA testing has become a new avenue to enforce concepts of ethnic exclusion—that those who grew up Mennonite use this to privilege common ancestry over shared convictions. While there is a tendency to use DNA testing to play the “Mennonite Game,” my own experience in interpreting DNA results of several hundred individuals, both inside and outside the Mennonite circles of ethnicity and persuasion, challenges this notion. DNA testing is all about surprises—that our ancestry is not straightforward, but rather a complicated web of interconnectedness.  We see the surprises advertised in the commercials by the two most prevalent DNA testing companies, Ancestry DNA and 23andMe.  DNA testing reveals the unexpected, and that is what people find attractive.

There are at least a dozen Mennonite DNA projects on the internet that seek to use DNA as a means to link families together.  And all of these clearly reveal an astounding amount of diversity among ethnic Mennonite populations. An honest assessment of the Y-DNA profiles among testers who share the common surnames familiar to ethnic Mennonites reveals that they are not homogenous, but rather span a wide cluster of populations of origin. The “Mennonite DNA Project” by Tim Janzen, the “Swiss Anabaptist DNA Project” by Bonnie Schrack and my own “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” are but three examples. While a very selective reading of DNA can enforce a tester’s prejudices, a more complete assessment determines that ancestry is much more complex than first assumed.

Here’s why.  All of us, if we extend our family trees into the past, have an increasing diversity of ancestors.  This is statistically inevitable. Eight great-grandparents descend from sixteen great-great grandparents and thirty-two three great-grandparents, and so forth back through time.  Ten generations back, about 350 years ago, we each should have 512 ancestors.  At twenty generations back, about 700 years ago, that number of ancestors increases to 524,288, and at thirty generations, around 1000 A.D., we should have 536 million, more than the total population of the world at that time.

Those statistics eventually break down due to the inevitable placement of common ancestors in different places on one’s tree.  In my personal example, (through recordkeeping as the result of the privileges received because of 300 years of relative economic and social stability), I can create a nearly complete ancestral chart back ten generations on each side of my family. And in spite of having strong Mennonite background on both sides of my family, the chart shows increasing diversity.

I don’t have 512 ancestors ten generations ago, but instead have 372, due to duplications on my tree.  This is caused by fourth, fifth and sixth cousins marrying each other.  But even so, diversity far outweighs the truncation experienced by intermarriages.  For myself, truncation first appears seven generations back, where a seventh-generation ancestor of my father’s lineage also appears as an eighth-generation ancestor on my mother’s side.  This one and a few others reduce my total ancestral count by about ten percent in the eighth generation, and consistently another ten percent in the ninth, and another ten percent in the tenth, so I am left with 372 unique ancestors, 350 years ago.  

Each of these has a unique story of their own life experience.  Many crossed the ocean to carve out a new existence in America. Many were Swiss—representing at least four cantons, about four dozen were German, as many as ten held Dutch nationality, a few were French, and at least five were Irish.  And I have a few unknowns.  That’s where my genealogy ends.

But let’s assume out of those 372, they each had 372 ancestors ten generations further back.  That gives me 138,384 ancestors twenty generations ago, around the year 1300.  That is far less than the 524,288 I should have, assuming each ancestor a unique individual. Even if a full half of them were duplicates, I’m left with 65,000 people that I can statistically claim as ancestors.  Writing their names alone would fill more than a thousand-page book.  What are the statistics that every one of those had the same five nationalities as my most recent ancestors? The amount itself simply forces further diversity.

And we all experience this diversity, if we take an honest look at ancestry. Some Americans can claim ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War.  Some have found ancestors among the Native Americans, among Africans forced into slavery and transported to America, and among those engaging in the slave trade, all at the same time.  Go back further in time and the probability increases that your ancestors were not just the ones you perceive as friends, but also your foes.

And among these 65,000 people 700 years ago, what if they each had 372 ancestors ten generations back?  That’s twenty-four million ancestors in the year 950.  It is statistically inevitable that at least one of these is a Central Asian merchant of the Nestorian Christian persuasion. At least one is an Arab from the Maghreb practicing Muslim faith, one a caravanning Mongol whose abode lies far to the east in modern China, one a Hindu who bathed in the Ganges, and one a sub-Saharan African herding cattle within the shadow of Kilimanjaro.

I’m only considering a thousand years ago. Jump back another thousand years and it is not difficult to assume that nearly every person alive at that time was an ancestor, statistically speaking.  Even those island populations that have lived in relative isolation for tens of thousands of years, such as the indigenous populations of Australia, New Guinea, and the Andaman Islands would have had occasional escapees and castaways in nearly every generation who mixed with nearby continental populations. Over time the web that starts with yourself extends wider and wider back through time until everyone is included.

Modern DNA testing as it relates to family history grants us the ability to apply specific data towards these statistical results. Through a 23andMe DNA test, I found that my grandmother (mentioned above) has a small snippet of Native American ancestry, predicted to have arisen eight generations back. In one woman around the year 1730, I find the DNA evidence to include 200 to 400 Native American ancestors by the year 1380, and 40,000 in the year 1030, encompassing all the known Native peoples’ groups of the Mid-Atlantic region and likely far beyond.  Can anyone doubt that every one of those migrant families who resided along the Bering land bridge linking Siberia to Alaska during the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago was also an ancestor?  Of course, some left no descendants, but those who left descendants ultimately became the ancestors of all of us.

Through Y-DNA testing, we have uncovered that the prominent Mennonite Groff family shares Y-chromosome affinity not with fellow Swiss Mennonite families, but with a Greco-Roman cluster of Italian families with surnames such as Albarano, Margarelli and Visentin.  Through similar testing, we have uncovered that Mennonites who share the Swiss surname Hollinger, Hullinger or Holiger, have as their next closest matches the Saudi families Almotawa and Al Daihan and the Turkish family Kahanizaman. The Mennonite Metzler family, tracing their lineage of descent through Valentine Metzler, a German immigrant who arrived in Lancaster County with his father Jacob in 1738, has close Y-DNA matches to Jewish families such as Kronik (in Belarus), Cohen and Langer (in Ukraine) and Friedman and Wengrowski (in Poland).

These are only a few of the examples in which DNA showcases the statistical inevitability of diversity as one takes a serious look at ancestry. I haven’t even touched the Y-DNA results of the Mennonite Good family, which reveal an origin in Afghanistan predating the time of Alexander the Great. Nor have we seriously examined the Amish Bassinger families from Ohio, which have a Central Asian Y-DNA signature closer aligned to the Asian origins of the Native Americans than to most European families.  Nor have we investigated the selection of European surnames than showcase Y-DNA signatures more closely matching a recent African origin than the typical Celtic or Greco-Roman cultures of European antiquity.

An honest look at DNA can and should break down the racial prejudices that have defined the last few generations of family researchers.  DNA analysis provides concrete ways that forecast the inevitable diversity that a statistical evaluation of our ancestry requires. Eventually, given enough time, all humans around the world are included in our ancestry, along with their diverse cultures and traditions.  That fusion throws the ideas of genetic purity on its head.  If a pure genepool of humanity exists, it includes the genes of everyone. As family history research increasingly considers DNA as a means to fill in the gaps and extend family trees, these notions of inclusion become inevitable.

I certainly am privileged to be able to construct a genealogy of my ancestry back ten generations.  But DNA testing has now broken down these barriers.  Today, anyone, even one who knows nothing of his or her ancestry, can find pertinent and often surprising information through DNA testing. The most accurate records are the ones stored in our bodies. These records are now becoming accessible and, in many cases, challenge the assertions of a century of family history researchers.

I ponder what C. Z. Mast would think of genetic testing for family history as it exists today.  Would he selectively interpret it to confirm and promote his own stereotypes, or would he embrace the data in its diversity, extending the genealogical fence to include everyone?  I don’t know for sure, but I would like to think that C. Z. Mast could be persuaded through the presentation of DNA test results that his Swiss Mennonite ancestors were vastly more diverse than he could ever have imagined.


Darvin L. Martin is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University (B.S., Agriculture) and Millersville University (B.S., Analytical Chemistry).  As a real occupation, he tinkers with chemistry related instrumentation, but on the side, manages the “Mennonite and Amish Immigrants to Pennsylvania DNA Project” through Family Tree DNA.


See also:

Anabaptist Monuments?

The last year has been full of discussion about collective memory and ownership of historical truth. Last summer I had to explain what “public history” meant to many people as I prepared to start a master’s program in the discipline. These days I’m just as likely to hear, “We need that now.”

Societal and political debates about history have coalesced in the last few months around the concept of commemoration through monuments. Statues of Confederate generals have been torn down or shrouded, and a statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore was just defaced. Here in Philadelphia, a months-long “Monument Lab” has kicked off with—among other pieces—a statue of an Afro pick incorporating a fist in the same plaza as a controversial monument to former mayor Frank Rizzo.

I’ve watched the unfolding conversation with interest but with critical distance. Others are saying things far smarter and more meaningful than I could. The National Council on Public History made a valuable contribution, for instance, with a special virtual edition of The Public Historian, re-running essays on monumentalism and memory around the world and across time. To date, one of the best proposals I’ve heard for Confederate monuments is that they all be piled up in one place to convey the volume of metal and concrete and stone that supported white supremacy.

I’ve begun to try to think about which monuments I support. Many monuments lack nuance and do not invite conversation. A bronze man on a horse doesn’t ask any questions, but makes powerful statements about power. As a historian, these are problematic characteristics, even if it weren’t true that monuments in the United States are overwhelmingly dedicated to white men over all other types of people. When President Trump asked on Twitter if monuments to Washington and Jefferson were next on the agenda for debate, someone on my social media feed acknowledged that the president accidentally posed the most relevant public history question of the year.

Looking closer to (metaphorical) home, what have Anabaptists, my people, commemorated? I struggled, initially, to think of any. Then I remembered the many sculptures that decorated the campus of Goshen College, my alma mater. I remembered Esther and Michael Augsburger’s “Guns into Plowshares” in Washington, DC (which is moving again). A Google search alerted me to a variety of Mennonite monuments scattered throughout Canada and Europe. I came across Paul Epp’s monuments across Eastern Europe to Anabaptist persecution, including a particularly haunting piece in Zaporizhia, Ukraine, that depicts a family over a mantle, the human forms in negative space in the granite, the voids representing disappeared Mennonites throughout the former USSR.

In this field, too, I find others far ahead of me. James Urry explored the history of Mennonite monumentalism a decade ago in the Conrad Grebel Review.1 Urry traces the resistance of Anabaptist communities to statuary, a form they associated with nationalism, up until the nineteenth century. Early in that century, Menno Simons began to be included (along with Calvin and Luther) in several monuments to the Protestant Reformation, and around 1861, a marker was proposed (and rejected) to mark the three hundredth anniversary of Simons’ death.

Nearly two decades later, an obelisk was raised to Simons in Friesland, purportedly on the site of his first teaching after leaving the Catholic church. Similar obelisks were erected in Russian Mennonite colonies over the next generation before such commemorative forms seemingly lost wide approval. “Instead,” writes Urry, “the opening of new schools, hospitals, and other institutional structures seemed sufficient to mark the steady march of progress in the Mennonite world.”

The next phase of Mennonite monumentalism, Urry argues, took place in the United States and Canada as Mennonite settlers joined other North American settlers in commemorating westward expansion. Canadian Mennonites of Russian origin marked the centennial of the 1870s wave of immigration, just as in the United States polities big and small geared up for the bicentennial celebration. Interestingly, Urry notes that many of the most fervent supporters of the 1970s Canadian commemorations were immigrants from the 1920s.

Another generation passed before the next form of Mennonite monuments were erected. These include Paul Epp’s monuments, and were spurred by tours and conferences in the Ukraine that revealed the extent to which evidence of Mennonite colonies had largely been erased. The statues generally commemorated specific events such as massacres or persecution, but Urry seems to argue that the erasure of colony-built environments was also a motivating factor. He focuses his analysis on one particular monument—which resembles a gravestone and marks the site of a 1919 massacre at Eichenfeld-Dubowka, north of Khortitsa, Ukraine—and makes a compelling argument about monumentation in this vein:

[This monument] clearly indicates some of the problems in trying to mark a complex past event in a singular stone memorial. At one level its message might appear simple: it is a memorial to the victims of a savage massacre who have lain in mass, unmarked graves until the stone was erected and unveiled. But the memorial is also supposed to mark not just a single event and its victims…

The fact that a number of people were murdered in such a terrible manner, on the date stated on the stone and detailed in the book, is not in question. But why the deaths occurred in this particular village, to this group of people, and at this particular time is something that must be interpreted and explained. The explanation in press releases provided at the memorial’s unveiling, and the more detailed account given in the later booklet, are simple and inadequate. We are presented with simple dichotomies of good and evil, with innocent Mennonite victims and guilty perpetrators. Such stark oppositions have little explanatory power in understanding such complex events.

Urry completes his analysis with the recent trend of memorial trees, grown from the seeds of ancestors still planted in European soil. These living monuments seem more in line with early Anabaptist iconoclasm (and indeed, Urry argues, earlier pagan forms of commemoration) but I feel the monuments still lack context and nuance.

Rather I would suggest that Mennonite monumentalism has recently, like global monumentalism, embraced more polyvalent forms that offer space for debate and nuance. The Eichenfeld-Dubowka tablet that Urry analyzed was dedicated in 2001. Eight years later—and two years after Urry’s essay—another Paul Epp monument, the family in negative space described above, was unveiled. By embracing an evocative visual language rather than an engraved message, this latter monument represents the new monumentalism, perhaps best represented by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, designed by Maya Lin. These memorials reject the (literal and metaphorical) monolith form of many nineteenth- and twentieth-century monuments in favor of aesthetics more representative of current movements in public art and landscape architecture. Another example that comes to mind within the Anabaptist context is this monument at the center of a roundabout in Paraguay.

Paraguay Monument

Photo by Ben Goossen

The result of this aesthetic shift is an openness to interpretation. Monuments are still not neutral, yet these commemorations allow space for people to bring a variety of experiences to them and come away with a sense of reflection (in the case of the Vietnam wall, this reflection is literal).

The line between public art and public monument can be sticky. A memorable presentation by Frank G. Pérez at the National Council of Public History 2017 conference described how attempts to diversify the monumental landscape in El Paso with public artwork faced countless obstacles. Monuments to conquistadors were unquestioned, but new sculptures elicited complaints about aesthetics and logistics. I suspect one of the factors that separates “monument” from “public art installation” in most people’s minds is choice of material (e.g. stone, unpainted metal). I look forward to Philadelphia’s Monument Lab’s exploration of that liminal space.

Meanwhile, the monolith has not gone away. Each year is a new opportunity to mark an anniversary of something or other. For Anabaptists in North America, many of those mark first settlements in an area. Many of these will take the form of a plaque or stone marker. I encourage families seeking to mark their persistence in the land to think carefully and critically about the statements that these monuments make. What was this land before your ancestors came here? Whose land was it?

On the global scale, Mennonite World Conference is gearing up for the five-hundredth anniversary of the first rebaptisms in Zurich. In Mennonite Life, Ben Goossen has argued, persuasively, that Anabaptists should embrace a more polyvalent origin story that spans from apostolic times to the present and includes the global church. Like monuments, other kinds of commemoration can tend to reify established narratives rather than providing context or provoking dialogue.

I have learned in the last couple months that monuments can spark debate, but sometimes only after years of organized opposition. Historians are in a position to contextualize the origins of these obelisks and busts, to tell the stories of how and why they came to be there. I think, however, that some monuments are effective because they invite questions and emotions as well as marking an event or movement. Let’s have more questions, more reflection, and fewer white men on horses.


  1. James Urry, “Memory: Monuments and the Markings of the Past,” Conrad Grebel Review 25, no. 1 (Winter 2007), https://uwaterloo.ca/grebel/publications/conrad-grebel-review/issues/winter-2007/memory-monuments-and-marking-pasts#12 

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

A peek into the past at EMU

Eastern Mennonite University is celebrating their Centennial this year with year-long celebrations that kicked off at Convocation, will continue with Homecoming celebrations including artwork, theater, live music, reunions, and the release of a new history book, and will culminate in the 100th commencement in May 2018.

As we launch into our next hundred years, it is worthwhile to go back to the beginning and take a look at where the school began. In the EMU Archives’ digital collection we are fortunate to have correspondence from Mary Nafzinger, a charter student at EMS from Pigeon, Michigan, to her pen pal to Evan Miller, who was a C.O. in Camp Mead at the time.  Evan Miller was also the grandfather of former EMU archivist Nathan E. Yoder, who graciously shared this material with the collection.

First EMS graduating class, 1919

First graduating class of EMS; Mary Nafzinger, front left

Mary’s letters to Evan give us a sense of day-to-day life in the early years of the school and also an understanding of how world events–like the Spanish Flu and World War I–impacted the small campus:

September 19, 1918

“Things are going on in their usual quiet way here at school. Much like last year only I am taking a heavier course, and taking seven subjects. Six of them being solid. I also put in my application to do the ironing so I am quite busy. The spiritual side of the school is growing dearer to me every day. We girls have prayer circle every evening then we have a devotional service before breakfast every morning. We also have a S.S. [Sunday School] organized, and a Young People’s Meeting . . . Elizabeth Horsch [later wife of H.S. Bender] from Scottdale is my roommate.”

 

September 26, 1918

“I am sitting out on our porch writing on the bannisters. . . .”

White house002
The porch Mary Nafzinger is referencing here was on the “White House”, a mansion on the property in Park Woods that the EMS founders purchased in 1917. This building housed all school activities and students.

In this letter Mary also discusses the impact of WWI on enrollment numbers:

“We have about 22 students registered. Four of them are Maryland and Pa. Some more are expected soon. This last draft law cut down so many that wanted to come but of course girls could come, but some have to stay at home on account of their brothers leaving.”

In one of her next letters Mary tells Evan how they spend their leisure time at the school:

October 7, 1918:

“Two girls from here at the Park and I were out on a rocky hill all afternoon, too, writing letters, reading etc. I think that is one way of spending an ideal Sunday afternoon. The greatness and grandness of nature impresses me so much and makes me conscious of His greatness and also as nothing else can makes me feel the nearness of Him who never leaves or forsakes us.”

In the fall of 1918, the second wave of an influenza pandemic, nicknamed the “Spanish Flu” hit Harrisonburg and the surrounding areas. EMS was not immune from the pandemic, with many students and faculty taking ill. Mary writes:

Oct. 22, 1918

“I am just convalescent after having the Spanish Influenza. We have not been having school for the last two weeks but expect to open up again tomorrow. Quite a number of students went home, but all we folks that stayed got it. In fact we were all in bed with it except the cook. She took care of us and good care at that . . . I was in bed nine days and was quite sick as one day they decided to send for my parents then I happened to get better right off.

Quite a few people died around here, but only one Mennonite that I know of.

P.S. You need not be afraid of getting the flue thru this letter as everything has been disinfected.”

Hen-Flew-Enza

The influenza continued to affect the school after Mary’s recovery, and she was pressed into service as a caregiver:

November 7, 1918

“Just after writing to you three more students and the cook took sick with the “Hen-flew-enza.” The students from Pa and Md immediately went home, leaving only three of us in charge and two men to cook for, J.L. Stauffer and Mr. Matz. Miss Charlton and Miss Horsch were installed as cooks and I your humble servant as nurse. None of us were very strong yet, and we had some time. They were not used to cooking and in fact had never cooked much so they as well as the rest of us were in a misery ha.

I cooked soft-diet food for my patients and you can imagine they were in a perfect misery with me as a nurse. But I got along famously and like nursing fine. It was almost as much of a lesson to me to wait on patients as to have the ‘flue’ myself.”

Mary spent the Thanksgiving holiday at the school and enjoyed some special entertainment:

November 30, 1918

“Then Thanksgiving evening we had a taffy pulling in the kitchen. It was fine but the taffy and the sport of pulling it. Also to see some four little freshman smearing in the sticky stuff that were not accustomed to handling it.”

Lest we think that EMS in the early 20th century was all excitement and occupation, here is what Mary and her roommate were doing to entertain themselves in the winter of 1918:

December 8, 1918

“At present my roommate and I are engaging our spare moments and also others in watching a hyacinth bulb grow that I purchased in the ten-cent store. It seems almost miraculous how fast it grows. We have no idea what color it is going to be.”

Hyacinth

The EMS of 1918 was certainly a different place to the EMU of today. It was smaller, more tight-knit, and moved at a slower pace. I think it’s safe to say that students of today, with numerous campus activities, extracurriculars, WiFi, and Netflix could find many ways to occupy themselves other than watching plants grow. But there are also similarities–a focus on spiritual life, challenging academics, and enjoyment of the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley.

1919

Mary’s final missive to Evan contained her graduation announcement and the commencement program inscribed with her class’s motto ‘Each May Serve’. Likewise, the class of 2018 are prepared by EMU to ‘serve and lead in a global context’. As we appreciate the growth and changes the past 100 years have brought to EMU, it is also reassuring to notice the similarities and qualities that have made the school a unique place throughout its history.

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.


5-1 Sefi de Leon

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. 

Telling All of Our Stories as a Movement To Peace

20806922_709505384849_918526609_oAs a young Mennonite girl in Harlem, Melody Pannell didn’t see urban settings orAfrican Americans represented in church media. She didn’t see validation of her lived reality—the good and some of the social ills. This fueled her passion to work with African American youth. She has thrown herself into this work, noting “it has been my calling since the very beginning, since growing up in Harlem.”

Pannell’s Mennonite story begins with her parents. Her African American father, Richard W. Pannell, was invited, and subsequently attracted to the Mennonite Church when he was young.  He and Pannell’s white Mennonite mother, Ethel Pannell, met in New York during the Civil Rights Movement.

Reared at Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in Harlem, Melody Pannell’s Anabaptist theology was infused with Black liberation theology. Her church fostered the belief that Mennonite faith should demonstrate the love of God and be the love of God by tending to the realities of social, psychological, cultural, educational and economic issues. To do this adequately, historical gaps in Mennonite stories must be tended to.

Pannell often talked to her peers about struggles in their neighborhoods, including drug abuse, sexual assault, poverty, and self-esteem.  She says social work has been her calling since she was a child.  As a middle child, she was a natural counselor.  Yet she cautions, “The title ‘social worker’ in my community had a bad connotation.  The social worker was often the white woman who came and took away the black children.  I would have never named it that, but that’s what I was doing.”  But agency and empowerment, her current passions, were not things she saw in the Anabaptist congregations where people where assimilating or oppressed.  Pannell learned from, and takes after her father in speaking up and speaking against injustice.

Pannell has a favorite word: empowerment.  This word brings focus to her work as an assistant professor of Social Work at Eastern Mennonite University.  However, years before this appointment, Pannell long celebrated the presence and gifts of African American women and girls while supporting them and seeking their empowerment. This is central to her work as a Mennonite woman of color, and as a peacemaker. She started the Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church Girls Group in the early 90’s, which has now become The Destiny’s Daughter’s Empowerment Ministry LLC.

Pannell’s focus on the lives and experiences of adolescent girls is influenced by current research into the effects of historical trauma on the mental health of black girls. Interdisciplinary approaches, including history and theology, are important parts of the “empowerment” package Pannell seeks to employ in her important work.

As an adult, she is concerned about what happens to African American Mennonites when they do engage and contribute—what happens to them as people.  “What I saw was a lot of assimilation and not empowerment—this is something my father fought against.”  Many were pushed to assimilate into “traditional” Mennonite culture.  This makes it difficult for young people to know who their role models should be.

And this, she says, is part of why there are gaps in our historical record.  She gives the example of Eastern Mennonite University, her alma mater and current employer, as it prepares for its centennial.  Celebrations such as these often leave the stories of African American out, or they are told in ways that do not share the depth of their stories, struggles and contributions.

“I think sometimes the stories are not told because they are not always success stories.  There have been many who have come into the church and have left.  Sometimes it is for personal reasons, and sometimes it is because of some things that we as a church need to address.”  This is one of the reasons, she says, African Americans are not adequately represented in the denomination’s history. Additionally, “People sometimes don’t want to stay around and tell the story, and sometimes those who would be the documenters don’t want to tell the full story, because that means we will have to talk about race. These are the things that don’t make us look like the church we say we are.”

Pannell believes a fuller accounting of the history of Mennonites in North America would also facilitate the denomination moving beyond a ‘mission mentality.’  “A power shift has to take place.  When you get into these spaces and places where you are the one, or one of a few, you have to guard against being a token.”  Being a token, she explains, is a precarious position.  “I have seen African American leaders hit that concrete wall and just were . . . destroyed. Their leadership trajectory was cut off and diminished.  And then the blame gets put on the person, and not the culture of the church.”

The opportunity to teach and mentor young adult energizes Pannell, but it is her passion for the church as an instrument of justice that drives her to continue to push for change. From never seeing faces that reflected her own in denominational publications, Melody Pannell has no problem making waves so that the Mennonite narrative continues to be broadened.