Fannie Swartzentruber, Ecclesial Gaslighting, and The Witness of Holy Disruption

Swartzentruber's photo

Fannie and Ernest Swartzentruber. Virginia Mennonite Conference archives, Papers of Va. Menn. Bd. of Missions and Charities, Box “Harold Huber’s Papers, Broad Street Mennonite Church Materials (History, etc.)”

Tobin Miller Shearer

Fannie Swartzentruber has stuck with me for more than a dozen years. I first encountered this unassuming church matron from Gay Street Mennonite Mission in Harrisonburg, Virginia, back in March of 2005 while on a research trip to Eastern Mennonite University’s archives. As I read of her life and legacy, I was impressed with the deliberation, focus, and passion she brought to her ministry with the African-American community in Harrisonburg during the 1940s. Although her story, like all of ours, is complex—at times burdened by white paternalism and the patent racism of her era and at times leavened by a deep courage and fidelity of friendship across many decades—she nonetheless speaks to our present moment because of her witness of holy disruption.

Disruption in the church is, by its very nature, controversial. During the Mennonite Church USA gathering in Kansas City in 2015, Pink Menno activists disrupted the assembly meetings with a piece of satirical theater that left as many angered and frustrated as elated and energized. There have been other acts of holy disruption in the Mennonite world that have garnered attention. In February 2003, a group of activists connected to the Damascus Road anti-racism process disrupted a meeting of the Mennonite Central Committee Central States board to call for action to dismantle racism in the organization.1 In the 1980s, a homelessness advocate and Mennonite minister by the name of David Hayden disrupted meetings of the Virginia Conference to demand delegates’ attention to housing issues in their region.

Given Mennonites’—and especially white Mennonites of European descent—love of order, decorum, and respectability, it is perhaps no wonder that activists have chosen to disrupt convention meetings, delegate sessions, and occasionally even worship services. The payoff in attention to their cause, even if accompanied by frustration, anger, and, sometimes outright animosity, has been disproportionate to the risk. There was little chance that peace-loving Mennonites would physically assault interlopers. Even when emissaries of the 1969 reparations movement known as the Black Manifesto threatened to disrupt worship services, Lancaster Mennonite Conference leaders enjoined ministers to engage in “orderly discussion” rather than “calling . . . the police” or “attempting to restrain those who would enter our services.”2

No wonder then that Swartzentruber caused such a fuss. In 1940, the Virginia Mennonite Conference’s executive committee announced that they would be conforming to the “general attitude of society in the South toward the intermingling of the two races.”3 The executive committee segregated the rites of baptism, the holy kiss, foot washing, and communion, claiming that they did so in “the best interests of both colored and white.”4 Not coincidentally, they instituted the Jim Crow policy even as Mennonites in Virginia faced increased pressure for their non-conformity to the country’s military buildup during World War II.5

Swartzentruber and her husband Ernest challenged their supervisors, demanding scriptural backing for the action. In a highly unusual reply, the bishops declared that not every decision necessitated scriptural mandates. Rather, they stated, “as a matter of expediency we must make some distinction to meet existing conditions.”6 The decision to take away the shared communion cup particularly devastated Fannie.

For the better part of four years, Swartzentruber went along with the dictate. She took communion from a separate cup. She watched Eastern Mennonite College deny admission to the daughter of one her African-American co-believers, Roberta Webb. She said good-bye to her long-time companion, Rowena Lark, as Lark and her husband moved away from the Jim Crow South to plant churches in Chicago. Swartzentruber went along with the demands of her religious community—until she could no longer do so.

During the communion service at Gay Street Mennonite Mission in the fall of 1944, Swartzentruber had had enough. She got up and marched out.

And she kept on marching. Toting her youngest daughter Rhoda in her arms, Swartzentruber walked four miles out of town to the farm north of Harrisonburg where she and Ernest lived. When Ernest returned home from church, she informed him that “she would never again sit through such a service.”7

Disruptive actions, whether ecclesial or otherwise, bear consequences. Church responses to those who transgress boundaries of decorum have often been just as debilitating, if not more so, than secular responses. Communities who preach grace and reconciliation in the midst of retaliation amplify the damage they do to transgressors. Even when camouflaged with scriptures, gaslighting is still gaslighting. In this instance, Mennonites were no exception.

A scant four months after Swartzentruber disrupted the Gay Street communion service, members of the Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions dismissed Fannie and Ernest from their positions as matron and superintendents of the Gay Street mission.8 Although officially cloaked in bureaucratic double-talk as “voluntary expression of willingness . . . to discontinue,” the decision was anything but voluntary. Family members attested to the trauma that both Fannie and Ernest experienced in the aftermath of their dismissal, trauma that was furthered by the ecclesial gaslighting they encountered.9

It was not until 1955 that Virginia Conference leaders overturned their segregation dictate. In a statement that year they publicly acknowledged their “former spiritual immaturity” and pledged to extend “the right hand of fellowship” to all “true believers.”10

But Fannie was not present for that conference statement. She and Ernest had left Harrisonburg in the aftermath of their ejection from Gay Street, settling in Greenwood, Delaware, in 1946, and then, following the death of her husband in 1986, moving to northern Indiana where she attended a Baptist congregation through her passing in 1999.

Regardless of the prophetic truth they often offer, holy disrupters bear the long-term consequences of their actions. In Swartzentruber’s case, her spontaneous march from the sanctuary to the streets resulted in her dismissal and in a long-term alienation from the church community that she loved.

Historical precedents are only sometimes illuminating of our present circumstances. Both past and present are complex and never map exactly one on one. But there are connections, tendrils we can draw across time. In this instance, I simply wonder whether the church can do better now. How will church leaders respond to those who have followed in Swartzentruber’s footsteps? Can they respond with grace rather than retaliation? Will the church let go of its gaslighting past? Will they find better ways to respond to the actions of holy disrupters like those who have called out church leaders for their collusion in the face of sexual abuse and those who have demanded that the voices of the LGBTQ community be included in the conversation about human sexuality?

Swartzentruber was alienated from her faith community, but she and her husband Ernest did experience a modicum of restoration. In the mid 1980s, while visiting the congregation that emerged from the Swartzentrubers’ work at Gay Street, the Broad Street Mennonite Church, members of the congregation apologized. They used the occasion of their church’s fiftieth anniversary to acknowledge that Fannie and Ernest had been wronged and that, on behalf of the Virginia Conference, they were sorry for their actions.

Fannie and Ernest were left in tears. Their family members later reported that the gesture, even though small and absent of official Conference approval, had freed them from a “depth of pain” that they had born for three decades.

In our present moment, I can only hope that the church moves much more quickly to restoration with those who have offered holy disruption.


  1. In the interest of full disclosure, the author helped organize that event. 
  2. “Lancaster Conference Peace Committee Responds to Black Manifesto,” Gospel Herald, August 12 1969. 
  3. Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010), 43. 
  4. Ibid., 36. 
  5. Ibid., 43. 
  6. Ibid., 37. 
  7. Ibid., 41. 
  8. “Executive Committee Meeting – Friday 10:00 A.M., January 5, 1945,” (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1945). 
  9. Harold Huber and Vida Huber, “Interview with Harold and Vida Huber,” ed. Tobin Miller Shearer (Harrisonburg, Va., 2005). 
  10. Linden M. Wenger, “Progress Report on Integration,” Gospel Herald, February 9 1960. 

Does the Future Church Have a History?

Felipe Hinojosa

FCS-logo-colorThis week Mennonites will gather in Orlando at MCUSA Convention 2017 to worship, meet old friends, and learn together. I won’t be there this year and I regret that I will miss what is being called the “Future Church Summit.” The central driving question for the summit is: “How will we follow Jesus as Anabaptists in the 21st century?” All of this talk about the future of the church, via podcasts and church press articles, took me back to my very first Mennonite Convention in Philadelphia in 1993. Everything about the experience was spectacular. Philadelphia, an iconic American city, meant the Liberty Bell and Rocky for us kids from the United States/Mexico borderlands. It meant American history, American pop culture, and lots of Mennonites. Perfect. Because I have always been one to push boundaries and challenge established rules, one of the first things I did as a good American was buy a beautiful American flag shirt. The sleeves were blue, and across my chest and back were the stars and stripes. Why would I, then a sixteen-year-old Mexican American kid, want to walk into a Mennonite convention wearing the stars and stripes? Primarily because I wanted to stand out, I wanted people to know that I didn’t really buy into this Mennonite peace thing, and I wanted to show my patriotism in one of America’s most historic cities. Some people stared, some made comments, and others simply ignored me. But understand that I come from a community in South Texas with a proud military tradition. I was raised in a Mennonite Church where it was common to have both peace activists and military veterans worshiping side by side. In all of this I have often wondered if peace theology, rooted in the white Mennonite experience, has anything to say to us, to my Latina/o Mennonite community?

Even as I am a pacifist and a critic of the military industrial complex, I owe my utmost respect and honor to the Latina/o soldiers who in the years after World War II came home to a country that continued to treat them as second-class citizens. In fact, it was many of those veteranos y veteranas who launched the Mexican American and Puerto Rican civil rights movements in the years after World War II. Like African American soldiers who fought for “Double V,” victory against fascism overseas and victory over racism and segregation at home, Latina/o soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice for a country where they suffered discrimination, segregation, and poverty.

So, what are we to do with this history? How are we to reconcile a peace theology that does not speak to our diverse experiences, to our military tradition, and to our forms of peacemaking, which are often at odds with the very scholarly forms of white Mennonite peacemaking? These questions are not new. In the 1960s, as a student at Hesston College, Lupe De León asked why it was that peace-loving Mennonite boys were “driving around in hemi-charged cars, living like the devil and hiding behind the skirt of the church… If I have friends dying in Vietnam, then why are these Mennonite boys having such a good time?”1 When Lupe’s childhood friend, Raúl Hernandez, learned that one of his cousins had been killed in Vietnam, Raúl immediately gave up his conscientious objector status and joined the war effort for his country and as a way to honor his dead cousin. These experiences varied from the very clinical and effortless narratives that we read about conscientious objectors in Mennonite history books. And if these experiences were more complex, as I suspect they were, Mennonite historians have failed in their responsibility to tell us the stories of war and struggle that do not neatly fit the peace narrative that remains rooted in a mythical, sixteenth century story.

To counter these narratives and push back against white Mennonite peace theology, Black and Brown Mennonites drafted their own essays where they argued for a peace theology rooted in their own experiences as Americans in urban and rural sites. Curtis Burrell drafted an essay entitled “The Church and Black Militancy,” Lupe De León and John Powell penned essays on peacemaking in the “barrio” and the “ghetto,” María Rivera Snyder drafted essays on peacemaking in the home, and Seferina De León and Gracie Torres made peace by merging the hits of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez with Texas Mexican Border music. Much of this history remains unexplored, dug deep in the Mennonite archives where historian after historian has ignored the calls by Black and Brown Mennonites—and marginal white Mennonites— that offer us alternative visions of the future church.

As Mennonite church leaders gather to dream and envision a new church for the twenty-first century, I hope they are aware of this history. Not the history of white Mennonites captivated by Harold Bender’s Anabaptist Vision, but instead the history of Black and Brown Mennonites who—away from the careful watch of white Mennonites—have introduced their own visions, their own stories, and their own ways of being Anabaptist and Mennonite. Does the future church have a history? Yes, it does. And acquainting ourselves with the history of tomorrow can move us beyond tired attempts at unity as we imagine a new political and ecclesiastical future full of possibilities.


  1. Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 86. 

Freedom Dreams: On the Legacy of the Minority Ministries Council

Felipe Hinojosa

I first met Neftali Torres in the early 2000s when he came to deliver a series of talks for churches on the South Texas/Northern Mexican border. He came to talk about Mennonites in Latin America. Neftali, born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, was introduced to Anabaptist theology as a young man and shortly thereafter became a Mennonite pastor in Chicago together with his wife, Gracie. It’s a longer, and much more beautiful story, that unfortunately I don’t have enough space to tell here, though I tell it in Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture. Suffice to say that I was thoroughly impressed with Neftali the first time I met him. So you can imagine how excited I was after his morning talk that he pulled me aside to ask if there was a place to get something to drink. I said, “Sure, lots of spots around here.” “Great,” Neftali said, “it will give us a chance to talk, I have a story to share with you.”

I had no idea that the entire academic trajectory of my life would change during that conversation. Neftali went on to share with me the story of the Minority Ministries Council (MMC), a group of Black and Brown leaders that in the late 1960s and 1970s organized a multiethnic movement to challenge white supremacy in the Mennonite Church. I was hooked. A few years later, in a graduate course on comparative race and ethnicity at the University of Houston, I set out to write the history of the MMC, the politics of multiethnic spaces, and the limits and possibilities of Black/Brown coalition building. That first essay would later become my book, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2014.

Between 1968 and 1973, the MMC worked in African American and Latino Mennonite communities. They organized a K-12 educational program called “High Aim” that created a pathway for Black and Latino youth to attend Mennonite schools; they provided grants for community development in places like St. Louis and South Texas; and they organized a number of theological consultations and church leadership conferences that focused on race and culture in the church. The MMC did important work across multiple constituencies in Anabaptist/Mennonite churches and communities as they organized a social justice movement that was firmly rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ. The work of the MMC was cutting edge, and in many ways ahead of the rest of the denomination during the civil rights era. For leaders of color, racism in America was a problem that plagued churches and a problem that touched every aspect of congregants’ lives.

Seferina.DeLeon and Gracie.Torres

Seferina DeLeon and Gracie Torres

As important as this group is to Mennonite and Civil Rights history, they were far from perfect. They were an exclusive group of Black and Brown men that prided themselves on being hyper-masculine, and by extension rarely saw a need to include women in their movement. There also existed deep tensions within the group across race/ethnicity as Latinos and African Americans sometimes struggled to understand how racism affected each group differently. When the group dissolved in 1973, it was at least in part due to the Council’s inability to reconcile some of the tensions that existed within the group.

But internal tensions were only a small part of the group’s demise. White Mennonite leaders developed and put in place the plans that would eventually dismantle the Minority Ministries Council as a way to move beyond conversations on race and to separate a group of Black and Brown men that some white Mennonite leaders felt had risen to prominence too quickly in the mostly white Mennonite church. The Minority Ministries Council posed a significant threat to the white Mennonite leadership—they were bold, smart, articulate theologians in their own right—and in the early 1970s, white Mennonites started to slowly chip away at the group’s increasing power. It worked, and by 1973 Latinos and African Americans went their separate ways.

Why don’t we hear more about this group? Why is their story, for the most part, not taught on Mennonite college campuses? And why does there remain a fixation on sixteenth century Anabaptist history at the expense of modern movements that have shaped the church in the last 150 years? To be fair, in recent years several books have reoriented our understanding of Mennonite and Anabaptist history: Perry Bush’s work, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (1998), Tobin Miller Shearer’s work, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (2010), my work Latino Mennonites (2014), and the newly published work by Janis Thiessen, Not Talking Union: An Oral History of North American Mennonites and Labour (2016). While not exclusively focused on the Minority Ministries Council, these works do push us to think more deliberately about Mennonites in the twentieth century navigated modernization, war, civil rights, and shifting notions of identity.

When I first started working on my book, most of the members of the Minority Ministries Council that I met were shocked that anyone would care about their movement more than forty years after the fact. For many of them, the church had treated them badly, ignored their concerns, and played them off as irresponsible radicals. Many left the Mennonite church in the years since 1973. Some returned, but many remain outside of the Mennonite church, frustrated by their experiences after they had given everything to the church they loved.

John.Powell-Lupe.DeLeon-Ted.Chapa

John Powell, Lupe DeLeon, and Ted Chapa

As I learned to know many of them over the years, the one thing that bothered me most was that the church—first the (Old) Mennonite Church and now Mennonite Church USA—had never honored this group. There had never been a ceremony where the church offered these elders their space in church history as a tribute to the work and sacrifice they gave to build and diversify the church. Knowing that the church leadership might never recognize this group in the right way, I started to talk with some folks about organizing a reunion of the Minority Ministries Council leaders. About a year ago Gilberto Perez and Chris Kennel (Goshen College), Marty Lehman (College Mennonite Church), John Powell (Goshen College Board Member), and I gathered to talk possibilities. It was a lot of work, but a year later, during the week of March 29 to April 1, 2017, we made it happen. Over twenty former members of the Minority Ministries Council and their spouses came together in Goshen, Indiana, to reminisce, tell their stories, and share some of their lessons learned from the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

This was a time of celebration, reunion (many had not seen each other since the 1970s), oral history, and most importantly, an opportunity for us to commemorate the work and sacrifices they made for the church. As a group we cried, we laughed, and we listened as Black, Brown, and White elders in the Mennonite Church shared their frustrations, the good times and the bad times, and their sadness over how their involvement in the church hurt their families. These were holy moments. I don’t have much more to say because I am still processing it all, but I will say that I was inspired by the freedom dreams that these elders shared with those of us lucky enough to be there. The only thing I can say is that these elders left us with a lasting legacy and a vision of the kind of freedom work we must engage. Were there lessons on the evils of white supremacy, institutional racism, and white power? Yes. All of that.

But even more important, the Minority Ministries Council passed along to us the dreams, the possibilities, the hopes, and the will to continue to fight for justice. They pass along to us the necessity of inter-ethnic anti-racism work, of coalition building across lines of race, gender, and sexuality, and of the need to believe that another church is possible. Coming together is not some false utopian vision. It is the revolutionary idea that we need each other. Don’t misunderstand this as naiveté or as coalition politics without struggle. On the contrary, just like the movement of the MMC—with all its contradictions and silences—today’s work of coalition building is necessary if we are to understand the ways power and oppression operate in the church and society. Doing this kind of political work never comes out of a false sense of history. Rather, it is in understanding our story– and in knowing that our history is not perfect and neither are our movements for justice–that we see the powerful legacy of the Minority Ministries Council.