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. 

Money, Sex, and Power: The Black Manifesto and the Minority Ministries Council

Tobin Miller Shearer

On May 4, 1969, James Forman, the former executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), walked down the center aisle of the Riverside Church in New York City to deliver the Black Manifesto, a document calling for white churches and synagogues to pay $500 million in reparations for their participation in slavery and the ongoing practice of racism, an amount Forman indicated was equal to about $15 per black person in the United States. Although as a fundraising tool the Manifesto missed its mark by several orders of magnitude, the document caused a firestorm of response from the white religious community. Given Forman’s threat that he or his lieutenants would disrupt church services in those communities where reparations payments were not made, denominations and congregations made plans for what they should do if Black Manifesto delegates showed up on their doorsteps.

MMC cross cultural cover

Brochure advertising a cross-cultural gathering sponsored by the Minority Ministries Council. “We They Coming Together: A Cross-Cultural Experience,” 1971: Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room – 4th Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Second Drawer: Unmarked. Folder: MINORITY MINISTRY COUNCIL 1970-71

Some made arrangements to call the police and then did so upon the delegates’ arrival. Others made plans to simply vacate their sanctuaries if a Black Manifesto activist showed up. A few planned on entering into dialogue. Even fewer invited Black Manifesto emissaries to their congregations and offered them payment. Although disruption was the intent and purpose of Black Manifesto activists, they did not as a rule engage in any form of violence.

It is striking then, that only two months after the release of the Black Manifesto, Paul G. Landis and Noah G. Good–leaders at the time in the Lancaster Mennonite Conference–sent a letter to every pastor in their conference calling them to “repent individually and as congregations of any and all racial prejudice or class discrimination that may be present in our own hearts” after first cautioning them against calling the police or restraining “those who would enter our services or buildings” because “[t]his will only generate greater strife and be considered an act of fear.”1 If nothing else, these cautions come across as highly unusual among a religious group known for their commitment to nonviolence and nonresistance. Under what other circumstances would pastors need to be cautioned against engaging in violence or calling the police to intervene? Good and Landis seemed to have been very afraid that uncontrollable chaos might ensue among this particular group of white Mennonite quiet in the land.

On August 16, 1969, at the (Old) Mennonite Church General Assembly in Turner, Oregon, African-American Mennonite pastor John Powell called for a fund in the amount of $500,000 to be set up “for the purpose of developing and expanding ways of serving the urban poor and other minorities in new and meaningful ways.” He challenged the church to raise that same amount for each of the following five years (for a total of $3,000,000)–an amount indicated as $0.50/member/month. The fund, later deemed the Compassion Fund, was envisioned as a way to “open the door to a new world of freedom and brotherhood.” Powell also called for “racial sensitivity education in white congregations.”2

Like the Black Manifesto that prompted it, the resulting Compassion Fund would never meet its funding goals although it would also result in a firestorm of response, much of it negative, from white members of the Mennonite church. A 1971 report would note receipts of $100,000 in 1969, and $60,000 in 1970 – amounts far below the $500,000/year goal.

Much more could be said about how the Black Manifesto helped bolster the development of what would come to be called the Minority Ministries Council (MMC) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Instead, I will focus on the struggle that emerged over the MMC as its members fostered a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition intent upon supporting the black and brown freedom struggles within and without the (Old) Mennonite Church. I will also suggest what those observations might mean to the contemporary church.

Echoing the work of Richard Foster, I contend that the struggle over both the Black Manifesto and the Compassion Fund was about three things: money, sex, and power. Those three issues remain at the core of Mennonite Church USA’s current struggle to dismantle racism internal to its structure and corporate life.

Money. The MMC’s struggle to obtain funding from the Mennonite Church drove to the heart of the problem of racism at that time. Prior to the advent of the MMC, most of the church’s mission and service endeavors in communities of color – where, in fact, the majority of the work took place in both domestic and overseas settings – was typified by white mission workers leading efforts to serve communities of color or, in a few instances, partnering with communities of color. Very few of those efforts were led by people of color from within or without the Mennonite community, James and Rowena Lark being two of the most notable exceptions. MMC’s proposal to fund communities of color to lead their own work and minister in their own communities completely upset that paradigm. The list of funded projects makes the case. In 1970 alone, the MMC funded twelve different urban churches’ self-run summer programs, a new business and black farm cooperative start-up in Mississippi, a “radical black theological seminary in Philadelphia,” and a Mexican-American Advocacy group in South Bend, Indiana, among many other projects.3 The evidence makes clear that this shift to black and brown run programs–more than any other element of the MMC programming initiative–left white Mennonite constituents cold. Their dollars did not flow to support this kind of mission and service.

Sex. On March 23, 1971, the Gospel Herald, the news magazine of the Mennonite Church, ran a race relations survey carried out by MMC white anti-racism educator Lynford Hershey. Hershey had sent the survey out to 98 Mennonite churches, of which 58 responded. Of the many questions asked, one of the most striking made the statement: “There is nothing morally wrong with interracial marriage if both partners are Christian.” Of the 2694 responses to that question, 51% were uncertain or disagreed with the statement.4 Of course that also means that 49% agreed with the statement, but in 1971 it still spoke dramatically of a church community that found the issue of interracial sex to be troublesome at best, morally suspect at worse. Given that the Supreme Court had in 1967 already overruled anti-miscegenation laws in Loving vs. the State of Virginia, it remains all the more problematic that a majority of the Mennonite Church five years later continued to be afraid of the prospect of their white daughters marrying black men – which was almost without exception the gender configuration that sounded alarms. In correspondence with John Powell, former Goshen College President Ernest E. Miller accused Powell of having claimed that “unity and peace” would come through “having interracial sex relations,” a claim he objected to in light of a comment purportedly made by Martin Luther King, Jr. while at Goshen College, in which King apparently said – as he had asserted elsewhere in the sexist language of the day – that “we want to be your brothers in Christ, not your brothers in law.”5 As my research into the Fresh Air rural hosting program has made clear, white Mennonites continued to express grave concern that interracial contact would lead to interracial sex well into the 1970s and 1980s.

Power. On March 8, 1971, MMC founding member Hubert Schwartzentruber made a provocative proposal. He suggested that both the Home Missions and the Voluntary Service arms of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities come under the authority of the MMC.6 He was in essence proposing a substantive shift of power, one that would have placed the heart and soul of the Mennonite mission enterprise under the control and leadership of people of color. Just as many Black Nationalist and La Raza groups were calling for a similar shift of authority and leadership over programs in their own communities, so too was this group calling for the right to lead mission and service efforts in their own communities. Although the proposal did not move forward, if action had been taken, the church’s mission efforts would have looked very different.

I contend that these three areas remain the principle issues in need of addressing today. Who holds the purse strings and gets to decide how money is distributed continues to stay largely in white hands. We have to find ways to talk about how money too often determines who is listened to, whose voice counts, who remains unheard.

Concerns about interracial sex – discomfort with it, talking around it – continues to be an issue. Two young men of color at Goshen College shared their experience with me of being either avoided or eroticized by white women, and on a related note, being asked to instruct white men on how to “act ghetto” – at term laden with all too much of its own psychosocial baggage.

Issues surrounding power continue to serve as an additional stumbling block to furthering the work of the church. We know from long experience that white norms and standards too often stand in the way of creating a new future. At the same time we see evidence of change in this realm as leaders like Iris Deleon Hartshorn, Glen Guyton, Stanley Green, Michelle Armster, Leslie Francisco, and many others demonstrate that the church does indeed thrive when people of color also lead.

My comments have focused on the legacy and present practice of racism. There is, of course, so much more that could be said in this arena. But, at the same time, I want to name and be clear that our analysis and discussion of this issue must be nested in and cognizant of the interlocking arenas of class, gender, physical ability, and sexual identity. In each of these areas the provisioning of power and privilege and the ongoing dynamics of oppression continue to be relevant and need to be explored as well.

Ella Baker, the most gifted and influential organizer of the modern civil rights movement, once said, “In order to see where we are going, we not only must remember where we have been, but we must understand where we have been.” My hope is that this brief foray into the history of the MMC and the Black Manifesto can be part of building that understanding.


  1. Noah G. Good and Paul G. Landis to Lancaster Conference Mennonite Pastors, July 1969, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Box: Conference Statements. 
  2. John Powell, “Urban-Racial Concerns Statement,” (Turner, OR: Mennonite General Conference, 1969), Archives of the Mennonite Church, I-1-1, Mennonite General Conference, 1898-1971, 1969 Session materials, Folder 5/8. 
  3. John Powell, “Compassion Fund Report,” (Elkhart, IN: Minority Ministries Council, 1971), 12: Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room – 4th Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Second Drawer: Unmarked, Folder: MINORITY MINISTRY COUNCIL 1970-7. 
  4. Lynford Hershey, “What Is the Mennonite Attitude on Race Relations.” Gospel Herald, March 23 1971, 262-264. 
  5. Ernest E. Miller to John Powell, December 3, 1969, Archives of the Mennonite Church, IV-21-4 Box 1, MBM, Minority Ministries Council, Data Files #1, A-K, Folder: General Correspondence, 1969-72. 
  6. John I. Smucker,”Minutes of Minority Ministries Council Executive Committee,” (Chicago, IL: Minority Ministries Council, 1971), 7: Eastern Mennonite Missions Record Room – 4th Cabinet of row on far left wall upon entering room, Second Drawer: Unmarked. Folder: MINORITY MINISTRY COUNCIL 1970-71. 

Archives Power? The Role of Record-Keepers in Historical Preservation and Research

library-power

Simone D. Horst

I recently saw this picture when my graduate advisor, a longtime library science educator, shared it on her Facebook page. I can say that as a librarian, the comic mostly rings true–one generally does not enter the library profession seeking fame and fortune. But the last word, power, gives me pause. Librarians, archivists, and all others who are given stewardship of records do have power. They have influence over historical narratives that must be given attention by both the record-keepers themselves and the people they serve. It is only through recognition of this influence that they can be held accountable and that those with whose histories they are entrusted can ensure that the preservation and access of those stories is being handled in a professional, ethical manner.

There are a number of facets to this influence, three of which Randall Jimerson explores in the introduction to his book Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice.  He opens by saying that archives can be seen as temples, prisons, or restaurants. For Jimerson, “the temple reflects the power of authority and veneration. The prison wields the power of control. The restaurant holds the power of interpretation and mediation. These represent the trinity of archival functions: selection, preservation, and access. Archives at once protect and preserve records; legitimize and sanctify certain documents while negating and destroying others; and provide access to selected sources while controlling the researchers and conditions under which they may examine the archival record.”1

Jimerson’s first example, the temple, describes the power exerted by record-keepers in the selection process. He writes that “the very acts of selection and preservation set some records apart from others and give them heightened validity” and reminds his readers that “in the archival temple, archivists make value-laden decisions with momentous implications for the knowledge that the future will have of the past.”2  Jason Kauffman, Mennonite Church USA Archivist, touched on this in his blog post “Now You’re the Institution” when he talked about the importance of addressing ‘archival silences’ by cultivating institutional collections that represent groups that have been marginalized or left out of a group’s historical records.3 Archives cannot collect everything, but an intentionality in the formation of collection development policies and in the activities of acquisition can help ensure the preservation of an historic record that makes an attempt at balance and inclusion.

Jimerson’s second example, the prison, demonstrates how archives have historically handled the preservation of records. Preservation meant maintaining the records exactly as they were when they arrived. Physical materials were kept in tightly controlled, high security spaces, with acid-free storage, climate control, and strict rules on viewing and usage. But with the advent of technology archives, libraries are being forced to reassess their methods of preservation and make decisions about the application of technology: what gets scanned and stored electronically? What formats are digital items stored in and how will archives ensure that these formats remain available five or ten years down the road as technologies change? Why digitize one collection rather than another? How do institutions maintain copyright control and security when items are shared on a platform as vast and far-reaching as the Internet? Digitization has enhanced the ability for records managers to provide access, but it also brings up difficult questions of preservation. This new frontier does not follow the pattern of how archives have historically gone about preservation, nor does it fit neatly into Jimerson’s prison narrative. It is an entirely new aspect that is allowing archives to provide more unlimited access to their collections, but also challenges the historically held beliefs of how best to preserve historic resources.

The final facet of power is access. This is Jimerson’s restaurant, where record-keepers and information-seekers come together to use and interpret historical documents. Providing patrons with access to resources is at the heart of the ethics of both the archival and library professions. The Society of American Archivists Code of Ethics states that “Although access may be limited in some instances, archivists seek to promote open access and use when possible” and the first point in the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics is “We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” This is where an archivist’s power can be most plainly seen; there are many unfortunate examples of record-keepers bucking ethical codes and using their own discretion to assess whether records are fit for public consumption and withholding those they deem inappropriate. And, unfortunately, the lofty goals of living up to ethical principles of providing access can sometimes clash with more benign limits like restricted open hours, processing backlogs, and privacy rights that hinder the amount of free access the public can have to archival and library materials. Of the three facets of discussed here, this is both the easiest place for outsiders to recognize a record-keeper’s power and also the easiest place to hold records-keepers accountable.

Jimerson goes on to discuss how archives, once regarded by historians and others who use their contents as an unbiased source of materials that contained stories just waiting to be told, are now being seen for the power they have in shaping the discourse even before historical research begins. For many of us who work in these places, this power can feel uncomfortable. But power in archives and records-keeping doesn’t have to been seen as a bad thing. Jimerson states, “[O]ne challenge for archivists is to embrace the power of archives and use it to make society more knowledgeable, more tolerant, more diverse, and more just…once archivists acknowledge their professional and personal viewpoints, they can avoid using this power indiscriminately or, even worse, accidentally.”4  He concludes by saying that “rather than hide from their power in the realm of history, memory, and the past, I hope that archivists will embrace the power of archives and use it for the good of mankind.”5 

Anabaptists and Mennonites are privileged to have a large number of institutions and groups dedicated to preserving their historical record. There have been many devoted historians, librarians, and archivists over the years who have shaped and grown the historical collections that today’s church inherits. To continue and improve upon this legacy, record-keepers, historians, church leaders, and anyone interested in the church as it was and as it can be must take an active interest in the preservation and maintenance of our shared heritage. Those who are entrusted with the stewardship of historical materials need to be aware of how all aspects of their work impacts the history being told. They must take seriously the responsibility to work ethically and morally to provide historians and researchers with the highest possible access and most complete historical record possible. Likewise, church leaders must take seriously the importance of historical records and dedicate energy and funds to their care and protection. Only then can record-keepers and historians tell the best and most complete versions of our history.

Works Cited:
Jimerson, Randall C. 2010. Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice. Chicago, Ill: Soc. of American Archivists.


  1. Randall C. Jimerson, Archives power. (Chicago, Ill: Soc. of American Archivists, 2010), 2. 
  2. Jimerson, 4. 
  3. Kauffman, Jason. “Now You’re the Institution,” Anabaptist Historians, Nov. 10, 2016, https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2016/11/10/now-youre-the-institution/ 
  4. Jimerson, 185-86. 
  5. Jimerson, 3.