Two notable elements of the “Crossing the Line” conference come to mind: first, it was exceptionally well-planned, logistically, and flowed beautifully at a rich but manageable pace. Second, the offerings were refreshingly varied, ranging from serious academic work in the fields of history, sociology, literary analysis, and theology, but also offered memoirs and family histories, as well as a range of fine arts including dance, poetry, and visual arts. The tour to nearby notable Mennonite sites was truly beautiful and memorable. I would like to draw your attention to the photo I took of Mrs. Barbara Nkala, as she exited a church building we visited on the tour. This photo speaks to the question, “who is an Anabaptist today?” The image reaches from Old Order Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley to a Brethren in Christ Church Zimbabwean mother in the faith—who journeyed far and at significant expense, together with her sister, to participate in and lead at Crossing the Line. The impact of this admirably well-thought-out and holistic program was to offer participants both spiritual and intellectual refreshment.
I came to the conference in response to urging from Jan Bender Shetler that I send in a paper proposal, and at the invitation of Devin Manzullo-Thomas, to join a panel he was proposing on BICC women in leadership. I gave a talk about Sithembile Nkala, a member of the Brethren in Christ Church, Zimbabwe, who served as pastor of her BICC church during the 1970s. The story I shared centered around Pastor Nkala’s encounter with liberation war guerrillas. She drew on what I called “spiritual muscles” to find courage to confront the guerrillas, challenging them not to believe at face value the “sell-out” accusations they heard, in spite of the real possibility that they could have executed her for speaking out in this manner. This material is based on research I did for my dissertation in history at Columbia University and which in turn served as the basis for my book, The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Ohio Univ Press, 2015.) Devin spoke about women of the BICC in North America in the post-WWII era during the BICC’s “evangelical turn.” Also presenting on this panel was Lucille Marr, a historian from McGill University in Canada. Lucille spoke on the early life and calling of Hannah Frances Davidson, the BICC’s first foreign missionary. H. F. Davidson, Lucille’s own great-aunt, was a crucial leader of the BICC’s mission to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) See the photo of Lucille, Devin, and me—which Devin has also posted in his social media platforms.
Barbara Nkala’s talk on “Unsung Heroines” of the BICC Zimbabwe was delivered with clarity and authority. Based on her own and her sister Doris Dube’s extensive work of collecting stories of women of the BICC Zimbabwe, Barbara’s joyful spirit came through, as well as her well-honed teacher’s expertise. A longtime secondary school teacher at the BICC’s Matopo Secondary School, she is now a publisher of Christian and Ndebele literature and serves as the southern Africa regional representative for MWC. I had not seen Doris and Barbara since 1999; our reunion at Crossing the Line was poignant and joyful. See the photo of the three of us standing before EMU seminary’s gorgeous stained glass window. Note also the photo of the conference’s wrap-up panel, which includes Barbara Nkala seated at the far right.
I may well have been one of the only (if not the only) participants in the conference who is not a member of an Anabaptist-derived church. I felt welcome; I became more deeply acquainted with the Anabaptist tradition, and came to admire and appreciate my Anabaptist fellows in Christ and in scholarship all the more. Thank you to the conference planners who accepted my paper proposal, allowing me to partake of these riches.
See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.