As young students in their early 20s, J.D. Graber and Minnie Swartzendruber thought they were headed toward careers as educators. A new set of correspondence at the Mennonite Church USA Archives sheds light on their early lives, their courtship, and their decision to serve as missionaries in India. The mostly handwritten letters between the two span a period of four years (1921-1925) and contain rich details about their family life, social networks, educational pursuits, and Mennonite faith.
About the decision to serve in India, J. D. wrote, “I’m absolutely sure if we make this a matter of earnest prayer God will take care of all difficulties and will open the door for us to go if He wants our lives in India.” In her letter of response, Minnie wrote that God’s strength gave her courage “and makes me willing that our comfortable little home in some college town should fade away. Such is alluring to a young lover’s eye but God forbid it should blind our eyes from the realities of life, the responsibility to be met, and the joy of doing it.”
After seventeen years in India, J. D. later served as the first full-time general secretary of the Mennonite Board of Missions from 1944 to 1967. Minnie was the president of the Women’s Missionary and Service Commission from 1950 to 1959 and spoke widely throughout the church. The collection also includes diaries and journals, sermon notes, and a series of published and unpublished manuscripts that J. D. authored over the course of his career.
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