Mennonites, Mission and Race: The Cleveland Experiment

My Mennonite identity was born of the convergence of post-World War II urban missions and African American migration to the city of Cleveland. The Lee Heights Community Church in Cleveland was one of the original 13 Black Mennonite congregations, and is perhaps one of the very few Mennonite churches in the U.S. that has had a racial consciousness to it since its very beginning. Established in 1958, this congregation emerged against a complicated background of race and politics.

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Groundbreaking at Lee Heights Community Church

Before World War I, about 10,000 Black people lived in Cleveland. By 1960, that number had swelled to a quarter million, with most Black families living on the east side of the city. The influx, especially between 1940 and 1960, greatly taxed the availability of housing and schools, and they were often inadequate and in poor condition. These conditions, replicated in cities across the country, erupted in the Hough riots in 1966. Tensions rose, as well as distrust of Cleveland’s old guard politicians, setting the stage for the election of the first Black mayor of a major U.S. City. Cleveland was attractive because jobs were available. Black men could find work, especially in the steel and auto industries. Other jobs possibilities were with the post office, and teaching and social work jobs were open for Black women, in addition to domestic positions.

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Worship service during the early days of Lee Heights Community Church

As opportunities increased for Black people, so did white flight. Suburbanization and the completion of interstate highways facilitated the shift in housing patterns. As Blacks moved into previously all white neighborhoods, white families moved out. The neighborhood transitions were facilitated by the institutionalized racist policies of realtors, construction companies, banks, and mortgage and insurance companies. Riots along the east coast and throughout the Midwest accelerated the push of Black out of white neighborhoods and helped Black neighborhoods become firmly entrenched ghettos by World War II. 1

This was the climate when Mennonites began their urban missions projects in earnest.

The heightened racial unrest occurred at the same time white Mennonites were moving from isolated farming communities to major cities. As conscientious objectors to war, Mennonite men who otherwise would have been drafted into military service fulfilled their civic duties by entering into 1-W service, often in cities. Common assignments were located in hospitals and public service agencies. Denominational mission and relief agencies also helped coordinate voluntary service assignments in urban communities; through these avenues many young white Mennonites first encountered African Americans and had eyes opened to the reality of racism and Black discontent in America.

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Gladstone Mennonite Church

The Mennonite church in Cleveland church began as a Bible school, run by volunteers from the nearby rural Plainview (later Aurora) Mennonite Church in the 1940s. This ministry was located in the Gladstone area near East 55th Street, and housed in an elementary school. By 1948, over 400 children had attended the summer Bible school, and that year, the program was extended into the fall. A house was purchased and renovated in 1951 for the Voluntary Service (VS) unit, which housed men who were doing 1-W service in Cleveland. In 1952, Vern Miller, a recent Goshen College graduate, and his wife Helen moved into the area.2

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Vern Miller, pastor of Lee heights Community Church, with parishioners

Gladstone’s first church council was organized in the spring of 1953 when the church had 35 members, most of whom lived in the neighborhood. The congregation quickly outgrew the original building, and the VS unit was eventually phased out. In 1955, plans for an urban renewal project signaled the end of the Mennonite ministry at Gladstone.3

The Housing Act of 1949, part of president Harry Truman’s Fair Deal [Thank you Linda Rosenblum for that correction], expanded the role of the federal government in housing, and chief element of the plan provided federal funds for “slum clearance” with the promise to build new public housing developments. Entire neighborhoods were razed in order to make room for non-residential public works, and in some cases rebuilt housing that was too expensive for the current inhabitants. Poor people, usually people of color, were pushed out of their neighborhoods, inspiring the pithy saying “urban renewal equals Negro removal.” 4

With the mission board’s backing, the Millers decided to move southeast of the first church into the Lee Heights area where there was only one other church. The area had recently been annexed by the city; the land was not desired by industry because it was partially wooded and had ravines running through it. When the congregation formally organized in 1957, they were first known as the Protestant Inter-Racial Parish. These dynamics were the DNA for the new church – a ministry of the Mennonite Church, but interdenominational and community based. The doctrinal statement of the church included a statement of the church’s stance against racial segregation and discrimination.

In 1959, the General Conference Mennonite Church issued a statement called “The Christian and Race Relations” that confessed Mennonites were complicit in “discrimination against racial and minority groups (Mexicans, Negroes, Jews, American Indians, Oriental peoples, and others),” weakening mission outreach. Because “in Christ all barriers of race and nation have been destroyed,” the statement urged congregations to “welcome all persons as brothers and members despite their color” and called on all church institutions to examine their policies and programs. 5

The 1963 General Conference Confession of Faith called the church to be a witness against racial discrimination, economic injustice, and all forms of human slavery and moral degradation. 6

At a conference on race relations in 1964, Vincent Harding challenged Mennonites, arguing they had come late to the issue even though their very theology and history compelled their response. 7

Mennonites in America were no longer as socially isolated, and the fruits of mission efforts meant that people of different racial and cultural backgrounds were now part of the Mennonite family; this diversity necessitated an expansion of Mennonite’s peace position.

Guy Hershberger’s 1941 (revised 1953) War, Peace and Nonresistance articulated the Mennonite stance on non-resistance for the 20th century church. Written in part to explain Mennonites to outsiders, but mostly to help that generation of American Mennonites understand their theology, the book outlined the biblical basis for Mennonite non-resistance, and went beyond military involvement to address issues like responses to labor union tactics as part of a peace witness. Hershberger was clear that a faithful biblical response to violence was to not resist; one did not pick up the sword, and tactics like demonstrations, boycotts and strikes were to be avoided because these were coercive; that is, not nonresistance. 8

For this reason, Hershberger could not support Gandhian (and subsequently Civil Rights Movement) tactics of boycotting and demonstrating. Yet he did call Mennonites to a response to racial injustice and racial unrest.

Challenges also came directly from the African American community. In 1945, the Mennonite Biblical Seminary moved to Chicago. While working on a doctorate in history at the University of Chicago, Vincent Harding was called to co-pastor the integrated Woodlawn Mennonite Church, where his spouse, Rosemarie Harding, also served as a lay counselor. The Hardings pressed Mennonites to use their peace and justice theology as a response to systemic racism. This call is certainly relevant for Mennonites today.


  1. Stephen Grant Meyer, As Long as they Don’t Move Next Door: Segregation and Racial Conflict in American Neighborhoods, (Lanham, MD, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999), 31. 
  2. Willard Helmuth, “The History of the Lee Heights Community Church,” Unpublished paper, January 11, 1962, 2. 
  3. Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, ed., 1956 Report of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (Elkhart, Ind.: 1956): 79. 
  4. James Baldwin, interviewed by Kenneth Clark, “The Negro and The American Promise,” Boston Public Television, 1963. 
  5. “A Church of Many Peoples Confronts Racism (General Conference Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church, 1989).” Anabaptistwiki, Accessed February 13, 2016. 
  6. “Mennonite Confession of Faith, 1963.” – Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, gameo.org (Accessed February 13, 2016). 
  7. Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith and Evangelical Culture, (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 49. 
  8. Guy Hershberger, “Biblical Nonresistance and Modern Pacifism,” in War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1944), 222-223. 

Who Calls Whom Racist, and What’s the Privilege With That?

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

Philipp Gollner

I would rather not smoke a pipe with Mr. Mast. He’ll compliment me on my German accent, and how tall and “sterling” I am. Privilege, for this outsider. But I would rather not chat it up with “Genealogists against Inequality” either. They’ll tell me that it’s really, really, really, ok that I don’t have Mennonite relatives. They’ll say “diversity” thirty-four times. And, oh no, we’re not a tribe. Only peace and justice, that’s what we’re tracking.

I cheer Goossen’s probing of the artifacts of Mennonite belonging. Mennonite material culture remains understudied, even as Mennonites’ merging of ethnic and religious cultures continues to yield plenty of sacred stuff.

On a larger scale, however, I wonder if there aren’t eerie similarities between early twentieth-century version of American Mennonite purity and contemporary highbrow Mennonite longings for the post-ethnic. And I suspect that any real investigation of privilege in Mennonite history in the United States is ill-served by the N-word (that is, Nazi)—because too often, the N-word hits bottom as a convenient, anachronistic catch-all; because most “Mennonite ethnicity” in North America is much older and more complex; and because Mennonite privilege, even purity, are now passed on through more than blood.

Might enlisting genealogy again in the cause of a more perfect church—a post-ethnic one, this time—continue, not disrupt, this puritan streak of Mennonite mapping?

Those with enough brains to write, and enough politics to pull in the church, mapped Mennonite racial purity in early twentieth-century America. They weren’t only keepers of memory—they also pruned the family tree, made it more presentable. They were activists for the church’s present relevance and its future purity. (Mast, by the way, represented a progressive group that soon dropped the term “Amish” altogether.)

Might enlisting genealogy again in the cause of a more perfect church—a post-ethnic one, this time—continue, not disrupt, this puritan streak of Mennonite mapping? Doesn’t it simply perpetuate the original Mennonite desire for a fresh break, a clean sheet? And could such an exculpation make authentic relationships with non-white Anabaptists, who often rely on the messy transmission of ancestry and culture for a vital faith community, even more awkward?

More importantly, the building blocks of Mennonite aristocracy have changed from Blut und Boden to subtler forms of privilege: educational opportunities, denominational connections, the right ideas. Mennonite parents of my and Goossen’s generation won’t tell their young ones what a “stern” race theirs is. They access other privilege: they will tell their children to be “world-changers,” before they ever show a photo of their great-grandmother. They will humblebrag that their child has never eaten at McDonald’s, but loves vegan curry. Doesn’t know football, but is the bestest peacemaker of them all in second grade. Swims in a pool of Mennonite social capital, but grows up with the assumption that the virtue of studying its history lies chiefly in uncovering its oppressive character.

Therein, too, is purity. Therein, too, is privilege—and its passing on. And to the extent that an openly worn revulsion against the unbearable Teutonism of many North American Mennonite bloodlines helps us white progressives mask this privilege while accumulating another (think: “world changers”), it is no way forward.

I have no Mennonite ancestors. Sometimes I wish I would. The one grandparent who was an National Socialist soldier was a socialist, and deserted in 1944. Sometimes I wish I had a Nazi Other to point at. My daughters are growing up binational, bilingual. Sometimes I wish their belonging was clearer. But my diverse non-Anabaptist students find us educated white Mennos most grating when we preach color-free virtue, not when we are a tribe, warts and all. And most times, I’m with them.

Whither genealogists? I don’t even know if it’s my business as a historian to tell them. Poking Mennonite privilege with the help of history, however, will take more than the obvious scrutiny of race science. Instead, it might make collateral damage out of many of us white progressives.


Philipp Gollner (Ph.D., University of Notre Dame) is an Assistant Professor of U.S. History at Goshen College. Most recently, he is the author of “How Mennonites Became White: Religious Activism and Cultural Power.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90 (April 2016). Catch up with him on twitter, or philippgollner.com


SEE ALSO:

Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege

Editor’s Note: In keeping with the mission of Anabaptist Historians to foster lively debate on important topics, we have solicited responses to this post from several experts. Check in over the coming weeks to follow the discussion or contact us to submit your own contribution.

Ben Goossen

A tour of my parents’ house is also a journey into our family’s past. Tables, china hutches, and clocks carry stories of craftsmanship in Europe or of pioneer life in Nebraska, Kansas, or South Dakota. Here a bowl that crossed the Atlantic, there a Bible from Prussia. All are bound up with tales of our ancestors’ faith, of the Anabaptist values that—so the story goes—led them from country to country in search of peace, shelter, and good, hearty land.

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A “memory box” depicting the pioneer life of Mennonite immigrants from Russia.

Like other “ethnic” Mennonites across Europe and the Americas, I learned from a young age to associate my religion with genealogy. A “memory box,” perched in a place of honor in my parents’ library, shows how family stories and material objects can interweave the threads of faith and ancestry. Constructed by my great-grandmother, the box contains photographs of her own grandparents, Jacob and Suzanne Balzer, who emigrated from southern Russia to Minnesota; an invitation to the wedding of their daughter; dried straw flowers; silk worm cocoons and a silk spool; nineteenth-century German-language storybooks; heirloom seeds; and part of a shirt sewn in Russia. The box uses artifacts to build a cultural atmosphere around memories of Mennonite immigration to the United States. My forebears, the objects imply, were straight-laced and pious. They spoke German. They worked with their hands and found fulfillment in tending the soil.

Over the past century, white Mennonites have expressed uncommon interest in their ancestry. Children’s books, historical scholarship, and memoirs often follow family narratives or depict the supposedly upright and persevering character of the “Mennonite people.” I can only begin to enumerate the ways my own life has been shaped by ancestral knowledge: The largest book in my childhood room was a genealogy compiled by my grandmother. Whenever I meet “ethnic” Mennonites from Europe or the Americas, new acquaintances hear my last name and recognize me as one of their own. As a historian of Anabaptism, I frequent websites maintained by amateur genealogists, who have located an amazing number of rare documents; a printout of my own family tree from one Mennonite database revealed hundreds of direct forebearers over seventeen generations, the earliest dating to the sixteenth-century Reformation.

It is remarkable that although Anabaptist studies is a well-developed field, no scholar has yet written a history of Mennonite genealogical practices. Family researchers themselves often assume that genealogy has always been a normal and important part of Anabaptist life. Yet as historians of ancestry are beginning to demonstrate, genealogy as we understand it today is quite a recent concept, finding widespread acclaim only in the last hundred and fifty years. While some communities, Anabaptist and otherwise, had long recorded birth, death, and baptismal dates in family bibles or congregational record books—perhaps finding inspiration in the genealogies of Jesus as presented in the New Testament—it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that such information became subject to rigorous study and publication.1 And far from an ideologically neutral undertaking, genealogy in the modern era emerged largely in the context of scientific racism and social exclusion. “From the 1860s to the mid-twentieth century,” writes François Weil in his recent book, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America, “racial purity, nativism, and nationalism successfully dominated the quest for pedigree.”2

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Christian Mast (1885-1974), Amish Mennonite historian and genealogist.

To what degree can this charge be leveled at Mennonite genealogy? I have argued elsewhere that the blossoming of Mennonite family research in 1930s Germany intimately reflected Nazi-era concerns with blood purity and racial hygiene.3 Comparable practices in other countries developed under different, if interrelated, circumstances. My hope is that this essay will spur more sustained inquiry into the origins and nature of Mennonite family research, especially in North America. This is not the space to provide a full sketch of what such an undertaking might entail. But I can indicate some of the possibilities through a short case study: a look at the genealogist Christian Mast and his book, A Brief History of Bishop Jacob Mast and Other Mast Pioneers, printed in 1911 by the Mennonite Publishing House.

The son of an Amish Mennonite Bishop from Pennsylvania, Christian Mast wrote his Brief History while still in his mid-20s. It appeared at a time when genealogical interest was rising among Anabaptists as well as wider American society. “Never before have people been more inquisitive and diligent in investigating the study of their ancestry than at this time,” Mast explained in his introduction, noting that although only a minority of US citizens knew much about their heritage, “it is a matter of congratulation that some are turning attention to family genealogy.”4 The author himself gathered material from relatives scattered across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana—and he corresponded with other Anabaptist genealogists researching the Funk, Oberholzer, Hostetler, and Wenger families. Upon completion, Mast sent a copy of his book to the United States’ oldest and largest repository of ancestral knowledge, the New England Historic Genealogical Society.5

Although his extensive papers await detailed analysis, it is clear that Mast was well-read in both American history and the scientific study of ancestry. His Brief History opens with a discussion of the alleged racial prowess of America’s white pioneers, supported by quotations from the likes of Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. In a section on heredity, the author dwelled extensively on the relationship between ancestry and virility, invoking the nineteenth-century phrenologist George Combe to advocate a far-reaching eugenic program. “As a nation’s greatness depends upon the character of her population,” Mast wrote, “it is the duty of every government to bestow at least as much attention upon the improvement of her human stock, as agricultural societies expend upon the improvement of the breeds of their horses and cattle.”6 Warning in particular against degeneration through endogamous marriage, he praised spousal selection as a means of preventing heredity diseases, bodily deformities, mental retardation, and even moral failings.

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This frontispiece to Christian Mast’s Brief History shows the homestead of the author’s ancestor, Jacob Mast, who migrated from Switzerland to Pennsylvania in 1750.

In its discussion of American nationhood, Mast’s Brief History identified a privileged role for Anabaptist bloodlines. “[O]ur Swiss and German ancestors,” the genealogist opined, “were the pure material of the Teutonic nation; being stern, sterling and frugal.” While Mast acknowledged that some of his relatives had become soldiers, fallen into evil ways, or otherwise lived “without God,” he maintained that most had led exemplary Christian lives of nonviolent witness. The writer especially contrasted Anabaptist qualities with those of Native Americans, whose “physical and mental power have… melted into weakness.” While the diligence, industriousness, and farming acumen of Amish and Mennonite settlers were said to exemplify the “bone and sinew of a nation,” inbreeding had supposedly left people of color with limited mental and physical abilities. When narrating Indian attacks against early Anabaptist immigrants, for instance, Mast emphasized the animal-like nature of these “savages,” in turn justifying his forebearers’ seizure of native lands.7

To what extent were Mast’s views typical of Mennonite genealogists at the beginning of the twentieth century? And in what ways do racist undertones continue to inform family research in Anabaptist communities today? A full answer to these questions awaits further study. It is nevertheless telling that although most Mennonites living across the world today are people of color, popular stereotypes continue to associate the denomination with white “ethnic” members of Germanic descent. Genealogy has remained an avenue for white Anabaptists to identify their families’ longstanding adherence to the faith, and in many cases, to trace their ancestry to the religion’s origins in Reformation-era Europe—a possibility unavailable to most members of color. Moreover, the recent advent of DNA testing and genetic research among “ethnic” populations are once again privileging the notion that Anabaptism is as much an inheritable trait as a religious conviction.8

Mennonite family research is intimately connected to issues of racial privilege. Whether in the seemingly innocuous memorial culture of my parents’ home or in the overtly racist language of historic figures like Christian Mast, it is time to take seriously its ideological power. It is time to ask how genealogists, along with the rest of us, can respond to inequalities within the church and beyond.

Thanks to Rachel Waltner Goossen and Joel H. Nofziger for their assistance with this essay.


SEE ALSO:



  1. Early examples of Mennonite genealogical publications include Jacob N. Brubacher, The Brubacher Genealogy in America (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Co., 1884); John H. Hess, A Genealogy of the Hess Family from the First Emigrant to this Country Down to the Present Time as Far as Could Be Ascertained (Lititz, PA: Express Print, 1896); Franklin Keagy, A History of the Kägy Relationship in America from 1715 to 1900 (Harrisburg, PA: Harrisburg Publishing Company, 1899); Theodore W. Herr, Genealogical Record of Reverend Hans Herr and his Direct Lineal Descendants from his Birth A. D. 1639 to the Present Time Containing the Names, etc., of 13223 Persons (Lancaster, PA: The Examiner Printing House, 1908). 
  2.  François Weil, Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 6.  
  3.  Benjamin W. Goossen, “From Aryanism to Anabaptism: Nazi Race Science and the Language of Mennonite Ethnicity,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90 (April 2016): 135-163. 
  4.  C. Z. Mast, A Brief History of Bishop Jacob Mast and Other Mast Pioneers and a Complete Family Register and Those Related by Inter-Marriage (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House Press, 1911), 12. See also the co-authored volume, C. Z. Mast and Robert E. Simpson, Annals of the Conestoga Valley in Lancaster, Berks, and Chester Counties, Pennsylvania (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1942), which contains extensive genealogical information on Anabaptist families. 
  5.  The New England Historic Genealogical Society thanked Mast in Wm. P. Greenlaws to C. Z. Mast, March 21, 1912, Mast, Christian Z., Papers, box 2: Correspondence C. Z. M. (Annals-N.C.), folder 4: Mast Genealogy, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. Mast’s name also appeared in “List of Donors to the Library,” The New England Historical and Genealogical Register (Supplement to April Number, 1913): xxxi. 
  6.  Mast, A Brief History, 749. On pages 748 and 749, he quoted a passage on physical and mental degeneracy from George Combe, Moral Philosophy; Or, The Duties of Man Considered in His Individual, Domestic, and Social Capacities (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1863), 85. Scholars have noted the centrality of such arguments, as well as of genealogical practices generally, to the rise of eugenics programs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. See Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 9-10. 
  7. Quotations from Mast, A Brief History, 12-13, 18, 748. 
  8.  On genetic testing among “ethnic” Mennonite populations, see for example Cheryl Rockman-Greenberg and Marlis Schroeder, “Mennonites, Hypophosphatasia and Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease: The Story of Two Genetic Disorders,” Journal of Mennonite Studies 34 (2016): 89-104. Recent scholarship on the genetic reinscriptionof race includes Nadia Abu El-Haj, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), and Alondra Nelson, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016). 

Place Matters

Felipe Hinojosa

This past week I got the news that my parent’s house had sold. My parents bought the house back in the 1970s for $26,000 and sold it for $45,000. The financial returns were slim, but the house on Taylor street—located in the heart of el barrio de la 421 (the 421 neighborhood)—holds deep memories for me and my family. This was the house where Sunday afternoons were loud with people around the table eating arroz con pollo while closely following the Dallas Cowboy football game. It was where people from all over the U.S. and Latin America came to visit my parents, and where el hermano Manuelito—a Mennonite pastor from Matamoros (a border town on the Mexican side) would patiently wait for a ride to church on most Sunday mornings. It’s the neighborhood where my first bike was stolen, where the cholos and cholas decorated the streets with their fashion and art, and where we were certainly the only non-Catholic family. We were the aleluyas (a term sometimes used to identify non-Catholic, mostly Pentecostal, Mexican Americans). We had a tortilleria one house down, across the street you could buy hielitos (frozen kool-aid in styrofoam cups), Ofelia had a tiendita (small store) a short distance away, and I’ll never forget how well manicured our neighbor, Conchita, kept her plants and grass. In recent years the neighborhood has not looked very good. After Conchita passed away the subsequent owners never kept up the landscaping and the nearby Lincoln Park closed down, giving way for a new highway built to connect to a new border crossing to Mexico.

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Esther Hinojosa, the author’s mother

Of all that is quickly recognizable about my family and my neighborhood, being Mennonite is certainly not. And yet we are, and that house, and that neighborhood, has been visited by other Mennonites (mostly Mexican Americans) who came for a Bible study, for a meal, or for a place to stay. Our family was the only Mennonite family in el barrio de la 421, but all across town, Mexican-American Mennonites lived, worked, and faithfully attended Iglesia Menonita del Cordero (Mennonite Church of the Lamb) in Brownsville, Texas. For most of us, place (our neighborhoods and the border city where we lived) shaped our understanding of Mennonite and Anabaptist faith and theology. Place mattered to us because it compelled us to live out our Mennonite faith in distinctive ways. For example, our church started programs to help people in our church (poor people helping poor people) and we became a sanctuary church in the late 1980s and early 1990s, providing migrants and refugees from Central America and Mexico sanctuary, a warm meal, and the opportunity to make a long distance phone call.

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The house on Taylor Street

Social geographers tell us that space and place are not neutral, but in fact are vital in determining social interactions, politics, and social movements.1 Being on the border—being a border church and a Mennonite church—meant that we lived out our faith very differently than white Mennonites in the east or Midwest. Like the prairies and flat lands of the Midwest or the Pennsylvania Dutch Country that have shaped Mennonite faith and theology in America, living as a borderlands people between two nations has shaped the experiences of Mexican American Mennonites. 

The relation to place has been a critical point in much of the Mennonite and Anabaptist histories written in the twentieth century. That focus makes sense given that most of the Russian Mennonite immigrants to America settled in defined locations across the east and Midwest during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The cities and towns in which they ended up, such as Hillsboro and Newton, Kansas, and Goshen and Elkhart, Indiana, historian Paul Toews has called “holy places”. 2 

While Mennonites have historically been geographically segregated, place is additionally important in that it has also shaped the historical topics chosen for study as well as the methodologies and approaches of scholars who focus on the Mennonite experience. Consider: what places and which archives are Mennonite scholars working in and with? In 1997 Toews made it clear that most of the scholars who authored books as part of the “Mennonite Experience in America” series made “trips into the archival centers of the Mennonite universe [and] bypassed the bright lights of the nation’s metropolitan centers.”3 While the majority of the historical records for the Mennonite community are archived in the “holy places,” it is important to remember that Mennonites themselves have never been solely confined to those areas. What new information might we have gathered about the experience of Mennonites during the civil rights movement or the Sanctuary movement by looking in the National Archives, the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, or even the Luis Muñoz Marín Foundation in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico, which currently has an electronic collection of over 20,000 photos of Mennonite service work on the island in the 1950s and 1960s?

For those of us working on rewriting the Mennonite story in the United States, deterritorializing Mennonite studies—moving it away from its current ethnic and place-based trappings—has the potential to open new avenues that take us to the different locations where Mennonite history occurred: in the West, the South, the Pacific Northwest, and across national borders. Doing so can help us to better understand how racism and oppression take place, how people of color have redefined the Mennonite experience, and what the range of Mennonite and Anabaptist history can teach us about religious experiences in the United States and across the globe. I know that in my corner of the world, in the barrios of the Texas/Mexico borderlands, there are many stories yet to be told.   


  1.  See the work of Edward Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other Real and Imagined Places (Blackwell Publishers, 1996). 
  2.  Paul Toews, “The Quest for the Mennonite Holy Grail: Reflections on ‘the Mennonite Experience in America’ Project,” Direction Journal 26, no. 1 (Spring 1997), 43. 
  3. Ibid. 

The Deepest Dichotomy: How A Sixty-Five-Year-Old Essay on Racism Helped Me Learn A Lesson From Before I Was Born

Tobin Miller Shearer

J. Lester Brubaker taught me a lesson. He did so back in 1950, fifteen years before I entered this world. That is the wonder of history.

Brubaker wrote an article beneath the headline “Colored Missions.” In it, he used his position as editor of Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Conference’s Missionary Messenger to suggest ten ways to “win the Negro of America to Christ.”1 Starting from the assumption that it was easier to help the “dark-skinned American” than the “dark-skinned African” because it was less expensive and did not require learning a “difficult language,” Brubaker carefully enumerated his motivations and methods for reaching across the color line.2

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J.  Lester Brubaker, 1952 Lancaster Mennonite High School Laurel Wreath

His was a daunting task. Two years after he penned his essay, there were still only twelve African-American congregations listed in the Mennonite Yearbook, and they were lumped together with “Spanish speaking” missions and ministries focused on “Jewish People” under the category “Missions Among Different Peoples.”3 What was segregated in print was also segregated in practice. Many retirement and children’s homes run by Mennonites would not accept African Americans. Nearby Virginia Conference continued to enforce its 1940 bishop-approved segregation guidelines for all church sacraments from communion to the Holy Kiss.4 And the numbers were small: by 1953 mission worker Leroy Bechler reported only 282 black members of the Mennonite Church in the United States.5

To be certain, some African-American leaders pushed back against these walls of racial segregation. James and Rowena Lark had been actively ministering within the African-American community for several years, with James being ordained as a minister on October 6, 1946.6 Both Larks had gained notice of the church at large, and in 1951 James would come to serve on the church-wide Committee on Economic and Social Relations (CESR), a group that would, concurrent with Lark’s involvement and the leadership of Guy F. Hershberger, focus on race relations for many years.7 Over in Chicago, James and Rowena had started Bethel Mennonite church where they lead an integrated congregation and advocated for full inclusion of African Americans. In a 1950 article, Rowena noted that a “worker” in their congregation, originally from Virginia, became “the first Colored girl ever to attend E. M.C. as a registered student.”8

But despite these efforts, segregation in 1950 was, in the Mennonite community, the norm. Integration, however halting, was the anomaly.

In that historical context, Brubaker wrote his editorial. Having studied at Franklin and Marshall College and taught English at Lancaster Mennonite School, Brubaker knew how to wield a pen. He also knew his audience.

And this is where the lesson that I learned fifteen years from before I was born enters in.

Among the many suggestions that he had to offer [see sidebar/image], Brubaker focused brubaker-mm-1950on two themes: becoming involved in changing institutions and being nice to black people. As a thoughtful writer, Brubaker was of course more nuanced in his recommendations. He seems to have realized that the problem of racism was not just a matter of individual prejudice, so he called for changes in “church-administered institutions” and for more involvement in efforts to improve economic, labor, and social conditions for black Americans. He likewise recognized that white Mennonites were prone to patronizing behaviors and superiority and so enjoined his readers to “[n]ever show a patronizing or ‘better-than-thou’ attitude.”9

But the lesson that Brubaker taught me is just how long the Mennonite Church has been struggling to overcome this dichotomy between advocating for institutional change and fostering interpersonal relationship. When Brubaker encouraged parents to “not teach children to be color conscious” because “they likely will not notice the difference unless adults emphasize it,” he could not have been more distant from the African Americans who in 1950—and for decades previously—had been asking for more attention to the realities of racism, not less. Even for his relative sophistication and nuance, as a white Mennonite from Lancaster County, Brubaker and his co-believers stood at a far remove from African-American leaders like W. E. B. DuBois, Mary Mcleod Bethune, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett who had long been advocating for forthright, nuanced, and informed approaches to racism. Likewise, Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 An American Dilemma noted the deep-seated patterns of white racism and prejudice that could not be overcome by avoiding discussion about race.

Brubaker and his contemporaries knew how to encourage each other to be nice, to host black and brown children from the city, and to sponsor children of color at their summer camps. But those actions, regardless of how well meaning, lovingly offered, and challenging they were to implement, missed the mark of the standards set by African-American leaders of the day.

What is so striking is that this same dichotomy is present in the contemporary church. White Mennonites continue to find relationally based solutions far more attractive than the kind of activism promoted by groups affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. The problem now, as it was in 1950, is that the solutions white Mennonites are most familiar with have not been called for by the black community and have not proven effective over time. Addressing violence against black communities, paying reparations for slavery, and instituting community controlled policing have proven historically much more difficult for white Mennonites to support.

Our way forward as a church community will turn in part on how well we come to grips with the very dichotomy that J. Lester Brubaker helped me understand has been part of the Mennonite zeitgeist for sixty-five years and counting.

 

Works Cited

Bechler, Le Roy. The Black Mennonite Church in North America 1886-1986. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986.

———. Facts, Considerations and Membership of Negroes in the Mennonite Church 1955. Negro Evangelism Committee, 1955.

Brubaker, J. Lester. “Colored Missions.” Missionary Messenger, May 1950, 11.

Lark, Rowena. “The History of Bethel Mennonite Church.” Our Journal, May 1950, 1-3.

“Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization.” 1. Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940.

Shetler, Jan Bender. “A Prophetic Voice in Race Relations?: The Mennonite Church – Missions to Minority Ministries.” Paper, Goshen College, 1977.

Zook, Ellrose D., ed. Mennonite Yearbook and Directory. Vol. 43. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1952.


  1.  J. Lester Brubaker, “Colored Missions,” Missionary Messenger, May 1950, 11. 
  2.  Ibid. 
  3.  Ellrose D. Zook, ed. Mennonite Yearbook and Directory, vol. 43 (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1952), 42. 
  4.  “Policy Governing the Organization of a Mennonite Colored Organization,”  (Harrisonburg, Va.: Virginia Mennonite Conference; Virginia Mennonite Board of Missions And Charities, 1940). 
  5. Le Roy Bechler, Facts, Considerations and Membership of Negroes in the Mennonite Church 1955 (Negro Evangelism Committee, 1955), 1. 
  6.  Le Roy Bechler, The Black Mennonite Church in North America 1886-1986 (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1986), 49-54. 
  7.  Jan Bender Shetler, “A Prophetic Voice in Race Relations?: The Mennonite Church – Missions to Minority Ministries” (Paper, Goshen College, 1977), 18. 
  8.  Rowena Lark, “The History of Bethel Mennonite Church,” Our Journal, May 1950, 3. 
  9.  Brubaker, “Colored Missions,” 11.