This piece was originally published in the AMIGOS Update for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada for May (see their archive for more info about AMIGOS).
“To authentically respond to immigration,” according to the recent MCC US Immigration Listening Report, “whites must start by seeing immigrants as ‘us’ instead of ‘them.’ White communities and churches who until now have taken little action on behalf of immigrants, must start viewing newcomers as esteemed members of God’s family — just as deserving of justice and love as church friends and immediate family members.”
How do those of us then, who fall into this category, work toward a change in perspective? Could it be that we Mennonites of European descent have forgotten our own history? Perhaps in comparing current themes — government guidelines for immigration, stereotypes faced by recent immigrants, and the role of economic instability in causing people to leave their homes — to our own immigrant histories, the categories of “us” and “them” may become much less distinct. Although the family stories of long-time immigrants are not identical to what is happening today, our history connects us in striking ways with the stories of recent immigrants.
Therefore, as we engage the narratives of our past, first we move to Switzerland in the seventeenth century where government officials did their best to suppress the Swiss Mennonites through heavy fines, land seizure, the threat of capital punishment, and deportations. John Roth notes in Letters of the Amish Division, how a few decades later some Mennonites “defied the mandates and threats of the Swiss government and secretly returned to Switzerland to rejoin their families or to claim their possessions.”
As the nineteenth century drew to a close Mennonites living in Russia were immigrating to the United States. Although, welcomed eagerly as industrious and honest farmers in rural Kansas, the Russian Mennonites were also stereotyped in different ways by their neighbors. In 1880, Scribner’s Monthly published an article on Kansas farming and included a section on the Mennonites in which they asserted that “for next, perhaps, to its unquestioning faith in baptism, the Mennonite heart hugs the watermelon above all things.”
In 1882 the Atchison Champion of Kansas noted of Mennonites that “the people were like their houses, useful but ugly.” Two decades later Atchison published another article, concluding that, “They must learn the lesson of citizenship in a free country, which will not tolerate the bartering of their choice at the ballot box, or abject obedience to petty local magnates; their religion must be softened; in a word they must learn to be Americans.”
Our last encounter takes us to the early twentieth century, to the Mennonites still living in Russia. After the Revolution of 1917, disease and famine plagued the Mennonites and by the early 1920’s it was clear that they would not recover the economic well-being they had known in more secure times. In Lost Fatherland, John Toews states, “Emigration was an elemental survival tactic which, though ultimately aimed at achieving freedom of thought and religion, had as its primary object the conservation of life.” He goes on to note, “most of the emigrants were fleeing from a land they felt had no future for them. The farms which had sustained them as a distinct minority for over a century were gone.”
For Mennonites of European descent, these are powerful stories of our immigrant history. We see our families facing the choice of entering a country illegally, the unfairness of stereotypes, and loss of economic stability. Through these glimpses into our history, may we be better informed of our own identity and increasingly empathetic in our response to those whose immigrant stories are more recent.