Three hundred and thirty seven years ago this week (1683, in case that math takes too long) the first Mennonites arrived in what's now the United States and founded Germantown - now a neighborhood in Philadelphia. After sharing a meal with the local indigenous people (probably Lenape) Francis Daniel Pastorius, a German Mennonite lawyer and teacher wrote, "they have never in their lives heard the teaching of Jesus concerning temperance and contentment, yet they far excel the Christians in carrying it out.”
Anniversaries are natural times to tell stories. We use birthdays to tell our children about when they were born, wedding anniversaries to tell the stories of meeting and getting married, the anniversary of our church to tell stories of its founding and its first families. For some of us white folks, though, telling our immigration stories has become a little cringe-y. Our histories include colonization, enslavement of other humans, intentional and internalized bias based on white supremacist notions. So when I read the quote above on the Salt Project's Theologian's Almanac, and shortly afterward the following quote about those first Mennonites in Jason Reynolds YA book Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism and You, (a "remix" of Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning) I was psyched!
Mennonites didn't want to leave behind one place of oppression to build another in America, so they circulated an antislavery petition on April, 1688, denouncing oppression due to skin color by equating it with oppression due to religion. Both oppressions were wrong. This petition - the 1688 Germantown Petition Against Slavery - was the first piece of writing that was antiracist among European settlers in colonial America.
Yes! Mennonites recognized as the OG anti-racists! And they did it based on the teaching of Jesus. Patting myself on the back over here for coming from such enlightened and woke white folks. Well, sort of. My own Mennonite ancestors immigrated to Canada in the late 19th century also fleeing oppression in southern Russia, also seeking religious freedom and opportunity to thrive in a new environment. And, of course, using the advantages of whiteness to cheaply purchase land that had been stolen from indigenous people.
The theme this month in spiritual formation is "Making Sense of Our Stories" and our stories are complicated. When we're building our storytelling repertoire, it's really important to be able to understand our story from all perspectives, so that we don't repeat mistakes of oppression and injustice - and so that we can participate in repair. Authors like Jennifer Harvey and Anastasia Higginbotham, who write about talking with white kids about race, talk about the importance for developing a white identity emerging from more than just stories of hate, destruction and oppression. We also need to find stories of ancestors and heroes (Mennonite and otherwise) who were active in interrupting patterns of oppressions like racism and white supremacy. Those are stories we can embrace and seek to identify with.
Reynolds writes about the history of race and racial inequity in Stamped but he's insistent that it isn't a history book. "This book is not history history book, this present book is meant to take you on a race journey from then to now, to show why we feel how we feel, why we live how we live, and why this poison, whether recognizable or unrecognizable, whether it's a scream or a whisper, just won't go away." And then he tells stories - stories of wrongness and stories of people getting in the way of that wrong.
All that to say: tell your stories. Look for the stories that are hidden and find out why. Look for the stories that haven't been told and tell them. Look at the stories of the country and community and think about where and how your people intersected with them. Amplify the stories of justice and learn from them. And may we be the ancestors whose stories our children will tell with pride.
A final note, speaking of stories, here are a couple book related links I've come across recently. Of course, everyone should read Stamped and everything else that Jason Reynolds has written. And that Ibram X. Kendi has written (I'm still working on that myself.) Also, UW Bookstore has created anti-racist book kits for kids and adults of all ages. And The Conscious Kid has a reading list for kids from 0-18 on confronting anti-blackness and on how to support conversations on race, antiracism and resistance.
image: Thones Kunder's house, 5109 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia PA, where the 688 Petition Against Slavery was written