Immigration in our historyBy Joanna Shenk
“To authentically respond to immigration,” according to the recent Mennonite Central Committee U.S. 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.
As we engage the narratives of our past, first we move to Switzerland in the 17th 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.”
In the 1870s and 1880s, 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 by their neighbors. In 1880, Scribner’s Monthly published an article on Kansas farming and included a section on the Mennonites that asserted: “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 the Atchison paper 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. By the early 1920s it was clear that they would not recover the economic well-being they had known.
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 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.
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