Global series turns its focus to AsiaBy Marlin Jeschke
Sponsored by Mennonite World Conference, this is the fourth volume to be published in a five-volume series on the history of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches around the world. The ones on Africa, Latin America and Europe are already out. The last volume on North America is forthcoming.
Mennonites were latecomers on the modern world’s missionary scene. The first Mennonite mission was a Dutch couple to Indonesia in 1851, so it is fitting that the chapter on Indonesia comes first in this volume. It notes the former two separate conferences of Javanese and Chinese immigrant Mennonites, but highlights the growth and outreach of both in the context of Indonesia’s Muslim majority.
Mennonite missionaries came to India in the last part of the 1800s. Three North American Mennonite denominations and the Brethren in Christ worked independently of each other in respective areas of India, and with much success. This was especially true for the Mennonite Brethren because they reached out to the Dalits, formerly called outcastes or untouchables in the Indian caste system. The Indian government began to shut down foreign missionary work in the early 1970s, accelerating the independence of Indian Mennonite churches.
Mennonite missions in China started in 1905, experiencing modest but significant success until interrupted by the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and then the Communist revolution after World War II that consolidated the Communist government in 1949. The Communist government then expelled almost all missionaries. Despite this, the Mennonite church in China survived. Moreover, the Communist revolution diverted Mennonite missions to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Four North American Mennonite denominations began missions in Japan after World War II — the Mennonite Church in Hokkaido in the north, the Mennonite Brethren around Osaka, the Brethren in Christ in Western Honshu and the General Conference Mennonite Church in Kyushu in the south.
The more recent Mennonite churches in the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam all began with the witness and service of Mennonite Central Committee — which counters the observation sometimes made that MCC relief and development is not a sufficiently explicit Christian witness or overt proclamation of the gospel.
The historians of these Asian churches are nationals of their respective countries, indicating that Mennonite churches there are now self-supporting, self-propagating and self-governing. The road to independence has incurred some problems — in India, for example, where in one branch of the Mennonite church factions have wrestled for control. The authors refrain from dwelling on the negative and rather celebrate the success of Christ’s church in their respective countries.
Readers of these stories should be prepared for a barrage of acronyms needed to avoid the repetition of long names for church bodies, agencies, programs and institutions. In this respect, Asian Mennonites are no different than North American Mennonites. The book is helpful in providing a three-page index of acronyms.
We have long since been informed that global Christianity has tilted south, and that is also the case in the Mennonite church. Fortunately, Mennonite World Conference has recognized this in organizing four world assemblies — in Curitiba, Brazil, in 1972; in Kolkata, India, in 1997; in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 2003; and in Asunción, Paraguay, in 2009. This volume does not, unfortunately, give the membership statistics for each country, but these can be found at www.mcusa-archives.org/resources, which lists the total for Asia and the Pacific as 184,049 in 2003.
Readers of this review will understand we cannot do justice to the details of the life, growth and outreach of the churches and individuals covered in this book — the chapters on India and Indonesia are each 100 pages. What is striking is the courage, imagination, patience and energy so often shown in their life and witness.
It is gratifying that some leaders of these Asian churches have become aware of Mennonite distinctives such as discipleship and the peace witness, perhaps through study in Canada and the U.S. at Mennonite colleges, universities or seminaries. Such Mennonite distinctives were, unfortunately, not taught by some of the early missionaries, but are now being picked up by many of today’s leaders in Asian Mennonite churches, giving them a deepened awareness of their Mennonite identity.
Under the leadership of Larry Miller, MWC is to be thanked for the vision and support it has shown for this project to chronicle the story of Mennonite churches around the world.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen (Ind.) College.
Comment on the article Global series turns its focus to Asia
Please keep comments civil. MWR editors reserve the right to remove any comment. When posting a comment, you agree to the MWR Comments Policy. Name and comment will be posted; commenters are strongly encouraged to give their full name. Email address is for follow-up only and will not be made public.