Amish help Old Colony in MexicoBy John D. Roth
A complex cross-cultural encounter has been unfolding between the Old Order Amish in North America and Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico that can be followed in the Old Colony Mennonite Support Newsletter.
First published in July 1998, the newsletter aims “to provide a channel for Amish and Mennonite churches to minister to the physical and spiritual needs of the Old Colony Mennonites.”
In the mid-1990s Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico — then numbering some 40,000 people — were facing profound challenges. Several years of drought, rapid population growth, shifting export markets, land shortages and a barely functional educational system left thousands of young Mennonites facing an uncertain future. The determined commitment of Old Colony Mennonite leaders to hold to traditional folkways enabled the group to retain a distinctive identity after the group’s immigration from Canada in the 1920s. But that same inward-oriented perspective made it difficult to adjust to changing circumstances. In the early 1990s, few spoke Spanish; alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence were growing concerns; education was mostly rote memorization of the catechism; and a history of isolation had left the group spiritually impoverished and facing an uncertain economic future.
In 1995, Mennonite Central Committee invited a group of Old Order Amish leaders on a study tour to Mexico, hoping relationships with Old Colony Mennonites could open the door to positive changes. The encounters that followed, documented in the pages of the Old Colony Mennonite Support Newsletter, have resulted in several reforms and a new era of trust.
One of the first initiatives launched in the late 1990s was in Manitoba Colony in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Led by an unlikely alliance of MCC, Old Colony leaders, Amish farmers and the government of Mexico, the project hoped to increase milk production by introducing new breeds of dairy cows, improving feed quality, more vigilant disease control and elevating sanitary conditions. In 2003, the governor joined members of a new dairy co-op to celebrate the completion of a new facility for cheese production. Four years later, the newsletter reported Campo 70 Cheese Factory employed about 30 people with annual sales exceeding $12 million.
The early years of the partnership focused on the dairy co-op along with a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, a new mental health facility and a heifer project in Campecha. But the newsletter soon began to also include updates on a small group of Amish teachers who began arriving in 2000 and their efforts to reform the education system.
Since the Pennsylvania Dutch of the Amish and the Plautdietsch (Low German) of the Old Colony Mennonites were mutually incomprehensible, the teachers opted for High German — the shared idiom of Scripture — as the common language of instruction.
Over the past decade, Amish teachers have worked to improve basic literacy, encouraging greater parental involvement, providing teacher training workshops and introducing new approaches to testing and record keeping. Over the past five years the program has expanded to schools in four other colonies, most recently an Old Colony settlement in Ulysses, Kan.
For more information about the newsletter or the program, contact Old Colony Mennonite Support, P.O. Box 150, Nappanee, IN 46550.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.
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