I have to admit it. When Michael King of Cascadia Publishing House sent me a copy of the first volume of Martin Lehman’s Roots and Branches, I went straight to chapter three to read about Anna Byer.
Anna Byer and her husband Charles were a young couple in their thirties during the early years of the twentieth century. In a day when few Mennonites were involved in or even much aware of mission outreach beyond their own tight-knit communities, Anna and Charles left their homes and families in eastern Pennsylvania and initiated pioneer church planting efforts, first in the city of Columbia on the west end of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, then in Knoxville, Tennessee, and finally in Tampa, Florida, where they settled and ministered for most of their adult lives.
I have heard family stories about Anna (Hiestand) Byer for as long as I can remember. Anna was my great aunt, my grandfather’s only sister. More than that, she was a silent inspiration embedded in the DNA of the Hiestand family tree that I’m sure contributed to my own lifelong interest and engagement in God’s mission.
Anna’s story and scores of others are recounted with great relish and detail by Martin W. Lehman in his two-volume set on the historical “roots” (1892-1969) and more contemporary, multicultural “branches” (1969-1992) of Amish and Mennonite presence in southeast United States.
I would wager that there are indeed very few Amish or Mennonites of Swiss-German origin with personal or family ties east of the Mississippi River who will not find a way to connect to some part of this story. And that is because Anabaptist-related groups and individuals from virtually every corner of the East—Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois—have made their way over the past century in a southeastwardly direction to Florida and other neighboring locations.
The reasons for these treks, a primary theme in volume one, have been as numerous and diverse as the travelers themselves. Some of those headed south were sent as emissaries from mission agencies in the north, serving as career church planters or on shorter-term Civilian Public Service, IW, or Mennonite Voluntary Service assignments. Others went to farm, to explore new business opportunities, or simply to strike out on a venture with no clear objectives in mind. Others chose warmer climates for health reasons, for winter refuge, or for honeymoon and vacation destinations. Still others fled south to avoid the rigid rules of northern communities and to escape the church tensions and squabbles that too often characterized them.
The story does not end with the migrations, however. For as people settled, they married, produced offspring, built homes and churches, created businesses and other institutions, and established life-long friendships with colleagues and neighbors whom they invited to be a part of the faith communities that were taking shape.
This second volume, covering in considerable detail the 1969-1992 period with briefer glimpses spilling into the twenty-first century, focuses primarily on some of these developments, both within Anabaptist-related communities and in what emerged as new people came to faith from traditionally non-Mennonite white, African-American, Hispanic, Garifuna, Haitian, and other origins. Today, over half of the Southeast Mennonite Conference congregations derive from these newer populations within the Mennonite faith family.
The author of Roots and Branches
does not claim to be a professional historian. His account is more
anecdotal than analytical. In reading these volumes I would like to
know more about the broader social and cultural context into which
these Amish and Mennonites moved, more about the other “immigrants” in
the region, more about racial dynamics, southern cultural patterns,
local church politics, missionary methods and motivations, and more
about how new converts and emerging faith communities viewed the
newcomers in their midst.
One short testimony recounted by Lehman of a Blountstown, Florida, native makes me wonder what else people experienced in their encounter with the Mennonites:
“There was bickering from the gitgo,” the young man reported, because everyone wanted to do things the way it was done where they came from. Some came only to farm. Others came to plant a church, but there was no compromise, it had to be just like it was where they came from. And in this community, that was difficult because people would just stand and look at them. It took awhile for some of the Mennonites to believe that outsiders could be saved. The conservative young people didn’t want to mingle with other young people. (Vol. 1, p. 163)
If history is written for our instruction and growth as followers of Jesus, then reports such as this one should sober us and have us asking as a church whether we have made any progress in the past fifty years since these sentiments were voiced. We have much to learn as God’s people and Roots and Branches, volumes 1 and 2, can help us in doing just that.
We should be deeply grateful for
Martin Lehman’s conscientious labor in making available to us the story
of both the “roots” and the “branches” that God has seen fit to nurture
and grow—sometimes because of and other times despite our own feeble
efforts as a church to be faithful models and messengers of God’s
reconciling work in the world.
—James R. Krabill, Senior Executive for Global Ministries
Copyright © 2011 by Cascadia Publishing House LLC