Janelle and Jasmine Newswanger lead simple, contented lives in one of Pennsylvania’s Mennonite communities.
The 17-year-old twins drive a horse-drawn buggy, wear long dresses and white head coverings, and see their friends at church on Sundays.
Done with education at 14, after finishing eighth grade, Jasmine works as a teacher’s aide, and Janelle helps her mother around the house, speaking Pennsylvania Dutch and English.
The girls blend in with the people in their lives, set apart in only one way.
Janelle and Jasmine are African American.
They are among about 100 children, most of them black, born to women who were incarcerated at Pennsylvania prisons and sent by their mothers to Mennonite foster families in Central Pennsylvania as part of an informal caretaking program. About 29 remain in Mennonite homes.
The children navigate two worlds as they grow up in white insular cultures.
What a fascinating story. The little girls, you read, feel safe and secure and loved in their white Mennonite family. That is the most important thing: that they are loved, and know they are loved, and cared for. I have never understood the feeling some social workers and others have, re: the inappropriateness of white people adopting children of another race — as if the children will be deprived of something essential by not being raised by someone of their race. Yes, they will miss out on something cultural, and that’s not nothing. But it seems to me that more important than the color of the skin or culture of one’s parents is the love they can offer to children. This is a great lesson of the life of President Obama’s grandparents, and his relationship with them.
If my children were orphaned, I would much rather them be raised with a black (or Hispanic, or Asian) family that loved them and protected them than with a white family who treated them indifferently. It’s not even a question to me.
Anyway, the idea of black people worshipping in the Mennonite tradition is an interesting one. My Dallas friend Julie Lyons, who is white, wrote a really good book about her and her husband’s experiences worshiping and serving in a black Pentecostal church in a poor part of south Dallas. It’s a different version of the black Mennonite experience: someone discovering God and building loving relationships in community in a radically different church culture. Julie’s book, “Holy Roller,” really taught me something about the universality of the Christian experience, even within a highly particular cultural setting.