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Black Mennonites

Quite a story: [1]

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 [2]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.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Black Mennonites"

#1 Comment By Mike On December 27, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

I’m stuck at the unexplained point that foster children–wards of the state–stopped getting a formal education at 8th grade. What appends when/ if they leave the insular Mennonite world?

#2 Comment By Seannyboy On December 27, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

I saw several black Mennonite children at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square (near Philadelphia) yesterday. Given the location, it’s hard to imagine that those children were not related to this story

#3 Comment By Stephanie On December 27, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

Mike, my guess is that parental rights were severed before their 8th grade education was complete. Once they were legally adopted, their parents had the same rights as any other Mennonite parent in regards to their educational choices. And if the children should later leave the Mennonite world, then the same thing happens to them that happens to any other graduate of the 8th grade Mennonite educational system–they have to figure out how to manage with those limitations.

I was homeschooled using quite a few books Rod and Staff, the curriculum used by most Mennonite schools, and I will say that with the exception of science, their 8th grade books are actually much more advanced than your average 8th grade school material. So although they may only attend school for 8 years, they are fairly well educated. Also, culturally they are trained to have an excellent work ethic which goes a long way to counterbalance the lack of schooling.

#4 Comment By Nickp On December 27, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

“Anyway, the idea of black people worshipping in the Mennonite tradition is an interesting one.”

FWIW, outside the US and Canada, the largest Mennonite population is in Congo, and the fastest growing Mennonite churches are in Africa, especially those in Ethiopia.

#5 Comment By Stephanie On December 27, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

I should have said “the same thing happens to them that happens to any other graduate of the 8th grade Mennonite educational system *who leaves*”

#6 Comment By Jaybird On December 27, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

I Prefer the Black Israelites.

#7 Comment By Mitchell Young On December 27, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

This has the makings of a fascinating ‘natural’ experiment.

#8 Comment By Noah On December 27, 2011 @ 7:39 pm

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.

Obama’s grandparents (of course, you are referring only to his white maternal ones), by definition, were blood relations: their ancestry (i.e., race) is his race (partially). As (black) columnist Stanley Crouch pointed out, Obama is not “black” as Americans use and understand that term.

In any case, the President is not an example of transracial adoptions like the ones discussed in the post.

#9 Comment By MattSwartz On December 27, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

I can’t be entirely sure, but I suspect that the article is making the common mistake of referring to Amish people as Mennonites. As a rule, Mennonites are less insular, less prohibitive about matters of dress and technology, and more open to advanced education. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, and in the patchwork of Lancaster County, I’m sure it’s possible that some exceptions exist.

The technical difference between Amish and Mennonite theology is one of practice: the Amish believe in complete disassociation from ex-members (to the extent that some don’t eat or speak with their formerly Amish children) while Mennonites do not. The differences in strictness have evolved roughly as expected from that starting point. Since their split in the 16th century, Mennonites have generally been less strict. Even so, there are a few Mennonites who won’t own cars and Amish who will (the latter are nicknamed “Black-Bumper” Amish for their practice of painting the chrome bumpers of their cars black so as to be less ostentatious).

Lancaster County, PA has one of the highest densities of Amish and Mennonites in the country (one county in northern Indiana and another halfway between Columbus and Cleveland are similar), so if there are Mennonites anywhere in the country who fit the profile described in the article, that would be the place, but it seems erroneous.

In any case it’s an interesting story. There are plenty more black Mennonites in Belize, and probably some black Amishmen down there as well. I grew up Mennonite, the grandson on one side ex-Amish Kansans and of Amish and Mennonites on the other as well, but further back. That explains (and I hope excuses!) this data dump on a tangential point.

As to the main point, I agree that it’s wonderful. In Christ there truly is no east or west, as the old song says!

#10 Comment By e On December 27, 2011 @ 10:36 pm

Also what some people don’t realize is how racially diverse conservative Anabaptists are and continue to become, with missions work in Central and South America, and Africa, the adoptions and intermarriages of people who remain there and also then come to the US.

#11 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 28, 2011 @ 8:24 pm

Columnist Stanley Crouch and every other racist with a similar opinion would be hard-put to explain what “black” is “as Americans know and use the term.” Most “black” Americans have “white” ancestors. Therefore, by the same logic Noah correctly applies, that is their race, “partly.”

I recall hearing two young ladies in a laundromat in Capitol Heights, Maryland, having a conversation about an acquaintance who was meeting his grandmother for the first time. “His grandma is white” one of them said, rather oblivious to the implications for what HE therefore is. “For real?” asked the other, as if such a thing could not be.

By strict application of the notorious “one drop rule,” two thirds of so-called “white” Americans are “black.” That doesn’t mean they have a large percentage of African ancestry. All it takes is one inter-racial marriage in 1750, and half or better of descendants within the next three generations taking the opportunity to live as “white,” with all their progeny marrying “white” spouses for the next several generations, to account for quite a large number. My maternal grandmother comes from a line where that is quite likely, although not certain.

That’s why southern culture is so full of terms like “a touch of the tar brush” or “a spoonful of Negro blood.” What black nationalists are loath to accept is the fact that “black” is an identity created by “the white man,” not an identity that is indigenous to African culture. Eventually, it will have to be thrown away, along with that odious twin, the notion that some of us are “white.”

#12 Comment By Noah On December 28, 2011 @ 9:16 pm


There may not be scientific definitions of terms such as “race,” “nation,” “tribe,” or “family,” but that does not make these notions imaginary or invalid. For historic and cultural reasons, African-Americans (blacks, colored people, negroes, whatever they have called themselves and been called over the generations) are a people with a history and culture distinct from both Americans of European ancestry and other peoples of African ancestry.

Let me quote the relevant bits of Crouch’s Nov. 2, 2006 column in the New York Daily News. Note the part I put in bold:

After all, Obama’s mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan. Other than color, Obama did not – does not – share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves…. So when black Americans refer to Obama as “one of us,” I do not know what they are talking about. In his new book, “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama makes it clear that, while he has experienced some light versions of typical racial stereotypes, he cannot claim those problems as his own – nor has he lived the life of a black American.

Let me quote also from a January 22, 2007 article at Salon by Debra Dickerson (also black, not that that fact should matter). I strongly encourage everyone reading this to read the entire thing here: [3]

Also, and more subtly, when the handsome Obama doesn’t look eastern (versus western) African, he looks like his white mother … (he might well have never been in the running without a traditionally black spouse and kids)….

I didn’t have the heart (or the stomach) to point out the obvious: Obama isn’t black.

“Black,” in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics. At a minimum, it can’t be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won’t bother to make the distinction. They’re both “black” as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term.

We know a great deal about black people. We know next to nothing about immigrants of African descent (woe be unto blacks when the latter groups find their voice and start saying all kinds of things we don’t want said).

BTW, in Australia, the term “black” refers to aborigines, not racial Africans at all. When Americans say “Asian,” we usually mean people from the Orient, whereas in Britain the term is usually used for those from the Subcontinent.

#13 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 29, 2011 @ 12:50 am

Noah, you have certainly proven me correct in describing Crouch as racist.

Your note about Australia proves the point: “black” means exactly what the person speaking chooses it to mean. In Holland, it means refugees from the Mollucas Islands in Indonesia. Although colonial-racist Europeans facilely classed all “darker races” together, there are at least five different genetic sites controlling skin color, and the pattern for Australian aborigines is entirely different from that for west Africans.

As a counter-point, I offer the statement of Professor Henry Louis Gates, that Barack Obama is literally African American: his father is African and his mother is American. Gates added “We’re not giving this brother up anytime soon.” (Note, Gates didn’t use the word “black,” and it is not the only term available).

The reason Americans of African descent identify with Barack Obama is that for the last hundred years or so, American culture has applied the notorious “one-drop rule” to infer and inflict that ANY African descent makes a person inferior, intellectually, socially, and in terms of almost any kind of skills. One problem in American today is that a substantial number of “black” people believed it, embraced it, and identified with it, acting accordingly.

American history shows many OTHER ways of dealing with race, ethnicity and skin color, but that is the one which has settled most heavily upon us. There have been times when a man of African descent would punch the lights out of anyone who called him “black.” The polite word was “colored.” In colonial Virginia, the Spanish-Portuguese term “Negro,” (which in those languages meant “black” before it was ever applied racially) was considered a term of nationality, like “Scotchman” (the original ethnic slur), Dutch, German, Spanish, French, Welsh, etc.

Black is as black does… it is totally subjective. I know of an incident at an east coast airport where a Nigerian cab driver, getting into an argument with an Ethiopian cab driver, ran up to a dispatcher with dark skin who was born in the USA saying “You are black like me, not like him,” trying to win some support. (Dispatcher declined). On the other hand, I know of a woman from Senegal, married to an American, whose accent betrayed her foreign origin and was told by an “African American” that she should go back where she came from. So much for Pan-African racial solidarity.

The whole mess is ludicrous. To call it anything else is simply adding to the absurdity.

#14 Comment By Thomas O. Meehan On December 29, 2011 @ 3:59 am

NickP, yes, I ran into Mennonites in Belize. They live up in the hill country and make good furniture. I gather there are some in Mexico along with Mormons.

#15 Comment By Peter B. Nelson On January 13, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

testing italics on an old dead thread.

#16 Comment By Peter B. Nelson On January 13, 2012 @ 10:54 pm

testing bold on an old dead thread.

#17 Comment By Laurie On November 7, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

What about socially? Who do they marry? I doubt the Old Order Mennonites marry them. Their life as adults cannot be that great.No further education and they have to look hard to find other blacks to marry…..I live around them and have never heard of intermarriage and those I ask have no answer or reason.I thnk that is hypo racy.

#18 Comment By kim On February 21, 2016 @ 2:00 pm

I am African American. Both of my parents were born here and their parents and grandparents. I am also Native American on both sides. And my maternal grandma was from Louisiana and her mother was French creole whatever. Anyway, I just got diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder that’s prevalent in the Canadian Mennonite population. My dad was born in Ohio. Lots of Mennonites settled there. We in American are a mixed bag of nuts. And we all have the same original parents. Genetics and the Bible has proved that civilization started in the Fertile Crescent in Africa. So we are all family. There’s all types of dogs, but they are all still dogs with physical differences. But they can still mate and make more dogs that may have a variety of features. I think it makes life interesting. And we don’t all need to be put into some kind of box strictly because of our parents birth place. Most white Americans are from German ancestry. They don’t call themselves Germans. They are Americans. White Americans like their Swedish or Irish brethren. With that being said, there really shouldn’t be such thing as race.That’s a man made ideology used to separate, dominate, and oppress others in the name of self interest (aka providence). And Obama is black. His whole flow screams African American. That’s the group he not doubt mostly identifies with or people “categorize” him as such. No one looks at him and says….hey..he’s a white guy. He’s multi-racial , but the group he identifies with most is African American. You don’t have to be ancestors of slaves to fall into that category. It’s a culture. There’s white looking Native Americans whose identity is Navajo or Cherokee. So they see themselves as Native American even if they have blue eyes. As an African American I look at Obama and say “we’ve got a black president”. Again, his flow and vibe scream BLACK!!! Not Nigerian.

#19 Comment By marilynn On March 26, 2017 @ 4:05 pm

My name is Marilynn Huff and I am a free adoption search angel who somehow got dialed in as the go-to connection for Amish and Mennonite Black and White adopted kids in Pennsylvania. Only they’re all married with kids before they are even 20. They are all looking for their parents and siblings as well and with the luck of the draw I’m finding their families and they are going home. Most of the Amish and Mennonite adopted people I’ve helped have very tragic family separations for similar reasons to the one listed in the text of this story. But those are their families that belong to them and they should never be hidden from their own families. But that is the life of any adopted person because all adopted people are relegated to second class citizen and stripped of their real names and identifying documents to keep them from leaving their adopted identity behind and returning to life as themselves once 18. It’s not just these adopted people but all of them that have to give up their true identity and membership in their own family in exchange for food and shelter by their adopted family. Won’t people help a family in crisis just to help without desiring to be called mom and dad and without changing the person’s name? I wish people would realize that it’s not OK to expect to get the title mom and dad just for raising someone else’s kid, it’s not ok to change their identity and hide them from their families. If the family is that dangerous get a restraining order without changing the kid’s name! But the family is not so dangerous as to warrant a restraining order – so changing the name is the only way to keep the kids sequestered. My heart bleeds for these well loved kids in Mennonite society. Love them but leave their names and identities alone so they can go home if they feel like once they no longer have to work for their keep as an adopted person.

#20 Comment By The Unicorn Lady On May 24, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

I believe it is OK to call adoptive parents Mom and Dad. Kids need to have parents. Would you suggest that children grow up without having people to call parents? Mom and Dad describe the loving role adoptive parents take on.

In this day and age more adoptions are open adoptions biological parents get updates about their children or are involved in their child’s lives.

Foster/adoptive parents are there to love and nurture children that have been through complex trauma.

God changed people names many times to give them a new start in life, what is wrong with adoptive parents doing so. Especially if the children were not given appropriate names to begin with. Adoption is not a temporary arrangement but a life long commitment to a child. They are a branch connected to a new tree.

“No longer have to work for their keep” – – what is wrong with learning to work and work hard? All Amish children learn to work.

A restraining order is just a piece of paper, as the families of three persons that were Killed by a person that had a restraining order against him in Kirkersville, Ohio in the last month found out.

I do agree that at 18, or 21 or 25 that adoptive children learn of the biological parents and have all the tools available to seek them out discreetly.

My Uncle, Brother and maybe my daughter will be adoptive parents.

Bless you for your work in reuniting biological families and siblings.

#21 Comment By Cindie On May 26, 2017 @ 7:39 pm

Saw some female African American children in the Broad Street Market in Harrisburg, PA who were probably children being fostered by Mennonites, and their appearance made me cry….hair breaking off and bald spots because of lack of proper care of “black hair” (hairlines broken off almost to the middle of their bonnets), beautiful brown skin cracked, dry, and ashy due to lack of moisturizer, and an odor when you passed them. I bet their lives are hell and they are treated the same way these people treat their livestock.