Two of the most traditional Anabaptist groups — Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites — were only vaguely aware of each other 24 years ago.
Since then, they’ve built a relationship of trust based on a common interest in education that preserves separation from the world.
Beginning with a 1995 visit by eight Old Order Amish to Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico, Mennonite Central Committee helped the two groups explore how to support each other.
“We sensed that at first the Old Colony people were hesitant about us coming,” said Leroy Stoltzfus, a longtime MCC worker, recalling that first trip. “They were wondering if they could trust us. Our Amish group saw their strengths and their needs, and we resolved that we would help as God made it possible.”
Twenty years later, Amish schoolteachers have a steady presence in Old Colony schools. More than 200 have served in this way.
Colony students who learned from Amish teachers are now moving into teaching positions themselves and have implemented Amish teaching practices.
The Amish have proved well suited to help Old Colony Mennonites raise their educational standards while remaining a separated people.
Similarities between Old Colony Mennonites and Old Order Amish became fertile soil from which the Old Order Amish teacher program would flourish.
Education in decline
Education was the reason Old Colony Mennonites came to Mexico around 90 years ago, seeking freedom to teach their children as they saw fit.
After migrating from Ukraine to Canada in the 1870s, about 8,000 Old Colony Mennonites moved to Mexico between 1922 and 1930 to escape educational requirements. They feared the public school system would bring unwelcome acculturation.
But after several generations in Mexico, the Old Colonists were struggling in isolated communities. The low quality of their land made farming challenging. Crop failures, leadership problems, educational concerns and isolation resulted in a fraying of their Christian community and a failure to thrive.
By the 1990s they knew they needed to improve the education of their children. Trying to maintain their own schools had fallen on difficult times. Their struggling educational system had produced members with limited skills in reading, writing and math. They identified literacy as a priority.
MCC had tried to help the Old Colony Mennonites, sometimes with modest success. One bright spot was MCC’s German-language newspaper, Die Mennonitische Post, which is primary reading material for the Old Colonists.
Eventually, MCC staff members Ed Stamm Miller, Linda Shelly and Lynn Roth, in conversations with other MCC leaders, developed the idea of inviting Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites to explore working together to improve Old Colony schools.
MCC asked the Old Order Amish to share with the Old Colony Mennonites how they balanced living in the world but not of the world while staying spiritually centered.
MCC recognized that the Old Order Amish shared the concern that public educational systems threatened their faith commitment to live separate from the world.
The Amish had withdrawn from the public school system and found a way to provide an excellent education that preserved their spiritual identity.
Reunion after centuries
From the beginning of the exchange, Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites recognized deeply rooted shared patterns in their lifestyles, worship and theology. Singing in church helped bond the two groups together.
The Amish visitors marveled at how much they shared even though they had been separated for more than 400 years.
Both groups’ histories go back to the earliest Anabaptist communities in Switzerland and Holland. The Old Colony’s ancestors migrated east to Ukraine, while the Amish migrated west to the United States.
Today, annual meetings in the United States of the “Old Colony Mennonite Support” continue. MCC functions primarily as an encourager and observer in these exchanges.
Joe Miller works for Mennonite Central Committee in its ministry partnerships with the Plain community across the United States and is a bishop in LMC, formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference.