As far as its administrators and students are aware, Steinreich Bible School in northern Mexico is the only educational institution in the world that teaches about the Bible in Plautdietsch, or Low German.
The Mennonite school celebrated its 50th anniversary in October, marking not only growth in infrastructure and students who come from across North and South America, but also in connections with local churches and groups.
Among many conservative Mennonites of Germanic descent in Latin America, Low German has persisted as the main language for everyday life, while High German is reserved for worship and Spanish for interactions with the wider community. Many biblical concepts are best understand in a person’s most comfortable language.
Located about 50 miles north of Cuauhtémoc, Steinreich offers a four-year program that covers topics such as counseling, Mennonite history, music, evangelism and language.
“We are a very unique school. We accept basically anyone 16 years or older,” said Steinreich executive secretary Veronica Loewen. “We’ve had students who don’t read — they didn’t have the opportunity to go to school.”
Other students arrive with experience in university settings.
“It is a challenge, especially for the teachers,” said school director Cornelius Schmidt. “Praise the Lord that we have been able to find teachers who are willing and humble enough to teach higher level.”
The multilingual school offers classes to learn Spanish, and beyond that, instruction requires trilingual skills. In addition to teaching in Low German, teachers must be able to explain concepts in mainstream High German or English.
Steinreich is owned by Conferencia Menonita de Mexico (CMM: Mennonite Conference of Mexico) with support from Conferencia Misionera Evangélica (CME: Evangelical Missionary Conference). Both count between 500 and 1,000 members and are progressive in relation to the far more conservative Old Colony Mennonite settlements in the immediate area.
CMM was founded in 1990 and related to the General Conference Mennonite Church prior to 2002. CME started in 2007 and has ties with Canada’s Evangelical Mennonite and Evangelical Mennonite Mission conferences.
The school began in an old chicken barn and has existed in different locations. Its lengthy connections with EMC (once known as the Kleine Gemeinde) and EMMC reflect continuing efforts to support the local conferences that operate the school with volunteer teachers.
Those connections also explain why a student like Justina Wall, who just completed her first year, would travel all the way from Asuncion, Paraguay. Her parents come from Mexico.
“I wanted a language I could understand best,” she said.
After a brief hiatus, Steinreich has been growing steadily since 1989, adding students, courses and facilities. A new auditorium was inaugurated at its October anniversary celebration.
In the most recent 12-week school year, which runs from January to March, the school broke records with 267 students on campus, 117 of whom lived as singles or couples in dorms. Most came from Mexico, but 36 came from Canada, 15 from Belize, Bolivia and Paraguay, and five were from Kansas and Texas.
In addition to teaching students who visit during day, evening and weekend classes, teachers give presentations in area churches. Administrators estimate about 500 people are reached during the three-month school year.
“We have grown to work with different churches and conferences,” Schmidt said. “The communities have accepted us more and more from year to year. . . .
“That is a major change in the 50 years. When it started, there was no support from the churches in the communities, including the colonies. You never would have talked about a Bible school.”
Loewen noted that visitors from the Old Colonies represent those communities’ progressive edge.
“They do still go to church there,” she said. “They have heard the gospel, and they want to learn more.”
Schmidt agreed, recalling an 80-year-old Old Colony woman who has been coming to sit in classes for two years.
“She just enjoys listening to the class,” he said. “She’s so fascinated that she can come at her age and sit among the young people and take the same class. . . .
“We were the first ones giving the opportunity that women could come out of their houses and take an afternoon or evening class. There never was a thing like that.”
Since the school term only takes up a small slice of the year, the facility is used for other things in the remaining nine months.
“Churches rent the building for activities, summer Bible school for kids — local Mexican kids and Mennonites — and a deaf school,” Loewen said. “If the Bible school didn’t exist, this place wouldn’t exist, and those people wouldn’t be reached.”