Anabaptist history is defined by migrations, typically to escape persecution or pursue opportunity. What can get overlooked, on the flip side, is the welcome that made each chapter possible.
Northern German provinces welcomed Anabaptist fugitives, including one named Menno Simons. Poland welcomed them as well. Hutterites in Moravia welcomed Anabaptists from Switzerland and Germany. William Penn welcomed Mennonites to his New World refuge for religious minorities. Russia’s Catherine the Great invited Mennonites to Ukraine in the southern expanse of her empire. After the U.S. government cleared the land of indigenous people, railroads welcomed Mennonites to the Great Plains. Mexico welcomed Mennonites from Canada, as did Paraguay from Russia.
Wanderlust continues today, as Mennonite farmers in Mexico engage with government leaders in Angola about opportunities there.
Without welcome, migration is nearly impossible. Just ask people at the U.S. border seeking asylum from Latin American violence. Or look to history, when Mennonites living in Russia struck out eastward to what is now Uzbekistan and were welcomed by the Khan of Khiva and Muslims living there.
Tales abound of Muslims extending generosity and welcome to the visitors, which is no surprise. Their faith demanded it, just as the God of the Bible carried by settlers also required, both then and now.
It’s in the Gospels (Matt. 25:35), the Old Testament (Deut. 10:18-19) and the Quran: “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should be hospitable with his or her guests.”
As politicians construct campaigns and careers upon their immigration position — either to welcome or fear the stranger — Anabaptists have an opportunity to ask themselves how they relate to today’s strangers and what kind of welcome they will extend. Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church has opened its doors to Edith Espinal for more than two years as she fights to avoid deportation and stay with her family.
Historically, Anabaptists have been a separatist bunch, averse to making common cause with worldly counterparts, but that hasn’t always been the case. Aspen Chapel, “a spiritual home for all” in Colorado, wouldn’t exist today if a couple of Mennonites hadn’t followed a vision to build a worship space for the world in the 1960s.
There’s no sign outside advertising “Aspen Mennonite Chapel,” but that’s because it was created by people more interested in building bridges than maintaining the fences surrounding their own sect. And, no, the steeple isn’t topped by a cross. Perched upon Aspen’s humblest peak is a dove. It’s a dove of peace and welcome.