Why are Plain Anabaptists in Haiti?

Photo: Heather Suggitt, Unsplash. Photo: Heather Suggitt, Unsplash.

On the morning of Oct. 16, a group of 17 people — six men, six women, and five children — were forcibly abducted from a bus while attempting to visit an orphanage just outside the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. At the time of this writing, well over a month later, five of the captives had been released. On Dec. 16, the remaining 12 escaped. But the rest remained in the hands of a violent group known as 400 Mawozo, threatened with death unless a ransom payment is made. 

For a time, news of the kidnapping dominated national headlines — both for the obvious reasons of the unfolding human tragedy but also for the unique religious identity of the captives. 

The hostages were all members of conservative or Plain Anabaptist groups, distinguished in media reports by their distinctive dress, strong sense of service and nonresistant faith. 

In every press conference, spokespersons for the hostages called on listeners to prayer: first for the captives and their families, then for the government officials who were acting as intermediaries in negotiations for their release, but also for members of the 400 Mawozo gang — that their hearts might be softened and that they could come to know the love of God. 

For those who recall the story of the Amish response to the school shootings at Nickel Mines, Pa., in 2006, this was a familiar script. But the Nickel Mines story unfolded against the familiar backdrop of Lancaster County, where the Amish have lived for centuries. What were conservative Anabaptists doing in Haiti? How did it come about that for more than 40 years a diverse group of Plain Anabaptists — who maintain distinct, sometimes competing, identities in the United States and Canada — have joined together for ministry in Haiti? 

The story of the conservative Mennonite presence in Haiti goes back to 1980, when the United States faced simultaneous influxes of Haitian and Cuban refugees. The Cubans, by and large, were admitted as political refugees, but the interdiction policy of the newly elected Reagan administration called for the U.S. Coast Guard to intercept flotillas of Haitian migrants and force them to return. 

As scenes of abject Haitian poverty played out in the national news, a group of conservative Mennonites in northern Indiana held a benefit auction in 1981 to raise money for a ministry in Haiti. Within a few years, Haiti Benefit Auctions began to spring up in other Amish and conservative Mennonite communities. 

Today, Plain communities in seven states — with support from the Old and New Order Amish, the Beachy Amish and a host of conservative Mennonite groups — organize annual auctions to support the people of Haiti. Together, Haiti Benefit Auctions raise from $2 million to $3 million a year, with 100% of the money passed along to nearly 20 missions in Haiti, whose ministries range from disaster relief, orphanages, clinics, schools, sustainable agriculture and water wells to support for church buildings, lay evangelism and Christian literature. 

According to LaMar Hochstetler, who coordinates the oversight committee for the Haiti Benefit Auctions, most of these initiatives are carried out by Haitians, with a strong emphasis on encouraging economic self-sufficiency. 

In a similar way, Christian Aid Ministries — the agency with whom the captives are associated — also emerged in 1981 as a collaboration of conservative Mennonite groups. Initially, CAM focused on providing spiritual and material support for persecuted Christians in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Today it has dozens of mission, relief and service ministries in more than 100 countries and an annual budget of $130 million, rivaling Mennonite Central Committee in scope and size. At the time of the kidnapping, its “Sponsor-a-Child” program in Haiti was supporting nearly 10,000 students in 52 schools.

The painful drama that has unfolded around the conservative Anabaptist hostages in Haiti is only a microcosm of the violence and suffering that citizens of that country have endured for more than a century. The fear, helplessness and righteous anger felt now by families of the hostages and friends from around the world are emotions that Haitians know all too well. 

For many years, Haiti Benefit Auctions and CAM have enabled Plain Anabaptists to transcend their differences by cooperating to help needy Haitians. Shared benevolence is one form of solidarity. But the pain, vulnerability and uncertainty we sense in the face of a hostage crisis invites us to participate in a different kind of solidarity — one familiar to both the psalmist and the daily experience of most Haitians — in which God alone is our refuge and strength.  

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

John D. Roth

John D. Roth is project director of MennoMedia’s Anabaptism at 500.

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