I am the grandson of refugees. My grandparents escaped the atrocities of war and revolution by the grace of a benevolent government that opened its doors and welcomed them in. At the tail end of the Russian Revolution (1922-1930) some 21,000 Mennonites made their escape to Canada from a land whose borders would soon be sealed as if by an iron curtain.
The Mennonites had settled the fertile plains of the Ukraine over the course of 140 years when farm land was made available — and they prospered. Part of the bargain was to maintain a degree of independence to protect their cultural and religious heritage, but when World War I erupted, the Mennonites found themselves vulnerable. When revolution broke out after the end of “the war to end all wars,” they knew they needed a safe haven.
From its beginnings, the Mennonite movement, one branch of the European Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century, has been a people on the move — searching for a place of peace and stability, free from persecution, free to live out their lives and faith.
The United States has been a huge part of this journey of seeking sanctuary from early on. The very first Mennonite refugees were welcomed in America following the 16th century persecution. On Oct. 6, 1683, 34 Mennonites and Quakers from Germany, arrived in America at the invitation of William Penn and settled in Germantown. From these early beginnings until 1824 some 7,000 Mennonites were welcomed to settle in the state of Pennsylvania.
From 1873 to 1884 approximately 18,000 Mennonites came and settled the central states (5,000 in Kansas; 1,800 each in Minnesota and Dakota Territory) and the prairie provinces of Canada.
In each of these desperate refugee situations, our nation provided a place to start over — to establish new homes, new communities, and to embrace the freedoms afforded in a democratic and pluralistic society. This settling did not come without challenges. As in the Ukraine, Mennonites whose mother tongue was the German language were at times looked on with suspicion — especially during the two world wars. At the same time the Mennonite desire to be left alone and to resist assimilation contributed to unease, suspicion and tensions that arose.
Today we face another crisis of global proportions. Desperate Syrian refugees — men, women and children — are seeking a place to settle in peace, to begin anew — in a land where they can find sanctuary. There are some who are suspicious of these refugees based upon their cultural and religious backgrounds.
As the grandson of refugees I can only plead that as these families settle in our communities, we welcome them with a spirit of hospitality, a desire to hear their stories, and a vision to recognize the fullness of their humanity. As one who has benefited from and been mightily blessed by this reality in my own family’s journey, my prayer is that this will be so.
Marv Friesen is pastor of University Mennonite Church and a member of Interfaith Initiative Centre County. If you would like to reach out to build friendship with those of other faiths, look for the group on Facebook, read its column here each month, or come to a monthly coffee hour. For more information, or to join the email update list, contact InterfaithInitiativeCC@ hotmail.com.