There are some stories that don’t fit neatly into the main story that we’re used to hearing. The story in Genesis 21 about Hagar and Ishmael is one of those. Ishmael was the oldest son of Abraham, born through his slave woman Hagar, because Sara, his wife, was not able to have children. When Sara does miraculously conceive in her old age, she gives birth to Isaac and instantly feels a rivalry between her son and the older Ishmael. Her solution is to have Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, so Isaac can get the family’s full inheritance. Abraham reluctantly agrees, gives Hagar and his young son some bread and water, and sends them away, into the desert, where they wander until they have nothing left to drink. Hagar is unable to watch her son die, so she sets him under a shrub and then walks a ways off to where she can’t see him. This is how Genesis describes what happens next: “And as Hagar sat opposite Ishmael, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and saw a well of water. She went, filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness.”
Abraham is the father of three great religions. The Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims. Jews and Christians trace their line back through Isaac and Muslims trace their line through Ishmael. The rest of the Bible is mostly silent on Ishmael and his descendants. It’s a story that doesn’t fit into the main narrative. The rest of our scripture, the story of how Jews and Christians came to be, is told through the line of Isaac and his descendants, his son Jacob who is renamed Israel, and Jacob’s sons who become the twelve tribes of Israel and eventually the nation of Israel and the Jewish people. Ishmael is included briefly in the tradition, but we’re left without knowing where his path leads. We know that God cared for him and his mother, that God promised that he would be a great nation, and that he grew up and lived in the desert.
Within our Mennonite history we also have some stories that don’t fit into the main story that we tell about ourselves. The main story that we like to tell about our Anabaptist and Mennonite heritage could go something like this: During the 16th century the church in Europe had become corrupted and wrapped up in the politics of the state. The church hierarchy sold indulgences to the people for the pardoning of sins, leading to many abuses. The act of baptizing a child also enlisted them for the tax rolls and potential future military service. The wealth of the church stood in sharp contrast to the poverty of the large peasant population. Out of these conditions certain leaders sought to reform the church. First Martin Luther posting his 95 thesis, then Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin and others calling for deep reform in how the church viewed scripture, communion, and salvation. The Bible was translated into the common language of the people and the idea of the priesthood of all believers was popularized. Local princes allied themselves with these leaders and whole regions would adopt these changes together. Despite all these reforms, a small group believed that they were not going far enough. They felt the church should be modeled on the New Testament church and that discipleship of Jesus should not be connected with allegiance to any particular governing authority. This group became known as the Anabaptists because they would re-baptize adults who wanted to make a confession of faith in following Jesus and join their movement. They tended to be egalitarian in their leadership, engaged in group Bible study, and emphasized living out the teachings of the gospels. The Anabaptists weren’t aligned with the Catholic church or the reformers or any of the ruling princes and were persecuted by all groups. Over 2000 of them were martyred for their faith and, as a tenet of their faith, they refused to return evil for evil with fighting back. In the middle of the 16th century many of these people started to be known as Mennonites, named after the leader Menno Simons. Because of the persecution, Anabaptist groups sought places where they could practice their faith in safety. Eventually this led some to migrate to the Americas and others to find refuge in Russian territory under the rule of Catherine the Great who promised them land and exemption from military service. Mennonites stayed in Russia from the end of the 18th century to the end of the 19th century, with most ending up migrating to the West before the time of the Russian revolution. Mennonites have continued to reach out in mission around the world and many have been drawn to the Mennonite faith because of its commitment to community, service, discipleship, and peacemaking. Today there are over 100,000 members of Mennonite Church USA and over 1.5 million people around the world who associate with an Anabaptist related group.
That’s the story told in very broad strokes of how Mennonites came to be. Within this story there are countless others that do or don’t fit so neatly into this narrative. It’s been interesting for me to see in the last half year or so the retelling of one particular sliver of the Mennonite experience that is one of those stories that just doesn’t fit. Or it seems to not fit. In the last four months some version of this story has been retold in the Mennonite Weekly Review, July 14, The Menno-Hof historical museum newsletter, Summer 2008, Sojourners magazine, July 2008, and hot off the press, this film that was just released this month – Through the Desert Goes Our Journey (the newest addition to our video library). It’s a story that has been a source of shame in some Mennonite circles for over a century, but further exploration is leading to a new understanding of what the story could mean today.
Before looking into it I want to reread parts of this passage from Revelation that Caroline read because it plays a prominent role in the story. In the opening chapters of Revelation the writer, John, is instructed to write seven letters to the angels of seven different churches in Asia Minor. Each of the letters addresses the church in its own context and gives them instruction of how to live faithfully through the hardships they were facing. This is the sixth of those seven letters:
“And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens: ‘I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name….Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth. I am coming soon.”
The story that has been called the Great Trek begins in Russia in the year 1880. While most of the Mennonite communities were responding to the new forced military conscription by moving to the Americas, there was a group of Mennonite families and leaders who felt it was a mistake to go West. Their ancestors had always kept moving East to escape persecution and they believed that there was significance in heading toward the rising sun. So from Ukraine, five wagon trains, about 200 families, headed out together east into territory that the Russian military had recently conquered, and beyond the reach of the Russian empire into Muslim ruled territory in Central Asia. The trek would ultimately cover 2000 miles and land them in Uzbekistan. Because of their unfamiliarity with the land and the large percentage of desert that they traveled, they faced incredible difficulties. Eventually they abandoned their wagons and mounted all that they had on camels to make it through the desert. They often relied on the hospitality and knowledge of the Muslim leaders that they encountered and the villages where they would stay for winters.
Two years into the Trek, the largest wagon train settled and established four different farming villages. Among those who kept traveling there were strong apocalyptic beliefs. One of the leaders in particular, Claas Epp, believed that Christ’s return to earth was immanent and that it was the mission of this community to travel to the site where he would return to present itself to Christ as the bride, and to rule with Christ in the millennial kingdom on earth, images of the church from the book of Revelation. Claas Epp saw their community as being similar to the 1st century church in Philadelphia and often quoted the line “see, I have set before you an open door.” He believed a door was being opened for them to trek toward the place where they would meet Christ. They wandered in Uzbekistan for four years, looking for the proper site. Claas Epp declared that March 8, 1889 would be the day of the Lord’s return. When the day arrived the community waited and when nothing happened, Epp extended the time to 1891. The Mennonites settled in the region, and when Christ didn’t return, they continued to live there until fleeing Stalin’s forces 50 years later.
So what do you do with a story like that? One that doesn’t fit so neatly into the one we like to tell about who we are? Up until recently little more was known about the story than this sketchy outline. But the reason that it is being retold now is that in the last year, a group of scholars, writers, filmmakers, and descendants of those involved have retraced this journey, looking for more details about what the trip was like and what may be learned from the experience. Part of what made them especially interested in this was that there are aspects of the Great Trek that have particular relevance in our own setting today. One of the writers who went on the trip, Jesse Nathan, says this, “How then does revisiting the century-old story of an apocalyptic Mennonite community in Uzbekistan engage Christians – and not just Mennonites – today? As history, it offers inspiration for Christian relationship with Muslims. As theology, it offers caution again runaway millennialism. As a tale of shame and communal repression, the retelling counters 100 years of silence” (Jesse Nathan, Sojourners, July 2008).
What this group discovered and experienced is rather remarkable. From diaries that have surfaced in the last 20 years they knew that one of the wagon trains set up camp for nine months in the village of Serabulak. Trying to escape notice from the Russians, these German-Russian Mennonites were greeted and taken in by local Muslim leaders. Five of the Mennonite families were given sanctuary within the mosque courtyard. The locals also offered their mosque as a place of worship for the Mennonites while they were there, the Muslims using it on their holy day, Friday, and the Mennonites using it on Sunday. Several weddings and funerals were held in the mosque and 21 youth were baptized there. During the time that this investigative tour group was exploring Serabulak, they had a fresh encounter with the hospitality of the village. They met with the local imam who allowed them to pray and sing inside the mosque, they offered a gift to the imam so he would remember them and in turn he offered them a blessing. Jesse Nathan wrote this: “Astounding as this experience feels, it fits with what we’ve been discovering as we retrace. These peaceful Christians built friendships with Muslims – Muslims, who in turn, shepherded the Mennonites through difficulty. In exchange, Mennonites introduced tomatoes, potatoes, dairy cattle, butter, and cheese to Uzbekistan.”
As they kept traveling and retracing the steps of the Trek they continued to discover that not only were the Mennonites remembered in the region, but they were remembered with respect . In another of the villages where the Mennonites stayed the imam still does the annual springtime blessing of the crops on the land where the Mennonites lived because of the fruitful agriculture that thrived while they cared for it.
Maybe most remarkable was that the people of Uzbekistan had no associations with the Mennonites as being a group getting ready for the end of the world. We know that they were a group getting ready for the end of the world, but the way that they related with their Muslim neighbors was one of making an investment in this world. Mennonites are remembered for their nonviolent practices, frugal economics, and generous wages that they gave to those who worked for them (MWR, July 14, 2008).
What all this means I don’t really know. Different people who went on the trip are beginning to give their interpretation of what these discoveries could mean. One scholar, James Junke, who is a history professor at Bethel College, said that whenever he used to tell this story in class it always ended in 1891 with the community being disgraced and Claas Epp fading away into shame. He has reflected on the importance of recasting this story, by including what happened beyond 1891 and how it is remembered by the current residents of Uzbekistan. Another person, a direct descendant of Claas Epp, felt her travels offered a reinterpretation of the open door. She commented that this history could provide an open door to thinking about how Christians and Muslims relate to each other across differences and how the mutual respect and neighborliness that these group showed to each other 100 years ago could be a model for us. (Both in Through the Desert Goes Our Journey) Another person reflected specifically on the hospitality shown at Serabulak and wondered whether our church communities would be as open and welcoming to Muslims as they were to us. If a large group of Muslim immigrants moved into our neighborhood would we be willing to offer our building as a place of worship and prayer? (Mennohof newsletter, Summer 2008).
My feeling is that this is a story that will take on new significance for Mennonites, and hopefully others who hear about it. It may go from being one of those stories that doesn’t quite fit into one that helps tell us more about who we are and who we can be. In a time when many religious leaders are telling end of the world scenarios, we can caution against getting caught up in any of the hype. In a time when the children of Ishmael and the children of Isaac continue to be suspicious of each other and commit acts of violence against each other, we can remember that we are all children of Abraham and that there are times in our life together when we have been friends and a blessing to each other. We can believe that God has set before us an open door, to live out the story of God’s reconciling love that is meant for all people. Ultimately that is the main story that we are invited to be a part of.