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2012-03-01 issue:

Baptist ties through the 'Aussiedler'

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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In the late 1980s, as Cold War tensions between East and West were beginning to thaw, thousands of German-speaking Soviet citizens emigrated from Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Kirgiz and Siberia to West Germany, where the German government welcomed them and granted immediate status as German citizens. By 2005, nearly 2.3 million of these “resettlers” (“Aussiedler”) had arrived in Germany, including nearly 350,000 who had some connection either to Mennonite or Baptist identity. Although the dramatic story of the Aussiedler is not widely known in North America, it marked by far the largest wave of immigration in Anabaptist-Mennonite history.

It also brought into sharper focus a wonderfully complex story of historical and theological identity. At the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of Mennonite villages were flourishing in colonies throughout South Russia. By the early 1920s, however, the violence of the Bolshevik Revolution, followed by the trauma of famine, mass emigration and religious persecution profoundly disrupted life in these communities.

Further purges and forced migrations by Stalin in the following decades left the Mennonite community scattered, deprived of shared institutions, religious literature or trained leaders. Yet to a remarkable degree, the Anabaptist-Mennonite witness survived. Pockets of believers, many of them with a memory of German language and culture, continued to gather for worship. During these years, contacts with other evangelical Christians—especially the Baptists—were crucial.

When these groups were finally permitted to emigrate to Germany, the Mennonite Aussiedler celebrated that journey as a kind of biblical Exodus. But life in the new, more liberal context of the West brought its own challenges. Although they were soon thriving economically—energetically creating their own schools, mission organizations and relief initiatives—theologically the Aussiedler often had more in common with their Baptist neighbors or conservative evangelical groups from the United States than they did with the established Mennonite churches in Germany.

Thus, for example, in 2005, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas, a flagship school of conservative Southern Baptists, entered into a formal partnership with Bibelseminar Bonn (BSB), a leading Mennonite Aussiedler Bible school. Over the past decade, SWBTS has hosted numerous BSB students on its campus, sent faculty to teach courses at BSB, and developed several shared degree  programs.

Yet ties of both Aussiedler and Baptists to the Anabaptist tradition have not been forgotten. Last year, BSB created a new Institute for History and Theology with a strong focus on Anabaptist-Mennonite themes. A museum on the campus of the Aussiedler primary school in Detmold clearly anchors the group’s Russian-German identity within a Mennonite context.

Closer to home, on Jan. 30-31, SWBTS hosted its third annual “Radical Reformation Day” to celebrate the first Anabaptist baptisms on Jan. 21, 1525. In addition to the 500 attendees at a conference on “Anabaptism and Contemporary Baptists,” Paige Patterson, president of SWBTS and popular hero of the conservative ascendancy within the Southern Baptist Convention, extended a special welcome to 25 Aussiedler Mennonite and Baptist pastors visiting from BSB, and several Mennonite historians from the United States. In his address to the group, Rick Warren, the well-known Baptist pastor and author of The Purpose-Driven Life, expressed effusive appreciation for Anabaptist understandings of mission, discipleship and ecclesiology, and he concluded by admonishing Baptist pastors assembled at the gathering, to “study the Anabaptists. … We have in these great saints and martyrs an understanding of what it means to be Christlike that nobody else has understood so clearly.”

Malcolm Yarnell, associate professor of systematic theology, echoed Warren’s words: “SWBTS hopes to demonstrate that the 16th-century Anabaptists still have a thing or two to teach contemporary Baptists about the radical nature of Christian discipleship.”

Though not all theological questions have been resolved, these encounters, extending across historical time and theological distance, are a reminder that God’s Spirit is alive and moving in unexpected places. The hospitality I experienced at SWBTS, at BSB and among Aussiedler congregations was warm and genuine. What more is there for us to learn from these encounters? What might the Spirit be telling us?

John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.)  College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of
Mennonite Quarterly Review.

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