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2013-12-01 issue:

New perspectives in church history

Global Anabaptist: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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In the summer of 2001, I. P. Asheervadam, a young historian and rising church leader in the Conference of Mennonite Brethren in India, came to Goshen (Ind.) College to do research for a history of Mennonites in the subcontinent of India.

At the time, the Global Mennonite History project—now a five-volume history of the global Anabaptist-Mennonite church—was still in its infancy. For Asheervadam, it was one of his first forays into the primary sources.

And, initially at least, he was delighted at what he found. Here, carefully preserved in the archives of the Menno­nite Church USA and the holdings of the Menno­nite Historical Library were records of the early Mennonite church in India, told in reams of onion-skin copies of correspondence, reports in church periodicals, and the published histories and memoirs of several generations of missionaries.

Over the next few years, however, Asheervadam's perspective began to shift. While it was wonderful to learn that sources related to the Indian Mennonite churches had been preserved, the story those records told was nearly entirely from the perspective of missionaries, administrators and sending congregations. As Asheervadam dug deeper into the project, he realized he was going to need to look at a different set of sources.

Thus began his quest to gather records that would enable him to tell the story of the Mennonite churches in India from the perspective not primarily of the missionaries but of the indigenous churches, who had long since assumed control over their institutions and were now nurturing a fourth generation of Indian Mennonites in their baptism preparation classes.

In the years since then, Asheervadam has worked steadily to build up a collection of church-related sources in Hindi, Telugu and several other local languages. Those holdings have now found a permanent home as the Historical Library and Archives at the Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College in Shamshabad (Andhra Pradesh).

Asheervadam has an expansive view of the collection. The archives not only includes materials from the Mennonite Brethren conference—by far the largest Mennonite group in India—but also records from the (Old) Mennonite Church's missions in the Dhamtari region, a few items from the General Conference churches and holdings of the Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India (MCSFI), the service organization of the Brethren in Christ and various Mennonite churches in India.

Under his leadership, students at the MB Centenary Bible College have been writing histories of their local congregations; and the library features a growing shelf of master's papers written by graduates of the school on theological and historical topics.

Soon after returning from a visit with Asheervadam and other church leaders of the Conference of Mennonite Brethren in India, I began to digitize a collection of correspondence between J. D. Graber, longtime general secretary of the Mennonite Board of Missions, and Pyarelal Joel Malagar, the first India national ordained to the office of bishop in the Mennonite Church in India and the first director of the MCSFI.

Although the material does not focus specifically on the Mennonite Brethren story, Asheervadam nonetheless expressed keen interest in these sources, and I was glad to support the growing archival collection in Shamshabad.

As I worked through that material I found myself pulled into the story of P. J. Malagar, following a journey across a full decade of his deepening friendship with Graber while also being struck by the persistent undercurrent of tension—the challenges of cross-cultural communication, the struggle to move beyond patterns of paternalism, and a deep sense that there were things happening on Malagar's side of the story that were not fully expressed in the official correspondence.

In 1981, Malagar himself wrote a small book called The Mennonite Church in India that included a frank appraisal of the challenges the church faced in the aftermath of the missionary era. But I sensed there are still aspects of the history that have not yet been sufficiently explored. Now, 30 years later, I. P. Asheervadam and other gifted Indian historians, are gathering the materials needed for an even fuller accounting of that story and many others.

Writing church history is not merely record-keeping. Rather, the sifting, sorting and interpreting of the past—always with an eye to God's transforming presence in the lives of fallible human beings—is an act of theological interpretation that shapes ecclesial identity.

As the future of the Mennonite churches in India continues to unfold, their mission and identity will be strengthened by the growing archives in Shamshabad and by the many stories still waiting to be written.

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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