Janna L. Hunter Bowman, of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and Hilary Scarsella, of Vanderbilt University, share a panel session on gender, justice and peace theology at the "Crossing the Line" conference June 23 with Lisa Schirch (on Skype), research professor at Eastern Mennonite University. More than 240 participants attended the three-day conference at EMU. (Photo by Joaquin Sosa)

‘Crossing the Line’ Anabaptist women’s history conference attracts scholars, artists and boundary-crossers

Women casting off their bonnets, pushing at the margins of traditional behavior, moving away from their faith communities and into different cultures, writing and speaking of what they were told to forget — these histories and many more of Anabaptist boundary-breakers were featured during a June 22-25 conference at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).

More than 340 participants from 11 countries and 19 states attended the conference, titled “Crossing The Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries.” Dr. Susan Schultz Huxman, EMU’s first female president, was warmly received during her welcome address, which included the “Tale of Two Margarets,” highlighting persecuted Anabaptist heroine Margaret Hellwart and EMU’s own Dr. Margaret “Speedy” Martin Gehman.

The conference brought together esteemed scholars, such as keynote speaker Hasia Diner, professor of history at New York University, and Old Colony artists such as Veronica Enns, of Chihuahua, Mexico.

Though nervous about sharing her stories and artwork with strangers, Enns says she quickly found warmth, hospitality and a deep commonality with conference attendees from different educational backgrounds and geographic roots.

“We all had walked common grounds as woman who often encounter similar boundaries,” she said. “I had found my tribe.”

For more conference coverage, visit the Anabaptist Historians website.

Comparative dialogue encouraged

“Crossing the Line” was initiated and planned by a bi-national committee, some of whom were involved in the first conference in the United States on the history of women of Anabaptist tradition. This conference, titled “Quiet in the Land?” took place in 1995 at Millersville University. About 35 participants returned for the 2017 event.

From left: Plenary speakers Dr. Hasia Diner, Dr. Sofia Samatar and Cynthia Peacock. (Photo by Mary Sprunger)

Professors Mary Sprunger and Kimberly Schmidt, of EMU, were conference organizers. Schmidt had also co-chaired the 1995 planning committee.

A common theme of both conferences was the fostering of engagement with the broader field of United States women’s history. That comparative dialogue was encouraged from the first plenary session, in which Diner spoke about Jewish American women’s history.

Subsequent evenings brought perspectives of Cynthia Peacock, with 38 years experience working with Mennonite Central Committee in India, and Dr. Sofia Samatar, an award-winning author of European Mennonite and Somali heritage, who has confronted challenges in both her personal life and in leadership of a women’s organization in the church.

Diner, professor of history at New York University, opened the conference with a lecture on American Jewish women: “a group of women who represent a globally dispersed community … shaped by the inability to disconnect religion and group identity, shaped by what religion demanded of them as articulated in sacred texts as well as traditions that developed over time, and defined as outsiders in the many places they lived around the world … experiencing persecutions and opportunities in societies of male hierarchy.”

Diner pointed out that her scholarly work focused on a different group of women, “but maybe not so different at all.”

Throughout the rest of the conference, which focused on Mennonite and Brethren in Christ women, “attendees could then draw comparisons to the ways in which Jewish women in America gradually gained voices—by asking for, begging for, demanding or claiming public presence and rights,” Sprunger said.

‘Step forward with more confidence’

Anna Wall, of St. Jacobs, Ontario, Canada, joined Veronica Enns and Abigail Carl-Klassen to share creative work by and about women in Mennonite colonies in northern Mexico. Wall blogs about her experiences growing up as an Old Colony Mennonite in Durango, Mexico, at www.mennopolitan.com. (Photo by Joaquin Sosa)

Twenty-four panel sessions focused on a variety of themes and topics: expressive arts, peace and feminist theology, mission fields and experiences of women from various denominations.

“We also saw other themes emerge over the course of the conference, such as LGBTQ themes, sexual abuse in church institutions and women being shut out of pastoral ministry,” Sprunger said.

Jessie Hyejung Yum, a doctoral student at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto, spoke of her experiences within the Korean patriarchal ministerial community. She was particularly encouraged “to hear many stories and discuss topics mostly in women’s perspectives in diverse forms, from dance, music and art to personal, communal and social stories from around the world.” The experience of learning from and with “wise and courageous women of many different fields and locations was great encouragement to me to step forward with more confidence,” she said.

Art exhibits, readings of poetry and non-fiction, and performances of literary and musical memoirs were also offered.

Esther Muhagachi, of Tanzania, especially enjoyed the bus tour exploring Shenandoah Valley Mennonite women’s history and culture.

“I was very much encouraged to hear how women have been struggling to cross over the traditional boundaries for decades and decades,” she said, noting her own unique experience as the wife of a bishop in the Tanzanian Mennonite Church.

Looking ahead for new boundaries to cross

Session moderator Rosalind Andreas, a retired professor and university administrator with degrees from Bethel College, University of Kansas and University of Michigan, traveled from Kansas to enjoy fellowship and support the scholarship of former colleagues and friends.

“I’ve been watching many of these scholars work for some time …,” she said. “I’m coming away from each session with wonderful reflections on how boundaries get crossed in very challenging areas, which leads to some discernment about where next and what new boundaries can we look for.”

Networking during a coffee break.(Photo by Joaquin Sosa)

When asked if she was a boundary-breaker herself, Andreas shared that she was the first female dean of students at University of Arizona — a role she’s been recognized for in the university’s Women’s Plaza of Honor. Andreas was later vice president of student affairs at University of Vermont from 1989-1995.

Panel explores impact on women working and worshiping in global mission fields

Like the diverse offerings of the plenary speakers, concurrent sessions brought together both speakers and participants with varied backgrounds. For example, in a session titled “Lines of Memory and Encounter on the ‘Mission Field,’” panelists described women in missions and the impacts of missionary work on women in receiving countries.

Joel Horst Nofziger ‘13, of the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, noted the changes over time for women missionaries in Ethiopia, who experienced fewer social constraints for women than in their home communities, but were still dissuaded from inter-cultural marriages.

Jan Bender Shetler, professor of history at Goshen College, described how the personal narratives of spiritual testimony, shared at revivals, created a new self-consciousness for women in the Tanzania Mennonite Church. [Her paper was delivered by Goshen student Jeanne Longenecker.]

Drawn into discussion during a session. (Photo by Mary Sprunger)

And for the Dalit — the untouchables — of India, said Reverend Yennamalla Jayaker of the Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College, the educational roles of mission workers “brought political, social, economic, and religious consciousness,” leading to many teachers, lawyers and politicians who are both Dalit and Christian. The first such missionary, he said, was Elizabeth Neufeld, who opened a primary school with eight students in 1904. In following years, mission schools opened boarding homes for students.

“I was thrilled with the international presence at the conference and by the significant investment from younger scholars,” Schmidt said. “Judging from the breadth of topics and the ability of these younger scholars to engage in critical history, Mennonite history is in good hands.”

For more coverage

  •  Shirley Showalter, author and president emeritus of Goshen College. writes about the conference on her blog,
  • as does author Saloma Furlong,
  • and as mentioned above, Anabaptist Historians, provides excellent and thorough coverage of plenary speakers and some concurrent sessions.

Staff writer Chrisopher Clymer Kurtz contributed to this article.