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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 43–49 

Mennonite Brethren, Latinos and Mission

Pt. of series, Ethnicity and Assimilation: The Shape of the Problem.

Juan Martínez

Mennonite Brethren in the United States made a commitment early in their Home Mission efforts to focus most of their “ethnic” ministries on one group, Latinos, particularly the Mexicans and Mexican Americans of South Texas and Central California. The first missionaries were sent to South Texas in 1937 and since then, no other American ethnic group has received as much attention as Hispanics. Today twenty percent of all Mennonite Brethren congregations in the United States are Latino [though less than five percent of Mennonite Brethren in the U.S. are Latino]. 1

This ministry focus has created a unique relationship between Germanic-Russian (“ethnic”) and Latino Mennonite Brethren. Both groups are ethnic minorities struggling with the issue of assimilation into the larger American society. Both have set up mechanisms for ethnic identity maintenance, even as they have gone through the shift of various levels of assimilation into the majority culture. These mutual struggles for ethnic identity maintenance, and the reality of assimilation, have affected Mennonite Brethren ministry among Latinos in the United States.


A number of studies (Warner, Redekop, Martinez) have demonstrated that Mennonite Brethren of Germanic-Russian background are a clearly identifiable ethno-religious minority group, which is maintaining, and can perhaps indefinitely maintain, its ethnic identity. Because of their unique history, they have closely linked their faith and ethnic experiences. The Mennonite Brethren denomination has provided its people with important mechanisms for maintaining an ethnic identity. 2

The denomination performs both a religious and an ethnic function. On the one hand, it is the grouping of people of a [somewhat] common theological perspective. Yet, as Miriam Warner (1985:5) points out, there is a core group of people within the denomination, whom she describes as ethnic/religious members, for whom the denomination also provides an important ethnic maintenance function. At this level, local church activities and denominational meetings often serve as mechanisms for maintaining strong kinship ties among extended families. A review of Mennonite Brethren history is as much the retelling of the ethnic community’s story, {44} as it is a testimony of a people's faithfulness to God. The numerous Mennonite Brethren educational institutions all help strengthen the ethnic ties through the bonds created between people who have studied in the same schools (Kyle 1985:123).

Because these mechanisms are also religious in nature it has been difficult for many in the Germanic-Russian community to recognize their ethnic importance. Yet those who are not a part of the ethnic community often feel that they are “crashing” a family outing when they attend conference activities or participate in denominational structures. In spite of their religious nature, and the large number of Mennonite Brethren who are not of Germanic-Russian background, to this day most conference structures are clearly in the hands of the ethnic/religious members. And, as Mennonite Brethren become more theologically diverse, the ethnic ties among key people throughout North America play an increasingly important role in maintaining denominational cohesiveness. 3


Latinos are a unique ethnic minority within the boundaries of the United States. The first Latinos became a part of the United States when the Southwest was taken from Mexico. This original community was never completely absorbed into American society, largely because of prejudice. But in the United States the term Latino also describes a diverse group of immigrants from many different countries. Most are united by a common linguistic background (Spanish) and by the fact that they are from countries where the United States has historically intervened militarily and/or politically (Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and most of Central America).

The Latino community has faced the same pressures to assimilate as the Germanic-Russian Mennonite Brethren community. But such factors as continual immigration, geographical proximity to Latin America, racism, and “an interdependence of fate” have contributed to the maintenance of Latinos’ distinct ethnic identity. 4


Ministry by Mennonite Brethren among U. S. Latinos began in 1937 when Harry and Sarah Neufeld arrived in South Texas and began working in a number of small communities. Within a few years several other missionary couples followed. During the next twenty years, the ministry effort was expanded to include several congregations (with their respective buildings) and a Christian school. By the end of the 1950s the Southern {45} District Conference (the original sending agency) had invested over $500,000 in South Texas.

Because of the focus on small, migrant communities, by 1958 there were only eight congregations with a total of 242 members. These churches were totally dependent on outside funds for their existence. As late as 1964, outside funding accounted for over 80% of the budget of all Hispanic Mennonite Brethren ministries in South Texas (including local church budgets). The denominational funding agencies decided to begin a phased cutback during the 1960s. By the end of the decade, most outside funds were cut off. Seven small congregations survived but remained in a non-growth pattern for over twenty years. To this day, the growth rate there is minimal. 5

Almost twenty years after work began in South Texas (1956), Dr. Arnold W. Schlichting committed himself to reaching Latino farm workers in Central California. He focused on a number of communities near the Germanic-Russian Mennonite Brethren population center in the Reedley-Dinuba area. [Latino congregations also gradually developed out of the originally “mixed” congregations in Fresno (Sunset Gardens-Faith) and East Los Angeles (City Terrace).]

As in South Texas, the majority of the congregations were established in rural communities with a large migrant population. This created a situation where there might be many people in church, but little membership growth. Until 1984 there were only seven Latino congregations, five in rural Central California and one each in Fresno and City Terrace, with a total membership of 280.

A number of factors created a change at that point. One was that a number of Latino leaders from other areas took leadership roles in the churches, bringing a broader vision with them. Another factor was the commitment of the San Francisco Bay Area churches to support a new Latino congregation there. These factors had an important influence on Pacific District Conference policy, so that by the end of the 1980s, the Conference’s Board of Home Missions was strongly committed to funding new Latino church planting projects, both in rural and urban communities. Today there are more than 20 congregations in the District with a total membership of six hundred. 6


The Germanic-Russian Mennonite Brethren who ministered in the Latino communities of South Texas and Central California struggled with the issue of assimilation into American society. Both Harry Neufeld and Arnold Schlichting were part of the first generation to speak more English {46} than German, though German was their first language. All the missionaries perceived themselves as “Americans,” though they were all closely tied to their ethnic community.

This situation created a number of tensions in relationship to the Latino community. In the first place, the missionaries in South Texas always viewed the Latino population as “foreign,” even though at that time, most of the people they were working with could trace their roots in the United States further back than could the Germanic-Russian community. At best they were referred to as “people from Mexico who have been born in the United States” (Esau 1954:483). Because they had maintained a separate identity, they were never considered Americans.

Secondly, because the missionaries saw themselves as assimilated, they assumed that Latinos would (or should) follow a similar assimilation pattern. The mission workers did not seem to understand the complexity of the Germanic-Russian assimilation experience (the “slowness” of the process, the numerous efforts at ethnic identity maintenance, etc.), nor did they comprehend the uniqueness of the Latino experience.

This assimilationist assumption demonstrated itself most clearly in the language issue. Many of the missionaries never learned Spanish, or at least not fluently, on the assumption that Latinos were going to make the language transition soon and there was no reason to make the effort. In South Texas, the missionaries started El Faro School to help the children learn English, often to the detriment of their maintenance of Spanish (Report of Southern District 1951:40). The workers in California placed much of their ministry focus on the bilingual young people, using them as translators to the non-English speakers.

The ties of the Latinos to Spanish and Hispanic culture were considered a contributing factor in their spiritual blindness (Esau 1954:484). One of the workers in California came to the conclusion that the monolingual Spanish speakers were like the generation wandering in the desert. The promise of the gospel would be for their bilingual children (Martinez 1988:115). As a result, few predominantly Spanish-speaking people initially became an integral part of the churches.

Ministry in Spanish was perceived as a one-generation phenomenon. Latinos would make a fairly rapid transition to English (accompanied by structural assimilation); therefore, the missionaries’ focus was on helping those who were in the process of assimilating, such as migrant workers or recent immigrants. Churches were established predominantly in small communities or in the Latino parts of town. Little energy was given to long-term ministry efforts such as leadership training, literature production, or community development. {47}

In California the assimilationist assumption was also demonstrated in the fact that some of the leaders viewed the Latino congregations as feeders into the larger Mennonite Brethren churches (Martinez 1988:127). Yet Latinos have never found it easy to “fit” into the larger Mennonite Brethren churches. Latinos, otherwise fairly assimilated, who have attempted to join these churches have found that the Germanic-Russian ties are so strong that they never feel at home. As late as 1988 (see Martinez), there were fewer than 70 Latino members (out of a total of 3800 members) in Mennonite Brethren churches located in communities or neighborhoods with at least a 15% Latino population. Because of assimilationist assumptions by the Germanic-Russian community, Mennonite Brethren have been limited in their outreach among Latinos, who in turn have maintained a strong ethnic identity. Moreover, because German-Russian Mennonite Brethren still maintain a strong ethno-religious identity, Latinos who are assimilated into the American society have also not been successfully reached.

German-Russian Mennonite Brethren and other “ethnic” Mennonites have struggled with a sense of inferiority in their relationship to the majority culture (Warner 1985:150-152). This has manifested itself in mission efforts, where the vast majority of those being reached throughout the world have been lower-class, uneducated, rural people. Among Latinos in the U. S., the focus on small, rural, and migrant communities has created small, weak, and dependent congregations (helping confirm the view of many that Latinos cannot develop strong churches).

This focus has created a third type of tension: leadership struggles between Latino and Germanic-Russian Mennonite Brethren. Very few strong Latino leaders have ever developed within the denomination. Those who have taken leadership roles have usually found themselves in tension when they have attempted to find a place as “equals” within the larger denominational structure. The problems that have arisen have left the Germanic Russian community feeling frustrated and have persuaded many Latino leaders to leave the denomination in both South Texas and California.


How Latino Mennonite Brethren will fit into a denomination largely administered by Germanic Russians is a question that is yet to be clearly answered. Solutions will not be easy. Various models have already been attempted. The Latin American Mennonite Brethren (LAMB) Conference is independent, but is very small and largely isolated from the rest of the denomination. Latinos in California have slowly worked toward being recognized as a separate entity within the larger conference. It is yet {48} unclear where this will lead and whether this will decrease tensions or actually increase them by segregating Latinos into their own Council and more completely separating them from the power structures.

A part of the problem needs to be addressed by Latinos themselves. As a complex ethnic minority, they will need to recognize that they are a diverse community and that any solution will need to deal with a variety of issues. Many Latinos will seek to be a part of English-language Mennonite Brethren congregations, even as the number of Latino congregations--particularly urban ones--needs to grow. Latino leaders will need to address both needs at the same time.

For Mennonite Brethren in general, this means that it is very important to maintain and increase separate Latino churches, while at the same time encouraging many predominantly Germanic-Russian congregations to become more open to people of other ethnic backgrounds. And as the number of Mennonite Brethren Latinos grows, there is also the need for German Russian leaders to share power more consciously and openly with Latinos [and other ethnic communities] (Hiebert 1987:8). A more pluralistic participation in leadership will open the door to greater mutual respect between German Russians and Latinos (Vásquez 1986:20).

Yet it is also indispensable that Latinos and others respect, and even encourage, the efforts of maintaining ethnic identity of the Germanic-Russian community, as long as the community wishes to maintain its identity. German-Russian Mennonite Brethren need to be helped to develop means of celebrating and supporting their ethnicity that can be gradually separated from formal denominational and educational structures. This will require love and patience on the part of those in the Latino community who wish that denominational changes would occur more rapidly.

Future relationships between the two communities will need to respect and support the ethnic identities of both German Russians and Latinos. As both communities feel secure about their identities, they will be able to work toward interdependence. That process will mean taking risks, but these are a part of the cost of taking the Gospel seriously. The goal for the future will be for Mennonite Brethren to become a multiethnic Christian community where German-Russians, Latinos, and others can both affirm and supersede their ethnic identities as they strive together to be one body in Christ, the people of God in the world.

For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one,

and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall.
Eph. 2:14 {49}

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  1. This article is largely a summary of a Th.M. thesis (Martinez 1988).
  2. Greeley and Rossi (1972) examine this phenomenon among various American denominations.
  3. The Kauffman and Harder (1975) and Toews, Konrad and Dueck (1985) studies and discussions in recent conference sessions demonstrate that Anabaptist theology is increasingly no longer the “glue” that holds the denomination together. Under those circumstances, kinship ties among key leaders play an important role in denominational unity. Yet the growing loss of a theological “core” makes it even more difficult for people who are not of Germanic-Russian background to identify themselves as Mennonite Brethren, because it is increasingly unclear what makes one an “MB” (theology? ethnicity?).
  4. Many studies have been made of the assimilation process among US Latinos. See Mirande (1985) for a detailed discussion of the various paradigms that have been used to explain the complexities of the Latino experience in the United States.
  5. See Esau (1987) for a review of Mennonite Brethren work in South Texas.
  6. Within the last five years Mennonite Brethren have also planted a Latino congregation in Laredo, TX, and have sent a church planting couple to Omaha, NE, to establish a Hispanic church there.


Juan Martinez is Director of SEMILLA Seminary and is based in Guatemala.