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Walter Sawatsky, professor of church history and mission at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind.
Tim Nafziger
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

CHICAGO--The story of Anabaptist martyrs in Eastern Europe in the 20th century is just as important as that of 16th-century Anabaptists, according to Walter Sawatsky, a Mennonite missiologist and historian.

Sawatsky, professor of church history and mission at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., was honored as part of the annual Council of International Anabaptist Ministries (CIM) meeting in Chicago from Jan. 17-22. More than 60 representatives from 14 Anabaptist mission and development organizations met to discuss the theme, “Eastern Europe: Reflecting on 20 Years After the Fall of the Wall.”

In his keynote address, “Serious Co-Mission in Eastern Europe: Reflections on 20 Years of Post-Communism,” Sawatsky encouraged Mennonites to look more closely at their recent history in Eastern Europe.

“Too often, [Mennonites] do not know about the decades of testing, of valiant witness, of failure and collapse, of spiritual death of the church, and then its resurrection," he said.

He told the stories from Eastern European communities and also challenged his audience to move beyond a Western-centric framework.

"It is a Western mindset to seek out the roots, the pristine origins of truth, as fixed," Sawatsky said. "Rather than the recovery of a pristine early vision, what we need is a serious wrestling with the many ways the Mennonite story played itself out in many different cultural settings."

Sawatsky sees this shift already happening in Eastern Europe.

“Since 1989, leaders in post-Soviet countries have moved away from the realm of grand ideas to, instead, a focus on small steps, like the dry bones images in Ezekiel, working with the people you have,” said Sawatsky.

For 37 years, Sawatsky has served with Mennonite organizations, starting with Mennonite Central Committee. In 1990, after 12 years in Europe with MCC, he became a professor at AMBS. He is currently director of the Mission Studies Center at AMBS and is involved in writing, teaching, translating and editing in the areas of church history and mission.

Mary Raber, a 30-year colleague of Sawatsky, presented him with a Festschrift—a celebratory piece of writing by various authors in Sawatsky’s honor—titled “History and Mission in Europe: Continuing the Conversation.”

Raber compared Sawatsky’s work as a historian to Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. “Recovering the stories of the people of Eastern Europe is a unique gift to those who live there,” she said. “In some sense, the telling of history is part of the prophetic task. He told them everything they ever did. The knowledge of their own story has helped show the way forward.”

Raber, who currently serves with Mennonite Mission Network as a professor at Odessa (Ukraine) Theological Seminary, said: “Walter is kind of a hard person to honor because of how complex he is. For a prominent person, he’s very much in the background.”

Stories from Eastern European settings

In the second plenary session, David W. Shenk, former director of Eastern Mennonite Missions and author of a number of books on Mennonite and Muslim dialogue, shared stories from his experience in Eastern Europe.

Shenk said as new governments arose in the wake of the Soviet collapse, Mennonites often contributed to discussions on what some of the new countries would look like. He also told of his own experiences sharing Jesus’ way of peace with Muslim scholars in Kosovo as they were involved in drafting the new constitution written there in the last few years.

Shenk was asked what message he thought the Muslim communities he worked with wanted North Americans to know. "Just ask them to respect us,” he said, quoting from a conversation with a Muslim colleague. “So much of what we hear is demeaning. Tell them we're not terrorists"

Shenk encouraged those from the Russian Mennonite tradition whose families were persecuted by Soviet authorities, to consider the opportunities their experience offers in connecting with other communities dealing with generational trauma. He suggested that those with a history of trauma could help others deal with deep communal pain.

“Release and forgive and get involved," he said.

Organization administrators model collaboration

Aside from the presentations, the gathering is an important time for mission and service agencies from many Anabaptist denominations to share information and build relationships. Agencies from the Brethren in Christ Church, Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada, Conservative Mennonite Conference, Evangelical Mennonite Conference (Canada), and Mennonite Brethren all participate.

"There are places where we work together, and in coming here there's an opportunity for cross-fertilization and dialogue," said Hippolyto Tshimanga, who coordinates work in Africa and Europe with Mennonite Church Canada Witness. This is Tshimanga's fourth year attending the gathering.

Steve Wiebe-Johnson, Mission Network’s director for Africa, said the yearly meetings are a way for the agencies to stay informed of one another’s work and to build trust among agency administrators.

“We can’t expect our workers in the field to work closely together unless we model that as administrators,” he said.

Also at the meetings, Rod Hollinger-Janzen, executive director for Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission, was elected as the council’s chair. James Krabill, Mission Network’s senior executive for Global Ministries, continues as vice-chair, and Marcella Hershberger, a Mission Network executive assistant, continues as administrative coordinator.


Joint release of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Mennonite Mission Network on behalf of the Council of International Anabaptist Ministries.

 mission leaders reflect on mission in Eastern Europe



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