Since beginning in Europe, the Anabaptist movement has had a migrant identity. The theological foundations that gave it life intersect with today’s migrant reality, presenting challenges for the missional, pastoral and social justice work of our global Anabaptist family.
The Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade has left us a beautiful poem*, with which I would like to direct these reflections:
*Based on a loose translation from the Portuguese to Spanish by Jaime Adrián Prieto Valladares.
Jesus, the perennial migrant
Carlos Drummond de Andrade calls to the four points of the universe, saying: “I walk a path (…)”. His words harken to the Nahuatl poetry of Mesoamerica, where the poet sees the self walking, allowing the light of the Being tending the white and red flowers to illuminate the way.
The first verse, “I walk a path”, also brings to mind the poetry and life of Jesus with respect to the way. This is because Jesus is presented in the four Gospels as the “perennial migrant” whose message, life and mission always take place along a journey.
The Gospel of Matthew describes a common scene for many Central American migrants: Jesus, Mary and Joseph returning to Nazareth in fear, on tiptoes, from their exile in Egypt after the death of emperor Herod (Matthew 2:13–18).
The public life of Jesus evolved along the road as he traveled to cities and towns while preaching the kingdom Gospel and curing all manner of illness and pain (Matthew 9:35). He traversed the roads of Samaria, crossing paths with the Jewish, Syrophoenician, Greek and Roman cultures, taking them bread, life and peace. Turning himself into the way, he revealed the Way: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
His death took place in Jerusalem, after confronting the Jewish political and religious authorities, and being judged by Pontius Pilate. After his passion and death, resurrected Jesus is found walking with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, comforting them and explaining the sacred Scriptures.
The rise of the migrant Anabaptist-Mennonite communities
The poetic phrase can also summarize the migrant experience that characterised the identity and rise of the Anabaptist-Mennonite communities of the 16th-century. These communities were modelled on Jesus Christ’s example of the way and the example of the followers of Jesus in Acts 9:2 who called themselves “the people of the Way.”
In the midst of the 16th-century corruption century that hold hostage the body and spirit of peasants, weavers, and miners, the renewing Anabaptist testimony and radical reform was made concrete.
Followers and disciples of Christ were shaken by their experience of the Holy Spirit that enabled them to escape the fear caused by the forces of evil, the Roman power of Pontius Pilate, the power of religious leaders and the policies of the Pharisees that resulted in the death of their teacher Jesus.
This experience of the Holy Spirit gave birth to the first Anabaptist communities in the south of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Tyrol and the Netherlands. Calvin, Luther, Melanchthon and Zwingli’s reading of sacred Scripture highlighted the gospel of Grace which greatly influenced the Anabaptists. But what most characterised the Anabaptists and Mennonites – what they made their own – was following Jesus by way of the comforting experience of the Holy Spirit.
The migrant nature of the Anabaptists grows out of their decision of imitate Christ. Historically speaking, the 16th-century Anabaptist-Mennonite communities made the poet’s words their own, migrating along innumerable paths, following the example of their teacher, announcing shalom (peace) and the gospel, and creating communities in solidarity with the poor, the peasants and the migrants.
Global migratory expansion of Anabaptism
The movement of Anabaptist-Mennonite families of European descent continued toward Latin America. Here we see movements of entire Mennonite families originating in Europe going to Mexico (1922–1926), Paraguay (1926–1958), Brazil (1930–1958) and Uruguay (1948–1959). Since 1953, Bolivia has become the destination of choice for Mennonite Colonies with European origins.
We cannot speak of migrations of European ethnic Anabaptists to Asia and Africa, like those described for Latin America where the geographical space was conducive toward settlement in Mennonite colonies. However, we can affirm that the Anabaptist ideals, the message of Jesus Christ, the formation of the church and peacebuilding efforts that germinated in the context of European and North America colonial powers, also migrated to Asia, Africa and Latin America by way of the mission boards and organizations like Mennonite Central Committee.
Be it due to mass or medium movements of families of European ethnic origin, or due to the arrival of missionary couples, the Anabaptist communities, churches, families and movements expanded, following many routes and crossing boundaries the world over.
Songs of the migrant
And this brings us to the current reality of migrants across the world today. A total of 250 million people, or 3.4 percent of the global population is made up of migrants who cross their country’s borders, fleeing injustice and violence, escaping death, searching for work to improve their economic situation and provide for their poor families, or in search of greater religious tolerance. All this with the goal of finding better social opportunities and hope far from their homeland.
We are talking about displacement from one country to another, as is the case with Venezuelans going to Brazil or Colombia because of the political and economic crisis playing out in their country. Or the dramatic case of thousands of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Mexicans who try to cross the Mexican border, fleeing from violence in search of the “American Dream”. Or the huge migrations of Africans overwhelmed by drought, violence and famine in their countries, crossing borders in search of refuge in Europe, the United States and other continents. In all of this human drama, families, women, girls and boys suffer incredible injustices and indignation.
This lived reality of millions of migrants in the world has turned them into the constant objects of the national and international news. Poems and songs set to popular African, Latin America and Hispanic rhythms are waking up women and men to the migrant situation.
The final verse of Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poem places the emphasis on the utopian ideal of this migrant song that “makes boys and girls dream in peace”. It also makes us think of the maternal face of God that the prophet, Isaiah, used to refer to the Jewish exile in Babylon. God appears as a woman in labor, saying:
“The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.
But, can a woman forget her nursing child?
But, even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:14–15).
The key questions are: how can we work through the church to provide a better future for migrants, their sons and daughters? Will it be possible to imitate and follow Christ in the way of the migrant? Will we be open to the anointing of the Holy Spirit to create and sing songs to migrant girls and boys that allow them to dream in peace?
Conclusions: pastoral recommendations
The teachings of Jesus, the migration experiences of our Anabaptist and Mennonite tradition, and the migrant songs should thus lead us to pastoral action.
As Anabaptist churches in Central America, Latin America, North America, Africa and Asia, as Mennonite World Conference, Mennonite Central Committee, and all the Anabaptist education and social service institutions, we should pray, reflect and take concrete action with respect to the migration reality in our countries and regions where we live.
- Strengthen theological and pastoral reflection on the topic of migrations.
- Kindle reflection within our churches about the rights of migrants and the political, economic and social push factors for migration.
- Offer spaces of friendship, psycho-spiritual support, aid and fellowship to migrants who visit our churches.
- Hold offerings in our churches destined to finance projects with migrants.
- Place special emphasis on healthcare, nutrition, well-being and education for migrant girls and boys.
- Spiritually accompany migrants.
- Network with other international government and non-government organizations that are working on the issue of migration.
- Study, plan, develop and evaluate activities and projects with a migration focus, alongside entities and other like-minded church organizations involved in this pastoral work.
- Share our reflections and projects on the topic of migration with churches on other continents so that the international experience and pastoral work with migrants can be enriched.
- Have fun with migrant girls and boys through songs, stories, games and laughter.
The migration issue causes us to meditate on God as presented in the Torah and other Old Testament books, who appears as the God of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers. The New Testament turns us to the judgement and promise of Jesus in Matthew 25: 34-36: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
— Jaime Adrián Prieto Valladares is a Mennonite historian and church leader in the Asociación Iglesias Cristianas de Costa Rica. He spoke at Renewal 2027 – Justice on the journey: Migration and the Anabaptist-Mennonite story – in San Rafael de Heredia, Costa Rica, 6 April 2019. This paper been adapted from his presentation.
This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier October 2019.