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In 1896 most Mennonites lived either in Russia or the United States. When they gathered for worship, most spoke either German or Dutch. By 1996 Mennonites worshiped in well over 100 languages with churches in some 60 countries. Some of this spread happened through migration, but much more of it happened through the missionary efforts of the Dutch and North American Mennonite churches.
From 1963 to 1981, my wife and I were missionaries in East Africa. During the last five years of that experience, I represented Mennonite Central Committee in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Workers and visitors from North America were constantly coming and going. Those visitors who spent time with the African church were often puzzled, sometimes critical. The church which the missionaries planted didn't feel like the church back home.
I began to hope that an African Mennonite could tell the story of the coming of the missionaries, recount how the Gospel was received, and show how the church took shape. Then in 1983, I spent three months with the first Mennonite bishop in East Africa, Zedekia Kisare, helping him to tell his story, Kisare, a Mennonite of Kiseru.
I came to believe the story of the "new Mennonite"-Kisare's story-needed to be balanced by the story of the missionaries. Mennonites didn't just show up in Africa and South America and Asia. What happened in the North American churches which produced these people? How did they do their work? How did being in mission change them and change what they did? Silver Thread addresses these questions.
The idea that what took place in the particular reflects what was happening generally has guided the collecting of these stories. The particular stories are of two families-a Landis/Wenger family and a Barge/Shenk family-who were pioneer missionaries in Tanganyika, East Africa. Patterns seen in the stories of these families are similar to the patterns of any Mennonite family in mission during the same time period.
Gathering this material has not been difficult because my own story forms a part of the mosaic. In 1938 I was born in Tanganyika, third generation in the Barge/Shenk part of the tapestry. Further, in 1970 my family was joined by marriage to the Landis/Wenger family when my father, J. Clyde Shenk, married Miriam Landis Wenger. Each had buried first spouses in Tanzania, formerly Tanganyika.
During the 100 years which this saga covers, the way in which cross-cultural mission was understood and done changed dramatically. Nevertheless, there is a constancy in the story-faithfulness in witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It's the story of real people struggling to be faithful while doing what hadn't been done by Mennonites before. And it is the story of these people's profound transformation, leading to changes in the North American Mennonite church as well.
I want to thank my stepmother, Miriam, for hosting me in her home during the months that I did research for this book, for telling me what she remembers, and for sharing of her diaries and letters.
Many, many others also helped me. I am grateful to them. I would like to thank the Mellinger Christian Service Sunday school class, and especially their president, Ruth Hollinger, for arranging a fund raiser for this project and for those from the Mellinger, Millersville, Rohrerstown, Strasburg, and Stumptown congregations who contributed financially. I thank Omar Eby and Rose Shenk for guiding the shape of the finished manuscript. I thank Rose for editing much of the "Middle Voices."
The story begins where it ends, with a Nicaraguan Mennonite pastor's family. The Vado family of Nicaragua is part of a recent phenomenon, the multi-racial, multi-language Mennonite church. In 1974 the Vado family became Mennonite. Arnulfo, the husband and father, became an ordained Mennonite leader of a new congregation five years later. Like many first generation Mennonite leaders around the world, Arnulfo began his Christian life as a member of another church. Mrs. Vado tells us her family's story.
A dream jolted me awake. Something about it filled me with foreboding. In my dream I was sitting in a big evangelical church. Three brides in white wedding gowns were walking down the aisle toward the altar at the front of the church. Each of the young women wore a sparkling tiara instead of a wedding veil. One of the girls stopped and turned back before getting to the altar. But the other two kept walking slowly toward their destiny. The altar was covered with bouquets of flowers so that it felt more like a funeral than a wedding.
As soon as it was morning, I went across the street to tell my sister-in-law about my dream. Her daughter Maria and my daughter Edith were both teenagers. These cousins, Edith and Maria, acted like sisters.
Many years earlier, an old Costa Rican man had told me that if I ever dream about a wedding, then there will be a death. I told my sister-in-law what the old man had said. She said that it might be my mother who would die. My mother was sick at that time. My sister-in-law said I should prepare myself for Mother's death.
My husband, Pastor Arnulfo, has had a lot of bad accidents. So I have become a fearful woman, always expecting something bad to happen. By now Mother was an old woman. Old people die. Why would I be warned of her death? Hadn't the dream been of young women, beautiful girls? The days passed and Mother got well. I began to forget my dream.
In Arnulfo's first accident, a heavy object fell on his leg, smashing it. During the six months that he was hospitalized, no one from our church-the Apostles & Prophets Church-went to visit him. They only came to see him after he was home from the hospital. By then Arnulfo was disgusted with the Apostles & Prophets.