Review of Books by MB Paul Wiebe and Peter Penner

Paul Wiebe’s Heirs and Joint Heirs Mission to Church among the Mennonite Brethren of Andhra Pradesh. 2010 and Peter Penner’s Russians, North Americans, and Telugus The Mennonite Brethren Mission in India 1885-1975. 1997
For Mission Focus Annual Review – November 2011; reprinted in M.B. Mennonite Historian, June 2012. Appears here with permission

This review engages two sources about Mennonite Brethren mission endeavor in India: sociologist Paul Wiebe’s recent Heirs and Joint Heirs and historian Peter Penner’s Russians, North Americans, and Telugus written fourteen years earlier. Writers’ professional disciplines prompt distinctly different accounts of people—of the three generations of missionaries and the Telugu people among whom they served. While Wiebe explains missionary programs—social conditions and movements, developments and prospects—among Indian nationals in nine MB ‘stations’ within the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, Penner’s focus builds on primary sources—personal and official correspondence, reports and minutes—of the missioners. While Wiebe’s writing is enriched through lifelong experience as a third generation American with deep knowledge of social realities, religions, and change within India, Penner reflects careful delving into printed material from mostly western, male reporters, a year’s exposure in person, and more recent interviews. Wiebe’s maternal grandparents Daniel and Katherina arrived in India in 1904. His mother Viola, Bergthold’s firstborn, returned with her husband John Wiebe, new to India in 1927. Paul, one of seven Wiebe children born in India, was a 1956 high school graduate of India’s Kodaikanal International School, a boarding school that he later served nine years as principal. Since retiring to Iowa, he returns to engage with MB efforts in India

Wiebe’s three basic content areas address background, mission, and church. The first section presents solid chapters on Christianity in India (by 1914 a half million strong), the historical period of the Mogul, Nizam empire of the Deccan area near Hyderabad, plus mission programs and the individuals who led them. His four central chapters are re-written content from his 1988 book that in turn built on his 1969 PhD dissertation. Titles convey key dimensions of mission: Recruitment (alternate word for ‘conversion’), Community and Church, Leadership, and Development. Prior to a conclusion, he reflects on the Fullness of Time and anticipates Prospects.

The first Mennonite Brethren missionaries to India—Abraham and Maria Friesen from Russia—arrived in 1889. Among Telugu people, they teamed with American Baptists, missioners already active there for fifty years. By 1899, over 65,000 Telugu people had been baptized American Baptists. The first American MBs to the region (1899) were Nikolai and Susie Hiebert and Elizabeth Neufeld. Anna Suderman (later Bergthold) who soon joined them had gone the year before with an independent group to the western state of Gujarat. Feeling ‘called’ and believing Menno Simon’s phrase “true evangelical faith cannot lie dormant,” MBs centered on spiritual concerns, on “saving souls.” By 1920 Indian pastors carried out baptisms; within two more decades, a “division of labor” found Indian leaders responsible for preaching and evangelism while western missioners focused on plans, funds, and construction, on organization and maintenance of buildings, on programs with education and medical institutions. [page number in source by author: W, 120] ‘Compounds’—property within a wall on which buildings ‘grew’ with the church central—located in key ‘stations’ near towns offered refuge, separateness, or group identity. In addition to gathering at Hughestown, Nagarkurnool, Deverakonda, Wanaparthi, Shamshabad, Kalvakurty, Mahbubnagar, Gadwal and Makthal/Narayanpet, recruits continued to live in villages or moved to more urban settings.

When Mennonites arrived in India, in the state called Andhra Pradesh since Independence in 1947, Muslims ruled but Hindus (85%) defined social arrangements. The Andhra MB church developed along caste lines or jatis known primarily as Madigas and Malas. Ninety percent of MB Christians emerge from Dalit (‘untouchable’) or tribal background. Often from the section of a village called pallim, such laborers from the bottom of the hereditary social order brought Hindu influence to their new, ‘foreign’ faith. Spirits with powers, stories from major sacred texts, concepts of good and evil, and many festivals shaped life experience. [W, 149] To translate a basic word like “God” for villagers who linked deity with one or another god of Hinduism was not simple. Although poverty is a relative concept, many recruits found more self-worth and dignity through religious change. But features of social order remained. When missioners left during the complex transition decades of 1960s-70s, people of different caste heritage contested for institutional roles with claims to power. Such roles, when handling money, gained more power than those of pastor and church worker. Within the Governing Council, operated by Indians for over fifty years, ‘sides’ could “fully intend to do the other in.” [W, 218] Leadership issues also ever surface with need for proper training and greater opportunity. The dominant control of one national medical doctor-cum-president of Governing Council for forty years hardly reflects interdependence. But, readers do well to study another MB’s writing, the late Paul Hiebert’s. Born of missionaries and a six-year missioner himself in the early 1960s, his strength in anthropology reaches well beyond Mennonites.

Most MB missioners went to India ill prepared to learn about indigenous belief systems. They went “more to offer than learn,” Wiebe observes. [W, 116, 130] Their own commitments, biases and views of the world emerged. While some strongly denounced Hindu practice, others “gained deep insights into the great traditional teachings of Hindusm.” [W, 231] While some educated Indians dislike evangelizing efforts, they credit good work done by medical and educational missioners. Wiebe extracts a resource on dependency published in India in 1976: most Protestant missionary programs followed a pattern. In the circle next to the central kingpin missionary were ordained national ministers followed by un-ordained evangelists and Bible women. A fourth group included church school teachers with elders, lay preachers, and prayer leaders on the periphery.

Peter Penner’s key sources for detailing Mennonite Brethren endeavor in India were the American Baptist Archives Center in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and MB Studies Centers in Fresno, CA, Hillsboro, KS, and Winnipeg, MB. Content appears basically chronologically, from first generation Russian MB involvement (1889-1915), to second/American (1915-45), to third including Canadian (1945-75), to Indian leadership alone. Themes of ownership, senior and junior roles for missioners, Hillsboro MB Board engagement, parenting, personal tragedies, single women, and mission legacy recur. Drawing on extensive correspondence, reports, and interviews, the writer includes many endnotes.

This reviewer’s first response to Penner’s book involved caution—doubting whether most readers have adequate background to value the interpersonal realities revealed among threatened yet lovable characters, between worthy yet contrasting cultures. Do readers truly comprehend and value how stressful isolation or separation or competing strong wills that need to ever engage can be? Do readers have the wisdom needed to receive conflict, doubt, and interfaith openness rather than impose a glorified image of what a ‘sent’ missioner will be or do? On occasion, I wondered if the writer, or I, favored certain persons. While my need to “protect” individuals or not expose “dirty linen” may puzzle, it relates to my own positive years of learning in/from India. Since “those who write history make history,” a major gap with Penner’s account of MB experience remains the Indian nationals. Of interest, for example, is I. P. Asheervadam’s recent comments about missionary “luxurious life style” or “disparity in life-style” as source of conflict when writing the chapter “The Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches of India,” in Churches Engage Asian Traditions, Global Mennonite History Series: Asia, 2011.

Penner writes informatively about missionary tragedies, tensions and coping patterns, mission theology or strategy, women, children, the Board back in Hillsboro, and transition efforts. Missioner honesty and trauma enabled his reporting; the story conveyed proved at times to be selective, either from missioners or from Board to constituency. Of the 96 missioners, John Wiebe sent the most correspondence and reports; Anna Suderman became the “most outspoken”; and Margaret Willems gave 240 talks about work in India when on furlough from 1953-55. While “call” does not promote the exotic, experiences happen: of hostile environment, strange disease, broken nerves, dispute about or misuse of finances, tensions over where to locate medical or school programs, exposure to superstition and fate, clash over employees, car usage, schedules and relating to an indigenous church, human error, death—in childbirth, by drowning (from a tipped, overloaded ferry; chasing for ducks shot; or water’s power), poison, disease, a fall into a well, or suicide—isolation, observing famine and devastation, family separations, and cultural adjustments. Through such trauma, the people pursued their main task of informing others of God’s Wisdom and love through Jesus the Christ. Ever prone to paternalism or senior status, or driven by control tactics, whether with new church members, younger or single women missioners, God’s ‘work’ went on.

Penner wisely attends to often-neglected people in history-writing. Children who never chose to be in India entered boarding schools at young ages. Some thrived on it; others struggled. Many knew culture shock on returning to the west—by world ignorance conveyed among people met or weaker standards of education. Many left the MB church. While prior to 1957 MB women were ordained for the mission task, wives were expected to care for the family, organize servants, and know vicarious worth through a husband’s achievement not personal credit or reward. Single women, not short-changed via salary, made strong professional contributions despite some male missioner resistance to their being ”too independent,” to their teaching Bible in schools. Two Sudermans were known as a “formidable team” for two decades. Helen Warkentin, leaving after 37 years, was widely honored by Indians. Katherina Schellenberg, sole doctor for 45 years took two furloughs. Within a two-year period in the teens, she and her staff saw 5200 patients. She knew distinct access to Muslim women in zenana (seclusion); her medical work consistently offered spiritual salvation.

Hillsboro Board interaction with missioners often sparked. One key staff member, vulnerable for years to missioner critique of methods used, once read the query: “Who is the highest authority here—the Board or the Lord?” One secretary-treasurer held “single-handed control.” The Board’s New India Plan, “too idealistic,” failed to listen to missioners; it wanted rapid transition to the Indian Church; the process took almost fifteen years. Transfer of authority and assets proved a nemesis for most Protestant groups, in part because of dependency patterns, failure to train young churches to give, or lack of leadership training (or example) over the decades. While mistakes bloomed, among all duly shared, Paul Wiebe’s stance, from within the “body of Christ,” ever remains positive. And Asheervadam’s statistics speak (numbers can either exceed or under measure; some people cannot ‘afford’ to claim Christ): in 2010 Mennonite Brethren membership in India numbered 200,000, in 964 congregations. [A, 135]

Penner’s book of extensive observing, sorting, and bridging information, like Wiebe’s of helpful scholarship combined with experience ‘inhaled,’ are gifts to the Christian church. Another resource, by twin brothers Paul and David Wiebe, complements the two noted here—In Another Day of the Lord The Mission Days of the Mennonite Brethren Church of India in Pictures. [Kindred, 2010] Two quotes review insight: “Without reference to caste and its implications, it is not possible to understand what it means to ‘be Indian.’” [40] “Nothing would have remained after they [the missionaries] left if what they introduced hadn’t made sense and been embodied locally. And this happened under local leadership, in all that it involved in the way of prayerful good faith, initiative, risk taking, and persuasion.” [106] Another fine, recent (2018) resource compiled by Paul D. Wiebe about his father is Minnesota Farm Boy Missionary to India. John A. Wiebe in His Diaries & Personal Correspondence, 417 pp, folio size.