Mennonites agonize over Bolivian rape victims

The story of Mennonite men drugging and raping women on Old Colony Mennonite settlements in Bolivia hit the news summer 2009, from local Spanish papers to The Guardian Weekly in the UK. Meanwhile, English-language Mennonite media has given it scant reportage as Mennonites from conservative to evangelical struggle to respond appropriately – if at all.

“The silence is deafening,” says Abe Warkentin, founder of Die Mennonitische Post, a German newspaper which connects Mennonites across the Americas. He “plead[s] with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to address these problems the same way MCC has addressed other issues so effectively in hundreds of programs.”

Twelve men are accused for the 140 officially confirmed cases of rape on 2,000-member Manitoba Colony in Bolivia. Mistrust, denials, and suspicion of authorities make it difficult to accurately report the extent of the tragedy. Anecdotal reports suggest such abuse is ongoing, affecting neighbouring colonies as well.

Ex-communication is the main form of discipline available to colony leaders. Colonists took a vigilante approach in response to circumstantial evidence against one man. After neighbours tied him to a tree by his arms with his feet dangling for nine hours, Franz Klassen did not recover movement in his arms and subsequently died.

Missionaries have been concerned about domestic abuse on the colonies for years, and Kurze Nachrichten Aus Mexiko, a Latin American news source, says a drugging-and-rape incident was reported five years ago. Family Life Network (FLN) staff reported in 2000 about “the church in crisis” on Old Colony settlements in Mexico (home of the original Old Colony Bolivian settlers in 1967). In 2008, FLN staff said letters received from Old Colony teen listeners in Bolivia told of “addictions, depression, and sexual abuse common in the colonies.”

Some have called the incidents a wake-up call for North American Mennonites to address the poverty, lack of education, and denial of women’s dignity in the closed, patriarchal structure of Old Colony Mennonite society. “The scandal is little more than an enlargement of social problems, in which more energy is put into hiding them than confronting and solving them,” Kurze Nachrichten reported.

Responses

As yet, none of the Mennonite agencies that interact with the Old Colony Mennonites offer a target response to the female victims of abuse, nor aid in dealing with the offenders.

Academics research the ways and traditions of these Mennonites but do not make judgments on the Old Colony lifestyle. That the crime came to the world’s attention is a sign of the colonies’ health, says Royden Loewen, chair of Mennonite studies at the University of Winnipeg. He has a long history of studying Old Colony Mennonites in Canada and Latin America, and visited the Bolivian colonies in July as part of a research project on anti-modernity. “My impression is of a God-fearing, gentle, hardworking people with high ethical standards,” he says of his visits to the colonies. “They are deeply distressed about the rapes.”

Loewen recognizes there is abuse in Old Colony homes but “in no greater percentage than any other society in the world.” Referencing a 1991 study by Isaac Block, which found 10 percent of Winnipeg Mennonites had experienced abuse, he says the largely urban North American Mennonites “have ways of covering up our abusive situations,” while the “isolated but more visible Old Colony Mennonites” are more vulnerable to disclosure.

Jacob and Helen Funk have been coordinators of Low German programming for FLN for the past 15 years. “We know the problem of sexual and physical abuse is widespread in most if not all colonies in Bolivia,” he wrote in an email to the Herald, in which he said colony leaders use “extreme adherence to tradition and legalism” to “control membership of the community and church.”

FLN uses radio programs and evangelistic meetings “to reach out to the people in the colonies that are left wanting by their own church; to reach out to those who are searching for Christ.” FLN also provides written materials and solar-powered audio players containing the New Testament for the Old Colony Mennonites, whose low education and rejection of modernity makes other access to the Bible and teaching difficult.

Women often confide in Helen about abuse, but FLN programming does not specifically address the domestic abuse. However, Funk points to a women’s shelter, primarily sponsored by the Evangelical Free Church of Canada, nearly completed near Pailon, a central location for Mennonite colonies. FLN works closely with the Evangelical Free Church, Power to Change, and several Mennonite conferences in Bolivia.

Call for understanding

MCC, a relief and development organization, has provided aid and training to the colonies since the 1970s. They released “a call for understanding and prayer” July 9, 2009, in response to breaking news stories about the rapes. MCC Bolivia provides ongoing farming, health, and education training and support to the colonies, but their offer of counselling for victims of abuse was rejected. MCC is careful to work with colony leaders to bring programs and offer aid.

John Janzen, Low German Coordinator for MCC Canada, says “the colony leaders are taking a stand against this.” He points to a large ad the colony leaders took out in a Santa Cruz paper shortly after the news broke, stating “we are sorry, we will try to regain lost ground, please remember we are not all like this” (loose translation).

“As Christians, we should have concern for both the victims and the perpetrators (men) who did this,” Janzen says. “I see MCC in Bolivia striving to make things better,” he says, emphasizing the importance of parachurch and denominational ministries supporting each others’ efforts.

“It is all very sad,” says Warkentin, who advocates for education and a “hemispheric” Mennonite strategy to help the colonies. “While we acknowledge there are things that must change in these colonies,… we must be conscious that we are also a broken people.

“We need people with vision and creativity – and guts to take on this huge problem.”

—Karla Braun

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