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Swiss Anabaptist history doesn’t remain in past

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Walking along the bank of the Limmat River, Thioro Bananzoro pondered the challenges Anabaptists have turned into opportunities over the last five centuries.

Pausing by the statue of militant Reformed church leader Ulrich Zwingli on a tour of Zurich during Mennonite World Conference general council meetings, the delegate from the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso noted that how a Christian responds to trials can have long-lasting effects.

His own experience started in his Muslim family. The oldest of 23 children, he suffered for 17 years after he became a Christian because his father did not consider Christians to be pure.

Bienenberg Seminary history professor and tour leader Hanspeter Jecker noted a tension that has accompanied Anabaptists around the world in their interactions with neighbors or the state since Anabaptism started in 1525. Does one be radical and leave, or stay and work for local change?

Bananzoro stayed and worked for change in a different way than Zwingli, whose statue depicts him with a Bible and a sword, representing his death in battle.

“My dad even totally changed his mind,” Bananzoro said. “What he noticed from me is totally different from what he thought about Christians.”

Though Bananzoro’s father is still Muslim, 10 of the 23 children are now Christians.

“My father says to his children, ‘If you cannot be a good Muslim, follow your older brother,’” Bananzoro said.

On working to bring people to reconciliation in his West African context, Bananzoro said a Christian should be a witness because people trust what they see more than what they hear.

“People can really persecute you,” he said. “If you don’t fight back – even if you don’t succeed – people will understand and say your God is powerful. This is why we should not fight back.”

Most of the 175 MWC meeting participants who took part in tours had never been to Switzerland before. Walking in the footsteps of early Anabaptists in places like Schleitheim and the secret “Anabaptist cave” tucked behind a waterfall near Baritswil was a powerful experience.

The outing was of significant value to Ambroise Kabeya Kanda Mwanda of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“It is a big discovery to be here, to get to know my origin of Anabaptism,” he said while standing on the present bridge at the location where authorities read Felix Manz’s death sentence – the penalty for performing renegade adult baptisms.
“I have read a lot in books, but to be in it, present here, to see the places, means a lot to me.”

His countryman Joly Birakara Ilowa echoed similar sentiments while looking out over the Limmat in the direction of where Manz performed that first baptism on Jan. 21, 1525.

“If I were not already baptized, I’d like to be baptized here,” he said.

Francisco Martínez, president of the Brethren in Christ Church in Cuba, reflected on the relationship of his church to early Anabaptists and a heavy-handed government after visiting Zurich and Schleitheim.

Schleitheim is where Michael Sattler led the first Anabaptist assembly on Feb. 24, 1527, resulting in the Schleitheim Confession, a watershed document articulating a distinctly Anabaptist confession of faith.

Sattler was executed a few months later in May.

“To be in Switzerland is to continue the legacy that Christ planted and sowed in the hearts of a group of people who became martyrs for following the teachings of Jesus,” Martínez said. “It feels like a privilege to walk freely in these streets where there were men and women who confessed the same faith we do and suffered oppression because of it.”

He knows a bit about that. Missionaries brought Christianity to Cuba, but after the Communist revolution, pastors and church leaders were mistreated and forced to do hard labour.

“Intelligent, wise Christians were not able to complete higher education and be appointed to jobs for which they were qualified,” he said. “Our situation has been improving since the 1980s, though there are still restrictions.”

Nearly half a millennium has passed since the first Anabaptists took new steps of faith in Switzerland’s hills and valleys. While the lives of the European founders remain in the past, their spirit continues today around the world.

“Everything I learned, everything I saw, I am taking back,” said Madeleine Mvele Kikoso Mvele of Kinshasa, Congo. “My daughter has studied and had training, and I will show her. We as Anabaptists have come a long way.”

—Tim Huber is associate editor of Mennonite World Review. He wrote this article for Meetinghouse, an association of Mennonite periodicals.

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