Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

African American children in Mennonite families bridge two worlds

Janelle and Jasmine Newswanger lead simple, contented lives in one of Pennsylvania's Mennonite communities. The 17-year-old twins drive a horse-drawn buggy, wear long dresses and white head coverings, and see their friends at church on Sundays.

Autumn Stauffer with (from left) Rolando, Lanita, and Malachi. She and her white husband are raising their five biological, one adopted and two foster children. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)
Autumn Stauffer with (from left) Rolando, Lanita, and Malachi. She and her white husband are raising their five biological, one adopted and two foster children. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)Read more

Janelle and Jasmine Newswanger lead simple, contented lives in one of Pennsylvania's Mennonite communities.

The 17-year-old twins drive a horse-drawn buggy, wear long dresses and white head coverings, and see their friends at church on Sundays.

Done with education at 14, after finishing eighth grade, Jasmine works as a teacher's aide, and Janelle helps her mother around the house, speaking Pennsylvania Dutch and English.

The girls blend in with the people in their lives, set apart in only one way.

Janelle and Jasmine are African American.

They are among about 100 children, most of them black, born to women who were incarcerated at Pennsylvania prisons and sent by their mothers to Mennonite foster families in Central Pennsylvania as part of an informal caretaking program. About 29 remain in Mennonite homes.

The children navigate two worlds as they grow up in white insular cultures.

Some, like Janelle and Jasmine, have been with Mennonite families for years and ultimately adopted. Others continue in a temporary status as their birth mothers struggle with addiction, the law, and their parenting roles.

These young lives upend and bend notions of community, family, identity - and what makes a happy, healthy childhood when birth parents are unavailable.

The popular image of Mennonites is of stoic, white followers in the countryside. Yet blacks, originally recruited by missionaries, have been in the flock for years, including in Philadelphia and other cities.

In 1897, the first African Americans in the United States were baptized as Mennonites and joined a Juniata County church, said historian Tobin Miller Shearer, a Mennonite and assistant professor of history at the University of Montana who studies interactions between white and African American Mennonites.

Now, he said, "There seems to be a predilection, or at least a tendency, for conservative white Mennonites to be engaged in the practice of adoption across race lines."

Good intentions fuel the caretaking, Shearer said, but, "Hosts are not equipped themselves to equip their children to live within a racist society."

Debate roils around transracial adoptions and fostering in general. Are youngsters better served by going to a permanent home as soon as possible, or by waiting for a same-race household? That question also hovers over the children from the Philadelphia region who live in rural Pennsylvania.

Ruth Newswanger and her husband are Old Order Mennonites who shun cars, TVs, computers, and cellphones at their Cumberland County home.

Jasmine and Janelle's birth mother, a Philadelphian, was in prison elsewhere in the state when the girls were born and the Newswangers got a call from a church friend involved in the prison ministry. Would they care for the babies?

The Newswangers, who have four biological children, said yes, acting on their belief that "you should share what you have," Ruth, 55, said.

The twins twice returned briefly to their biological mother, the second time for a year when they were about 21/2 years old. Relatives sent them back both times.

When the Newswangers finally adopted them two years ago, the girls were elated.

"We could write our last name Newswanger," Jasmine said.

Along with their name, they share a daily routine.

"We milk cows every morning and every evening. We also did some discing this year," Jasmine said, referring to farm equipment that prepares soil for planting.

One evening, the twins and Ruth were preparing dinner. "Janelle, du wenig mei nei." Put in a little more, Ruth said, and Janelle added baked beans to the spaghetti soup.

Before dinner, the girls went to a market owned by the family of some friends. The friends, two white sisters, and the twins instantly smiled when they saw each other, and all four began chattering and giggling.

Janelle and Jasmine were the only black children at school, which didn't bother them.

"We had each other," Janelle said.

"Everyone was used to seeing us," said Jasmine, so no one treated them differently.

"I seem like everyone else. I don't think about it," she said, "I just think about having friends."

The Newswangers tried to be race-sensitive as they raised the two - they gave them black dolls and books with African Americans pictured in them. A black woman who lived in the area befriended the girls, Ruth said. They see other African American children who live with Mennonite families at church and social gatherings, and they keep in touch with their birth family.

The sisters described one visit about seven years ago, when hair styles entangled their two worlds during a visit with their grandmother, aunt, and two half-sisters.

Jasmine and Janelle normally wear their hair pulled back in a bun, common among Mennonite women. Their Philadelphia aunt braided their hair into tight cornrows.

"They thought it would be fun," Janelle said.

It wasn't fun. It hurt.

What's most important to the twins' biological grandmother, Margaret Garris of West Philadelphia, is not their hair style.

"They are happy and healthy," Garris said. "That's the main thing."

Garris talks regularly over the phone with her granddaughters and sees them once or twice a year. The girls know about their African American culture because they know their birth family, she said, adding that one of their half-sisters talks to them about black history.

Still, Janelle and Jasmine know little about slavery or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His name is familiar, they said, though they know nothing about him.

The twins do not see black history as relevant.

"To our own life?," Jasmine asked. "No, I don't think so."

They said they had not felt prejudice themselves, and they chuckled about how their young nephew asked whether their arms were brown because they were left in the oven too long - a connection he made based on what happens when cookie dough is overbaked.

The girls' limited grasp of African American history does not overly worry Richard Gelles, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice: "There's a general lack of knowledge about the civil rights movement whether you're black, white, or green."

But their happiness is a good sign. Research shows it is developmentally healthier for children to be in permanent homes as soon as possible, he said, no matter the race of the family.

"It is important for a child to be able to know he or she has someone who will be there for him or her in an unqualified relationship."

The girls feel that way about their Mennonite family.

Asked whether they loved their birth mother, they hesitantly said they did, explaining, "We're supposed to like everyone."

Do they love Ruth? Immediately, the twins enthusiastically nodded yes.

A white Mennonite family can raise a healthy black child, said Toni Oliver, vice president of the National Association of Black Social Workers. But race does matter in America.

"We make decisions about people's value and capabilities based on race."

If these children are racially isolated, she said, they have no role models to counter negative images and stereotypes of blacks.

Joseph Crumbley, an expert in transracial adoptions and fostering, doubted the girls would always be around tolerant Mennonites.

"If they're going to stay in that bubble, then fine," he said. "Once they leave that bubble, they're still looked at as African American children."

Autumn Stauffer has thought a lot about family, community, and identity. It took much of her 39 years to be comfortable with who she is and to figure out the purpose God had for her as a black child growing up in a white Mennonite home.

She is now married to a white man in Shippensburg, Pa. The Mennonite couple have five biological daughters, one adopted Guatemalan son, and two African American foster sons whose mothers were in Philadelphia's Riverside Correctional Facility. The Stauffers use a car, computer, and cellphones.

Autumn was born Brenda Jo Lyons to a 15-year-old white mother and an 18-year-old black father in Kentucky. "In 1972 in the South, that was a no-no," she said.

Her father went into the military. Her mother and aunt tried to raise her, but her mother soon gave her up to the foster system.

When she was 21 months old, a Mennonite couple in Kentucky, Elam and Ella Mae Weaver, made her a part of their family. That time, she found a home. Her new parents changed her name to Autumn Joy Weaver and raised her in their faith.

Even as she built friendships with some classmates at her Mennonite school in Kentucky, others lobbed racial comments.

"They called me a nigger a lot, and I didn't know what that meant," she said.

Ella Mae Weaver, new to racial prejudice, and, Autumn guessed, not wanting to provoke a confrontation, told her daughter: "When they say 'nigger' to you, what they really mean is 'Negro,' " and there's nothing wrong with being a Negro.

Autumn still felt the sting.

When she turned 15, she wanted to find her birth family.

"Surely, with my other family it was going to be better."

She walked to town but quickly returned home, accomplishing little more than scaring everyone. But from then on, her adoptive mother "started really talking about what was inside me, how I felt, and why."

When Autumn was 19, she had a revelation during a church mission to Ghana.

After she testified about her faith, some Ghanaians protested. Everyone knows God is for white people, they said. As she explained her beliefs, she understood she was to be a teacher of faith to blacks who felt disconnected.

During another trip to Ghana, Autumn met her future husband, Justin, 38. Though his parents supported his marrying an African American woman, others expressed concern.

"People didn't say it would be bad, but they wanted him to be aware that she could birth a browner baby," Autumn said. "He was like, 'And?' "

As a married couple, they moved to Maryland, had one child, and then moved to Pennsylvania, where their other biological children were born.

Autumn sometimes sees her childhood in her foster sons - Malachi, 8, and Mikal, 3. She thanks God for the Weavers but is glad she is more aware of racial issues.

Autumn teaches them at home, which she and her husband do to save money and because their congregation does not have a school.

Malachi sat on the short ledge bordering a public playground one day after classes and said he didn't really remember his mother, who is from South Jersey. When he was about 2, Autumn took him to visit her in the Riverside Correctional Facility. For his third birthday, his mother, still at Riverside, sent him a card and a toy milk truck. When he was 4, he and Autumn visited his biological grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins in New Jersey over the July 4 holiday.

His biological half-sister lives with a Mennonite family about a 40-minute drive away, so he sees her a few times a year when the two families get together.

Autumn still takes Mikal to Philadelphia for monthly visits with his birth mother.

Malachi wonders about his biological relatives. "I just want to see them again - they're really nice."

He doesn't think he feels different from the boys and girls around him, though some children from a Mennonite church the family doesn't attend have said mean things.

Malachi looked down toward the playground's shredded blue rubber surface and lowered his voice. "They say, 'You have ugly black skin.' " Malachi shrugged when asked his reply. "They just don't play with me."

Said Autumn, standing nearby, "I always hoped my own kids wouldn't face things like that. But I told myself, 'They will.' "

She has warned her children that people might say unkind things about their skin color, that the words will sting, that the they should tell Autumn and Justin how they feel when it happens.

The parents also advise them to walk away from those situations or calmly ask the other person, "What is it about me that you just can't accept? You know color is only skin deep.' "

As she talked, Autumn seemed to feel pangs from her past.

"In God's eyes, we're all the same. There is no race," she said. "Of course, when you look around, there are all kinds of colors. In the real world, there is a difference. It's not always easy when the difference is you."

Autumn Stauffer talks about being black and Mennonite at