By Alex Roarty
Mary Beth Martin and Lindsey Martin Corbo each held one side of the large cardboard poster, the mother and her adult daughter eager to deliver a personal if unconventional message to their congressman, Republican Rep. Lloyd Smucker.
“Hey Smucker,” said the sign, written in red, green, and blue marker. “300 years ago our Mennonite family took sanctuary in PA, just like yours did.
“Lancaster values immigrants.”
The anger might have been directed at Smucker, but Martin and Corbo were really there – like 100 others – because of President Donald Trump.
The two women were among a hundred newly engaged activists assembled in Republican-heavy Lancaster County – an area that went to Trump in November by 57 percent – braving toe-freezing temperatures to protest Trump and the lawmaker, who was 200 yards away at a chamber of commerce breakfast.
That Martin and Corbo were protesters was – by their own admission – a remarkable development. Both are members of the Mennonite Church, a religion that encourages its members to stay away from politics just as it asks them to shun the wider culture.
For most of their lives Martin, 57, and her daughter, 30, did just that, occasionally voting for Democrats but rarely paying attention to politics outside the polling booth.
“I’ve never been politically active . . . because we have a really strong belief in separation of church and state,” Martin said. “Mennonites have always felt our allegiance is to Christ, and not to our state.”
But Trump’s presidency, especially his temporary ban on immigration from some Middle Eastern countries, has turned both women – and many other members of this Christian community – into activists.
“For me, with this particular president, it felt like I just can’t be silent,” Martin said.
Anger at Trump – a polarizing figure who retains most of the loyal supporters who made him president in the first place – has spawned what Democrats describe as the largest sustained protest movement since the Vietnam War.
And maybe the most unexpected members of that movement are Mennonites such as Martin and Corbo. Interviews with on-the-ground liberal activists and leaders of Mennonite churches reveal that many in the community have seen Trump’s inauguration as a call to action, in some cases reversing a lifetime of political reclusiveness to oppose the president’s policies.
Two of the four organizers, in fact, of the morning’s protest were Mennonites. Organizations connected to the church have written in opposition to the immigration ban, decrying it as contrary to the church’s values.
Maybe most famously, it was a Mennonite pastor from Harrisonburg, Virginia, who conceived of a sign with the words, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” written in English, Spanish and Arabic. The signs have become a nationwide phenomenon, sold even on Amazon.
“For Mennonites, a lot of times the standard is you’re supposed to turn the other cheek,” Corbo said. “But it also is not meaning to turn a blind eye, you know?”
From pacifism to activism
Mennonites are perhaps best known for their relationship to their theological cousins, the Amish.
The Amish and Mennonites – who are neither Roman Catholics nor Protestants – belonged to the same religion before splitting centuries ago. Even today, they share many of the same beliefs.
The Amish, known for refusing modern-day technology, clothes and lifestyles, just take their conviction further than Mennonites, most of whom participate in everyday American life.
“When you speak about the horse and buggy, you’re talking mostly about the Amish,” said Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, a 75,000-member denomination. (Stutzman was born into an Amish community before switching to the Mennonite faith, a conversion he said was common among Mennonites.)
The Amish and Mennonites each share one famous belief: pacifism, or what Stutzman called “non-resistance.” Members of both faiths have been conscientious objectors for centuries, including during World War II and the Vietnam War.
For decades, the Mennonites’ objection to war was the most notable intersection of their community and politics. But that might be changing now as a result of Trump’s executive order on immigration, a policy he reissued Monday after an earlier version was rebuffed by the courts.
Assisting immigrants, especially refugees, is a central tenant of the Mennonite faith. The plight of immigrants and refugees is especially resonant for many Mennonites, who fled from Europe to the New World hundreds of years ago in the face of religious persecution.
“They have baked into their psyche an understanding of what it means to be a refugee population,” said Michael Shank, a professor at New York University who, as a Mennonite himself, has written on the interaction between his community’s faith and politics.
For many members of the community, it’s also a part of everyday life: Lancaster, where Martin and Corbo live, is said to have the highest per capita population of refugees in the country.
“Mennonites believe we should take the words of Jesus seriously and live out his call to love our neighbor as we love ourselves,” said Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach, director of the Mennonite Central Committee Washington office.
The Mennonite Central Committee has for the last 50 years advocated on behalf of immigrants and refugees to U.S. policy-makers in Congress and the White House. This year, it has issued statements condemning Trump’s actions on everything from his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to his proposal to strip federal funding from so-called “sanctuary cities” for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
Leaders in the community are quick to say that many Mennonites are conservative and many of them likely support Trump and Republicans in Congress. On issues like abortion, the community strongly supports the Republican position opposing it.
Mennonites have also slowly become more politically engaged over the years as many of them have more closely integrated with society, said Stutzman, who has written a book on the subject titled “From Non-Resistance to Justice.”
But Trump might have thrown that conversion into overdrive for some.
“There’s diversity in our church,” Stutzman said. “But on this question of immigrants, the people who have been most involved in actually working with immigration and refugees are the folks who are stirred to action by the Trump administration’s actions.”
‘I cried a lot’
Martin said her family immigrated to Lancaster County from Germany in the mid-1700s. She and her daughter were out of the cold now, drinking coffee as they reminisced about how only a few short months had transformed them from people who had barely paid attention to politics to full-blown activists.
Martin said she always voted in presidential elections, though she noted that her mom voted for the first time in 2008, when she was 83. Corbo said she had voted in presidential elections before, though she also confessed she hadn’t even been aware of the existence of midterm elections until this year.
Her outlook changed in January, the Saturday morning after Trump first issued his executive order on immigration. The news devastated Corbo.
“I cried. I cried a lot,” Corbo said. “We had guests there. I scared my husband because I was not coherent because I was crying. I just thought it was so incredibly mean, the way we were speaking about people who are in a really terrible situation.”
The indefinite ban on refugees from war-torn Syria affected the two women the most. Martin said she volunteered at Church World Service, a social welfare organization that helps resettle refugees in America.
Lancaster is home to many of the refugees, many of whom the two women know personally.
“We felt like we knew the people he was targeting, and they were good people who were in this terrible crisis at home,” Corbo said.
Her mother added, “People want to sponsor them, and still our government won’t allow it to happen.”
Their anger compelled them to take action. They attended the Women’s March on Washington in January before participating in what Corbo described as “every sort of organization and meeting we could attend.”
Corbo joined the local Democratic Party before deciding even that wasn’t enough: She formed her own group to research and track refugees and immigration groups – a remarkable turn for someone who just months earlier rarely even voted.
Of the 20 women who help her, she said, only two were connected to the Democratic Party before Trump’s inauguration.
“My whole group, we are completely new,” Corbo said. “Every single one of us has no political background.”
She laughed off suggestions that she and her group were paid mercenaries, a charge that Republican congressmen have made after a handful of their public town halls were overrun with protesters.
“To me that doesn’t even register, because I’m at the protests and I’ve seen who’s there, and I’m involved in community groups and I’ve seen who’s there,” Corbo said.
“They know it’s wrong,” she added. “They can come and see who’s at the event. They’re walking straight past us.”
Alex Roarty: 202-383-6078, @Alex_Roarty
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