A unique MB congregation in the Appalachian Mountains highlights a rare hybrid of culture and faith
By Chris Eidse
Walk with me on this warm, sunny morning up a narrow road named Church Street. We can hear the street’s namesake almost before we see it. The front door of the church is open and pouring out is the sound of clapping, exuberant vocals, wailing guitar solos and a driving bass guitar and drum beat.
You might picture this as a young church with a praise band playing Hillsong United or David Crowder. But no top 40 Christian contemporary songs are heard on Church Street. Instead, it's songs by Donnie McClurkin, Mahalia Jackson and Hezekiah Walker that fill the air.
If you are familiar with these artists then you might assume that this congregation belongs to one of the renowned African-American denominations—maybe an African Methodist Episcopal or an African-American Baptist church. Yet, here in the heart of Boone, NC, is a vibrant Mennonite Brethren church that is the only historically black church in the county.
This historic congregation—Boone MB Church—that has stood for almost 100 years is a symbol of missions that got it right. It is filled with the rich culture and music of its surrounding community and is also founded on the solid theology of the Mennonites. How did something like this happen? How did two different cultures combine to form this unique church in the Appalachian Mountains?
This history has been documented in several publications but Black History Month gives us another opportunity to highlight this great story, shining a spotlight on this rare hybrid of culture and faith.
When I was in Bible school studying contemporary missiological issues, one of the hot topics was that of missionaries transferring their culture along with their theology. We studied examples of missionaries coercing tribal Africans to wear “Christian” clothing and forcing Native Americans to get “Christian” haircuts and speak the “godly” language of English. I left that course with a real understanding of how difficult it is to teach the way of Jesus without destroying the good and unique cultural expressions of the community.
I also realized that there are parts of cultures that may be unbiblical and unhealthy and need to be brought under the truth of the Bible. If we could only share Jesus, keep the good cultural traditions and guide people away from the bad ones. This difficult balancing act is at the heart of missions and is much more difficult than it sounds.
The Mennonite missionaries that came to North Carolina really seemed to get a lot of the balancing act right.
Henry and Elizabeth Wiebe served in North Carolina from 1900 to 1908; Joseph and Katherine Tschetter from 1903 to 1925; and Peter and Katherine Siemens from 1925 to 1956. They all responded to the call, moved to the South and did all that they could to teach and live the love of Jesus among the small African-American population deep in the mountains.
The missionaries began their work in Elk Park, a city that today has a “mixed race” population of just 1 percent. The city of Boone, home of the oldest Mennonite Brethren church, has an African-American population of 3.2 percent and Watauga County has an African America population of only 1.7 percent. These statistics indicate how hard it must have been when this ministry to the African-American community was established.
The missionaries managed to run a school, build an orphanage and start churches in a very difficulttime. They stood up to the KKK (Ku Klux Klan) and truly believed that all human beings are created in the image of God. When the missionaries left, the churches continued on with a rich cultural expression that was intact and vibrant. Local leadership took over and the congregation in Boone thrived in the years following the Mennonite missionaries.
How did these missionaries do it? How did they get it right? In reading through the historical accounts, four things stand out.
They enabled local leaders to lead. Handing over the reins is a difficult job for a lot of leaders but a church’s days are numbered if this cannot be done successfully. These missionaries were able to hand over the ministry to great leaders like Ronda "Rondo" Horton and Rockford Hatton. Rev. Horton and Rev. Hatton are renowned in Boone and were an integral part of the African-American community. The Mennonite missionaries identified key leaders, let them do what they were gifted to do and then passed the leadership baton.
They left cultural expression intact. It is no secret that Mennonite churches are not historically known for their charismatic and energetic worship practices. Drums and electric guitars have become commonplace in recent decades, but there is rarely dancing in the aisles and regular shouts of spirited praise.
The sincerity and spirituality of the African-American population was an inspiration to the early missionaries. The missionaries spoke highly of the sincere worship and song. From reading their accounts, these missionaries didn't bring God to the godless. Rather, they found where God was already at work and partnered with him in his work. This was an important factor with a lasting impact. This African-American cultural expression in worship is still alive and well in the North Carolina MB churches.
They were bold and courageous in their mission. The missionaries boldly went against the cultural grain of racism that plagued the South. They received death threats saying, “Your time is up today.” The Klan showed up at church with robes and weapons, and the missionaries stood their ground and urged the white-hooded members to come back to church to hear the truth of their preaching. One of the missionaries even knelt down to accept death at the hands of racist residents but was spared.
With all the hardships, not only did these missionaries endure, they even prospered, expanding their impact and their ministry. When no other teachers would come to teach the African-American children, the Mennonites responded. When needy children showed up at their doors, they built facilities to house them. When people had nowhere to worship, churches were constructed. When asked what they would do if the Klan ran them out of town, Peter Siemens replied, “If they send us on the train we’ll be back on the next train, but if you send us in coffins we cannot come back.”
They were centered on prayer. When the Klan showed up, the ministers prayed. When one of the ministers was on his knees facing death, he prayed for his accusers only to look up from his prayer to see that they had gone. When the trials became larger, their prayers became more fervent. Their prayers were anything but passive. These prayers became peaceful and creative solutions to violent threats. On several occasions their prayers literally disarmed their accusers.
In a time where it's easy to point fingers at the many mistakes people have made under the umbrella of Christianity, it's good to point out the success stories. The story of the multiracial Mennonite Brethren churches of North Carolina is a testament to the harmony that grows when cultures come together.
Today six congregations comprise the North Carolina MB Conference: Boone MB Church in Boone, Darby MB Church in Ferguson, The Life Center in Lenoir, Laytown MB Church in Laytown, West End MB Church in Lenoir and Beech Bottom MB Church in Newland. These strong churches stand as a lasting legacy of people who were ahead of their time. People who desegregated before it was mandated because the love of Jesus compelled them to love their neighbor as themselves.
As we observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January and Black History Month now in February, let us remember the many Christians that got things right.
Chris Eidse is currently the pastor of the multi-ethnic Boone (NC) MB Church. For the previous six years, Eidse, his wife, Rebecca, and their two daughters have served the North Carolina District Conference as the district youth pastor and part-time as the associate pastor at Bushtown MB Church in Lenoir. The Boone congregation is currently partnering with Mission USA to enhance their community outreach. Visit them online at www.boonechurch.com, www.facebook.com/boonechurch.