Mennonites join Women’s March on Washington
Social media connects group to sing, walk together at national protest
WASHINGTON — Wilma Harder felt stronger with every rest stop she visited driving from Goshen, Ind., to Washington to join the Women’s March Jan. 21.
The numbers of women wearing knitted, pink hats with cat ears seemed to multiply the closer her carload got to D.C. But people didn’t need to be wearing the pink hats for her to know their destination.
“You could just look at people and see it,” she said. “The combination of joy, determination, exuberance and friendliness gave it away. We all had that look in our eyes of ’ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.’ ”
She and her wife, Barb Swartley, attend Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen. They gathered with 100 or so other Mennonites to sing, stand and walk together to join the estimated 500,000 people taking part in the march.
Wendy Chappell-Dick, who attends First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio, organized the meeting of Mennonites by creating an invitation-only Facebook group in November. She wanted to march with other Mennonites, and social media was an easy way to share a location in real time.
Facebook group members grew to nearly 600 by march day. Chappell-Dick requested attendees add their names to a spreadsheet she shared in the group. It listed 203 names on Jan. 23.
She decided to print “Mennonites” on a large banner to carry. She, her daughter and four or five others held the banner at an intersection near the march and sang songs shared beforehand through the Facebook group for an hour as Mennonites arrived. Hundreds of passers-by clapped or stopped to listen on their way to the march.
“Right now the Mennonite church feels so divided, but connecting like this just seems to soar past all of the conference divides,” Chappell-Dick said.
She also organized two charter buses from Bluffton, with 112 riders, 40 of whom were Mennonite. Posts to the Facebook group indicated Mennonite-carrying buses also journeyed from Lancaster, Pa., South Bend, Ind., and Harrisonburg, Va., including two from Eastern Mennonite University. The Bluffton and Lancaster groups participated in nonviolence training before boarding their buses. At least four Mennonite women traveled from Toronto.
Chappell-Dick said 10 Bluffton Mennonites who couldn’t attend came to her independent of each other, wanting to help fund seats on the bus for women of color. Seven trips were funded as a result.
While white women made up the majority of marchers, the demonstration involved a six-hour program of speakers and musicians, largely women of color representing national organizations working toward women-related causes.
Cecily Castle said she enjoyed singing with and representing Mennonites along with six of her family members. She and her mother, Anita Pannell Castle, came from New York City where they attend Infinity Mennonite Church in Harlem. Melody Pannell, an assistant professor of social work at EMU, joined them. Their cousins John, Holly, Leah and Anna Nissley attended from Elizabethtown, Pa.
The family explained together why they were there.
“I decided to come because this is a pivotal moment in history and to send a message that I’m not OK with racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., at all,” Cecily Castle said, noting the action fits with her Mennonite upbringing. “We were raised to love thy neighbor and to show grace and mercy.”
John Nissley said he was there because “when one group is marginalized we lose something great.”
His daughter, Leah Nissley, said, “The story of America should not be one person’s story.”
“It should be all of our stories together, because that’s what makes us great,” Anita Pannell Castle added. “There’s a reason people come here from all over the world.”
And, Leah said, freedom of thought is emphasized in the Anabaptist tradition.
“It encourages thinking for yourself,” she said, comparing it to Catholicism’s more top-down approach to belief.
“Mennonites were radicals,” Anita said. “They came here for freedom, and so we should be here marching for freedom. The Mennonites believe in peace and love, so we should be here marching for peace and love against someone who is standing for violence and hatred.“
As Mennonites, Chappell-Dick said, it feels natural to be at odds with the government.
“In this case it also feels incredibly urgent for women,” she said. “As the Mennonite church grows in our understanding of equality of women, we have to speak up so that we don’t go backward.”
Chappell-Dick said she knew the marching Mennonites represented varying beliefs. One woman contacted her concerned about what messaging the group represented. She said they had no message beyond the march’s vision.
“Even if we don’t have a unified message, we’re going to hold each other up,” she said. “We are going to agree to disagree and walk side by side. This march is pro-women, so we are going to support each other without blame or shame.”
While women’s issues were a concern of Debbie Turner’s, she attended in large part to stand up for people without documentation. She attends Lindale Mennonite Church near Harrisonburg. Her family is helping to sponsor education at EMU for a woman who came to the U.S. from Honduras at a young age.
“We don’t want to see her sent back to a place she doesn’t even remember,“ Turner said.
It was a sentiment echoed in the messages of many of the day’s speakers, in addition to promoting environmental justice, racial justice, education, economics, reproductive rights and basic human rights. One thing almost every speaker emphasized was that this action should be the start of something, not the end.
In the same spirit, Chappell-Dick left her “Mennonites” banner with Hyattsville (Md.) Mennonite Church.
“I believe that this is an era where Mennonites will have to stand up often,” she said. “We’ll be using this banner again.”
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