Showalter: God still tends roots

Mar 12, 2018 by

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Fran Martin, a Mennonite woman in eastern Pennsylvania, accompanied a friend to India 10 years ago. She was certain she would never return to India. She was wrong.

Richard Showalter


While there, she met a young West Bengali Christian who had grown up begging on trains to assist his handicapped parents put a little food on the table. Jagannath Banerjee was orphaned in his teens and came back home from a South Indian school with nothing except a vision to reach his people for Christ. Martin became his “mother,” and during the next decade, God forged an east/west partnership in mission through them.

That is, we thought it was new until a few weeks ago. Last autumn my wife, Jewel, and I set out with him on a tour of new Bengali house fellowships.

Banerjee thought Mennonites had served in the western corner of West Bengal and asked if we’d like to visit.

“Why not?” we said. “Maybe it has something to do with the first Old Mennonite mission to India in 1899.”

Before we arrived in Balarampur, the pieces began falling into place. We learned that Banerjee, some of his earliest Christian mentors and other leaders in today’s house-church movement traced their spiritual lineages back to that spot.

There we saw the now-abandoned buildings of Bengali Bible Institute, the first such Bengali-language school in modern history, founded in 1963. Banerjee and others of his friends and mentors had been discipled through it. Together we learned to our surprise that it had self-identified as Mennonite.

“What kind of Mennonites?” we wondered. In one old campus building we met a former teacher who is now overseer for a group of Mennonite congregations. He didn’t know much about how they got there, but he knew that they are part of the United Missionary Church and that they are Mennonite.

“You can learn more when you get to Kolkata,” he said.

“OK,” we thought, “these were from Fort Wayne, Ind. They no longer identify as Mennonite in the U.S., but they have Anabaptist roots, and here they are still Mennonite.”

But there were other missing pieces. Isaac Burkholder, a close friend of Banerjee’s from Chambersburg, Pa., had found an old letter written to his great-uncle from Amos Horst, newly arrived missionary in Balarampur in 1905, well before the Fort Wayne Mennonites had come in the 1920s. Horst had eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite roots. We wondered who he was and how he got to West Bengal.

When we arrived in Kolkata, the final pieces began to fall into place.

“There was a Hephzibah Faith Mission in those years,” said Joren Barumata, current Indian Mennonite leader and former member of the Mennonite World Conference executive committee. “Horst came with them. But I don’t know much about Hephzibah. It merged with the United Missionary Church in the 1940s.”

We were coming full circle. In 2007 Fran Martin from Chambersburg met Banerjee from West Bengal, and a “new” partnership was formed. Yet 100 years earlier, Anabaptists, some with roots in her own home town, had first come to West Bengal. Furthermore, it was through their initiatives that Ban­erjee and other leaders of the current house-church movement were first discipled.

Both Indians and Americans sat in awe, reflecting on God links neither had imagined. Two towns and two little groups of Christians, American and Indian, reconnected in mission after a century.

Richard Showalter lives in Irwin, Ohio, and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.

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