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Archives as ministry: An Anabaptist approach to the historical record

Colleen McFarland, archivist for Mennonite Church USA

This piece is reprinted courtesy of The Mirror, a bimonthly publication of Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society. Colleen McFarland is archivist for Mennonite Church USA.

By Colleen McFarland

Twenty years ago, when I was eagerly anticipating my graduation from the College of Wooster (Ohio) with a shiny new bachelor of arts in German and history, I could not have imagined myself as an archivist of the Mennonite Church. I would have laughed heartily at the prospect of having any calling or ministry, and I probably would have told you it was more likely that I would have a career in the NFL.

After several years of graduate study, I settled for a career in librarianship. I decided to become an archivist only after I began paying close attention to what I loved about my work as a reference librarian. I delighted in helping library users find primary sources—the first-hand accounts of historical events or phenomena that are the backbone of the study of history. And the kind of primary source I enjoyed the most were people’s stories from the past—the diary of a gold rush bride, the life narrative of a Herrero herdsman as told to a missionary, an oral history interview with a Hispanic migrant worker in California, the correspondence of a French soldier to his sweetheart during World War I.

Visiting people from the past through historical documents is like visiting people from the present who inhabit another country or culture. We may choose to close ourselves to them because they are not like us or condemn them for not being like us. Or we may seek to understand the source of our difference, cultivate compassion and love for them in spite of that difference, and welcome them into fellowship with us.

I love enabling present-day researchers to welcome strangers from the past into their minds and their hearts—facilitating radical hospitality. I love it when researchers laugh with, cry for, or express outrage on behalf of the stranger they are studying. I know something amazing has occurred when a student researcher simply cannot stop reading old letters or diaries—despite the difficult handwriting and funny spellings—because they have to know how things turn out in the end.

And that’s only half of it! I also love bringing new life to the dead. I love honoring them simply for having lived and gone through all that living entails. I love the exposure of the silent (or sometimes not so silent) injustices they experienced and committed, and I love holding the hope that they know the belated work of reconciliation has begun.

The beautiful, complicated, and messy place where this important work happens—where the living and the departed comingle, where the Communion of Saints is almost palpable—is the archives. And I, the archivist, am like the boy in the miracle of the loaves and fishes as told in the Gospel of John—the boy who brings forward the five loaves and two fish to feed the crowd. I offer up the historical record, inadequate though it is, and I witness the miracle of Christian community formed across time.

So, what exactly is an archives? I get that question a lot. An archives is a library of unpublished documents. It may hold the noncurrent records of an organization, institution, or corporation, such as meeting minutes and annual reports. It may hold manuscripts donated by private individuals and families, including diaries, letters, and scrapbooks. We collect nontextual documents: films, photographs, and oral history interviews. We are trying to figure out how to collect blogs, “born digital” documents, and e-mail.

And we provide access to nearly everything we collect. The openness of archives has been critically important to Mennonite history. Many of the accounts of Anabaptist martyrdom told in the Martyrs Mirror had been forgotten until Van Braght’s research in the city archives of Amsterdam and Dordrecht gave them new life.

It was not a Mennonite archives that preserved these stories, but a government archives. As a denominational archivist, it is interesting to me that Christian churches, as institutions that show reverence and respect for tradition, often engage very superficially with their own history—as if tradition and history were two completely unrelated things.

The ancient Greek word for tradition, paradosis, literally means “handed over.” Not “handed down”— which, to me, suggests the passive reception of something more for show than for use— but “handed over,” suggesting a more active relationship with what is received, and an imperative to use it to our best purpose.

When Mennonites share in communion a few times a year rather than every week, we see tradition at work. But do we understand the tradition? Do we know why it evolved? Are we aware that it has been handed over to us, for us to use as it serves us in Christian mission? Or does it just make us feel good? Does it display our pride in what makes us different from other Christians? Does it fulfill our nostalgia for the church of the 1950s—the church we attended because our parents and neighbors did? Does it help us feel secure and allow us to retreat into something safe and unchanging in a world of constant risk and change?

Religious archives provide us with clues for answering such questions. Come visit me in the archives, and I will, quite literally, hand a box of history over to you. And you will be invited to grapple with a past not your own, but one that is resplendent with the trials and tribulations, joys and sufferings of another who endeavored to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The Christian tradition of living a life informed by the Gospel is the most important tradition we have. That is a tradition that truly spans all times, places, genders, and ages. That is a tradition not simply to be revered, but to be taken up and incorporated into our lives as we seek to become faithful disciples.

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Colleen McFarland is archivist for Mennonite Church USA.

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jennifer graber

October 25, 2014 10:43 am Reply

My father was in PAx and was a photographer. I have photos and contact sheets, and possibly negatives. I do not know if anyone is interested.