When Rick Castaneda moved to Harrisonburg twenty years ago, he immediately felt at home in the rolling hills of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
“I found a niche where I felt appreciated and acknowledged, and where I could help others,” said Castaneda, who identifies as a Mexican-American Mennonite.
As a child, Castaneda practiced Catholicism devoutly, walking nearly two miles to attend Mass on Sundays with his siblings. But in middle school, his family moved to Lancaster, Penn. — a “Mennonite Mecca” — and his Mexican stepfather began work at a Spanish-speaking church where immigrants comprised most of the congregation. “At that point, I thought all Mennonites were Hispanic,” Castaneda said.
He soon started to see parallels between Hispanic and Mennonite culture: large families, food, community, and lively celebrations. The similarities resonated; He was baptized as a Mennonite at age 16.
The Mennonites, theological cousins of the Amish, have lived in the Harrisonburg, Va., area since the middle of the eighteenth century. Pockets of traditional Mennonites dot the area — those who don “plain dress” and travel via horse-and-buggy — as does as a larger population of assimilated Mennonites, who wear contemporary clothes and use current technology.
For all the Mennonites’ quiet constancy, the demographics of their neighbors have shifted dramatically in recent years. The area’s poultry and farming industries attracted a large influx of Central American immigrants. In 1988, Harrisonburg became home to a refugee resettlement center, increasingly serving Muslim families fleeing the Middle East. English language learners in area public schools swelled from ten to thirty-four percent of all K–12 students over two decades. They speak 48 home languages.
In fact, it's in the school districts that the Mennonite community has emerged as a particularly active presence, urging an embrace of diversity.
Jeremy Aldrich, Foreign Language Coordinator for Harrisonburg City Public School (HCPS), compared the local Mennonites’ effect to a “yeast that makes the whole dough rise… their impact is far beyond what their numbers would suggest.”
In a time of anti-immigrant fervor, religious distrust, and high political polarization, the peace-building Mennonites in Harrisonburg provide one robust model of how to transcend nationalism and bridge divides. Though relatively modest in size, they are showing how even a small group can affect major, positive change, shaping the hearts and minds of the local ecosystem.
“Mennonites have a unique global outlook on the inclusion and celebration of folks from other cultures,” RaMona Stahl, the Welcome Center coordinator for HCPS, said. Stahl, who earned a degree in social work from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrsionburg, says she did not say the Pledge of Allegiance in school as a young girl, believing her loyalty was to all peoples. “‘God and country’ — those things really shouldn’t be wed,” she said. “‘God and countries,’ yes. But not ‘country,’ singular.”
“They bring people in from all over the world,” said Stahl. “When that’s a part of what you do as an institution, there is a certain osmosis.”
And in fact, the global perspective at EMU — considered an institutional leader for the faith — diffuses into the work of local schools. As my colleague Amaya Garcia and I explore in a new report, A Critical Mass: Creating Comprehensive Services for Dual Language Learners in Harrisonburg, the district has recently invested in building out its Welcome Center (led by Stahl), expanding the number of bilingual home-school liaisons (like Castaneda), and launching Spanish-English dual immersion programs that integrate native English and Spanish speakers in four of the district’s five elementary schools.
On a recent school day, dual immersion teacher Camila Pandolfi sat in front of the classroom’s SmartBoard at Waterman Elementary School, instructing her kindergarteners. Students listened attentively from the carpet with wide eyes and crossed legs. She polled the class on what they would eat for lunch to practice their counting skills: “¿Cuántas personas van a comer un sándwich de jamón?” (How many people are going to eat a ham sandwich?)” she asked. Little hands shot into the air. One student rose up on his knees, scanning the room to tally: “Siete (seven),” he replied. “Escríbelo, por favor (Write it, please),” Pandolfi said, motioning for the student to come to the board.
Pandolfi immigrated to Harrisonburg in middle school and graduated from EMU in 2012. She said she draws on her personal and educational experiences to design inclusive instruction for all her students.
For many EMU-trained teachers, a distinct spiritual thread runs through the culturally responsive work they do. Stahl said her coursework at EMU emphasized how public service entails “having integrity on all fronts… living out our personal faith while respecting boundaries.”
Castaneda shared a similar sentiment: “As a Christian, I work in schools and I bring my faith everyday, and I never utter a word about it...In my school alone, there are a ton of other people of different faiths that teach them to love and have compassion.”
More than ever, EMU and the broader Mennonite community are unique assets for Harrisonburg and the region. Strongly-held beliefs about inclusion — religious or otherwise — are powerful when they translate into tangible action. In many ways, the town’s Mennonites offer a compelling example of conscious choices to humanize, rather than demonize, the other.
“My faith teaches me to welcome the stranger,” Castaneda said. “It’s this idea of sameness and togetherness. I see you in me, and I see me in you.”