'Through the Desert Goes Our Journey'

Late morning, June 3, 2007. Already the air hangs thick with a dusty, humid heat. We’re wandering the tumbled-down remains of a sandy graveyard located between two sets of train tracks. Twenty-odd Americans, wiping off the mostly illegible faces of tombstones. Around us, Uzbek locals cluster in groups, pausing from their morning tasks to watch: Americans don’t often come to this part of the country. You won’t find the nearby village of Serabulak on any souvenir maps, nor listed in the guidebooks.

We’re 10 sweaty days into the chase. Scholars, writers, filmmakers, descendants of those involved—we are searching for clues to the presence of a group of Mennonites who, in the 1880s, passed through this village on their way from Russia to Shar-i-Sabz, Uzbekistan—the site, they urgently believed, where Jesus Christ would descend from heaven to inaugurate his kingdom. It was a monumental trek through desert and difficulty, crossing 2,000 miles of territory they knew little about.

But time’s hand has worked its obscuring magic. After Jesus Christ didn’t descend bodily on March 8, 1889, at 8 a.m. (as one of their leaders had predicted), the community disappeared less than 50 years later under Stalin’s duress. Save one dissertation decades ago, research on the adventure is scant. Outside of Mennonite circles few Christians are aware of these eschatologically hopeful Anabaptists.

How then does revisiting the century-old story of an apocalyptic Mennonite community in Uzbekistan engage Christians—and not just Mennonites—today? As history, it offers inspiration for Christian relationship with Muslims. As theology, it offers caution against runaway millennialism. As a tale of shame and communal repression, the retelling counters 100 years of silence

For many Christians, Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin’s comments on CNN in 2003—“I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol,” in reference to a Muslim Somali warlord—was, to paraphrase Hemingway, like opening the wrong door in one’s hotel and seeing something shameful. As Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria wrote, “A few more of these and Osama bin Laden won’t need to make videos anymore. He can just put together the greatest hits of Boykin, Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell and they will make his point nicely—that Americans see all Muslims as enemies.” Zakaria captures a fear felt by many: that as the world binds ever more intimately together via the tightening cords of the Internet, those who follow Jesus and those who follow Muhammad will increasingly find no recourse but to view each other as spiritual enemies.

Enter our group of wayward Mennonites, mid-2007, picking through an Uzbek graveyard. Guided by local word-of-mouth, we’ve bumped and bounced our way to this train-track cemetery. What we know from diaries and letters—most of which have surfaced only in the last 20 years—is that one wagon train of these end-times-seeking Mennonites found it necessary to camp nine months near Serabulak in 1881-82. Nine months: long enough to harvest a crop and construct a mill on a nearby stream; long enough to have weddings and funerals and to build community with the locals. The Muslims allowed the Mennonites to worship in the mosque—Muslims on Friday, Christians on Sunday. Our searching the graveyard, though, yields little—the tombstone dates don’t match the years our Mennonites were here.

A maze of dirt roads later and we’re outside the Kyk-Ota (“Blue Grand­father”) Mosque. It’s the size of a country church; brown, worn, and modest, with a sanctuary not much bigger than a living room. Behind it, amid high grass, another cemetery. On one side, a reflecting pool. Though we hardly believe it, an old photograph confirms that this is the place: a telltale pillar, a distinct arabesque over the archway, doors that match those in the photograph. The day is quiet and sunny. We may be the first Mennonites in Sera­bulak in a century.

For half an hour we walk dazed. We snap pictures and take off shoes to pray inside the mosque; descendants show family photographs and make hand signals (only one of us speaks any Uzbek) to explain our connection with this mosque to the imam. One descendant is the great-great-granddaughter of Claas Epp, one of the trek’s leaders—a leader who eventually declared himself the son of Jesus. She offers the imam a hand-carved myrtlewood bowl. He offers us blessings. We bow, clasping hands together. The gravity is tangible.

Like wanderers through surreal dreamscapes, we make our way to our bus. Astounding as this experience feels, however, it fits with what we’ve been discovering as we retrace: These peaceful Christians built friendships with Muslims—Muslims who, in turn, shepherded the Mennonites through difficulty. In exchange, Mennonites introduced tomatoes, potatoes, dairy cattle, butter, and cheese to Uzbekistan.

Google the word “interfaith” and you’ll come up with “about 5,660,000” results in .12 seconds. But the term wasn’t popularized until the 1960s. Knowing this, the significance—and the example—of these Mennonite-Muslim exchanges in the late 1800s becomes pronounced.

With goodwill as the commerce, this interfaith exchange raises questions for modern followers of Jesus: What kind of ambassadors are Christians sending forth, especially into Muslim regions? Will Christianity be represented by crusader-like bigots or by Christians who do not so much wear their Christianity on their sleeves as simply try to live it?

Long before interfaith dialogue came into vogue, these Mennonites and Muslims—in what must have been a very conscious decision—co-existed. Could we, either as strangers or hosts, behave like that? Since 9/11, a clash of civilizations has been forecast as the unavoidable result of globalization. But the example set by these two footnote-sized groups of believers, nearly forgotten to history, shows the third way: co-existence, without sacrificing either group’s dignity or integrity of belief.

For Muslims and Christians to show hospitality to the stranger—“the least of these”—seems, even now, radically cutting-edge. What’s more, we’re presented with a terrifyingly normal image: ordinary people, people we may easily emulate, confronting each other nonviolently at the frontiers of their civilizations. They managed their interaction peaceably—and in doing so, they may as well have reached into our times, saying firmly: “Here. Try this.”

“THIS IS IT!” wrote David Allen Lewis in Prophecy Watch International just 11 years ago: “We are living in the final era of earth’s history. Soon will come the visible, manifest Kingdom of God.” “I’ll see you when the smoke clears,” adds Michael Rood, a tunic-garbed, sandal-wearing “priest” and former Marine whose “Rood Awakening” publications have garnered an Internet-fueled following. And many everyday Christians too, not just crackpots, believe in a flame-licked apocalypse. A 2002 CNN/Time poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the book of Revelation accurately predicts how the world will one day end.

It’s this same fever that coursed through a faction of Russian Mennonite colonies facing crisis in the 1870s. The Czar had axed, along with serfdom, an exemption from military service granted the Mennonites less than 100 years earlier by Catherine the Great. For Mennonites, whose pacifism defines their Christianity, this spelled chaos. Thousands sailed west seeking the freedoms of the United States. Others dug in, determined to weather the pressure, too comfortable to leave. But one small group—the one whose journey we’ve been retracing—went east toward a rampart-positioned role in the rapture.

Though some trekking eastward chased promises of new land in these just-conquered Russian domains of Central Asia (Russia didn’t require military service of settlers in recently minted protectorates), most went with some notion that they would meet their Lord. Awaiting them, they were assured by charismatic preachers such as Abraham Peters and Claas Epp II, lay the Valley of the Carrots (Shar-i-Sabz, Uzbekistan). There they planned to form a bride community, compared by Epp to the church at Philadelphia in Revelation, a body of Christians making ready for the second coming.

Epp’s predictions—first for March 8, 1889, and later (according to a divination he performed on his office wall-clock) for 1891—proved, of course, quite false. Epp was crushed. He died in 1913, excommunicated from his own community and suffering what was likely schizophrenia. Epp was prone in his later years, says one of his great-great-grandsons now living in Newton, Kansas, to “wearing his white robes and sitting out by the chicken coop staring off into space.”

It’s complicated to dissect the sociological circumstances producing such end-times fervency. But the fact that it exists—and has a deep hold on some segments of the Christian imagination today—demands we engage it.

It requires we ask ourselves what sort of savior our belief systems point to—and what sort we want them pointing to. A Christianity obsessed with the “end-times” neglects the kingdom on earth, offering up a messiah drenched in the blood of conversion and apocalyptic phantasmagoria. Put another way, when the priority is Jesus’ second coming, focusing on earthly matters—poverty, hu­man rights, environmental degradation, education, health care—seems at best trivial and at worst an obstacle to the coming rapturous glory. As Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufman implores Christ­ians to ask of their traditions in his book Jesus and Creativity, “Is this what we choose to identify ourselves with, or do we prefer something else?”

Lest Christians endlessly dash their energies on the rocks of failed prophecy, ever waiting upon a savior “out there” who will, in a right and fiery season, deliver us, we would do well to prefer something else. Specifically, the notion that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. If we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, the focus may inch away from Revelation toward, say, the Sermon on the Mount. As Kaufman puts it, “As the supernaturalism in the Christian story fades away, its radical ethical demands come into sharper focus.”

AND YET, LET’S NOT be too judgmental of the Men­nonites who went east, or of anyone else with a deep-burning hope. For the great Christian task—the work of all religions—is of healing, tikkun olam, which in Hebrew means “to mend and repair the world.”

Last summer’s team of researchers and descendants traveled to Uzbekistan to further a healing process decades overdue. Shame surrounding this story, perpetuated in tight-knit Mennonite communities for a century, persists. Embarrassed by the seeming wide-eyed foolishness of their ancestors, jeered on the school playground by fellow Mennonites, warned to avoid seminary and theological study, descendants of this Great Trek have returned to their communities to begin a retelling.

Sadly, church elders in Mennonite congregations with strong trekker-descended populations have replied with stiff criticism of the retrace itself, saying there’s nothing more to talk about, to let sleeping dogs lie. But defaulting into silence and unremitting repression of this story begs the question: How do Christians heal deep, community-dividing wounds? How do Christians retell old, painful communal stories? When should re-examinations begin, and whose responsibility is it to handle this sensitive task?

Two days after encountering the Kyk-Ota Mosque, we’re back on the bus, contemplating these questions as we depart Khiva, Uzbekistan. In 1884, the Khan of Khiva gave the Mennonites a lush, quiet plot of land. Relieved, the journeyers constructed a village compound. Their white-walled church inspired locals to affectionately dub the community Ak Metchet, meaning “White Mosque.” The Bride Community had found a home. Here Epp’s followers would grow distrustful and disillusioned, and he would recede into the shadows, ostracized and forgotten.

The community, however, did not wither away.

Instead, its members abandoned their millennial fantasies, planted roots, and prospered. Uzbek elders still at Ak Metchet describe the settlers as industrious, caring, quiet people: strict in their beliefs, but willing to share agricultural and cultural knowledge. Famous Uzbek photographer Xudoybergan Devonov (1878-1940), for example, got his start in photography from Ak Metcheter Wilhelm Penner, who provided Devo­nov with his first camera and offered him instruction. When Muham­mad Rahim Khan II built his Nurulla-bai Palace, he asked the Men­nonites to craft an intricate parquet floor like the one he’d seen in St. Petersburg at the czar’s palace. They did, and the floor is still there, a dusty but magnificent tribute to this unique Mennonite-Uzbek relationship.

Thus, from the Uzbek perspective, we didn’t find the narrative of failure passed down in North American Mennonite communities. We found inspiring legends, told by locals, of people whose virtuous living they still extol.

Though little remains of the Mennonite presence, we held a service at the site of the ancient but still-usable Ak Metchet well. During our ceremony, Claas Epp’s great-great-grandson, Nor­man Epp, stepped forward to speak.

“I would like to release Claas’s spirit,” Epp began, “from all the shame he suffered. … Claas was excommunicated from this community. He was allowed to stay here, but his last years were probably pretty miserable.” Raising hands to the sky, Epp continued: “I would like to invite the spirit of Claas Epp back into the Mennonite Church. I would like to forgive him.” Norman’s hands shook as he stepped back. Carrying far beyond our small circle in Uzbekistan that day, the momentum of his call—to forgive, to reconsider, to put judgment aside—provides insight into communal healing.

We discovered that the story we’d known, about a group of fanatics, was unknown to Uzbeks. It was only half the truth. History, we’d come 10,000 miles to learn, is always more complex than the polarizing received narratives we trust as fact. Healing, then, requires complicating our narratives and staying vigilant about the stories we tell ourselves, so that we might discern when to reconsider, when to suss out accounts more appropriate for our times. As Joyce Appleby writes in her post-postmodern Telling the Truth About History, “The effort to establish a historical truth itself fosters civility. Since no one can be certain that his or her explanations are definitively right, everyone must listen to other voices. All histories,” continues Appleby, “are provisional; none will have the last word.”

In Christian terms, this means rereading our lives and our ancestors’ lives. Forgiven and then given a proper recasting, history begins teaching us the lessons we most need to learn: Nothing is simple, “truth” is in the eye of the beholder, and but for the ever-ins­crutable grace of God, there go you or I.

WE CANNOT IGNORE the chiliasm, the apocalyptic beliefs, of the trekkers, even if it doesn’t enter Uzbek legend. Though end-times convictions represent only part of the story, their apocalypticism still forms a real and troublesome concern for Christians anywhere. Many scholars and theologians—Christian and otherwise—shrug off millennialism as a fading star. They are, the present record seems to confirm, wrong.

As the tale of the Mennonites of Uzbekistan is retold and re-evaluated, we should hope it’s integrated into a larger Christian mosaic, bestowing examples and raising questions for the faithful and suspicious alike. Even now, more than 100 years later, these stern-faced Mennonites, by the very fact of their existence, demand we examine our way in the world. We may salute their passions but disagree with their choices. It’s that discernment that matters most.

Jesse Nathan is a writer and photographer from Berkeley, California, an associate editor at McSweeney’s, and a contributing editor for Geez. He and Walter Ratliff of the Associated Press are producing a documentary about the Great Trek and the 2007 re-trace journey, due out in October 2008.

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"'Through the Desert Goes Our Journey'"
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