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