Born in the Netherlands in 1496, Menno Simons was a Roman Catholic priest who became an influential Anabaptist religious leader after being excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1536. A contemporary of the Protestant Reformers, he, along with his followers, became known as Mennonites. Through his writings, he held certain beliefs about Jesus with great conviction despite persecution by various Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant states. These opinions were codified in the Dordrecht Confession of Faith in 1632, which affirmed “the baptism of believers only, the washing of the feet as a symbol of servanthood, church discipline, the shunning of the excommunicated, the non-swearing of oaths, marriage within the same church,” strict pacifistic physical nonresistance, anti-Catholicism and in general, more emphasis on “true Christianity” involving “being Christian and obeying Christ” as they interpret it from the Holy Bible.

In the late 1600s, Simons was linked with another Anabaptist leader, Jacob Ammann. Because of the extreme positions that Simons felt Ammann supported, such as “shunning and other innovations, the two factions split, and Ammann went off to establish the Amish faith.

James Henry Lark, Jr.

The grandson of an enslaver, Joseph Edward Glover (1809-1879), and his enslaved housekeeper, a woman named Mary Ann Bird Gibson, James Henry Lark, Jr. was born on May 4, 1889, in Savannah, Georgia, to Leila Glover, the “masters” runaway mulatto daughter, and a Black man, named James Henry Lark, Sr, from Augusta, Georgia. Four years later, Leila was alleged to have been murdered. With details unknown, her death certificate only gives the cause of death as “undisclosed.” The following year, James died under the same circumstances, and once again, the death certificate provides the cause of death as “undisclosed.” Orphaned at age five, little James Jr. was returned to his grandmother, where he lived to the age of twelve; when unable to withstand the ill-treatment he is said to have received, he ran away to Washington D.C. to his father’s brother, Alexander.

In 1917, he was raised by his uncle and his aunt. During WWI, he enlisted in the army and was sent to France. Returning in 1918, he married his uncle’s daughter, his first cousin, Rowena Winters Lark. The family settled first in Maryland and later in Washington and began attending a Mennonite Church. In the early 1920s, James bought a 103-acre farm in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, where he assisted in raising the couple’s six children while Rowena taught school in Washington, one hundred and sixty miles south.

Following a study conducted by Goshen College, a four-year Mennonite liberal arts school, James and Rowena were asked by the Mennonite church to work in Chicago with the urban (Black) poor. James agreed, believing that by doing so, spiritual and financial power would be placed in his hands to strengthen Black churches. While that didn’t materialize as planned, on October 6, 1946, the Mennonite church ordained him as a minister, and on September 26, 1954, he became the organization’s first Black bishop. Over the next forty years, James and Rowena would work with mainly Black families living in poverty across the United States and Canada. Their work was not easy, and for several years, they were subjected to Jim Crow laws of the South, as the Mennonite church looked the other way, in some cases even upholding positions of the Confederate South. Still, they persevered, albeit not without some collateral consequence to their family.

James and Rowena Lark were my maternal grandparents.

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