From Fort Peachtree to Atlanta: The Mennonite
by Sarah Kehrberg
black and white table that once served meals at the Mennonite
House in Atlanta, Ga., has taken on mythic proportions as Mennonites
get ready to meet in the southern city this summer. It is the
inspiration for the convention's theme: "God's Table Y'All
Come." Because the original table cannot be found, carpenters
and artists from around the country are making similar ones to
bring to the weeklong meeting and worship event. These divided
yet unified tables will be symbols of a diverse church that is
bonded in profound ways.
Of course, the original table's history is not so neat and
tidy. There were times of misunderstanding, petty fighting, and
distrust in its past. But those eventually disappear leaving
the surrounding unity, love, reconciliation, and best intentions
that were present from the beginning.
And in truth, the table is only one part of the larger Atlanta
Mennonite story, which began half a century ago and continues
From Fort Peachtree to Atlanta
Atlanta, Ga., is a young city by most standards. It began
commonly enough as Fort Peachtree during the War of 1812. In
1825, the Creek Indians ceded over their lands to the State of
Georgia, but the Cherokee Indians were not so easily persuaded.
Despite widespread assimilation to European culture and customs,
the Cherokee were forcibly removed from their Georgia lands in
1835 by the U.S. government, led by President Andrew Jackson,
in the tragic Trail of Tears.
Mennonite Voluntary Service
It took another 120 years or so for Mennonites to discover
Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) of Lancaster Mennonite Conference
had short-term Voluntary Service (VS) personnel serving in Atlanta
sporadically in the 1950s, but the intentional outreach
in the city began with Hershey and Norma Leaman.
The Leamans, longtime overseas missionaries, are generally
credited by oral history as being among the first Mennonites
to make Atlanta both their home and mission field. Hershey went
to study in Atlanta in 1955, and the couple began to encourage
EMM to start a Voluntary Service unit there.
From its beginning in October 15, 1958, the unit in Atlanta
fit into the mission of the EMM Voluntary Service. This was to
be a service opportunity for young adults of the Lancaster Conference,
a resource of personnel from which to start a local congregation
or support an already existing group, and general one-on-one
outreach. A fourth mission that emerged as the Vietnam War escalated
and the government continued to draft its young men was the placement
and administration of I-W men. In fact, in 1964, the Mission
Board officially took over the Peace Committee (of Lancaster
Conference) and merged it with the VS program under the name
"Voluntary Service and I-W Committee." During the most
vigorous years of the draft (roughly 1967-70) there were generally
three to five couples in Atlanta, though single people also served.
Almost all the men were I-W and worked in either the Grady Memorial
Hospital or the Crawford Long Hospital.
In the 1972 Annual Report, Donald B. Kraybill, director of
the Voluntary Service and I-W Committee wondered rhetorically
if VS was necessary anymore since the draft call was so much
lower than earlier years. Kraybill, of course, was arguing for
its continuing merit, but the Atlanta unit and others started
in the war years, were eventually shut down in the mid-seventies.
A congregation is born
The unit was not a failure, however. A local church had been
started and continues to the present day as Berea Mennonite Church.
In support of the second mission of starting a local congregation,
the Elvin Martin family moved to Atlanta as mission workers,
also in 1958, to assist "the unit in their community outreach."Already
in the first year they developed a club and crafts program with
the schoolchildren in their community and began conducting Sunday
evening services, which were open to all. In 1962, a church building
was purchased and the first baptisms of new members celebrated.
As the church grew to be more self-supporting, it "became
evident the church feels that they do not need as many VSers
as formerly in their area. There seems to be some fear that too
many will stifle the growth of their local members." Consequently,
a second unit was opened in a different part of the city. There
were attempts to start additional churches both in Atlanta and
in Albany, Ga., but neither was successful.
Berea Mennonite is credited as being one of the very first
racially integrated churches in the city of Atlanta. Today Berea
is a small church of 50-60 worshipers that even now is in the
minority as a church where multiple skin colors, ethnicities,
and backgrounds are represented. Former pastor Jonathan Larson
quoted Martin Luther King Jr., when he said, "There is no
more segregated hour in America than 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning."
ministry of Vincent and Rosemarie Harding
Three years after the EMM first made an official presence
in Atlanta, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) also moved to town,
though under different circumstances and with a varied mandate.
Vincent Harding was the associate pastor at Woodlawn Mennonite
Church in Chicago when he and his wife, Rosemarie, a social worker,
were invited by the Peace Section of MCC to move south and begin
"an experimental project" in which "young people
from our churches would come … to serve without salary
in Negro institutions … not simply because we believe
in desegregation, but more importantly because we believe that
the way of Christ is the way of love and serve for and with all
men." They would also serve as a "kind of roving peace
representative" in an "attempt to help both Negro and
white Christians to grasp a fuller meaning of the gospel of love
in the midst of racial conflict."
In October 1961 the Hardings took a move of faith and went
to the chosen city of Atlanta. While Atlanta was in the South
(and thus fully segregated), they believed it was "not of
it." It had a more liberal approach to race relations and
"the Negro desegregation leadership (including King) are
using it as a base." After buying a large building on Houston
Street, which was dubbed "Mennonite House" by the Quakers
who had a similar "Quaker House," the Hardings settled
into their new assignment.
the end of that first summer Vincent wrote, "The life of
our family together at Mennonite House was one of the most meaningful
parts of our experience in Atlanta." The 13 summer VSers
came from all over the northern United States and Canada, included
Mennonites and non-Mennonites, and ranged "in color from
dark brown to light pink." They lived as a family, eating,
working, and worshiping together. They "put Atlanta traffic
in real difficulty just by appearing together in public day after
day," and because of their radically desegregated lifestyle
had their phone tapped and the house under surveillance by the
police. The VSers served their purpose of working for racial
reconciliation in an atmosphere of charged racial tension by
quietly serving in black establishments as whites or vice versa.
In a news release written by Vincent and Rosemarie, they discussed
the different VSers-Bill Cooper, a recently committed Christian
from university in Toronto; Pauline who worked in Martin Luther
King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference office; and
Liz, a Southern Baptist, who had not realized the leaders of
this program would be black and had trouble shaking Vincent's
hand on first meeting him, but gave hugs all around at the end
of the summer. This was a powerful and intense time, and it was
during this first heady summer that the magnanimous table was
The news release says that Bill and Vincent built it. They
requested $45 in June 1962 for the materials, wanting a "table
large enough to seat us all." It was around this table,
made half of a light, blond maple and half of dark mahogany or
cherry, that "the family's life centered. There we ate together,
spilling over into long discussions. There we worshiped together.
There we confessed our faults to one another, and sought to learn
how really to bear each other's burdens." They also shared
the table with numerous guests of "every color." These
included the Peace Marchers, Coretta Scott King, various neighbors,
and anyone else willing to share "with us the house of reconciliation."
The black and white table was used for several years, but
eventually was lost. Efforts to locate it have not been successful.
After that first summer the stresses of staging a full-scale
reconciliation war on racial segregation and maintaining the
day-to-day operations of a rather large household of varying
personalities started to take its toll.
The VS unit had problems getting I-W status from the National
Service Board for Religious Objectors. The Board couldn't "see
[the Georgia State Director] sticking his neck out in an unproved
situation. … The VS and Peace Section proposal for Atlanta
has not been proved … and is packed with dynamite (as
well as with dynamic) with the south." This issue continued
to make for tensions between the radical racial reconciliation
agenda and the more practical need to place young Mennonite men
in I-W service.
was a constant misunderstanding. It was never clear how much
of the budget came from the Peace Section and how much from Voluntary
Service. The VS director expected this unit to be self-supporting
with the meager wages that the various volunteers made at their
jobs. But Mennonite House was also involved in costly projects:
travel, hosting guests passing through the city, and civil rights
organization work. Most letters from Akron (MCC headquarters)
included some wonderment about how expenses could be kept down.
The Hardings traveled a great deal, which interrupted house
life and took a toll on Vincent and Rosemarie. Part of Vincent's
assignment was, in fact, to travel to the various Mennonite communities
talking about their work and vision in Atlanta. Both Vincent
and Rosemarie also attended numerous conventions and conferences
on civil rights and the southern struggle. They had close ties
with Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders and
often were going to Birmingham or Montgomery or some other southern
city to join in vigils or marches.
In the 18-month review of the program, "the Hardings
recognize that to operate a Mennonite House … requires
more time and guidance than they have been able to give it."
MCC leadership and the Hardings agreed, "there must be more
clarity as to the role and function of Mennonite House."
Was it primarily a base for a VS unit that supported and ministered
to the needs of the workers? Or was it a Christian fellowship
that in its very nature served as a witness to the world and
was able to "assimilate and minister to those who have spiritual
and emotional needs and are searching for answers"? These
issues were never fully resolved. VS workers became more frustrated
over extra guests that came and sometimes stayed for months around
the large, welcoming table, and by the lack of organization in
the House. The Hardings became frustrated with the lack of hospitality
and commitment to the overall mission of racial reconciliation.
Hardings were also at odds with the traditional Mennonite shovels
and buckets model of peace and justice work. Vincent wrote, "As
usual, John Yoder hit the nail on the head at our Peace Section
Executive Committee meeting when he spoke about the uncomfortableness
of the Mennonite church in involving itself in the midst of conflict
and revolution rather than coming along later on to pick up the
pieces." Edgar Stoesz echoed this in a statement on the
goals and mission of the newly created Mennonite House: "As
we refrained from participating in its annihilation, but helped
later to reconstruct Germany, so we decline to participate in
the interracial conflict but seek rather to bring reconciliation
and goodwill. This in no way indicates a passive attitude on
the part of the church but rather selection of an area of the
problem where our contribution, based on our understanding of
the Scriptures and pertaining to human relationships, is most
Vincent, however, saw things differently. Early on he wrote,
"We need somehow to move away from the passivity suggested
by our dependence on the phrase 'nonresistance,' to a new sense
of involvement and participation implied in the term 'peacemakers.'"
He recognized that this meant risk and the danger of "finding
ourselves with strange bedfellows (perhaps on a prison floor),
or of making common cause with those whose ultimate convictions
are not exactly the same as our own." But given the daily
reality of the Negro in the south in 1962, he never doubted that
it was worth the risks.
Putting this belief into practice, Vincent was arrested as
part of a public protest in Albany, Ga., just 160 miles south
of Atlanta. Just months after their arrival in Atlanta, Vincent
and Rosemarie had gone to Albany, where more than 700 people
were arrested for protesting segregation. Over the months, they
stayed in touch with the situation, with Vincent serving as a
mediator between "the mayor, police, segregationists, Negro
leaders, white and Negro ministers." He was jailed in Albany
on July 23, 1962, after refusing to cease praying and move of
the City Hall grounds. MCC sent bail money, and although they
allowed that the decision needed to made in the "context
of Albany," they encouraged Vincent that his "particular
calling … could be better exercised out of jail rather
than in." Vincent ended up spending three days behind bars
when "requests from Dr. Martin Luther King and from Police
Chief Pritchett [a white] brought him out with the chief, himself,
signing the security for the bond."
MCC tried to be supportive of Vincent's arrest, but acknowledged
that the constituency would raise questions. MCC continued to
ask the Hardings not align themselves closely with non-church
And finally, the Hardings were discouraged by the complacency
of Mennonite communities they found in their travels. Not only
were many "totally unaware" of segregation and racial
injustice in their own backyard, but they didn't think there
was anything they could do, picketing, boycotting, and other
forms of protest being seen as inappropriate for a nonresistant
end of an era
In the fall of 1964, the Hardings took a six-month leave of
absence from Mennonite House. Vincent was working on his doctoral
dissertation, and they needed a break. They never went back.
Six months later, in April 1965, J. Winfield Fretz was sent
to Atlanta to review the program and make recommendations for
the future. He ended up suggesting strongly that the unit remain,
but its energies should be directed towards the need for quality,
affordable daycare centers in their communities. Fretz wrote
that the interracial service was multi-sided. It was "more
than fighting directly for civil rights now.'" He felt that
MCC's "reputation, image and genius is that of a Christian
bridge building agency."
Though MCC's active role in civil rights lasted only four
years, the work at Mennonite House was powerful. The Hardings
introduced the Mennonite Church to a more activist position before
the Vietnam War protests and riots began in earnest.
The black and white table of Mennonite House is no longer
in use, but the spirit lives on. The sharp contrast and uniqueness
of white and black still exists, but so does the spirit of unity-in
Berea Mennonite Church, in Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship (started
in the early 1990s), in Celebration Fellowship (an Eastern Mennonite
Missions church plant in 1995), and in the greater Mennonite
Church, we trust for years to come.
Sarah Kehrberg, Lexington, Kentucky, is an editor
at Herald Press. She graduated from Bethel College, North Newton,
Kans., with majors in music and history.
around the table-half maple and half mahogany or cherry-the VS
family "ate together … worshiped together …
confessed our faults to one another, and sought to learn how
really to bear each other's burdens."
(All photographs are from the Mennonite Central Committee Photograph
Collection, Mennonite Church USA Archives-Goshen, Ind.)
and Rosemarie Harding worked "for racial reconciliation
in an atmosphere of charged racial tension," but were "discouraged
by the complacency of Mennonite communities they found in their
Augsburger interviews Vincent Harding on the Mennonite Hour radio
program, September 22, 1963.
VSer Antje Lijsbeth Koopmans from Holland with a preschool child.
House, 540 Houston Street, Atlanta.
Bible school teaching team, 1963.