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Black kids in Mennonite families bridge 2 worlds

By Carolyn Davis

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Published: Friday, Dec. 30 2011 7:07 p.m. MST

ADVANCE FOR SATURDAY DEC. 31 AND THEREAFTER In this Sept. 23, 2011 photo, Autumn Stauffer (right), explains to her daughter Lanita, 10, that the stain on her hand were as a result of playing with walnut shells will wear off as brothers Rolando, left, 6, and Malachi, center, 8, look on in Shippensburg, Pa. Autmn Stauffer, is a black Mennonite woman who is raising five children she had with her white husband and three adopted children of color.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, Michael S. Wirtz, Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Janelle and Jasmine Newswanger lead simple, contented lives in one of Pennsylvania's Mennonite communities.

The 17-year-old twins drive a horse-drawn buggy, wear long dresses and white head coverings, and see their friends at church on Sundays.

Done with education at 14, after finishing eighth grade, Jasmine works as a teacher's aide, and Janelle helps her mother around the house, speaking Pennsylvania Dutch and English.

The girls blend in with the people in their lives, set apart in only one way.

Janelle and Jasmine are African American.

They are among about 100 children, most of them black, born to women who were incarcerated at Pennsylvania prisons and sent by their mothers to Mennonite foster families in central Pennsylvania as part of an informal caretaking program. About 29 remain in Mennonite homes.

The children navigate two worlds as they grow up in white insular cultures.

Some, like Janelle and Jasmine, have been with Mennonite families for years and ultimately adopted. Others continue in a temporary status as their birth mothers struggle with addiction, the law, and their parenting roles.

These young lives upend and bend notions of community, family, identity — and what makes a happy, healthy childhood when birth parents are unavailable.

The popular image of Mennonites is of stoic, white followers in the countryside. Yet blacks, originally recruited by missionaries, have been in the flock for years, including in Philadelphia and other cities.

In 1897, the first African Americans in the United States were baptized as Mennonites and joined a Juniata County church, said historian Tobin Miller Shearer, a Mennonite and assistant professor of history at the University of Montana who studies interactions between white and African American Mennonites.

Now, he said, "There seems to be a predilection, or at least a tendency, for conservative white Mennonites to be engaged in the practice of adoption across race lines."

Good intentions fuel the caretaking, Shearer said, but, "Hosts are not equipped themselves to equip their children to live within a racist society."

Debate roils around transracial adoptions and fostering in general. Are youngsters better served by going to a permanent home as soon as possible, or by waiting for a same-race household? That question also hovers over the children from the Philadelphia region who live in rural Pennsylvania.

Ruth Newswanger and her husband are Old Order Mennonites who shun cars, TVs, computers and cellphones at their Cumberland County home.

Jasmine and Janelle's birth mother, a Philadelphian, was in prison elsewhere in the state when the girls were born and the Newswangers got a call from a church friend involved in the prison ministry. Would they care for the babies?

The Newswangers, who have four biological children, said yes, acting on their belief that "you should share what you have," Ruth, 55, said.

The twins twice returned briefly to their biological mother, the second time for a year when they were about 2 1/2 years old. Relatives sent them back both times.

When the Newswangers finally adopted them two years ago, the girls were elated.

"We could write our last name Newswanger," Jasmine said.

Along with their name, they share a daily routine.

"We milk cows every morning and every evening. We also did some discing this year," Jasmine said, referring to farm equipment that prepares soil for planting.