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In a visionary’s footsteps: Tour seeks to retrace the route of Claas Epp to central Asia

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Most Anabaptist Mennonites went west.

The cradle of their faith lies in what is now Germany, Switzerland and Holland. Later, a significant group lived for several generations in the current Poland and Ukraine (then Russia). Driven by persecution, war and famine, most Mennonites eventually came to the United States and Canada, particularly in the 1870s and following both world wars. But some went east into Central Asia, toward China.

Now two Bethel College professors – Jim Juhnke, professor emeritus of history, and Sharon Eicher, associate professor of business and economics – plan to lead a tour that will trace the latter journey. In the summer and fall of 1880, Claas Epp, a visionary Mennonite preacher who believed Christ would return on March 8, 1889, to meet the faithful in Central Asia, led about 100 families from the Russian colonies into what is now Uzbekistan.

Eicher spent 2002-04 as a professor of economics at the Kazakhstan Institute of Management, Economics and Strategic Research (KIMEP) in Almaty (formerly Alma-Ata) and she has traveled extensively in both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where most of the important sites in the Epp story can be found. For Juhnke, the tour will fulfill a long-held dream. “I am a descendant of those Mennonites who left Russia to go west,” he says. “I have long wondered about those who fled [Russia] to find salvation in the East.”

His interest in retracing the so-called Great Trek was first kindled in the 1970s when Fred Belk, then a professor at Sterling (Kan.) College, was doing research in the Mennonite Library and Archives for his book The Great Trek of the Russian Mennonites to Central Asia 1880-1884, published by Herald Press in 1976. A decade later, Dallas Wiebe was working on his novel Our Asian Journey, also based on the Claas Epp story. Wiebe published some chapters of the novel in Mennonite Life, for which Juhnke served as an editor.

“My fantasy was to start in the Am Trakt settlement [where Epp and his followers met to begin their trek] and take three months to travel the same route with horses and wagons,” Juhnke says, “but it would have been too strenuous and too dangerous.” The Great Trek of 1880 included five wagon trains and about 600 people.

What finally made the tour idea become reality, Juhnke says, was when Eicher joined the Bethel College faculty in 2005. Juhnke heard Eicher give a presentation on economic development and corruption in Kazakhstan and realized here was someone with experience in the part of the world that so intrigued him. “She wasn’t aware of the Mennonite story that came from that region,” Juhnke says.

Although March 8, 1889, came and went without Christ’s return, the villages that Epp and his followers founded lasted until the 1930s, when they were destroyed by collectivization under Josef Stalin. Some people of Mennonite background still live in the region – in fact, Eicher reported having a student named Regier in one of her classes at KIMEP.

The Great Trek tour will be open to Bethel College students, who can receive cross-cultural learning credit for it, as well as interested others. “Many people have toured [former] Mennonite settlements in Ukraine,” Juhnke says, “but this is the first tour group to follow the route of Claas Epp, at least as far as we know.”

The 2007 Great Trek, scheduled for May 25-June 9, will begin in Ukraine at the former Mennonite colonies of Chortitza and Molotschna. By traveling several miles in horse-drawn wagons, tour members will be able to reenact the departure of the wagon trains that left Gnadenfeld in Molotschna in August 1880.

The tour will include stops at Tashkent, Aulie Ata, Samarkand and Bukhara and will end at Ak Metchet and Khiva, where Epp ultimately settled to await the Second Coming that never occurred.

“This was the route of the famous Silk Road, the trade route from China to Europe and the Arabian Peninsula,” Juhnke noted. “The city of Samarkand has the tomb of Tamerlane, a central Asian military conqueror and imperial ruler. The Great Trek tour of 2007 will allow participants to observe some of the same magnificent sites that caught the attention of the migrants in the 1880s.”

Eicher and Juhnke want the Great Trek tour to be an opportunity for spiritual inquiry as well as historical education. Some of the questions, says Juhnke, are “What are the grounds for Christian hope? For what are we willing to take great risks in our own time? Are there positive lessons, as well as warnings, to be taken from the visions of those like Claas Epp who traveled to central Asia in the 1880s?”

Juhnke also sees an opportunity for the tour to be a tangible symbol of gratitude and Christian-Muslim friendship. In 1880-81, he said, the Epp group had to stay several months over the winter in a Muslim village called Serabulak. The villagers were very hospitable to the Mennonites, even allowing them to use the mosque for their Sunday worship services.

Serabulak can still be found on a map and chances are good the mosque still stands. “If we can find any remnant or descendants of the people who hosted the Mennonites, I would like to bring them a gift of appreciation for their hospitality,” Juhnke said.

Anyone interested in the Great Trek tour should contact Sharon Eicher, (316) 284-5319, seicher@bethelks.edu, or Jim Juhnke, (316) 284-5331, jjuhnke@bethelks.edu.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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