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Photo: Maria De Leon and Robert S. Kreider, two longtime Mennonite leaders, passed away in December. (Photo provided/MCC Photo by Silas Crews)
Two long-time Mennonite leaders passed away in December: Robert S. Kreider, longtime church statesman, peacebuilder and college president, died Dec. 27 at age 96. María Magdalena De Leon, mother, pastor, anti-racist organizer, and Mennonite church leader, passed away on December 25, 2015. She was 71.
Here we offer two reflections on their lives and their impact across the church.
María de Leon: A woman who spoke truth
By Felipe Hinojosa
María Magdalena De Leon, mother, pastor, anti-racist organizer and Mennonite church leader, passed away on Dec. 25, 2015. She was 71. She has a beautiful family, starting with her husband, Lupe De Leon; her children Vanita De Leon, Barbara Ruiz, Ismael De Leon, Leonzo De Leon, Primitivo De Leon, and Rudy De Leon; and her 11 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren. At the memorial to honor her life, her family remembered her as a woman of faith, love, and as someone who spoke truth.
Her entire life was dedicated to caring for people, loving people and sharing God’s word. Her daughter Vanita remembers her mother as the person “people went to when they needed prayer, when they needed a positive word…she always made it a point to encourage her children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren to follow God and to make God a part of their lives.”
She was well-known and well-respected in her hometown of Mathis, Texas, where she worked first as a schoolteacher and later as a school counselor in the local elementary school.
María joined the Mennonite church as a young person through her interaction with Voluntary Service workers (VSers) in the 1950s and 60s. In those days, segregation and racism ruled this small South Texas town. Mathis was a place where the local Anglo elite ruled, and where Mexican Americans were relegated to second-class status. Those early experiences shaped her commitment to the Mennonite Church and later propelled her to be a distinguished elder and leader of the Damascus Road Anti-Racism program in the 1990s. Her voice, counsel, and wisdom were vitally important to an anti-racism movement that desperately needed wise voices to lead the way in dismantling racism in the Mennonite church.
Throughout much of her life, María served on multiple church committees (too many to name them all here) that included the Mennonite Board of Education, and Unidad Cristiana de Iglesias Menonitas (UCIM), Conferencia Femenil Hispana Menonita. In the early 2000s, she became board chair of Mennonite Central Committee Central States where she led a broad coalition of staff and board members to address the inherent racism within MCC in general and the Central States region specifically. Esteemed by many, María’s work in multiple areas in the Mennonite church made her one of the most important Hispanic leaders in the Mennonite Church in the last 50 years.
For many of her friends and family in South Texas, María was the kind of person that put you at ease. She almost made things look easy. She had an energy that was never-ending; a passion for the church and for los hermanos y hermanas that she loved; and an unwavering commitment to building peaceful and anti-racist communities.
María was a preacher, an advocate, and—not surprisingly—a strict follower of Robert’s Rules of Order, which she used to keep order at the always rowdy UCIM meetings in South Texas. It did not matter what your title was: if you were out of order, she would nicely and gently let you know.
I liked that about her. She was tough, a disciplinarian, and someone that did not mince words. And for many of us, she was our link to the broader Mennonite Church in the U.S. and across the globe. For many years she was our only connection to the work of MCC.
That’s how I first really met la hermana María. Growing up, I always knew her as una hermana de la iglesia, but we never interacted much. That all changed in 1996 when I was applying to the MCC Summer Service Program on the West Coast. MCC required that someone who had served with MCC or knew about the organization conduct an official interview with me. María De Leon was the only person equipped to do the interview. Once we set it up, I made the three-hour road trip on a Wednesday evening to meet her at her church, Tabernaculo de Fe, for a 6 p.m. interview (right before the 7 p.m. service).
After our interview, María wrote a positive report and that summer I participated in MCC’s first anti-racism drama troupe. Those of you that know me know that this experience changed my life. From that point forward, I was eternally grateful to la hermana María for shaping my development as a young man and later my work with MCC and the Mennonite church.
La hermana María provided spiritual guidance to many of us and she did it with a joy and love that will forever be remembered. We are a stronger people—a stronger church—because she challenged each of us to be our best selves and to always seek God’s wisdom.
Gracias a Dios por la vida de la hermana María Magdalena De Leon.
From a hymn sung at her memorial service, this was one her favorites: “Viene un día de paz cuando luchas ya no habra, no habra aflicción, no habra dolor, no habra temores en mi ser, todo será dulce paz, en la celestial ciudad, o que día, que día será…”
A man of curiosity
By Gordon Houser
Robert S. Kreider, who died Dec. 27 at age 96, fit the label senior statesman. He was on The Mennonite’s
list of the 20 most influential Mennonites of the 20th century (Feb. 22, 2000, issue). He was widely respected among Mennonites and when he spoke, people listened.
However, when he spoke, it was often in the form of a question. For me, one of the highest forms of praise applies to “Dr. Kreider,” who often told me to call him Bob: He was a man of curiosity.
Every so often he would stop by my office and present a possible idea for an article. “I was wondering about …” he’d say. Or, in later years, he’d send me an email, asking, “What about …?”
Robert (I couldn’t bring myself to call him Bob) was a long-time educator and historian who served with Civilian Public Service during World War II, provided leadership in Mennonite Central Committee’s relief efforts after the war and later served as president of Bluffton (Ohio) College (now University). Later still, he led an inter-Mennonite effort to acquire 300-year-old Martyrs Mirror printing plates.
In my recent editorial in The Mennonite (January), “Don’t Be Afraid to Learn,” I emphasized the need to be learning throughout our lives, to be willing to change as we grow in knowledge. Robert exemplified that desire to be a disciple, a learner, of Jesus.
This openness to learning and to change allowed him to relate to people of many different perspectives, from the most conservative to the most liberal. If you’re curious to know others and what they experience, you’re not spending your time judging them.
This also helped him in his work for inter-Mennonite organizations, such as Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference.
Robert was married almost 70 years (their anniversary was Dec. 30) to Lois Sommer. One of the gifts they gave their children, I learned, was to go on trips around the world. They once went to Antarctica. Yet another illustration of that desire to learn.
Robert will be missed, certainly by his family, but by the larger Mennonite church as well. There aren’t many senior statesmen left, I imagine.
I read once that if you look at the Gospels, Jesus asked more questions than made statements. So he, too, was a curious man.
For a more full account of Kreider’s life and work, check out Laurie Oswald Robinson’s 2013 profile.
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