A century ago, few women who grew up in small towns left their communities, let alone went overseas and convinced influential people on two continents to create something that never existed before. Erna J. Fast was such a woman, a Mennonite who studied to become a minister, who was denied by the church hierarchy to take on that role after World War II but who turned that pain around and became a gentle driving force as one of the founders of the Wuppertal-Bethel Exchange Program, America’s oldest continually running exchange program between two colleges.
From little Mennonite girl on the prairie to a master’s degree in New York City
Fast was born on Dec. 13, 1912, in Mountain Lake, Minn., a rural town of only 1.4 square miles founded by Russian Mennonites. She graduated from Mountain Lake High School in 1931, then taught in Minnesota public schools before receiving an A.B. at Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., in 1943. While many Americans took up arms during World War II, this young pacifist decided to become a minister, earning a master’s degree in religious education from New York Biblical Seminary in 1946.
After World War II, a spirit of renewal swept America, and Fast wanted to become a minister. But she ran into a stained-glass ceiling, as in those days the Mennonite church did not elect women ministers. Although Fast possessed the right qualifications, she was denied the opportunity to serve as a minster, an experience that pained her greatly.
Mennonite men closed a door, but God opened a window.
Although the Mennonite community denied her the opportunity to work as a minister, they soon realized she was extraordinary, and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)—involved in reaching out to young people in postwar Germany—sent Fast to Europe. Her mission: to help provide students—including those who fled across the Iron Curtain—with food, books and clothing.
Her two years in bombed-out Germany exposed her to the devastation and deprivation under which German students struggled. As part of the Protestant Student Union in Germany, she worked with the teacher’s colleges. She recalled the students’ “willingness to endure hardship and privations for the sake of their search for truth, their eagerness to understand, their willingness to share, plus a precious sense of humor and love for fun in spite of the drabness of much of life in those days.”
After serving on the Mennonite relief team for more than two years, she returned to America, where Time published her letter (Dec. 26, 1949) about the “turmoil in which Germany finds itself today.” She was determined to continue ministering to students in a country that was not only materially devastated by six years of war but had been spiritually deprived for 12 years under the Nazi regime.
The next year, she returned to Bethel College, where she reported on her work in Germany and sought to raise funds for equipment, supplies and scholarships for impoverished German students. Fifty years later, she was still impressed “by the enthusiasm and vitality of the [Bethel] students in their eagerness to find ways to support the work of MCC.” She noted that the American students organized a work day to earn money and even skipped meals to participate in a fund raiser. Eventually, she and the students hoped “to support a project by which a personal and direct relationship might be formed” between the young Mennonites at Bethel and students in Germany. Mennonite men may have closed a door, but God was beginning to open a window.
From scraps of brown paper to a ticket to America
During a year at Bethel, she helped organize the exchange of supplies—including “writing materials, books, Bibles, dormitory supplies and even food” for needy students and their professors in a war-torn Germany who were actually writing their “lectures on scraps of brown paper left from [these] packages.” During her second year, some of the Bethel students proposed inviting a student from one of the teacher’s colleges in Germany to study in Kansas. To help establish this program, the administrators at Bethel called upon Fast’s experience, knowledge and connections abroad to help decide which German college should receive the invitation to send a student to study in America.
Fast initially consulted with the influential German theologian and writer Horst Bannach, with her former colleague Peter Kreyssig and with Jacob T. Friesen, a representative from the MCC office in Frankfurt am Main. The four of them discussed various factors before selecting Wuppertal: both colleges enrolled a similar number of students; Wuppertal’s professors offered “exceptionally fine leadership,” including Johannes Harder, a Mennonite who taught sociology, and Wuppertal had opened its doors to refugee students from East Germany.
However, according to Fast, the reputation of Wuppertal’s director Oskar Hammelsbeck, “played a major role in the choice.” Not only was he known for his excellent work in the field of pedagogy, he showed great moral courage “as a participant of the “Bekennende Kirche” (the Confessional Church) in its struggle [against] the Nazi regime during the war,” where he had been “deeply involved in the formulation of the Barmen Confession”—a document that openly opposed the “German Christian Church’s” allegiance to Hitler and Third Reich ideology.
Moreover, when Fast recalled the “fine young people preparing to teach others” that were struggling after World War II, she described the students at Wuppertal as representing “the finest and best of them.” The only decision left: determining which student would get the first ticket for the passage to America.
Early years of the exchange program and Fast’s continuing legacy
Finally, in 1951, Bethel invited the first Wuppertal student—Fritz Potreck—to study in Kansas for one year. In 1952, Rudolf Wiemann represented Wuppertal. When Potreck and Wiemann returned to Germany, they shared their enthusiasm for Bethel and the education they received and worked with the Wuppertal faculty to convince the North Rhine-Westphalia Ministry of Education to sponsor an annual exchange program with a student from Bethel.
After only two years of a one-way exchange, 1953 saw the first students who traded countries and schools in the now evolving Wuppertal-Bethel Exchange program: from Wuppertal, Annegret Gehlhoff (Völker), who escaped the Communist East “disguised as a ‘subnormal’ boy,” and Bethel’s Otto Driedger, now professor emeritus at the University of Regina’s School of Human Justice in Saskatchewan.
A legacy of peace born from a time of pain and war
Only six years after the end of World War II, Fritz Potreck initially met Fast at the Frankfurt office of the U.S. High Commissioner in Germany, a transitional government set up by the Allies to supervise the newly established Federal Republic of Germany. Given the horrible experiences of the war and its devastation all over Europe, Potreck saw this opportunity to study in the United States as “a contribution to peace and better understanding between nations after World War II.”
Did Fast plan to leave a legacy of bridge-building behind? Her letters and notes reveal there “was no nicely organized, well-coordinated effort to start a project with a future. Rather there was a tenuousness, a groping for something that would show the deep caring that [the students at] Bethel College felt as they learned more and more about the terrible aftermath of World War II.”
The rest of the story is your story
Since 1951, more than 100 students from both sides of the Atlantic have participated in this educational bridge-building. When asked to reflect on their experiences, almost everyone reported the profound impact the Wuppertal-Bethel exchange program had on their lives.
The participants in this intercontinental exchange have worked in many professions, especially as teachers, social workers and professors. When Wiemann returned to Germany in 1953 and became an English teacher, I was one of his first students. In class, he often talked about his experiences at Bethel, even teaching us the popular midwestern song “Home on the Range.” Little did I know that 10 years later, in 1964, I would join the ranks of students representing Wuppertal at Bethel. This year of study abroad profoundly affected my life, an experience I now use to encourage my own students to study different cultures and respect and value difference. In vocations that touch many lives, the participants in the program initiated by Fast and the Mennonite community continue to build a spirit of peace and understanding between two nations.
In 2001, Fast wrote to all the participants: “You have made it work far beyond first expectations and the hopes of those who worked so hard to provide the first financial support for this program.” However, unlike Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which ends with the gloomy “the rest is silence,” she concluded her letter to the program’s alumni on an encouraging note: “The rest of the story is your story.”
A young Mennonite woman becomes an ambassador to the world
Though Fast grew up in a Minnesota town of less than 2,000 inhabitants, the little Mennonite girl from the prairie became an international power broker who managed to convince the leading lights in Mennonite circles, the North Rhine-Westphalia educational ministry and the interim government in Germany to support the first postwar German-American exchange program between colleges. The woman who was once denied the role of minister served instead as a cultural and spiritual ambassador between two nations that were at war only a few years earlier.
As a young woman, the denial of her life’s ambition caused her great pain. Her education, her clearly demonstrated organizational abilities and her skill in reaching out to people of widely differing backgrounds would have enabled her to become a great minister at any Mennonite church. Instead of building a small congregation at home, however, she created a ministry of peace that reached a worldwide community, shaping countless lives in a legacy of outreach and fellowship that continues to this day.
This remarkable woman clearly helped bring the world together—one pair of students at a time.
Erna Fast died June 23, 2008.
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