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
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
The children navigate two worlds as they grow up in white insular
Some, like Janelle and Jasmine, have been with Mennonite families
for years and ultimately were 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
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
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,
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,
The twins twice returned briefly to their biological mother, the
second time for a year when they were about 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.
One evening, the twins and Ruth were preparing dinner. "Janelle,
du wenig mei nei." Put in a little more, Ruth said, and Janelle
added baked beans to the spaghetti soup.
Before dinner, the girls went to a market owned by the family of
some friends. The friends, two white sisters, and the twins
instantly smiled when they saw each other, and all four began
chattering and giggling.
Janelle and Jasmine were the only black children at school, which
didn't bother them. …