Alumnus of the Year 2008: Donald Kraybill

If the subject is the Amish, Mennonites, or something linked to pacifism – and a reporter needs an expert to quote – look for the quote to be from Donald B. Kraybill ’67, EMU ’s 2008 Alumnus of the Year.

An Associated Press story in May, for instance, contained Kraybill’s observations on a legal case pitting the district court of Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, against two Swartzentruber-Amish men who refused to dispose of raw sewage in the manner prescribed by local sanitation laws. The AP story was printed in newspapers across the nation.

Also quoted in the AP story was Herman Bontrager ’72, our 2008 Distinguished Service Award honoree. Bontrager was interviewed as secretary-treasurer of the National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom. Both Kraybill and Bontrager took the view that this sewage case was not repre­sentative of Amish non-conformist practices linked to religious belief.

In a USA Today report in June, Kraybill noted that some Amish claims don’t pertain to their religion or culture: “Sometimes, you get a cantankerous individual who doesn’t want to comply with a regulation,” irrespective of his or her religious belief.

In the same two-week period, Kraybill was quoted in the Washington Post, this time on the varied responses of tradition­ally pacifist colleges to the danger of violent mass-assaults on campus. Kraybill expressed disappointment that the trustees at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, a historically Brethren school with a peace and conflict studies program, voted to permit armed guards. “I would hope that colleges in the peace church tradition have the brainpower to come up with creative nonviolent alterna­tives,” Kraybill said in the Post. “ I find myself in the role o f interpreting Anabaptist issues, perspectives and theology,” Kraybill told Crossroads recently. “I’m not a theologian. I’m a cultural sociologist.”

As adept as Kraybill has become at field­ing reporters’ inquiries — he was on TV and in newspapers non-stop in the days after the shooting o f 10 Amish schoolgirls in October, 2006 — Kraybill’s true spiritual and mental home is far from the spotlight. Kraybill says he is happiest doing research and writing manuscripts quietly at his desk — office door closed, phone unanswered — at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. The center is the brainchild of long-time director Kraybill. It is housed in a 20-year-old stone-clad building that re­sembles a i700s-era Brethren meetinghouse.

Beginning with Our Star-Spangled Faith in 1976, Kraybill has written 20 books, an average of one every year and a half. Many are heavy-duty books of record, complete with carefully researched data and citations. His dozens of journal articles range in topic from suicide patterns among the Amish to methods of teaching research in the classroom.

Kraybill’s expertise on the Amish was established when he authored the bestselling The Riddle of Amish Culture in 1989 (revised in 2001; now published in French too). Tourists to Amish regions o f North America often rely upon Kraybill’s easy-to- read, 48-page paperback Who Are the Anabaptists? Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites (2003). In the larger Christian world, Kraybill might be best-known for his explanation of the distinctives of Anabaptist theology in The Upside-Down Kingdom, which won the National Religious Book Award in 1979. With nearly 100,000 copies in print, it is in its third edition and has been translated into Arabic and five other languages.

“Over the last several decades, I’ve seen a growing respect in the larger world for the distinctive beliefs and practices of Ana­baptists,” Kraybill said in an interview this spring. “The more we (Anabaptist institu­tions) can build on our unique distinctives, the stronger we will be.” Summarizing the values of Anabaptists, Kraybill said: “peacemaking, our sense of community, and our service to the larger world.”

“These distinctives cut across all Ana­baptist colleges and help us distinguish ourselves from other colleges. The peacemaking institute at EMU is a great example of this,” said Kraybill, who was a member of EM U ’s board of trustees in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “This (Center for Justice and Peacebuilding) is exactly what we should do. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach chemistry or art, but we should highlight in our academic programs our unique Anabaptist perspectives.”

After graduating from EM U in 1967, Kraybill returned to his home area – he was born in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania – and served as associate pastor at Willow Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for five years and as associate director of Mennonite Voluntary Service for four years. He then embarked on gradu­ate school. For his doctoral dissertation in sociology at Temple University, he studied ethnic socialization in Lancaster Mennonite High School and eventually wrote a history of the school. In 1971 he began teaching at Elizabeth­town College, affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. He has been there since, except for a hiatus (1996-2002) as provost at Messiah College.

Desiring to worship with fellow faculty members and students, he became a member o f the Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren about 20 years ago. Kraybill’s most recent book, co-authored with Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver- Zercher, is Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (2007). The global fascination with the school-house shooting and how the Amish handled it — 2,400 media stories appeared in the week following the attack — motivated Kray­bill and his co-authors to produce a book explaining the theology behind the Amish choice to forgive, show compassion, and re­spond in a gracious way, despite their deep pain.

Amish Grace soon may top Kraybill’s list of bestsellers, with 60,000 hardbound editions sold in its first seven months on the market and a Japanese edition already out. After spending nine months promot­ing the book, Kraybill is eager to return to the quiet o f his office. On sabbatical for 2008-09, Kraybill will refuse public engage­ments — except attendance at EM U ’s 2008 Homecoming — in order to work “morn­ing to night” on his next book, A Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites, to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2009. He has another link to this press — he is its series acquisitions editor for the Young Center Books in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

Kraybill is married to Frances Mellinger and they have two daughters, Sheila and Joy ’95. Learn more about Donald Kraybill by attending one o f the several sessions at which he will speak at Homecoming 2008, Oct. 10-12, including a symposium in which he and Herman Bontrager will talk about the grace of the Amish in the face of the Nickel Mine shootings.

Published in August 2008.

Posted on August 16, 2016