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Poet, professor explores Cheyenne peace chief's connections to Mennonites

   

Mennonite Church Canada/Mennonite Church USA release
Dec 28, 2004
-by Laurie Oswald

 


Lawrence and Betty Hart Clinton, Okla., enjoy a light-hearted moment with Raylene Hinz-Penner, of Topeka, Kan., during Western District Conference’s assembly in Oklahoma City on July 2-4. Hinz-Penner is writing Lawrence Hart’s life story for publication. He is a Cheyenne peace chief and pastor of Koinonia Mennonite Church in Clinton.

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Oklahoma City — As a poet and university professor, Raylene Hinz-Penner has written lots of poetry, prose and lectures. But nothing has equaled the impact she's felt from interviewing Lawrence Hart – a Cheyenne peace chief and Mennonite pastor – to write and share his life story, she said.

For the last two years, Hinz-Penner, an English professor at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., and Hart have explored his life for a book she's writing for publication by March 2006.

The pair note how gratifying it's been to mine the riches from Hart's life, both deeply Cheyenne and Anabaptist. Bright gems include how Hart's grandfather, the late John P. Hart, passed on the role of peace chief onto his grandson; how Lawrence Hart has helped Mennonites learn from the spiritual and cultural gifts of Natives; the operation, with his wife, Betty, of the Cheyenne Cultural Center in Clinton, Okla.; and his involvement in the repatriation movement – the return of Native American burial remains to their home.

“Before he died, my grandfather hand-picked me to take his place as peace chief,” Hart said. “In my culture, it was strange for him to bypass my father and two older brothers. In hindsight, I see that his rearing of me until I was six years old showed that he was grooming me for this role all along.”

Hart is the son of the late Homer and Jenny Hart, longtime lay ministers within Mennonite congregations in Oklahoma. They spent their lives working among Native Americans in Hammon, Okla. After Mennonites left the area, Hart's father took over, conducting services and burials, traveling wherever Cheyenne people needed him.

Their son, Lawrence Hart, then became the next generation's bridge between Native and Mennonite worlds, as he served for more than 40 years in Oklahoma's Mennonite churches with the Cheyenne and Arapaho people. He is now pastor at Koinonia Mennonite Church across from the cultural center in Clinton.

Hinz-Penner feels that in interviewing Hart, she's mining gold from the last living connection between how the Cheyenne first connected with the Mennonites, she said. “Lawrence is the memory for the connections between Cheyenne history and Mennonite history and how they have intersected,” she said. “He is also considered an Oklahoma treasure, and many people are waiting to read his story – not only Mennonites.”

Though it seems unlikely that an Anglo poet and a Cheyenne peace chief would connect, their paths intersected within both church and scholarly circles. Hinz-Penner, formerly a professor of English at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., first heard Hart give a commencement address about 10 years ago that captured her soul and imagination. She knew that moment that his story is one that needs to be shared.

“I don't think of this as a biography as much as it is my effort to connect the dots of his life which brought him to this point,” she said. “As he gave his address, I thought to myself, 'Who is this man and how did he get here? What is his story and who are the people who influenced him both to care about peace within the Cheyenne tradition and the Anabaptist tradition? How did he come to live with his feet in each world?'

“I knew it would be fascinating to trace that journey. It will be good for all of us to watch the hand of God in this amazing man's life.”

Walter Franz, director of Native Ministry for Mennonite Church Canada for the last fifteen years, has come to know and respect Hart for his wisdom and conciliatory approach. “Lawrence has walked with his feet in both cultures for many, many years,” said Franz. “He has retained a lot of grace for both his Native and Anabaptist heritage at the same time.” Hart has lectured at Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg (now Canadian Mennonite University) and has frequently led workshops for Native Ministry in Canada. Most recently he was a guest presenter to the bi-national North American Native Assembly in Riverton, Manitoba in July, 2004. (See http://www.mennonitechurch.ca/news/releases/2004/09/22-na.htm for that story.)

Hinz-Penner has found answers to her questions and a pattern to his journey that she'll share in her upcoming book that she hopes will be published for use in a conference in Clinton focusing on connections between the Cheyenne and Arapaho and the Mennonites. The Mennonite USA Historical Committee & Archives will sponsor the conference from March 30 through April 2, 2006, in Clinton.

Though Hinz-Penner feels deep personal connections to Hart's story, she's quick to say that she's compelled to uncover Hart's story because of its communal importance. His work with repatriation, in particular, can impact generations of Mennonites and others across the region and beyond, she said.

“My grandparents lived outside Clinton when I grew up, and all my people were from the Corn, Oklahoma, area,” said Hinz-Penner, who grew up in Turpin Mennonite Church in Oklahoma's panhandle. “Lawrence buried some of my aunts and uncles. But that's not really where I first connected with him. It was when I first read his writings about repatriation and first heard him speak at Bethel that I was deeply touched and inspired.”

Hart also feels that reparation will more fully uncover the depth of his people's losses and will foster a newfound respect for their sacred history. He is working with Mennonite Central Committee and two scholars who are writing a study guide for use in congregations who want to explore the topic and donate to the cause.

“I want to see that all the remains hidden on shelves in laboratories across North America will be returned and buried in their homeland,” he said. “It's very important that we return these human remains to the earth. It will help us lay claim to our heritage and to uncover a fuller understanding of North American history.”