Editor’s Note: I met Janice Batts on Facebook messaging. She was very angry with the Mennonite Church. She was angry like Jesus-turning-over-tables-in-the-temple kind of angry. My good white Mennonite privilege was offended. I was repulsed by her anger and found myself judging it harshly. But I mustered up some self-righteous ‘care and kindness’ and asked whether I could pass along her concerns to our denomination’s executive director, Ervin Stutzman.
“The story has been told countless times and nothing happens,” she replied. “Then someone comes along and says that maybe they could talk to Ervin (you weren’t the first). Then when I bleed my story out, all of a sudden no one can do anything and suggests I tell someone else the story.”
“Ervin Stutzman is not responsible for what happened to you,” I responded condescendingly, then with judgement spilling out all over the place, “He wasn’t even around at the time. He is a man who has a position in a church organization. That’s it. What happened to you is horrible. But if you are waiting for someone to make it right for you, you will die a bitter soul. Your anger and vicious attitude is very off putting. You need to know that. Justified, but off-putting.”
Janice fired right back at me: “I harp about Ervin because he has the position and the power to make a statement. I know he wasn’t there just like I know that the white people alive today had nothing to do with slavery. I may be off putting to you since you are too close to the Mennonites. Trust me, my anger and pain are understood well by those outside the Mennonite community. The people who have said they might be able to say something that may help me were all connected to the church in some way. Please understand that though I am off putting to you, my story will be told. The fact that it is out there in the ether is enough to start filling the hole of pain. I do not need Ervin, you or anyone else to try and fill anything. You asked about my story and I told you. I was fine before you, I will continue after you and I will write my stories elsewhere. You are so wrong about how I interpret this whole thing. Are you black? There’s your first clue.”
Wow. I had no idea where to go or how to respond or how to help, so I dropped Janice Batts like a hot potato because I couldn’t stand the feelings of helplessness and discomfort that came up for me in her presence. But I never forgot Janice Batts and felt a prick of conscience every time I thought of her. At some point I shared what happened between us with Stephanie Krehbiel including my desire to make amends and post her story on OSU. In true Stephanie fashion she went into action to help bring Janice’s important untold story to light. She reached out to her and conducted an interview that became our first draft. The end result brought Janice and me back together to work toward this final version of her own story in her own words.
Thanks to her big heart, Janice Batts is my friend today and ranked as one of the most profound teachers of my life; the kind that shook me up and left me a much better, more awake person in the world. Today we welcome her as another cherished member in the OSU family of friendship and mutual support for survivors who are ready to go public with the secret pain inflicted on them by others in the Mennonite faith community who misused and abused their power and privilege. Our goal is not blame but accountability.
The gift of Janice Batts is her unvarnished rage and righteous indignation and her refusal to be silenced about the injustices committed against her. We honor her for having the courage and persistence to revisit and share the painful truths from her life so that others might hear and benefit. Barbra Graber
Into Account asks you to consider a contribution of $54 today in honor of the 54 years Janice has worked to recover, live and thrive since the violence she experienced in the Mennonite Fresh Air program.
We invite you to reach out to Janice either publicly through the Comment section below or privately through Stephanie Krehbiel at firstname.lastname@example.org
OSU: Before we hear about your Fresh Air experience, can we learn more about you?
I was born in Chicago in 1958 during a time when teenage moms did not typically keep their babies. Twice, my birth mother shared with me about how I came into existence. She was never very forthcoming with more details. She told me she was raped, and she lived on the street for a time while pregnant with me. She told me that my father was a friend of her brother’s who came to their house on a regular basis to visit. After he raped her and she became pregnant with me, my uncles shot him for what he did. When I asked her what his name was, she told me she couldn’t remember.
My mother told me that church people took her in until she was ready to have the baby, who was me, then she was sent to the hospital. On my birth certificate you can see that her address was the same as the hospital’s, which tells me she was homeless. With pain in her eyes, she told me they took me from her when it was time to go to the foster home. My first ride in a vehicle was in a Chicago Police car. Based on some research I’ve done, I discovered during the late 1950’s that Mennonite women were instrumental in helping to place unwanted babies. I have no proof this is true in my case but I have always suspected Mennonites were involved somehow. I ended up in a foster home with an older Black couple that lived in a small neighborhood on the near west side of Chicago. They attended Mennonite Community Chapel on 18th Street. For reasons unknown to me, my foster mother bought into the whole Mennonite thing. She bought into everything they said and did.
The neighborhood I grew up in is called Pilsen at 20th and Halsted. There was only one block of Black families in that neighborhood. On the opposite side of Halsted Street, there were white Europeans; our side of Halsted was Black, and the remainder of that neighborhood was Puerto Rican, and Mexican. It was really weird; I don’t know how it ended up that way.
None of the other Black parents in my neighborhood bought into the Mennonite thing. They sent their kids to Sunday school, like parents did back then. But the parents seemed to prefer a real Black church with people they were familiar with and a choir that sang uplifting songs instead of the dry depressing songs the Mennonites were singing. They wanted to sing songs of jubilee not songs that make you want to open up your jugular. Those were white people; the Black parents I knew really didn’t want to deal with them.
This was during the time of The Great Migration, a time when Blacks were being forced, impolitely persuaded, and/or were just plain running for their lives out of the unsegregated South. My foster mother grew up in Tell City, Indiana. Although she was born in 1910, and was part Cherokee, she didn’t grow up as far South. I wonder if that was part of why it seemed easier for her to buy into what the Mennonites were saying.
OSU: How did your foster mother’s enthusiasm for Mennonites affect you?
It was no benefit to me at all. I ended up being right in the middle of two cultures into which I never fit. The Mennonites were saying, Jesus loves you, blah blah blah. Some of the kids on my block would tease me by saying I sounded and acted like white folks. When they got tired of bullying me I would get beaten up. I always felt a distinct falseness in what the Mennonites were saying, but I never had anything to compare it to, or anyone to talk to about it. That’s basically how it began. I went to the foster home on the near west side of Chicago when I was five days old, and that’s where I stayed, except for the four years I went to Iowa Mennonite High School and until I married my first husband, Charles Yoder.
I grew up having the same values as a young, white Mennonite girl. Obviously, to the real world I wasn’t ‘white’ or Mennonite, but it was all I had ever known. It made my life a living hell, because the kids in my neighborhood picked on me. And for my so-called white counterparts, as it were, I behaved like them but that’s where the similarities ended. I was more like a novelty to the Mennonite kids, like a doll that they could play with/exploit and then send away when it no longer served their purpose.
OSU: How would you describe the beliefs of your foster parents that you were absorbing as a kid?
My foster mother was the one who went to the Mennonite church. My foster father would attend the local Catholic Church when he chose to go to church. He was an alcoholic and for some reason he couldn’t stand the Mennonites. He’d get drunk and cuss out the Mennonite people that would come to our house. Looking back on it, it’s kind of funny. He would make sure he was drunk if he knew they were coming for a visit. It drove him nuts that these people would come into our home and speak about redemption and salvation while working my foster mother and me like hand puppets. He’d understandably say, ‘What’s wrong with those people?’ My foster mother did her best to ignore him. The Mennonites would endure his drunken profanity and clumsiness. But what they never cared to realize was after their visits (which were way too long in my opinion), we had to endure his drunken tirades that would continue for hours.
One of the things that he would do was to sit on the floor next to one of those uptight Mennonite women and run his hand up and down their leg feeling their nylon stockings. If that weren’t enough to drive them away, he would begin to preach his own sermon. It was far from the blather they were used to hearing from the dry ass pastor at our little storefront Mennonite church. When he was drunk, he would preach his own sermon complete with the cadence and vocal inflections of a preacher from a Black church, which was his only influence. That seemed to be one of the ways he chose to cope with the fact that these white people were in his home trying to convince his family that they knew what was right for them.
OSU: Wow. That must have been a lot to take in as a little kid.
In his drunkenness he would often pull me out of bed in the middle of the night and force me to read from the Bible. But before I could finish each sentence, he would talk over me and tell me his version of what I was supposed to be reading. Living in such a strict home and under the teachings from the church, I was taught to respect my parents. How was I supposed to honor my father and mother when my life with them was hell? This was very confusing and frustrating. My foster father only had a third grade education and could not read. When he was drunk it was unclear whether I was going to be beaten or be bombarded with false allegations. He would swing in the door drunk as bloody, fucking hell, and swear he saw me running and hiding with some boys just before he came in the apartment. This was ludicrous since both of my foster parents were so strict with curfew and there is no way that I would even attempt to leave our apartment after dark for fear that I would certainly be beaten and grounded. (Unfortunately I was never grounded from attending Sunday school.)
Although he never touched me in a way that I thought was sexual, there were certainly many times in his clumsy, drunken state, his gestures and touches made me uncomfortable. And like many drunks, he had no concept of personal space so he was always too close and smelled of alcohol.
My foster father grew up in rural Tennessee in the 1920’s—he didn’t even have a birth certificate. This was only 57 years or so since the Emancipation Proclamation was passed. So I imagine in his mind maybe he felt the Mennonites hadn’t gotten the message and after escaping the South at the age of thirteen, he was going to do his part to keep that close-minded thinking out of his home the best way he could. After all he had gone through, here he was living with a woman who, other than her skin color, acted white. A woman who wanted her own child so badly that she brought a foster baby into their home and surreptitiously gave her to the white folks and their ideals.
He wouldn’t even eat the food we brought home from church potlucks. He would call it ‘white folks’ food’ which, I have to admit at the time I thought it was funny. He would not eat it! He was not above picking up a casserole and flinging it across the room. I was so immersed in the Mennonite culture that I was used to eating any of the food that they put in front of me. I never really thought about the fact that the food we ate at home was so vastly different from the food the Mennonites ate in their homes. It was just the food that we ate, the same food that our ancestors ate. This was not food that we chose to share with those outside the community. But in the same vein we were introduced to mostly German type food that was unfamiliar to us. The Mennonites never ate in our homes or inquired about the food we ate.
And unfortunately when we mentioned the type of food we ate, it was met with a distasteful facial expression and/or a rude remark. Notice that I didn’t say ethnic food. It wasn’t ethnic or soul food. It was our food. They never seemed to understand the history of the things that Black people traditionally ate. So when you talk about things like chitterlings and you are met with a look of disgust, it is a little painful to accept. It always made me feel like we were doing something wrong because of the food we were eating. Remember, back then folks weren’t concerned with political correctness and nutrition like they are now. (In all fairness, I still like the taste of chitins even though I know they would probably send my cholesterol into the stratosphere.) It was our food. I bellied up to the table and ate what they brought to the fellowship dinners at the Mennonite churches. But I do not recall any of the folks from the church ever eating the food that we brought from our homes.
My foster mother was codependent to my foster father’s drunken behavior and did nothing to protect me. I think I would have stayed drunk too under those circumstances. That is not to say that, in that mix of frustration and alcoholism, there were plenty of times he beat me senseless for whatever reason. As I remember, some of those beatings were due to something I had learned at Sunday school or something the neighborhood kids did or said about me. I think maybe I was acting too white and it made him nervous.
OSU: How did those experiences with white Mennonite racism affect the way you thought about being Black?
For so long, I became a person who seemed, to some people, to be prejudiced against my own race due to my constant exposure to Mennonite culture and the attitude of my foster mother towards her own race. Everything I heard from both sides was subtle negativity from the Mennonites and harsh remarks from my foster mother when she spoke about the activities of Black neighbors. Not even my peers liked to spend time with me because I spoke very proper English. They’d get mad at me and say, ‘you talk like white folks!’ And as I got older there were even a couple of Mennonites who accused me of being prejudiced against my own race. That baffled me since I was following what the Mennonites were telling me was right and they dared accuse me of being prejudiced against my own race? What did that say about them?
There was always this underlying atmosphere that I now understand as white privilege that exuded from the Mennonites, subtly and passive aggressively. Their air of superiority, that they were better than us and helping us, and that we should be grateful they were helping us. Any indignation or negativity they expressed in our presence was ok, because they were teaching us to be better people. Our culture seemed irrelevant to them.
OSU: Talk about your experiences in the Fresh Air program.
Here is a black and white picture of me with a death grip on this cat. That was my first year of Fresh Air in West Chester, Iowa, at the farm of Earl Gingerich. It was 1962. I’m four years old. You can see my hair has not been tended. I don’t think they knew what to do with it. My foster mother told me that the church wanted to send me a year earlier when I was only three years old but she thought I was too little. I have often wondered what kind of parent would allow a child so young to go 250 miles away and stay with strangers, non-relatives, for two weeks. That seems so unusual. I remember those first two weeks in flashes, bits and pieces.
It is important to note that my birth name is Janice Mae Batts. But for reasons I am not quite sure of, when my name was used for anything connected to the Mennonite church, my last name was changed to Oglesby, the last name of my foster father.
Here above is a copy of a letter and envelope to my mother that has my name as Janice Oglesby. On the envelope she even put her name as Evelyn Oglesby in direct contrast to her real name Evelyn Neal which was listed under my picture in the year book. I only got to use my legal name when I went to Iowa Mennonite School in 1972.
One more piece of info in this continuing cluster-fuck: My foster parents weren’t even married to each other. When they got together my foster mother was already married to someone else who actually died when I was three months old. You cannot convince me the church didn’t know this. If not then, surely they would have known when I started at IMS where she was listed Evelyn Neal, not Oglesby, as my parent.
Even though I was not old enough to know about slavery or slave auctions, as they called our names, and as those white people, so many of them with the same last names, stepped forward to claim their child for a brief foray into their pretentious world; I have never been able to shake the feeling that it seemed like a slave auction. I even did the drawing above entitled Scary White People. Make no mistake, I have not the smallest inkling of the horrors my forefathers and mothers faced on the block, but I did live the horror of what was happening in my time. And it seemed to the have the same stench.
As I grew older I became more aware of the ever-widening chasm of differences between our cultures and the Mennonite unwillingness to embrace or even be interested in what I held dear. Many times I wondered why these people felt they had to go out and fuck with other people to try to find their own redemption? The confusion was mind numbing each time I was involved with these self-proclaimed, god-fearing, turn the other cheek, self-serving, fake-ass people. The Fresh Air program gave us children no choice about where we went for those two weeks. We were invited guests in their homes and yet they would blindly allow someone to call me a ‘nigger’ to my face and do nothing but tell me to just ignore it. Now, if this bullshit had happened to one of their children, if they had ever allowed their children to visit our neighborhood, and someone referred to them as a pasty-faced crackers, these lofty Menno-shites would have called them heathens and been horrified. But the shoe was never on the other foot.
OSU: That sounds like a terrifying experience for such a young child. How many years did you participate in Fresh Air?
I participated in the Fresh Air Program offered by the Mennonite Church from the time I was four until I was thirteen. I went every single summer. It was a reward for attending vacation bible school at the Mennonite Community Chapel on 18th Street in Chicago. This was an enticement for those children who did not attend a church on a regular basis. Back then they referred to us as inner-city children. Many of the children were from single parent homes and had lots of siblings. So the idea of going to the country to stay in a big house instead of an apartment in the city was something very special.
The next year, when I was five, I was assigned to the farm of Chris E. Troyer in Kalona, Iowa. I cannot remember exactly how many years I went there. They were a kind, older couple with several grown kids and grandkids. I never felt intentionally exploited or mistreated by the Troyers. But it got to the point that I would get lonely when their grandchildren weren’t around. So after several years with the Troyers, I went to a Stutzman family in Wellman, Iowa and then a Swartzendruber family in Wayland. Incidentally, all three families had children at Iowa Mennonite School when I attended there later as a student, but I don’t recall any of them acknowledging or befriending me.
It still makes me sick to my stomach remembering how when I went to each of them and explained who I was, they gave me this odd look, almost like they were disgusted that I mentioned being in their homes. But each time I was fool enough to think they would be glad to make a friendly connection with someone they had played with as a child. The worst was when I went to Hesston College. I recognized the names of two students that were grandchildren of Chris Troyer. I walked up to one of them with a smile and introduced myself. This rat-faced young man looked down at me like I shit in his shoes. I was devastated all over again. And I never tried that again.
The caption under this picture in the 1973 IMS yearbook Reverie read: “Earth Science [students] give their attention to Lynn Newcomer while Janice Batts clowns.” This particular photo caused me considerable grief when my foster mother saw it. She grabbed my arm and starting hitting me. With each blow she would yell “I didn’t send you to that school to be the class clown.” I tried to explain that seconds before the picture was snapped all three of us were laughing together, not just me.
OSU: Do you want to talk about the sexual abuse you experienced in the Fresh Air program?
Around the age of eleven I was invited to the home of Reverend Leonard A. Haarer and his wife Lois in Shipshewana, Indiana. He was Pastor of the Berea Missionary Church in a mostly Mennonite town where damn near everyone was related. From what I have read, the Missionary Church is based on the Anabaptist ideal but is not Mennonite. Why was I even sent to their home? This grandfatherly pastor and his wife had requested a girl my age. It was weird because his wife worked during the day and that left him and me home all day by ourselves on weekdays for two weeks. That turned out to be very convenient for him.
The very first incident happened within the first hour of my arrival. The Haarers had guests over, some sort of little get-together. So they had someone else pick me up from from the station. Once the merriment was over and their guests went home, Reverend Haarer proceeded to take me on a tour of their home. We went out the side patio door, into the back yard, and immediately into the garage. Now remember, I’m only eleven years old. And here’s this beautiful John Deere riding mower. I’d never seen one before, so to me it was like a miniature tractor. I thought it was really cute. He said, “Here, you sit right here”, and I obeyed and sat on the seat. As I sat down, he stepped up on the tow hitch on the back of the mower, put both his hands on my breasts, grabbed onto them and said as he laughed, “I’ll hold on like this!” I remember a panic came over me. All this stuff was running through my head: “What’s happening!? What am I going to do!? I can’t tell anybody, nobody will believe me! This is a pastor of the Mennonite church!” So I just froze and said nothing. With this single action I realized why I was chosen and what my purpose was.
The Haarers sold Amway and I enjoyed going to their basement where all these nice smelling, tidy-looking cleaning products were lined up on shelves. This was a perfect opportunity for him to come up behind me unaware and put his hands on my breasts and rub against me. I remember if it happened to be close to my bedtime he’d ask in this strange tone of voice, “Are you sleepy tired?” I would get chills. This old, pasty-white, bald man was creepy. I remember distinctly how confusing and distasteful it felt. He was touching me like he should have been touching his wife. But his wife was a woman and I was just a little girl.
It is as peculiar and disgusting to me now as then that a so-called religious man in his venerated position could give a hell fire and brimstone sermon from the pulpit and on his off hours violate me. I was a child, an invited guest in his home, and he would say things like “sleepy-tired” and coo like a love sick fourth grader. He was a dirty old white man trying to be cute. Who blew smoke up this old dude’s ass to make him think he was charming? I don’t think he had a clue or even cared that he was hurting me and ruining how I would perceive and relate to men for the rest of my life.
The next summer I was twelve and the abuse intensified greatly, there was a lot more touching. It is a common fact that when children are being sexually manipulated, they learn and are groomed to touch back. That was starting to happen, and it didn’t feel right, and I knew in my heart of hearts things were going to a very bad place. One day I curiously reached down and touched his penis. I have never forgotten the unexpected feeling of it in my hand and the immediate feeling of shame I felt. I never initiated touch with him again. And from then on every single time I’ve been in an intimate situation that involved touching that part of the male anatomy I get the same queasy feeling of disgust.
My experience had turned into a foul fairy tale without the benefit of a candy cottage or magical shoes. It felt strange then, and now it feels incredibly rude, that when the Reverend and his wife took drove me home to Chicago that summer, they never even bothered to leave the curb and walk up to our apartment. I was deposited at the sidewalk with my suitcase like a soda can for deposit. They exchanged pleasantries on the street and then got back in their car for their return trip to Shipshewana, Indiana.
I was thirteen when I was invited for the third year at the Haarers. Leonard Haarer told me that his wife was going to be working the night shift that summer. I remember when he said those words I knew that under those circumstances, with his wife away from home all night and he and I alone for that time, that he would surely start raping me. I had time to think about this. I told my foster mother that I didn’t want to go back there. She didn’t ask me why and obviously I wasn’t going to tell her why because I would have been blamed. But she didn’t make me go. It was probably the most mature thing I’d done up to that point.
And as with all my Fresh Air parents, I never heard from them during the year. It was the same with the Haarers. They never inquired after my health or my well-being. I guess in their minds, their ‘service assignment’ was over.
OSU: You’ve had Mennonites respond to your sexual abuse experience by countering it with more positive Fresh Air experiences, or telling you that the bad outweighed the good. What is your overall assessment of these programs that immersed you in white Mennonite culture?
You mean with Fresh Air and the whole IMS/High Aim thing? Both were abominations. I truly believe that any time people from one culture invade another culture, things are going to go horribly wrong at some point. It is always the more dominant and financially stable of the two cultures that goes on a mission to prove that what they are practicing is the correct and only way. The less dominant culture becomes oppressed and that can lead to anger and violence. It really pisses me off —the number of times I have reached out to Mennonite Church leaders to try to explain what happened to me and am met only with the proverbial claim that they had no idea what was going on. They say maybe it’s me and I need mental help. Maybe a virtual, condescending pat on the head and a rubberstamped quote of scripture at the end of the email should somehow make it better? I guess sitting on their hands has worked for them in the past, so why should they change now?
I have a few good friends that I trust from those days at Iowa Mennonite School. They are truly special in a way that feels almost like they were brought up in the real world rather than the Mennonite one. They know who they are and that I love them for who they are as they have loved me. But I don’t consider that Christian, I consider that human.
I wish people could understand the devastation that occurs when you tell someone whose life has been irreparably altered by events sponsored by the church that “the good outweighs the bad.” What the fuck? Are you kidding me? Hypocrites like that may have read a bible but they read it upside down. To have no empathy or compassion for someone who was sought out by the church for the purpose of saving your soul and giving you a better life and then subjecting you to abuse and racial rejection. No thank you, I do not accept your answer that the good outweighs the bad.
Many years ago I was talking to a woman I had met and sharing with her the things I experienced while going to IMS. I suddenly realized she was just staring at me with a bewildered look on her face. I asked her what was wrong and she stated with disgust that it should have been illegal for the Mennonites to do that. It is important to note that this was a Black woman who had lived in the South all her life and had cautious contact with whites. When she met my first husband, a Mennonite white man, she asked me, “What were you thinking?”
I couldn’t explain it to her in any short answer. The impact and influence of the Mennonite Church on my life has turned it into a disaster. It has affected not only me but my children and grandchildren. With each failed marriage the Mennonites have been there where they never belonged. The church turned their back as soon as I was no longer young enough or useful to them. I went from Fresh Air, to Iowa Mennonite School, and on to Hesston College. I had always wanted to be nurse but a Hesston nursing prof told me,”We’ve never had a colored person in the nursing program, we don’t think you will make it.” Then she suggested I could try the foods program which basically told me I should be a cook. None of this shit should have ever happened and for the person that told me the good outweighed the bad, she has neither a clue nor the training to offer anyone inside or outside the Mennonite Church advice.
From my earliest memories, I felt like the influence from the church was wrong. You cannot take away things that are cultural or built into their DNA. That is an infringement of basic human rights. If the situation was reversed, they would cry bullshit as well. It is wrong no matter who does it. But it is hideous and diabolical when it is wielded as a tool to be used against those that are perceived as disadvantaged and less intelligent than the ruling class. They would not let their kids come to our houses. Why would they do that to us? They weren’t doing us any favors.
When I was little and couldn’t take care of myself– like comb my own hair, there were times when a Fresh Air host told me, “I don’t want to touch your hair, it feels funny.” I’m a kid. Why would you say that to me? I guess maybe it made us look more like wild things to you. Maybe it was more comfortable for you to see us in an unpolished state. Keeps us separate. This just reinforced all the crap they were putting in my head and IMS compounded it. That was four years of hell that I will never get out of my head.
OSU: How did you end up at IMS?
I had already started to physically mature earlier than my foster parents expected, so it was time for me to get the hell out of their house. It felt like I had overstayed my welcome as a human being there too. It was like heaven forbid I should like a boy of my own race. Let’s send Janice to a school in the middle of nowhere, immerse her in the white Mennonite culture because they are better. And just for shits and giggles, let’s give her the illusion that she too can have one of those nice white farm boys for a husband so she can have a nice productive life we good white Christians have. Not! To be clear, I know logically there was no back room committee plotting to destroy me personally, but I always felt like their lab rat.
There was this one lady at our church—she was the official tightest ass on the planet, a pinched-up woman of ambiguous age. She was unmarried and the warden of our little, storefront mission church, Mennonite Community Chapel. Sadie Oswald was a schoolmarm type, all buttoned up, self-righteous with a lot of pent up anger and frustration. She was the person that seemed to be in charge of all things pertaining to the youth including Fresh Air and later the High Aim program which sent me to IMS. It was almost as if she disliked kids altogether or was bitter about her assignment. She ruled with an iron bible and was well known for her ability to twist and pinch your skin if she felt you were out of line. She was real strict.
OSU: She would pinch your skin?
Yeah, you know, pinch it and twist it or grab your ear to get you to do what she wanted you to do. The High Aim program had been going for several years by then. The end of my eighth grade year was coming to an end and at some point she talked to my foster mother about sending me away to school. That’s how I ended up at IMS.
The goal was to make sure I graduated from high school, which sounds like a generous enough goal. But at that time, a couple of girls in my neighborhood had gotten pregnant and it was unclear if they would finish high school. So when the debacle of High Aim came along it seemed like a perfect way to separate me from my culture and the few things that were genuinely familiar to me. High Aim was not a good fit for me. It may have worked for a few but it was a senseless disaster for me. No one from the church except for Miss Sadie ever came to the house to see who I lived with, how I lived or talked to me personally about what the program was and what it involved and how I was doing in it. They just packed me up in August of 1972, sent me to a bourgeois, kum ba yah type, cross- cultural convention at Calvin College in Michigan. Mind you through all of this no one ever explained how I was getting to Iowa from Michigan after this week of horrible, stereotypical Mennonite singing and gathering typical of that period. Not to mention the horny harassment of the teenage boys. No one told me anything about what I was getting into. I was supposed to take it on faith and be thankful. Yeah, I took it, but not on faith. It was a little further south in the anatomy that metaphorically took the brunt of it.
OSU: Were you the only Black kid at IMS, or one of very few?
One of very few. There were eight to ten live-in students of color in any given year in Kalona, Iowa. They weren’t all Black; some were Hispanic. So I would say maybe an average of five to six were Black, per year. There were only 150 kids at IMS at the time. That was not a large number of kids, but for me it was 140 too many Mennonite teens to deal with. It was the only high school I ever knew. It still made it rough, being in that era, and being in Kalona, Iowa. These people knew as much about Black people as I know about astrophysics. Strike that! I actually know more about astrophysics than they knew about Black people. And it wasn’t so much that they didn’t know, it was their unwillingness to learn. It wasn’t important to them.
Say hello to the Hillcrest Singers circa 1972-73 at IMS. I’m the stubby one on the far right with the covering on my head. And I must confess that I didn’t realize until I was pasting this picture in that my future husband was in the chorus. He is appropriately in the direct opposite position from where I am standing. Irony can be painful.
OSU: It seems there’s this thing set up where you are like a charity case?
Yeah! And they had no trouble letting me know it. Not necessarily directly and sometimes as subtle as a buffalo, it was just a deluge of little things. For example the way I was greeted. Everything was always so condescending. There was a popular television show on at the time that featured two Black boys who were orphaned when their mother dies. She had been the housekeeper for a wealthy white widower with a young daughter. The show was called Diff’rent Strokes. This show was a bane for many Blacks at the time because it didn’t really deal with the issues of interracial family relationships in a practical way. It tended to perpetuate stereotypes and gave many white people a false sense of familiarity with any Black person that they came into contact with. One of the worst phrases in history came from that show and is still used today, much to my chagrin: The younger of the two orphaned characters on the show was aptly named Willis. He was played a short, pudgy actor with a face that made him very safe and loveable. The catch phrase that was used ad nausem throughout the series was, ‘what you talkin’ bout Willis?’ whenever he said something questionable.
Some of the kids at Iowa Mennonite School thought it was funny and okay to just walk up to me, blurt out the catch phrase and then rub my hair like it was fucking nothing. They seemed to have a hard time recognizing personal space when it came to touching my hair. I am very short and it was very distressing each and every time someone did this. It was never funny. Every time I hear that now I just want to bust somebody in the face. So unfunny. It seemed like they picked up on every awful stereotypical phrase that was thrown out there. And back in the seventies they were as plentiful as they are today; and just as annoying if you are on the receiving end.
It was awful. It came from all directions. The only person who seemed to understand what I was going through at the time, as far as adults, God love him, was Wilbur Yoder our Guidance counselor. We’ve talked quite a bit since then. About four years ago (from this writing), we were having lunch, and he said, “I just thought about it. You were the only one of those kids that was a foster kid, and you had no backup. When you went home, you had nobody who could say, “It’s OK. You had no cultural or familial backup, nothing.” He was right; I had no buffer to smooth out all those rough edges of confusion and the condescending manner I was treated when I was in Iowa. No one realized they were witnessing a train wreck, let alone how to deal with it.
At IMS the boarding students, as we were called, stayed with host Mennonite families as opposed to a dorm. Two weeks on a farm—that’s almost a novelty, barring sexual violence. But when you have to stay there for months and months in the same home with people who don’t really care about you as a person–that is the epitome of slow and painful torture.
The first really bad storm I experienced in Iowa, I was on the phone crying to my foster mother that I wanted to go home. With no tall buildings to block the sight of angry clouds, strong winds and torrential rain, I was aptly terrified. I was from Chicago. I was sure I was going to see Dorothy’s house fly by followed by the wicked witch of the West. I was terrified and crying. I didn’t want to be there in this house so far from the city. Let alone in a house with an old couple who lacked the physical strength to protect me and did nothing to comfort me. I told my foster mother I was scared but when she asked if I wanted to come home. That’s when it hit me—OK, we’ve got this storm here in Iowa. And then there is all that bullshit at home in Chicago: an alcoholic foster father who beats me and a special brand of punishment issued by my foster mother which involved me naked and bent over the bathtub while she beat me with a leather strap. Yeah, I chose to stay in Iowa, which at that moment seemed to be a more manageable threat. Mennonites were going to save my soul. I was going to have a better life.
Contribute $54 today in honor of the 54 years Janice has worked to recover, live and thrive since the violence she experienced in the Mennonite Fresh Air program.
OSU: What kind of religious stuff did you have to do in Iowa?
I had to do everything that I was told. I was the Black kid that was expected to conform to everything. I didn’t rebel against anything. I was a totally different person back then. Everybody walked all over me. I was taught to obey. This is what you do. ‘You’re the nice girl, Janice, you’re so nice’. So when somebody asked me why my hair was so curly, I would politely reply that I didn’t know. Of course I was asked if I tanned from being out in the sun but the all-time great humiliating, ludicrous question was, ‘how do you know when you’re dirty.’
But I digress. I would not advise anyone to approach me with questions like that today. I can promise you it will get ugly.
There was a general store in Kalona, Iowa. It burned down some years later, but everybody went in there. It was kind of a fun little place to go in. One time I was in there with one of the host family’s kids. We were browsing the aisles when I noticed a young white boy dart back out of sight at the end of the aisle. Once he was out of my view and I just figured he wanted to get a peek of the anomaly until he came up behind me, touched me on the arm, and ran off, like he had touched something from another planet.
This was 1970s in Kalona, Iowa. There were people who had literally never seen a black person. I had nowhere to put it. I was terrified all the time. People would say, ‘Janice, you’re so friendly, Janice, you’re so funny.’ I’m funny because I’m outnumbered, afraid and alone. I didn’t want to be there with them in that situation and I didn’t want to be in my home situation which they knew nothing about. No one ever asked me about my home life nor was I really willing to share the shame of living in a foster home. To my knowledge, none of those Mennonites even knew I was from a foster home.
OSU: It seems like racism went hand-in-hand with people taking liberties with your body, whether it was touching you like you were an alien or sexually abusing you. Do you think other Black kids in white Mennonite environments had similar experiences?
I heard a few stories after I had graduated from IMS but I cannot attest to them as it would be very irresponsible to repeat third party information. And despite my history with abusive, non- caring men, and having four white husbands after leaving IMS, when I started my Freshman year at IMS I wasn’t really very interested in white boys at all.
I had one date with one of those boys. He didn’t even ask me out. He sent one of the other Black girls to do it. I was excited because I had never had a date before. She and I were underage but these boys took us to a bar in Iowa City and bought us drinks. As soon as we got back to the car for the journey back to Kalona, the grope fest began. It ended with me saying “No” when asked if I wanted to go parking on a back country road with the other couple. I just wasn’t interested and didn’t want to get into trouble. The following day there were several boys that no longer spoke to me after finding it wasn’t easy to get my pants off. I’ll leave those names be. They know who they are. They would have been creeps in any high school.
My first year at IMS I was nervous, out of my element. I was fourteen. It was the seventies, and I was no different than a lot of girls my age. We wore mini dresses. I had on a mini dress one day, and I was curled up in a rocker resting in my host family’s living room after a long day at school. I was just sitting there, and the host father just came in and took a picture of me without asking. I didn’t think anything about it at the time.
All these decades later in 2003, I came to Iowa to visit my daughter and grandchildren. My ex-husband Chuck who is still living in Iowa said he would take me around and we stopped in to visit that same family.
Now they didn’t know we were coming, which makes this all really odd. We hadn’t even sat down, and this host father went into his office and brought this picture out. I don’t mean he went into there for a few minutes and dug for it. I mean he went in there and came right out with this picture of me curled up in that rocker, and you can clearly see my panties up my dress. His wife is sitting there when he thrusts the picture into my view. Chuck’s sitting next to me, and I’m about ready to shit a chicken. Again, I’m thinking “What the fuck?” And this jackass is just nervously chuckling about it. Why would you do that? Why would a Christian man take that picture in the first place? I felt victimized all over again, angry, embarrassed, sick to my stomach, betrayed, bewildered…shall I go on? It was a horrible moment and my ex-husband, the father of my oldest daughter just sat there and did nothing, nothing while he smiled as he was admiring his ‘trophy’.
OSU: And he had no shame?
No! Like I said, he went right into his office and brought it right back out. It wasn’t like he had to dig for it. And both men were chuckling like they were in a locker room looking at girlie pictures. It was very disturbing and demeaning.
OSU: Did you feel like you were the only person who understood how inappropriate it was?
I was so shocked, I couldn’t think about anybody else. I’ve thought about it since. His wife was sitting right there. My ex-husband was sitting right there. And the guy was just all proud of this picture he had of me that showed my underwear.
I remember there were other men that would walk uncomfortably close to me, or walk past me in tight spaces. I always had large breasts so I would get this supposed ‘accidental’ brushing up against me thing. It continues to baffle me that these Christian men would behave worse than a stranger on the street. But yet they were so quick to recite scripture when it benefitted them.
The big take away for me from living with Mennonites was that the men get away with treating women badly, subserviently, like their humanity doesn’t matter. Everyone seemed to turn a blind eye to the harmful stuff going on around them. But I was supposed to believe these were the ‘good’ people.
All of this happened due to the hubris of the Mennonite church and their unwillingness to right the wrongs that they have caused me. I cannot speak to the things that may or may not have happened to those other Black lives they touched.
When Leonard Haarer sexually assaulted me at such a young age, a standard was indelibly set in my mind as to the kind of man I should be with. I would like to make it clear that the men I chose (or more to the point chose me) was due to my kindness, vulnerability and the twisted perceptions of forgiveness I was taught.
I have told my story not out of revenge but as a reckoning for a life that was discounted and treated as not important. There is no justice that will give me back a life I would have had without the influence of the Mennonite church whether that would have been a good life or a bad life according to their standards. My life would have been my life.
Into Account asks you to consider a contribution of $54 today in honor of the 54 years Janice has worked to recover, live and thrive since the violence she experienced in the Mennonite Fresh Air program.
If you or anyone you know suffered similar experiences as Fresh Air children or High Aim students (or saw or suspected them) we would like to hear from you. Please reach out confidentially directly to Janice Batts at email@example.com, contact OSU director firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a public comment below. We believe you. You are not alone.