Contributed by Mennonite Heritage Center
In 1946, James Henry Lark became the first Black person ordained to ministry in the Mennonite Church. He and wife, Rowena, were visionary church planters in cities across the country, but their Mennonite story began in rural eastern Pennsylvania.
They lived on a farm near the Rocky Ridge Mennonite Mission east of Quakertown, Bucks County, PA. James recalled that one wintery morning in the early 1930s, mission workers, Linford Hackman and Abram Landis, stopped by his house and asked him to go with them “up the mountain” to help two elderly men who were snowed in. James and Rowena’s children were already attending the Mennonite Sunday School.
The Larks were impressed with how the Mennonites helped with real needs—bringing food, chopping wood, cleaning, and laundry. Rowena remembered: “It was the literal fulfillment of scripture that caused me to join Rocky Ridge Mission. As I saw these faithful Christians coming eight or more miles from their homes and gathering up in their cars Italians, Poles, Dutch, American Negroes, and Germans, to take them to the house of the Lord, I was made to feel that here is a group of Christians who are really making their religion practical.”
James Lark was a man who was fifty years ahead of his time in vision and concern for the growth of the Mennonite Church in urban areas. During his long ministry he always challenged his fellow Mennonites by asking, “What is your plan; what is your program?” The life and legacy of James and Rowena Lark stand as an example of what God can do if people are open to the Spirit’s leading. Alex Lark, their youngest son [in photo with James and Rowena], said of his parents, “Here was a case of functional discipleship.” —Hubert Brown, Mennonite Yearbook 1981
Rowena and James joined the Rocky Ridge congregation (in Franconia Conference) in 1935, and were dedicated workers for the gospel ever after. They moved to Rowena’s home city of Washington, DC, and became involved with missions in Virginia.
When Virginia Mennonite Conference segregated their churches by race in 1940, the Larks moved north to Chicago, where they were welcomed by the Mennonite community. James was soon ordained. In 1954, he was ordained bishop.
According to their friend and coworker Le Roy Bechler, “James and Rowena Lark carried a vision of the church as a Spirit-directed community that excludes no one.” Despite challenges and complacency from white Mennonites, they believed that the Mennonite church had the capacity for including people of color, and they worked as self-described “tugboaters” toward that end. Their vision continues to bear fruit as the church today works to become more inclusive and diverse.
Editor’s Note: For more on the Larks’ ministry, see Le Roy Bechler, The Black Mennonite Church in North America, 1886-1986 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1986).
This story is featured in a new exhibit on Mennonite faith and life at the Mennonite Heritage Center, 565 Yoder Rd, Harleysville, PA, opening in March 2021. The Center’s open hours are Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tours can be scheduled for church groups on Sunday mornings.
Mennonite Heritage Center staff will give a virtual tour of the new exhibit via Zoom on Sunday, March 14 at 7:00 p.m., which can be accessed through the Center’s website mhep.org. All are welcome.