This is the last week to catch the Sam Houston Memorial Museum presentation of Mennonites in Texas: The Quiet in the Land, an exhibition made up of work by Laura L. Camden and Susan Gaetz Duarte. The exhibition features 50 black and white photos of two different Mennonite communities: Lott and Seminole.
Mennonites are a branch of Christianity. The group practices Anabaptist denominations and is named after Menno Simons (1496–1561). Mennonites focus on issues such as peace, justice, simplicity, community service and mutual aid. Many compare this group to the Amish.
Camden and Duarte went on separate trips in the 1990s to the two Mennonite communities. Both spent more than a year engaged in these communities as work on their Master’s thesis in photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
For Camden, the inspiration to do this project came from a young age when she would visit her family in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“While growing up, my grandmother would take us to see the Amish communities and I was fascinated with their way of life,” Camden said. “I was intrigued by the lifestyle. Learning about Amish culture led me to learn more about Mennonites.”
As she decided which Mennonites to observe and photograph, Camden heard about 500 Mennonites who had come to the Seminole area in 1977 from Mexico and Canada, in hopes to build a large congregation, but went through immigration difficulties.
“I decided to work with this particular group of Mennonites in West Texas because of their struggles coming to the United States and enduring hardships,” Camden said. “It was really their story that struck me. They had come here and stayed here [despite the difficulties]. I guess, as a journalist, I was curious. I felt it was a story that needed to be told.”
As of now, the Mennonites of Seminole community have a population of more than 5,000 residents and five separate congregations in which several of which still speak Mennonite Low German.
Duarte’s project on the other hand, the beachy Mennonite community Lott is located in Central Texas, 450 miles away from the Seminole community. This Mennonite community is smaller than the Seminole and has approximately 160 people.
These two photojournalists decided to collaborate and make a book of photos because their two communities were so unique to each other.
“I learned of Susan’s work with the Lott Mennonites after starting my project in Seminole so when I finished I contacted her,” Camden said. “We brainstormed how we could jointly publish our work since the two groups are vastly different. We sent a book prospectus to Texas A&M University Press and they accepted it in their Sam Rayburn series on rural life.”
The book titled the same as the exhibit, Mennonites in Texas: The Quiet in the Land was published in 2006. Now, photos from the book are a part of the traveling exhibit that has gone to Texas and Kansas.
Through these photos, Camden and Duarte offer others an intimate view of a unique lifestyle seldom experienced by outsiders.
The exhibit is produced by The Dolph Briscoe Center of America History at The University of Texas at Austin, and presented in partnership with Humanities Texas, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Sam Houston Memorial Museum Marketing Coordinator Megan Buro explains how the museum got the opportunity to show this exhibit.
“Our Exhibits Curator Casey Roon likes to see what traveling exhibits Humanities Texas has to offer and bring them to Huntsville,” Buro said.
Buro said many of the visitors of the museum have not been very familiar with the term Mennonites and what it means, so this exhibit has helped shed light on the communities.
“Having the exhibit has really opened my eyes to the Mennonites,” Buro said. “I have driven by the church in Lott several times but just really knew nothing about their beliefs and way of life.”
The impact of this photojournalistic work for Camden has shown that despite different backgrounds and religions, as humans everyone is connected and can understand each other if effort is put forth.
“Once you learn about another culture or meet anyone from another culture, it is hard not to be compassionate towards them and their humanity,” Camden said.
The exhibition is available free to the public in the Exhibit Gallery at the Katy & E. Don Walker, Sr. Education Center, 1402 19th Street through Feb. 28. Viewing hours are Tuesday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday, from noon to 4:30 p.m. To get more information about the exhibit visit the Sam Houston Memorial Museum website.