Watershed Discipleship: A People’s History of Elkhart, Indiana

This piece, by Katerina Friesen, is part of a series of Friday posts on watershed discipleship. Katerina hails from central California, and is currently a student in theology and peace studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She lives in the Prairie Wolf Collective, a co-housing community in Elkhart, with five friends, a cat named Zip, and the newest resident: a skunk that just made its home in the woodpile.


On a sunny afternoon in late September, I joined a group of neighbors and friends for the 6th annual People’s History tour of Elkhart, Indiana. The tour, in the tradition of Howard Zinn’s classic subversive book, A People’s History of the United States, highlights the often unheard stories of local folks, their memories of south-central Elkhart, the struggles here that must not be forgotten, and people’s ongoing work for change (above: Participants in the tour begin with recognition of the Potowotami peoples whose ancestral lands we inhabit).

I see the People’s History tour as a watershed discipleship practice. Through the tour, participants learn about the socio-political dimensions of our St. Joseph River watershed. I love participating each year because it gives me the opportunity to form friendships with people I may never otherwise meet, and also connects my seminary studies to the streets.

Every year, the stops along the tour vary. This year, we biked or drove together to three locations: Roosevelt Center, Fernando’s house, and La Michoacana Neveria for a taste of the city’s best ice cream.

Our first stop was the Roosevelt Center, a former school slated for demolition that a coalition of local residents rallied to save and transformed into a community center for youth. We met with Rod Robertson, who after several shootings and deaths in Elkhart over the past year, called together a group of mostly African-American community leaders to form a group called “9 Block.” The group focuses on 9 blocks at the heart of south-central Elkhart, and works to organize neighbors for peace in an area that many of us on the tour call home (below: Touring Fernando’s tax sale home).

Next, we headed to Fernando’s house for a tour of the newly renovated house that he and his family bought at last year’s “tax sale.” Every year in a public tax sale, the city of Elkhart auctions off abandoned and foreclosed homes, as well as houses of those who haven’t paid property taxes. Houses are sold at incredibly low prices (some less than $1,000), and are often in need of significant repair work. Landlords often flock to the sale to make a pretty penny renting the houses they buy to poor people. A group from People’s History of Elkhart helps local residents to learn the in’s and out’s of this sale so they can purchase an affordable home. They also encourage people to work together not to bid on homes with people still living inside. Roberto was able to purchase his home for just over $5,000!

La Michoacana was our last stop on the tour. This locally owned ice cream shop hosts meetings for undocumented “Dream Act” students to organize. As we enjoyed homemade paletas, José, a dream activist, talked about his involvement with the new Indiana Moral Mondays movement. He also shared about his recent experience picking up his 5-year old cousin in Texas after the child’s dangerous journey alone to the U.S. from Honduras as part of the recent wave of Central American refugee children (below: José shares at La Michoacana).

What does this tour mean for watershed discipleship? I believe it provides a way to learn the stories of our place, not according to dominant accounts or official histories, but according to people whose lives are bound up with ours in our watersheds.

Stories represent an ecology of place rooted in history and memory, of present and past relationships that must be nurtured for healthy, resilient communities to flourish. Through paying attention to our neighbors’ stories, we learn a different kind of ecology, the health of which is just as necessary for our common survival as the health of other soil and water- bound systems. We will need these stories, and the strength knit through sharing them together, especially as climate change, heightened poverty, militarized borders and other forms of violence threaten to further fragment our communities.

Let me end with a few questions for reflection. I wonder: what if local People’s History tours were as common as community gardens? Like gardens planted in different soil and climate zones and by different people, tours would look very different in each place. Readers, feel free to respond: what do you think of the idea of People’s History tours as a potential watershed discipleship practice? What would a People’s History tour look like in your watershed? If the rivers, trees, animals and other non-human biota could speak in a tour of your place, what would they say?

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