Where Celebrating Immigration Means Lederhosen and Sauerkraut Balls

OLDENBURG, Ind. — The last time President Trump held a rally, and his supporters shouted a deafening chorus of “Send her back,” the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg were outraged. Some of them called the chant, and remarks the president has made about immigrants, “racist,” “terrible” and “disgusting.”

But the biggest event of the year, a German festival, was getting underway so the nuns let people gulp down fried sauerkraut balls and line the streets in lederhosen before they made their mark.

They stepped from their 1850s-era convent and planted a sign in their yard.

“Immigrants and Refugees Welcome,” it read.

But it wasn’t how everyone in town felt.

The nuns’ yard sign was noteworthy for where it stood: A small town in a conservative state, just an hour’s drive from Cincinnati, where, on Thursday night, President Trump will hold his first rally since the night of those “send her back” chants.

Oldenburg, where the sisters live, is a place where people are deeply proud of their German immigrant heritage and deeply conflicted about how to think about immigration today. It’s a community where many people celebrate the past, and hold tight to it, but often separate it from the present: They admire their grandparents, who came to this country with nothing and did not speak English, but do not always see similarities between those stories and those coming from the people crossing the United States border now.

They are following the debate over immigration — what the president says about building a wall, what Democrats say about the border — and agree that it is problem, but disagree on a solution.

Jeanette Lamping, an Oldenburg resident, said she voted for Mr. Trump but opposes the United States spending its own money on the border wall. She believes her German ancestors knew how to work hard. But that’s not how she sees the current wave of people crossing the border.

“They sneak in and want benefits,” she said.

Oldenburg, founded in 1837 by German immigrants, has bilingual streets names, in both German and English and church spires that mirror those of a German hamlet.

The city flag of Oldenburg, Germany, is flown alongside the American flag outside many homes. The town’s Hamburg Road leads to the 128-year-old Stockheughter Covered Bridge. Family names like Ferkenhoff and Schwertfeger label street signs and gravestones.

Two weekends ago, thousands of people, some in traditional German outfits, braved a heat wave to crowd the streets for Freudenfest, “The Biggest Little German Festival,” to mingle at the Biergarten, sing the Schnitzelbank Salute and dwell on the small town’s German roots. (The dachshund races were called off because of the heat.)

“It celebrates our history and heritage,” said Jeff Paul, 61, owner of the Village Store grocery who, like many residents, has ancestors who came from Germany to Oldenburg in the mid-1800s to settle on a farm. “Immigration is how we all got here.”

Indiana has a Republican governor, and Republicans hold a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature. The state voted overwhelmingly to send Mr. Trump to the White House. But Oldenburg, a town of about 700, is a mostly moderate island in a sea of red communities. Part of that is because of its Franciscan nuns.

The nearly 200 sisters tied to the convent, which also functions as a retirement home, hold considerable sway in the community, where they teach in the parochial school, volunteer at the food pantry and sell vegetables from their organic farm. Fire hydrants are painted to look like priests and saints. Women wear golden Mother Mary necklaces and the streets fill up with cars on Sunday for Mass.

Putting up the “immigrants welcome” sign in the convent yard was a culmination of efforts by the sisters to remind their neighbors of what they stand for in this community built by people who also crossed borders to get here.

“Some of the community — they don’t see the connection,” said Sister Amy Kistner. “They are all immigrants.”

In Oldenburg, residents talk about ancestors who had been shepherds in Germany, who arrived at Ellis Island, who initially moved to other parts of Indiana but then fled a cholera outbreak, all to settle here. Some said their parents and grandparents forbade them from speaking German outside the home.

When Oldenburg was filling up with Germans in the 1800s, immigration laws didn’t exist or were lax. But in the decades that followed, Germans and Catholics in this part of the country faced significant discrimination and even were targeted specifically by the Indiana Ku Klux Klan.

“I certainly have not forgotten about it, but I think others here have,” said Mark Stenger, 52, whose family immigrated from Germany in the 1920s during a time when even some elected officials were Klan members. He became a member of the Hispanic Community Committee of southeastern Indiana, a nonprofit in an adjacent town, he said, because he sees history repeating itself with desperate parents arriving who can’t speak English and need help.

Many residents here said they had cast ballots for Mr. Trump, though not all said they would do so again.

Don Obermeyer, 71, a retired engineer, stood beside his 1956 scarlet-and-cream-colored Chevrolet Bel Air and recalled some family history: His grandparents arrived 136 years ago from Germany, and he has traced his family’s roots to 1700s-era Germany. He celebrated at Freudenfest just the other weekend.

But for Mr. Obermeyer, present-day immigration is entirely different. His relatives arrived legally, he said, in a time when immigration numbers were far lower.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with all these people,” he said.

Jim and Carolyn Meyer, both Republicans who did not vote for Mr. Trump, were scooping homemade ice cream in their antique store in downtown Oldenburg amid the old beer steins and cuckoo clocks. They expressed sympathy for people crossing into the United States. In his past job as a fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Meyer assigned students to research their family trees.

“We’re all immigrants fleeing from something,” said Mr. Meyer.

“Or for something,” his wife added. “We like to preserve history, but change is good, too.”

Alexandra Maher moved just outside of Oldenburg 11 years ago after she married an American citizen she met in the Dominican Republic, where she was born. Her children were bullied at first in their mostly white school in Indiana, she said, but it lessened over time. Ms. Maher, a business consultant, is proud of her American citizenship and upset by what is happening at the border now. “I think immigration should be like I did it — the legal way,” she said.

The community of Oldenburg hasn’t changed significantly since it was founded. It is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly Catholic. Many of its buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For more than a century its residents have made a living farming or working at a giant coffin factory several miles away in Batesville. They are proud of their community’s heritage — that is obvious in the old-fashioned lamp posts and flowers that burst from baskets along sidewalks — and proud of their country.

That’s why Cindy Ziemke, a Republican state lawmaker who owns the Brau Haus restaurant in Oldenburg, thinks the system is broken. Over a basket of peppery fried chicken and fried sauerkraut balls, she explained that she believes anyone who wants to come to the United States legally should be able to do so. She thinks anyone crossing the border illegally was most likely tricked and “horribly abused” by people they paid to guide them. But she also thinks something needs to change. In particular, she wants to stop the flow of drugs coming into the country. Her two sons are recovering heroin addicts and now help others who are struggling with addiction.

At the convent, the nuns are also quite clear in their belief that something needs to change.

“How can people not see other people as human beings and treat them with dignity?” said Sister Noella Poinsette, sitting in a convent meeting hall Sunday evening.

Sister Kistner, sitting nearby, just shook her head. “The disconnect doesn’t make sense,” she said. “American history just keeps repeating itself.”

They were among a small group of nuns who in May decided to go to the Mexican border to see if they could help.

The women traveled to Laredo, Tex., where they worked 10-hour days, to the sound of thwapping helicopter blades overhead and border patrol cars speeding by, in a facility that offered clothing to Central American families who had been just released from detention after illegally crossing the border. Sister Poinsette saved one purple and one green shoestring from the trip to wear as a reminder to pray for the people she met.

Marge Wissman, another of the nuns who went to the border, said she recently came across her father’s citizenship papers when cleaning a relative’s home. She read over the paperwork and quickly did the math in her head. Her father had bought a house and had four children in the United States before the date that he became a citizen, according to the form.

She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed as though her father lived in America for years as an undocumented immigrant.

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