Kornelius Isaak (1928-1958) came from the village of Blumenort in the Fernheim Colony in the Paraguayan Chaco. He was a member of the “kirchliche” (General Conference Mennonite) church, attended the Bible school in Filadelfia, and became interested in missionary work among the Indians. The Mennonite colonies had become a magnet of economic opportunity toward which various Indian tribes converged. In the 1930s three Mennonite groups formed a missionary association, Light to the Indians. They aimed to convert the Indians to Christ and make them into “true, useful and industrious citizens of the Paraguayan state.” The first substantial settlement was started in 1936 with six Lengua families at Yalva Sanga. In the 1950s attempts were made to contact the more militant Ayoreo tribe in the northern Chaco. Kornelius Isaak was with a group that attempted a friendly meeting in September 1958. The Mennonites were in the process of distributing gifts of clothing to the Ayoreo people when Isaac was, without warning, stabbed in his side by a spear. He died one day later, 11 September 1958. His widow, Mary Born Isaac, was pregnant with their fourth child.
Jonoine Picanerai was the youthful Ayoreo who killed Kornelius Isaak with the spear. His tribe had lived several hundred kilometers north of the Mennonite colonies. The tribe had taken up arms against a North American oil company that had invaded its territory. Some of the Ayoreos did not make distinctions between different groups of outside white people who came to them. They had killed a Mennonite settler, Paul Stahl, and three of his children. The Ayoreos had a history of conflict with the Lengua Indians. Eventually the Mennonites agreed that mission work to the Ayoreos would be taken over by the New Tribes Mission. In subsequent years Jonoine Picanerai emerged as a chief of his tribe. He became a Christian.
Fifty year later, in 2009 at the Mennonite World Conference Assembly in Asuncion, there took place a remarkable event of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation between Jonoine Picanerai and the Mennonites. Picanerai brought to the stage the spear that he had used to kill Kornelius Isaak. Speaking for the Mennonites, Helmut Isaak, Kornelius’s brother, acknowledged that Picanerai in 1958 had been defending his tribe’s territory “against the invasion of the white man.” Both the killer and the killed were acting according to the ideals of their people. The story of Kornelius Isaak and Jonoine Picanerai may be unique in the history of Christian martyrdom. Isaak was without doubt a martyr of Christian missions. The eventual reconciliation of Picanerai with Isaak’s family and people was, in the words, of Helmut Isaak, “a symbolic act of peace.”
Sources: Ratzlaff, Gerhard. "Isaak, Kornelius (1928-1958)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. 03 August 2012. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/I8338.html. Jaime Prieto Valladares, Mission and Migration (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2010), 50-51. Dick Benner, “Forgiveness for Slaying,” Mennonite Weekly Review (3 August 2009). Edgar Stoesz and Muriel T. Stackley, Garden in the Wilderness, Mennonite Communities in the Paraguayan Chaco 1927-1907 (Winnipeg: Canadian Mennonite Bible College, 1999), 111. James C. Juhnke, A People of Mission (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1979), 187-189.
Submitted by James C. Juhnke