A Mennonite is exactly like a Catholic . . . with half the dancing and twice the guilt.
— Matt Falk, comedian
Mennonites are the only group of people without blood on their hands.
— Gregory Boyd, (non-Mennonite) pastor
I spent the early years of my life trying to hide the fact that I was Mennonite. “Mennonite,” in my home town, was synonymous with “poor,” “smelly,” “uncool,” and “uneducated.”
The other Mennonite kids who came and went in my little rural school didn’t speak English well. The girls had long, long hair done up in tight braids and they wore weird dresses. The boys wore ill-fitting homemade pants that didn’t reach their shoes. None of them smelled very nice, and none of them stayed for very long. They were always on the move, migrating back and forth between Leamington, my home town, and the Mennonite colonies in Mexico.
As I got older, I began to equate my heritage with ignorance. Conservative Mennonites are suspicious of government-funded education, and many can’t read or write. I found this embarrassing as I excelled in public school and wanted no association with these uneducated, simple folks.
I also associated my culture with mindless conformity: the conservative Mennonites in my town all dressed alike and insisted on speaking their native Low German, refusing to learn the larger culture’s language.
It was also associated, in my mind, with oppression. Mennonite culture is, historically, exceedingly patriarchal, with a strong emphasis on female submission.
Naturally, with all of these associations, I wanted to separate myself from my heritage as much as possible.
It wasn’t until I entered university that I started to feel differently about my cultural background. Folks were fascinated when they heard that I was Mennonite. They were captivated by my stories of working on the field as a child, or how my mother was publicly chastised for bearing me out of wedlock. They wanted to know all about my childhood. Did we have electricity growing up? Did we celebrate the same holidays as other Christians? What did I eat growing up? What did I wear?
And what exactly was a Mennonite, anyway?
Most of my schoolmates had seen the women around town with their headscarves, surrounded by herds of children in matching floral dresses and homemade pants. But no one had ever had the chance to talk to a Mennonite, or to see the inside of an Old Colony church. What exactly did Mennonites believe in? And what exactly was our connection to the Amish?
The difficulty I had in answering that question – What is a Mennonite? – forced me to acknowledge what a complex cultural history I have.
In more recent years, I’ve come to discover that the Mennonite faith and culture are very complicated. There are conservative Mennonites and there are liberal Mennonites. There are cultural Mennonites who grew up milking cows and making wareneki, and others who have converted in adulthood to embrace the tenets of the Mennonite faith. In some regions the term “Mennonite” means “poor, illiterate farmer;” in others, it means “radical pacifist.”
And more recently, as I’ve learned more and more about my heritage, I’ve begun to come home to my roots. Not to the dresses or the language or the patriarchy, but the actual roots of my faith. I’ve fallen in love with some of the most beautiful parts of my heritage and have come to embrace them fully. One might even say I’ve grown to be proud of my cultural inheritance, except that humility is an essential Mennonite virtue. (So I’ll just say I’m pleased.)
Since the term “Mennonite” is so nebulous and so alien to most readers, I thought I’d take a few posts to explain what this diverse culture is all about.
First, I want to briefly go over Mennonite history, starting with the first Anabaptists, to help explain why Mennonites are so diverse and so far-ranging. (If you’re an Old Colony Mennonite, chances are you don’t know this history yourself, since your parents and grandparents probably can’t read and don’t know themselves).
Then I want to focus on the Old Colony Mennonites – a very distinct subgroup — who are my ancestors.
Finally, I want to look at Mennonites today, and my relationship to this diverse group of people. I want to highlight the aspects of the faith that I most enthusiastically embrace – namely, our historical commitment to non-violence, peacemaking, and simple living.
Please join me as I explore the history of Mennonites!
(Corrected) Note on images: the first photo is of my mother’s cousins. It was taken in Mexico in the 1970’s, but the dress is still identical today in many communities.
The second is of my paternal grandmother, taken in Manitoba in the 80’s.
PLEASE DO NOT USE MY PICTURES WITHOUT PERMISSION.