This is the final post in my series, What is a Mennonite? which began here. I discussed the history of the first Mennonites, followed by the history of the Old Colony Mennonites. I then explored some of the different groups of Mennonites. Finally, I want to wrap up the history of the Old Colony Mennonites and my place within the group, and offer some final reflections on my relationship to the Mennonites.
I left off in my history of the Old Colony Mennonites with my parents’ generation: starting in the 1960’s, drought and economic hardships in Mexico made it difficult for many Mennonite families to flourish. As a result, many were forced to make seasonal migrations to Southern Ontario (and elsewhere) to work in agriculture. Both my and my husband’s parents spent their early years negotiating lives between Mexico and Ontario (and for my mom, Texas and Manitoba as well). Finally, they put down roots here in Leamington, Ontario, to raise their kids. Their journey towards acculturation had begun.
[I feel like I need to clarify: both sets of parents (i.e. mine and Ben’s) are fully bilingual, speaking Low German and English, though none of our parents are excellent writers in any language as a result of inconsistent education. Ben’s mom only learned to speak English in her adulthood. My mom is an avid reader of fiction.]
Though many Old Colony Mennonites continue to circumvent the school system, believing that public education corrupts, Ben and I, along with all of our siblings, went through public school here in Ontario. There are lots and lots of other Mennonites just like us.
I grew up attending Old Colony church services on Sundays, though, where everyone wore dark colors and sang in unison from the Gesangbuch and the men sat on one side while the women sat on the other. I went through Sunday school starting at five years old and managed not to learn a lick of German after six full years, even though it was the only language spoken there.
I started working on the field with my family as a child, picking beans, tomatoes and peppers during the summer and apples one fall when the teachers went on strike. Seventy-five percent of our earnings went towards paying family bills, which I was told (and believed) was a pretty good deal for us – my parents had grown up giving ninety percent to their families.
I was taught that as a girl, wearing pants and cutting my hair were sinful, though we did both anyway.
But otherwise, I grew up like a pretty normal Canadian kid.
* * *
I have such a complicated relationship with the Old Colony Mennonites.
(You can probably relate to a lot of this if you’re a fully-acculturated Canadian or American with any kind of distinct socio-religio-ethnic background. For example, I have a feeling there are plenty of North American Jews, Muslims and Mormons out there with similar feelings and experiences).
I still identify myself as a Mennonite, even though I don’t exhibit any of the characteristics of my ancestors: I’m a university-educated, (somewhat) fashion-conscious, artistic, feminist blogger. Blogger! You can hardly stray any further from the traditional Mennonite way of life. I can’t speak Low German, I don’t cover my head or “submit” to my husband, and I can’t recite the Fibel or the Kerchism – the two central texts of the Old Colony Mennonite faith. In fact, I don’t really hold onto most of the core Mennonite values any more. The Evangelical Mennonite church I attend doesn’t have anything especially Mennonite about it. Most Old Colony Mennonites would say that I am no longer one of them.
I’m enough of an outsider to be able to refer to the Old Colony Mennonites as “them” rather than “us,” but I’m enough of an insider to feel defensive when others criticize them. (Only I’m allowed to point to their shortcomings).
But I can’t deny the influence my cultural background has had on me.
There are the little things. Like the fact that I don’t wear jewelry, after a lifetime of being taught that jewelry is a “sin.” Or the fact that I consider a family of four or five children to be “medium-sized.” Or the fact that I’m still unreasonably uncomfortable in “worldly” settings like bars, theatres, and public pools, even though I’ve been to plenty in my adulthood. Or the fact that I will never, ever work on the Sabbath.
Like a good Mennonite, I’m also guarded and suspicious of outsiders, I have a hard time making non-Mennonite friends, and I’m distrustful of technological advancements.
I’m equally frustrated with and proud of my people.
The Old Colony Church has hurt me and my family in many ways. I am well-acquainted with their shortcomings. I am frustrated by many aspects of their value system and way of life – namely, their systematic subjugation of women, their general lack of warmth, their lack of intellectualism, and the absence of art and beauty in their daily lives, to name a few.
At the same time, I’m proud of their perseverance through poverty and persecution, and the courage it must have taken to seek out wildly unfamiliar locales to settle in order to protect their precious way of life.
I’m deeply impressed with the Mennonites’ longstanding commitment to nonconformity — their refusal to bow down to cultural pressures to dress a certain way or accumulate wealth. I’m in awe of their fierce loyalty to their understanding of the Scriptures.
Moreover, whenever I hear about the atrocities that white people have committed throughout history and across the globe, I’m glad I can say, “Thank God my people weren’t a part of that.” My ancestors truly are one of the very few European groups not guilty of massive bloodshed. I am so proud of our long history of nonviolence and voluntary suffering.
I’m also grateful for the industriousness and self-sufficiency that were passed onto me. I’m delighted with the skills I inherited: as a born-and-raised Mennonite, I knew how to pluck, gut, and dress a chicken carcass by the time I was an adolescent. I was making strawberry jam and preparing stews by the age of ten. I grew up in a culture that knows how to raise a dozen kids on a single, tiny income. My husband, likewise, can build anything from a shed to a kitchen cabinet without any formal training.
I’m so grateful for my upbringing. I’m glad that I started working on the field when I was eleven, and that I was required to surrender most of my income to my family until I hit university. It taught me to be extra-frugal, and it taught me the importance of every member contributing to the family ecosystem.
I wouldn’t trade my heritage for anything.
* * *
As I’ve researched and meditated on my ancestors’ history, I can’t help feeling a little guilty. They worked so hard to preserve their way of life so they could pass it on to their children. They made so many sacrifices to protect one of their greatest values: the freedom to educate their own children. They laboured to protect their descendants from the corrupting forces of the world, especially as manifested in the world’s education programs, which taught conformity, competition, and nationalism. And here I am now, a product of the public school system.
They worked so hard to protect me from the kind of person I’ve become.
* * *
I sympathize with what the Mennonites were trying to do by isolating themselves. I often long for the same thing and have a similar impulse: to run far away from the dehumanizing effects of consumer culture. I agree wholeheartedly with their desire to remain set apart, and share their suspicion of modernization with its inevitable links to consumerism and materialism.
But at the same time, I realize that you can’t ever be fully out of this world. God put us on this world, amidst other people, for a reason. We are called to be a peculiar people, but we still need to engage the rest of the world. We can’t run away forever.
* * *
So that’s where I currently stand in relation to the Mennonites. I am one of them, but not quite. I am fond of them, though they’ve made my life difficult at times. They are a hard-working, obstinate, fascinating group of people.
I can’t stand them. I love them.
#1: My husband’s parents (the cuddling couple — awwww), his aunt (in the matching dress), and one of their friends. 1979.
#2: My little sister with the family calf. Leamington, Ontario, 1988.
#3: My aunt and uncle on their wedding day. 1972. (Yes, that is her wedding dress).
#4: Me and my younger sister with the family calf, Leamington, 1988.
#5: Mexican landscape, Chihuahua Mexico (where the Old Colony Mennonites settled in the 1920’s). Taken by my parents, 1980’s.