Mennonites and Me: Some Final Reflections

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.

Old Colony MennonitesI 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.

baby with calfI 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.

children calfI’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.

* * *

chihuahua mexicoI 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.


Photo Credits:

#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.

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  1. Thank you for taking the time to research this and share with us! I have to admit, first impressions are lasting impressions and the first blog post I ever read by you mentioned that you were Mennonite and ever since then I’ve always had this funny picture in my head of you in a long flowing dress, with a little white bonnet, sitting with your laptop and, ok, I confess, maybe a cow or a goat nearby. (In my defense, the Mennonites in Missouri sell some wonderful cow/goat cheese at the local farmers markets.)
    Do you think your children will go to school? If not, would homeschooling be chosen as a way of life (I see it as an extension of AP, myself) or to avoid things (peer pressure, bad teachers, lack of Biblical-based teaching) you might have encountered in school?
    Bekah recently posted..Reflections on the past week.My Profile

    • Haha, Becka — that is too funny! Hope my About page gives you a slightly more accurate picture! The funny thing is, I don’t even have a laptop. Too high-tech. :P

      I actually am seriously considering homeschooling, funnily enough. But not because I encountered anything particularly negative in school; mostly because I worry that the public school system stifles creativity and fosters competitiveness. I’m not entirely sure, though.
      Kathleen Quiring recently posted..Mennonites and Me: Some Final ReflectionsMy Profile

  2. Linked up via Jesus Radicals. As one raised Roman Catholic, who then became a part of evangelical Christian communes, later sort of reengaged with the RC.s ( and I also did migrant farm work for years) I appreciate reading about your journey. I am interested in how your are handling involvement with the world. I don’t what the right way might be, but if I was raising children again (they are in their 30’s now) I think I would seek out ways to distance myself even more from american culture, which I see as pathological for the most part. I don’t know exactly what that would look like but I appreciate reading about other people who are working through the issues. Blessings to you and your family.

  3. Linda Thiessen says

    So well done Kathleen!
    My parents have a book of our ancestors going all the way back to Curtis Poland. In that book, it has pictures Mennonites farming the land they rented from the King, pictures of the first doctor (Mennonite)
    Pictures of their churches before the Catholics took over.
    I too had mix feelings on being Mennonite. Reading that book, going through those pictures and reading your Blog – I feel really proud :)

    Can you find out when the women started wearing those head coverings? (Maybe you already did and I missed it)
    I ask only because the pictures in our book – non of the mennonite women wore head coverings.

    • Thanks, Linda! Really — the women aren’t wearing head coverings?? I kind of assumed they’d been doing that since the beginning! I’m afraid I don’t know the answer to that question, but now I really want to know myself! I’ll see what I can find.

  4. Oh Kathleen, I love your writing! I look forward to your posts. This is a great summation to your collection. I don’t know where I fit into the classification, either. I was raised Christian Reformed, attended an evangelical Mennonite, and now go to an FCA church. I love it, but you can’t quite take the rules and submission out of me! Isn’t it such a beautiful thing to have freedom in Jesus? It doesn’t matter exactly WHAT I am, because He loves exactly WHO I am.

  5. Its really interesting to hear your perspective on your family’s distinct culture and religion. in my experience, being a white (i.e., racial mutt) with a basically mixed-protestant background, i almost feel like my ‘ethnic identity’ is missing due lack of anything. in fact, if anything that i find identity in, its that as far back as my grandparents on both sides of the family, literally everyone has been in some way shaped by the military. this has effected our family values and way of life (nomadic, my dad moved like 16 times before he graduated high school) tremendously. how is that for distinctly non-radically non-violent?! of course i’m oversimplifying and i do find an identity in moving all the time as well being from a background that is not based on ethnic divides (and is in fact really diverse) but i guess ‘family pride’ looks different in my case, especially now that i’ve changed religions and not joined the military despite a scholarship to do so. i wouldn’t say i don’t have family pride either…i guess it just looks different when you grow up and get to choose yourself what you believe? all interesting stuff, but like you said, i imagine this is how a cultural Jew feels.

    also, mike’s family is from Chihuahua. some immigrated to the states, since as you pointed out its really poor there, and some are still there!. how crazy is that! you guys could be related! ha! when we were there last year he would tell me about these legendary blonde people near chihuahua to make me feel better and i guess your people are who he was talking about! all he knew is that they made cheese! what a small world.
    alison recently posted..Take 7…Summer Edition: Earthquakes, filming, and more MSL!My Profile

    • Alison! Those legendary blonde people near Chihuahua who made cheese probably WERE the Old Colony Mennonites! They’re famous for their fair hair and cheese! Small world indeed. :)

  6. Hi just found your blog and I love it! I am not a mennonite, I am a baptist but totally agree with your blog. There is only one thing so far that caught my attention as rather odd and that is how you say you don’t summit to your husband. Even in the New Testament Paul says we are to submit to are husbands. Now that does not mean that he can walk all over us but it does mean he is the head of the house and the final say goes through him. But if you have a strong Godly marriage it doesn’t hurt you at all because you and him are one and usually have the same views. I was just wondering what your whole view was on submission to husbands?

    • Hi Kara! Thanks for stopping by! This is a really big topic, and one that I don’t feel I could adequately cover in a comment. To summarize it very briefly, though: I believe Paul actually calls us to mutual submission. Wives are to submit to their husbands, but husbands also submit to their wives. In fact, I believe this is the attitude all Christians are meant to have towards one another.

      Moreover, if Scripture says that husbands are the head of the family, just as Christ is the head of the church, then it means that husbands are to behave towards their wives as Christ behaved to his church. And how did Christ behave? By serving her, washing his disciples’ feet, and laying down his life for her.

      Like I said, though, this is a HUGE topic, and I know that there are lots of perspectives on the matter. Blessings!

  7. Charity Elizabeth says

    Hi, I can relate so much to you, I too was raised in a religion and time and place that no longer exists at least for me and my children. I am left with this agrarian painting of my childhood and old habits I can’t seem to leave behind milk and water are still my first choice at a cocktail party. I wish the world still closed on Sundays don’t you. No longer there yet unable to be here either my big suburban secret! I loved mucking a barn at five in morning was home schooled and I was the best I will ever be is in the company of my animals. We past a horse the other day I quietly said I used to ride my daughters didn’t be leave me my nine year old said you would never get dirty my five year dared me to prove it…..thanks for your blog I loved looking and learning about your family history

  8. Donna Carlson Reeves says

    Kathleen –

    My Sabbath School (I am Seventh-day Adventist) is studying Mennonites right now and I just found your posts. So much of what you write reminds me of my own upbringing and the way I was taught that we were to be “in the world but not of the world” and, similarly, were to remain “un-spotted” from it. Although I now have many good “worldly” friends – I finally know that God has sheep in many different folds, I still believe there is much to be said for some separation, especially for young children. I home-schooled my two – one is now a surgeon and one is a businessman – and found it beneficial (if a lot of work!) Thank you so much for writing.

  9. Thank you for this blog. I was raised Southern Baptist, a church that I still love. I am in my 60’s now but all of my teen and adult life I have felt that there is more to living a Christian life than conforming to the regular middle-class. I love the devotion that Mennonites have in their way of life. They are not ashamed to be Christian and the ones I have known exemplify it. When I was in my 20’s my husband and I were members of a Mennonite church. We were known as “urban Mennonites”, educated but committed to living out God’s will in our life and happy with the peaceful, simple lifestyle. It was a perfect match for us. Sadly there was only 1 other Mennonite couple in our church as it was a mission at that time. So socially it was unappealing and too lonely for us to continue. We soon quit going. After learning and experiencing what the inside culture is like in other denominations, I am drawn again to the Mennonite church. I live near New Orleans where there is serious work to develop strong churches. I am wanting fellowship with other believers who are serious about their faith. I have always wanted to be “separate” and even dress in a non-conforming way. Growing up, however, my controlling mother was terrified of being embarrassed by me if I wanted to be”extreme”. She was cruel and would have thrown me out of the house or worse if I had even suggested that I wanted to dress differently even as an adult, e.g. as a nun or holiness believer. She did not want me to be “extreme”. I think being a Mennonite is where I belong. Pray for me that I will find the work God wants me to do and the fellowship I need. The world is not enough. Blessings on you and your blogging. To her who is given much, much is expected. I would say that this blog indicates that you are a person who is living up to that expectation.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful and generous comment. I hope you are able to find a community that helps you glorify God in the way that feels right to you. Too bad we don’t live closer to one another. :)

  10. Underlying your negotiations with your faith is a very heartwarming message of keeping your life real throughout…and discovering truth and beauty within and beyond that give and take. Self denial is just the flip side of the coin of self indulgence…the hard part is finding balance. And you are definitely showing us how it’s done. Thank you for sharing your awesome story and luck to you in the journey ahead.


  1. […] the literary arts in Mennonite circles, depending upon which Mennonite circles you move in.  Some Mennonites and former Mennonites will tell you that Mennonites are not in favour of the arts at all because they are prideful and […]

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