"Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other." Adrienne Rich
One of my favorite “self portrait” photos hangs permanently on our fridge. Living out West, I asked my Grandma to send me a Halloween costume, which she purchased at her local used clothing store. The result was more than a bit spooky: a full Swartzentruber Amish outfit that fit as if it has been made for me. In the photo, I pull off the costume well; my cheeks are flushed, eyes shining. It’s obvious that I’ve been laughing for awhile. This is because someone has handed me an unopened bottle of vodka, which I am cradling a la 1950s housewife style, donning my Amish attire:
When I study the photo now, I am both gleeful and melancholy. In a lot of ways, it represents a fixed cultural identity I strain against. I also think about the Amish woman who donated the black dress and bonnet, how different we are even though we come from the same religious ancestors. What is she like? How many children does she have? Is she happy without all the extra layers in life I am convinced I need (restaurants, cars, masters degrees, long stretches of time to myself)?
Within the first few hours of meeting someone, my Mennonite faith usually surfaces in conversation. From there, the list of questions swarms. You can imagine them: “So…are you Amish? Does your dad drive a buggy? Did you go to high school?”
I am not used to being such an anomaly; in my hometown, most people I knew were Amish, Mennonite, or had family members in the church. Most of all, I am still not used to explaining Mennonite core values as if I am an expert (there are variations of us, some much stricter than others, just like other denominations).
But the question that always rattles me is, “How are Mennonites different from the rest of us?”
This doesn’t seem like such an overwhelming request. But it’s complicated. I desperately want us to be unique from mainstream “American” Christianity. And I think some people are disappointed that my upbringing wasn’t, in at least some ways, much different from their own. "Born Mennos" are also unique from those who choose to join the church, and I want to represent them in my answer. When explaining my answers to the above loaded question, I find myself wondering just how “Mennonite” I really am, let alone the larger denomination now disconnected from the Conservative church...
Here are my answers:
1) Overall, we still relate to and support a community identity mentality more than most. Passed on by generations, this stems from historic events, mainly severe persecution in Europe and our emigration to the U.S. and Canada, where we kept to ourselves for social and spiritual survival— thus, our nickname “the quiet in the land.” While many churches don’t formally shun members anymore, layers of social exclusion still exist. Just try being an outgoing female minister or a black man in a rural congregation. (Now remember: I am speaking from a rural Mennonite’s perspective.)
2) We are one of the original “peace churches,” though as we assimilate more into mainstream culture, not all Mennonites are pacifists (an issue that baffles me). My Grandpa did alternative service during WWII, for example, as a smokejumper. (side note: Alternative service still exists for young people who want to serve the U.S. without joining the military.) My family supports the Peace Tax Fund, legislation that would allow for those of us with moral reasons for opposing war to choose for our taxes to go elsewhere. Go figure. Imagine that world…
3) On that same note, it’s unusual for Mennonites not to do some type of humanitarian service in their lifetimes, usually long-term (a year or more). I did Mennonite Voluntary Service like my parents (who were also missionaries in W. Africa). Mennonite Central Committee is one of the organizations that started microbusiness percolating and was active in fair trade from its beginning. The list goes on and on. While Mennonites have a stellar record in helping the international world, we’re still learning to embrace "the others” around and among us. This is my humble opinion (see #1).
4) Simplicity is as simplicity does. Walk into most Mennonite congregations today, and you might not see any glaring differences between its members and other protestant church’s. Even in my mom’s youth, the women (with head coverings) sat on one side of the church, and the men on the other. Though Mennos are much more “in/of the world” today, I think many strive to live by the proverb, “The best things in life aren’t things.”
5) Music is part of our identity. The only time I’ve seen grown men cry has been during hymn sings, especially if the hymn is in German. Four-part, a cappella music has a mysterious power, connecting yet again back to answer #1.
6) Though some will deny it, Mennonites still avoid conflict and confrontation (Some scholars say this is due to our persecution in earlier centuries or by the various church splits over the years, now carried to current generations. Who knows.) I still catch myself apologizing when someone bumps into me or saying “yes” to things and people when I ache to say “no.” I know, I know—these habits aren’t necessarily “Mennonite."But there's definitely a fear of schisms in our community.
A new memoir recently hit bookstores titled Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. While it's gotten strong reviews—and certain parts really did make me guffaw—it dances past the fine line between exploration of one’s upbringing and the exploitation of that same upbringing. I didn’t find the speaker, who's left the church, transformed or reverent at the book’s end like some reviews claim. Sure, it's easy for me to be critical. As I straddle two worlds--one where I am a creative writer, feminist, and individual; the other, where I am part of a cultural community that in many ways defines me--the thought of writing my own memoir is enough to give me instant heartburn!
So that begs the question: How (fill in the blank here) are you? And how would you explain being (fill in the blank) to others? And--oh horror of horrors--how would you write about it: your version of it, your "truth" on paper?