Explaining Why I Am a Mennonite, Melissa Fisher, April 1999 (United States)
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To explain why I am a Mennonite requires both a statement of faith and a bit of background information. From within an “ethnically Mennonite” family, it it difficult to separate my heritage from my own faith, and in some ways for me they are inseparable. I find, right or wrong, that I faith in my heritage, and in the integrity with which my ancestors sought a relationship with Christ and one another. For most Mennonites in the world, this reliance on family and community history plays no role in their decision to be Mennonite. As Steve Nolt’s article in the Festival Quarterly explained, North American Mennonites of Swiss Brethren or Russian descent do not make up the majority of Mennonites in the world any longer.
When tracing my family, I discovered that on both sides of my family, most of my ancestors have been Mennonite or Amish for the past 200-300 years, coming from Swiss Brethren stock. In fact, one of my multiple-great-grandfathers, Nicholas Blank, was involved directly in the “Amish” schism of the late 17th century.
Gorwing up, my Mennonite parents taught me the importance community and family had in my personal life. I remember stories of how religious life and community beliefs played into the other choices, such as the fact that both my grandfathers and my father chose to do alternate service during World War II and the Vietnam War respectively.
Nearly everyone around me when I was growing up were some form of Mennonite or Amish. For the first 18 years of my life I lived in Shipshewana, IN, a small, heavily Anabaptist community near Goshen. Most of my friends from elemetary and junior high school were the children of Mennonite or Amish parents. My parent’s employers, most of my elementary and junior high school teachers, bus drivers, postman, bank tellers, etc, all were Mennonite. Because of such an environment, I took it for granted that Mennonites and Amish were most of the people in the world (this, of course, only until I was old enough to understand that they were not).
Through all this, I feel that the choice to be baptized into a General Conference Mennonite Church was truly my decision, I see that it was shaped by my background anf the values of my family and community. As I became older, I began to appreciate, as well as see the detriments, of livingin in such an isolated community. I saw that, though this wasn’t true for me, many young people in situations similar to mine joined the Mennonite church by default. They were baptized because the other people who were in their class were also being baptized, and it was the thing to do. I saw people living their religious lives vicariously through their parents and grandparents. At the same time, my parents encouraged and challenged me to think for myself and to wait to be baptized if I felt I wasn’t “ready.” With their encouragement, I am still searching for what it means for me to be a young member of a General Conference Mennonite church in the late 20th century.
I appreciate the nurturing provided by my “Mennonite community,” yet I see the flaws in such a situation. It can bring about a certain complacency in the children, when they are isloated from anything other than Mennonite. It can also lead to an elitism of thought, wherein Mennonites comprise the brightest and the best of what the world has to offer, because anything outside of that is “strange.”
Because of my training, I have found thatI agree with many of the ideal of the Mennonite church with which I am most familiar. I realize, as Nolt pointed out, that the liberal endo f the Anabaptist spectrum is growing at a much slower rate than its conservative counterpart. I affirm the general Mennonite ideal of pacifism, as it is manifested in an acticve sense of peace-making on a local and global level. I see voluntary believer’s baptism as an essential part of the church, and I affirm the call to live according to the teachings of Jesus in his life, particularly that of the Sermon on the Mount.
While I appreciate much of what constitutes “Mennonite life,” I am not blind to the fact that often, Mennonites fall short of the ideals set out in the early 16th century. Mennonite life has evolved from that initail extreme separation from the world, to being the influential members of the world. Wealth and power are no longer discouraged in many sectors. In each Mennonite “hub” (i.e. Elkhart County, In, Hesston, KS, Eastern Pennsylvania) there are Mennonite “royal families,” whom everyone knows and reveres. These families may have gotten this status from money or educational level or what have you. On the whole, North American Mennonites live very well. I choose to be Mennonite because I feel that no matter what divisions and arguments we may have as a church, on the whole the Mennonite church strives to be a church of integrity. It is not perfect, but to continue with dialoge to authentically attempt to follow the life of Jesus grants it that integrity. The church needs people willing to both continue the tradition begun by our spiritual foreparents, as well as to challenge the church against complacency and conformity to the world. I pray that the Mennonite church can continue to be a dynamic body, carefully discerning a proper path for the future of the church, in Christ.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.