The Meaning of Being Mennonite, Janine M Martin, April 1999 (United States)

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Return to Why I Am Mennonite Essays; Goshen College; Goshen, IN; April 1999

I grew up in the Mennonite church. Both of my parents—and their parents also—grew up in the Mennonite church. My mother has traced our Anabaptist roots back many generations. I think that you could probably say that "being Mennonite" is in my blood. I cannot fathom my life without the Mennonite church. My parents dedicated me when I was an infant. From the age of two, I have attended Sunday school and I will probably attend until I die. I "met" God and gave my life to him at a Mennonite church camp when I was 12. At 13, I was baptized into full membership of the Mennonite church. I have taken communion of bread and grape juice and I have washed the feet of my Mennonite sisters on Good Friday. I was the President of my MYF (Mennonite Youth Fellowship) and I attended two Mennonite youth conventions. And now…I find myself at a Mennonite college writing this paper on the meaning of being a Mennonite.

Throughout the short 20 years of my life, being Mennonite has meant a great number of things. It was hymns every Sunday and potlucks following the service—four-part harmony followed by casseroles and salads and the ever-enormous desert table where I always hoped to find my favorite—cherry pie. It meant quilts made by grandmothers covering my bed. The quilting circle meets every Thursday and I loved to hide under the frame-stretched quilt while diligent, thimble covered fingers worked amidst friendly chatter. The annual quilt show was always a favorite—as the women of the church proudly—though no one really called it pride—show off the beauty of their handiwork. I remember the year that I first displayed a comforter that I—with the help of my mother—had made as a project for my fourth grade class's unit on the Oregon Trail. The quilt show was in the basement and upstairs there would always be the Self-Help display—hinting that perhaps the Mennonite church was more than North American traditions of quilts and hymns and pies.

Being Mennonite meant family. It was my mother's large family that gathered noisily for every holiday. It was my dad's even larger family in Pennsylvania that I rarely saw. It was attending a church that my great, great grandparents helped found nearly 100 years before I was born. Being Mennonite meant proudly admitting with a chuckle that "yes" I was related to nearly everybody at Zion. Being Mennonite meant playing the Mennonite game. When I needed make a family tree for a sixth grade project, it meant that I brought in a chart upon which my mother had traced our family back 17 generations. It means that she never tires of hunting down more information so that she can trace our family history even further. I have a book that she helped me make that year full of stories and pictures of family that died long before I was born. Their faces and stories are almost as familiar to me as my own. The romance of my great, great grandparents' story still thrills me. John, a Catholic, left France to avoid military conscription. Susanna, an Amish girl, worked on the farm where he found work upon settling in Ohio. They married, moved to Oregon, and joined the Mennonite church. I look at my great grandfather's—John and Susanna's son Daniel's—school picture and laugh at the scowl on his face. I have heard many times the story of how he hid under the schoolhouse to avoid that picture because he knew that his still very Amish mother would not approve. I look in to the eyes of my great-grandmother Ella—people have told me I look like her—and I feel a certain kinship with her. It is the same with my grandmother. I never knew her because she died when I was four but many times my mother has told me that I look like her. Being Mennonite has meant standing on a base of generation after generation of faithful people.

Being Mennonite has meant farms and gardens and a church camp out in the mountains. It is simplicity and staying close to the earth. It meant picking strawberries on my grandpa's farm. It meant that my mother taught me to respect rather than ridicule the migrant workers that labored in the fields every summer. It is never having to—and never wanting to—eat store bought jam, pears or corn because my mom has always provided me with the home-canned variety.

As I have grown older, being Mennonite has meant coming to terms with certain tensions. It has meant realizing that certain things I value about the church are more nostalgia than reality. Many of these things I cherish seem to be fading away in the segment of the Mennonite church to which I belong. I have long admired the simplicity and the grace of the conservative Mennonite life. I feel a kinship to the women in the coverings and cape dresses. I admire the sense of community and simple, faithful life. I began to realize, however, when I was nine that I would never fully fit into this way of life. My family had flown back to Pennsylvania for a huge family reunion of my dad's side of the family. I wore my favorite outfit—shorts and a tank top with bright blue and yellow stars set on a red background. I walked into a park filled with my conservative relatives. My playmates for this trip were to be my many older cousins' children. The girls all wore dresses and had long braided hair. There was something so beautiful about them and I became quite conscious of my naked legs and my shoulder-length hair. My mother bought me a dress while we were there. I can't remember if I asked her to or if she just sensed that I felt out of place.

I still find beauty in my conservative Mennonite sisters but I am aware that upon first glance they do not feel that same kinship towards me. I don't "look" like a Mennonite. A certain part of me longs for that "visibility." Yet, I love my blue jeans and I want the freedom to cut my hair. A covering would be out of place on my head because it does not hold meaning for me. The meaning had faded away nearly a generation before I was born when my mom and her sisters stopped wearing them or never even began. I am caught between trying to grab hold of tradition—those older, simpler ways—and with moving forward to embrace the new things I see and learn. As I seek a college education and even investigate the possibilities of church leadership, I realize how I move farther and farther away from the life of my conservative Mennonite sisters.

I have experienced other tensions in the Mennonite life. These are tensions of a church caught—as I am—between the old and the new. I experienced this tension when I fell in love with praise songs. I wanted so badly for my church to embrace these songs that made me feel alive—made me want to dance. My church, though, holds fast to the old hymns and, of course, dancing is unthinkable within the context of the church. I love hymns but I sense that a new generation may need some new songs too—not to entirely replace the old but to stand beside it and speak of a different experience. I sensed this tension when our youth pastor, Michele, asked to be licensed by the church. Though they loved Michele, there were those in the church who could not incorporate this idea of a female pastor into their understanding of God, the Bible, or the church. I felt my first real anger towards my church when Michele resigned. I have since come to a better understanding of my church's decision though I still don't agree with it. I understand that you can't change a lifetime of understandings and transform them in a day. I understand that the people of my church are loving, faithful people who are serving God the best that they know how. None of us fully comprehends the whole truth—we can only piece it out together.

I now find myself at a Mennonite college where the tensions and contradictions and fallibility of the church seem to confront me almost daily. I have been frustrated with endless "dialogue" that really seems to go no where. I have been confounded by the complexities that I didn't know existed within my beloved, "simple" church. It was here that I was challenged to think of how the Mennonite game can actually be a hurtful form of exclusion. I have been greatly troubled by the movement of certain areas of the church away from the authority of scripture and even from the tradition that I myself have scorned at times. It was here that I began to realize that one could be Mennonite and not really be Christian. For some I have met "being Mennonite" is a political stance. For some it is merely a heritage—something to be born into and not something that they have embraced and made their own. I have found others, though, whose faithfulness has encouraged and challenged me—people for whom "being Mennonite" is about faithfully following Jesus Christ. Some have come to it by heritage and others have wandered in by different paths but all are here by choice.

Above all other things—being Mennonite is a choice. I grew up in the Mennonite church but it is my choice whether or not I remain. I think that I will. The core beliefs that the Anabaptists were drawn to still have the power to draw me in. I choose to live a live of active love and non-resistance. I choose to live simply and modestly. I choose to live in humility—believing that the best way to draw people to Christ is to be a servant as he was a servant. I choose to read scripture and learn from it—taking it as an authority on my life. I choose to live a life not defined or determined by the life of this world. Hymns and quilts and potlucks are all traditions that will prove to be temporal. Though they have been a part of my Mennonite experience, I realize that they are not the definition of Mennonite. They are merely symbols of the Mennonite values that I have claimed and made my own. New symbols will surely come. I am sure that my children's Mennonite experience will be quite different than mine. I hope and pray, though, that Jesus will always be the central shaping factor in the Mennonite walk—that we will continue to seek to live lives motivated by love for him.

This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.