What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Stephanie Hollenberg, April 2011
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“To be, or not to be: that is the question.” That has been my question this past year as I’ve begun to sort through my files of frustrations and contentment with the Mennonite Church, trying to discern whether I belong or not. I don’t have roots in the Mennonite Church; both sides of my family are rooted in the Church of the Brethren, although my mom’s parents and cousins are the only ones who have carried on the tradition. I myself was baptized into and grew up in the Methodist church, but because I have spent my most formative years in the Mennonite community (church and school) beginning in Middle School, I have considered myself a non-ethnic Mennonite. Worshipping at College Mennonite Church and studying at Bethany completely submerged me in Mennonite beliefs and values: I’ve studied Anabaptist/Mennonite history, read the Bible through a Mennonite lens, attended youth conventions, committed many Mennonite hymns to memory (and in turn the theology), spent a year abroad with a Mennonite service program, and am now attending a Mennonite college where I’m yet again studying Bible & Religion through a Mennonite lens. The Mennonites have given me a home and a community that has supported, loved and mentored me, and in which I have grown to love so many people.
And yet. Does that make me Mennonite? I’ve really grappled with this question the past month or two. One evening as I listened to the stories in Anabaptism History class, it occurred to me that this was not my story. Though I’ve considered myself Mennonite, have been enveloped in the Mennonite community, and have been told this story again and again, this is not my story. Suddenly I began to sense myself standing outside of the tradition more than ever, sending my assumed identity and vocational questions into a chaotic reel.
No doubt many of the Anabaptist values have been instilled in me—the values of compassion and humility, seeking first the path of non-resistance and reconciliation, a simplified way of living, adult/believer’s baptism, and particularly the value of service. My year of volunteering in Colombia—and my travels since—really brought each of those values alive for me, igniting a deeper understanding of them, and inspiring me to pursue them with more integrity and intentionality. Yet while my values may align with those of Mennonites, the direction that my faith reconstruction has taken is not toward a traditional Mennonite faith. (Or a traditional Christian faith, for that matter.) It’s for that reason that I haven’t yet been baptized into the Mennonite church, though I’ve seriously considered and reconsidered it multiple times since my sophomore year of High School. I already gave my heart and hands to the church a number of years ago, but because I can’t affirm with integrity the baptismal belief statements, and because I haven’t found a church into which I want to be baptized, I remain on the outside. And so I straddle the fence. Which troubles me, because the fence seems rather high, and so I don’t know how to hop off the fence without choosing one side over the other. As we’ve learned in class, Mennonites have generally sought to maintain separation from the world in attempt to forgo evil and bring about the Kingdom of God. But I think that noble conviction has transformed into a fear of assimilation into the broader culture, which in turn stifles how we integrate and relate to others around us. The North American Mennonite Church has become such an introverted culture; when I visit a Mennonite Church, I’m often struck at how easy it is to melt into the background. There’s no doubt that Mennonites are friendly and that they are involved in and serve the community, but I don’t experience an overwhelming embrace and love of people as the said values might suggest.
And this is what I long for the Mennonite community to be. As writer Ratzlaff suggests, we must realize that integration does not mean assimilation: “In assimilation, the values of a culture and religion are given up in favour of another. In integration, the traditional forms are adapted to the national culture without surrendering biblical values.” What profound things would happen if, instead of holding onto our roots in fear that our children will be lost to the world, we used our roots as a catalyst through which to work within the world? I think that happens, to a certain extent—but not without fear. What if we allowed those values of love and compassion, service and reconciliation, true believer’s baptism, to take over our lives and spirits like mustard seed?
Although I acknowledge that my roots are not Mennonite and that it’s not my ancestral story, I realize that in a sense it is, or has become, part of my story. I am currently tapping into the Mennonite story, weaving it into my own. Am I Mennonite? Part of me is. I may not conform to the Mennonite theology, language, culture, or worship styles, but I do hold near and dear the values of which I spoke above. They profoundly shape how I live in this world and relate with others, how I integrate into the larger culture and world, which I believe has helped me live more deeply into the Divine Reality (or Kingdom of God).
Recently I’ve begun to realize that there’s a good chance that my gifts and passions for music and religion/spirituality will take me beyond the Mennonite Church, for I’m not sure it is seeking what I love so dearly about each, nor am I feeling spiritually fulfilled as I. The idea of exploring beyond the Mennonite Church excites me, yet it also frightens me, because as I’ve said, this community has given me a home, an overwhelmingly supportive and loving community, and a place to test my wings. I’m not sure I’ll ever call myself a full-blown Mennonite, but I can’t deny that pieces of me undoubtedly are and will ever remain Mennonite, no matter where I go or in what spiritual community I participate.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 2011.