Why I Am a Mennonite, Harold Hartzler, April 1999 (United States)

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

I was a born Mennonite. That is I was born into a practicing Mennonite family. My father was a descendent of an Amish Mennonite immigrant. My mother came from the Church of the Brethren and joined the Mennonite church after marriage. Thus for as long as I can remember I regularly attended Mennonite church services, as a youth both Sunday morning and evening. My father was particularly active in church work. He was a teacher at a Mennonite college (Goshen), for many years was a Sunday School teacher and actively attended all church functions. By example I accepted the Mennonite Church as normative for my life.

I was baptized as a 12 year old into the College Mennonite Church in Goshen Indiana in 1946, along with a small group of friends my age. This was the style for baptism at that time. We would have had a small amount of instruction in the meaning of baptism prior to the actual event which took place during a Sunday morning worship service.

At the time of baptism I had little, if any, concept of being sinful and receiving forgiveness and being regenerated. I had shortly before baptism "gone forward" at a "revival" tent meeting in Goshen. My father took his family to such meetings whenever they were available locally. We also went to the tabernacle at Winona Lake in Warsaw Indiana to hear revivalist preachers. My going forward was precipitated by an evangelical person coming up to me during the "alter call" and asking if I were "saved". Since I couldn't answer in the affirmative and didn't know how to say "no" to this obvious request to "go forward", I simply went forward with her. I did have somewhat of an emotional experience of feeling sorry for things I had done which were "wrong" (using "bad" language, being occasionally disobedient, etc.). There was prayer for those of us who had gone forward and we were given a little card indicating what had happened, and were instructed to give this to our church.

After baptism I was officially a Mennonite. I was a member of the College Mennonite Church. I had never heard of Anabaptism nor did I know much about what the Mennonite Church stood for or what was distinctive about the denomination, except for its stance against war. I was very aware of the peace stance since my entrance into the church took during the Second World War, and I was always interested in what was happening in the war. My father and his peers were being drafted and going into alternative service (my father had a health problem and was rejected for duty). I remember the consternation of my mother when father went for his preinduction physical examination along with some of his friends, and then the joy when it was found that he was rejected, but the sadness surrounding the acceptance of his friends. I remember playing "war" with non Mennonite friends but being acutely aware that it was, for me, make- believe.

My early experience of being a Mennonite was ambiguous. With my Mennonite friends (many of my friends were Mennonite and I had many friends) I was very comfortable being Mennonite, but with "townies" I never mentioned it. In fact, it was only in later years that I learned that a few of my "towny" friends attended other Mennonite churches or in one case a conservative Brethren church. We just didn't talk about this. There was a distinct sense of being "different". There didn't seem any reason to bring up this difference. Some Mennonite kids kept somewhat to their "own" group, but others, myself included, wanted to be accepted by everyone and made friends outside the Mennonite group.

During my high school years being Mennonite was not something to brag about. In Goshen there had been some resentment against those who did not give active support to the war effort. So we kept quiet about our Mennonitism. We said little about Goshen College being "our" college. We would never have worn a Goshen College sweatshirt. We would have given verbal loyalty to, perhaps, Notre Dame!

My church experience consisted of attending Sunday morning worship service followed by Sunday School. The worship service had little impact on my life at that time but Sunday School certainly gave me a grounding in the Christian faith. I remember so well the monthly "temperance" lesson. I very soon came to realize that temperance as taught by my Sunday School teachers really meant abstinence. I later came to resent this untruth. However learning did take place and I have basically good feelings about my Sunday School experience. Sunday evening there was youth church until high school when we had MYF meeting. The MYF was very important to me. I had a fine leader who was in seminary and was an outstanding athlete (athletics being very important to me). I didn't know many adults who enjoyed athletics and outdoor activities that I enjoyed, so having a leader who did enjoy these was important to me and my relationship to the church.

My senior year in high school was spent at Hesston Academy in Hesston Kansas. I was sent there along with my best high school friends by our parents who, I think, were concerned about our friendship with "townies". I had looked forward to a senior year in Goshen High School where I would have been one of the "Big Men on Campus". At Hesston I interacted with and became friends with high school and junior college people from across the country. This exposed me to many variations of Mennonite thought and practice. The basic tenor of Hesston was more conservative than what I had been used to.

At Hesston I studied church history for the first time. This was enlightening for me. There also were teachers and student leaders who were interested in me and my faith development. During this year I experienced a renewal in my spiritual life.

After graduation I enrolled at Goshen College. Here I was exposed to the Bible studies required for graduation. This helped to continue my grounding in Christianity and Mennonitism. In these college years and the years right after graduation I became a convinced Mennonite.

A primary focus drawing me to Mennonitism is the little emphasis placed upon doctrine and the large emphasis placed on discipleship. When I look to scripture for guidance for my faith I am drawn to Matt 25:31- 46, the story of the sheep and goats, which I find to be an exhortation to get out and do unto others as you would have them do to you. To be Mennonite is to be socially active. We must be out in the world healing its hurts. I have no ability to believe that one's salvation depends upon believing certain selected dogmas. For me faith must be in believing that God exists and responding to the claims of Christ to be His followers. I believe that God provides grace whereby we may find acceptance by Him even though we are unable to perfectly follow Christ. If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive our sins (I Jn 1:9).

Being a part of a caring church community is another very primary part of being a Mennonite Christian for me. I cannot conceive of a relationship with God apart from a relationship with His people. It is in relating with people that we form our relationship with God. It is in doing His will that we find our salvation. It is in the community that we are able to discern His will for us. Where two or three are gathered there His will is found (Matt 18:18-20).

The call to live peaceably with all humankind is of vital importance to me. This distinctive doctrine of the churches of Anabaptist origin is at the center of following Christ. We are to turn the other cheek (Lk 6:29). As I now understand this, it means passive resistance rather than nonresistance. We may not stand by when injustice is being done. We must be actively working for justice. This may take many forms at different times and under different circumstances (writing letters to those in power, standing between the guns of aggressors and their victims, marching with the powerless in protest of the programs of the powerful against the powerless, etc.). We are to be peaceful but active.

In summary the Mennonite Christian accepts Christ as our guide for life, follows Him in actively working for peace and justice for all, and centers life around the redeemed community, the Church.

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