Why I Am a Mennonite, Rebecca Rich, April 1999 (United States)

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

Operation Desert Storm began and ended while I went to sixth grade at Archbold Middle School. In art class our assignment was to make a valentine to send to the troops, offering our words of support and conquest. I drew a peace sign surrounded by the lyrics of John Lennon and Paul McCartney; "All we are saying is give peace a chance." I'm not sure I knew what I was talking about, I just knew I was right.

I grew up eating bean soup and apple pie for lunch on Saturdays. We always drank Dramamine before the drive to the Big Valley in Pennsylvania at Christmas where we'd eat moon pies and whoopee pies until we were sick. I remember thinking Michael Dukakis was more Mennonite than George Bush. I can't remember who or what gave me that strange idea, but I was the martyr on elementary school election day.

On an MCC trip to Laos with my father in the spring of 1995, I learned that the Mennonites and the Quakers were the sole members of the development community in Laos for ten years after the end of the Vietnam War. No Red Cross, no United Nations Development Programs, no Catholic Relief Services. That was because the Mennonites wanted to help people, not take over the government or convert the heathens -- at least that was my take on the lingo-filled conversation. I basked in the glory of our goodness.

Tony Campolo commented on "the way of you Mennonites" in his presentation at Wichita '95. "You Mennonites," he said, "you really have a great thing going with all of this voluntary service and relief work. You really know what you're doing. The rest of the world should take some lessons from you." I frantically recorded his observation; finally someone recognized our righteousness!

For one month in the summer of 1996 I lived in a diverse community of spiritually seeking seventeen-year-olds. We were scholars in a program funded by the Lilly Endowment called The Youth Theology Institute (YTI) at The Candler School of Theology of Emory University. Among Catholics, Presbyterians, one other wavering Mennonite, and a random assortment of other religious pilgrims I discovered why I am a Mennonite. When we gathered for worship and pulled out the Methodist hymnal I knew I would be disappointed. My soul cried out for mercy when we tried "I Sing the Mighty Power of God." God must have laughed at our pathetic praise attempt. I am Mennonite because of the way the hair on my arms stood on end when the gathered assembly at Wichita '95 filled the city's minor-league basketball arena with 606 times seven thousand.

"So, where are you planning to go to school?" The question came up once again in conversation with my favorite instructor at YTI, Michael, a Ph.D. candidate in the psychology of religion, and a member of the Greek Orthodox church. I grinned and began rattling off my spiel. "Well, you've probably never heard of it. It's a really small liberal arts college in northern Indiana close to Notre Dame called Goshen College. It's..."

"Oh! You mean the Harvard of Mennonite colleges?" he quickly interrupted. I was surprised, amused and sinfully proud.

This summer my Presbyterian friend Sara visited me in Archbold for a few days. One evening, after bean soup in an old farmhouse filled with joyful and hospitable Mennonite friends, Sara said, "You know, all the Mennonites I've met are such nice people."

I laughed, and my dad was quick to add, "Well, I could definitely introduce you to some who aren't!"

Hannah, another Presbyterian friend, told me once last summer that she is going to become Mennonite. My response was "Great! Why?"

"Mennonites are so liberal! Peace and justice issues are so important..."

"No, no," I said insistently. "You don't understand. Listen, I don't even know if Lancaster Conference ordains women yet. I know that several churches have been kicked out of their conferences for accepting homosexuals into membership. Over half of the Mennonite Church is Republican, I think. And we don't even know how to fight. We're too pathetically pacifist. You don't know what you're getting into."

I felt obligated to deflate her glorified picture. We are not perfect by any means. But how can I not be Mennonite? I read The Mennonite with interest. I love potlucks and four-part harmony, and I am a diehard fan of the Mennonite game.

I also love cathedrals. They are beautiful. I love the University of Notre Dame's chapel and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. I love the cathedrals in Paris -- Notre Dame, Saint Chapelle, Saint Eustache, Saint Merrie, Saint Severin, Sacre Couer, Notre Dame at Chartres. Cathedrals make me want to be Catholic for the most non-Mennonite reason I can think of -- they are beautiful and extravagant and obviously expensive. So why do I feel the awesome presence of God there, and not so much in the sanctuary at Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio, where the pews are products of Sauder Manufacturing and the stained glass windows are covered for half the year because they are "too artsy?" I have discovered that being Mennonite means it's the people, not the place, that make things sacred. "Here in this world, dying and living, we are each other's bread and wine."

The awesome thing is not a cathedral with beautiful stained glass that tells the story of Jesus in pictures. The awesome thing is hearing my congregation sing "In the Rifted Rock I'm Resting" at my grandpa's funeral. That is why I am Mennonite.

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