What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Emma Ruth, April 2011
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One Sunday morning in mid July I woke up at dawn with a feeling of excitement, but was also quite uneasy. Slipping on my shoes I snuck past the dreaming people in my sleepy house and made my way down the stairs, out the front door, and through the meadow, still covered with dew. Even though the sun had not yet fully found its way past the tree line, the humidity made its presence known. Reaching a bed of rocks I sat down and stared at what lay before me: the rippling Branch Creek, a place I had grown up in and around—skipping stones, swimming, swinging, fishing and diving with the neighbor boys—and where, a few hours later, I would be baptized. As I sat there thinking about the events the day held, I asked myself, “what in the world am I doing? What does this all mean?”
What I have discovered since the day of my baptism is that I learn more and more about the church and what it means to be a part of the community that has formed around it every day. That is what I hope is most important—not to assume that by the time I was baptized I would be capable of knowing how to approach and respond to every issue, every theological question, every moment of tension with ease, but that by setting foot in the creek that day I was committing to becoming a part of the tackling of these issues and the effort to build and maintain a firm foundation in faith along with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
And that is exactly what I felt I have done. By offering my time at Salford Mennonite, whether it be leading congregational singing during the service, performing with my cousins and sister during the time for special music, serving as a volunteer at the kid’s Peace Camp in the summertime, reading, reflecting, and responding during Peace and Justice Committee meetings, prayer services, youth group and youth council gatherings, conversing with the sewing circle ladies while helping them knot quilts, or setting foot in Mexico City, Miami, Florida, Denver, Colorado, or the various locations that held Mennonite Youth Conventions, I feel I am embodying what it means to be a Mennonite and working at letting my voice be heard.
I am excited about and inspired by the proposed initiatives in terms of how rhizome growth of global Anabaptism can be encouraged, which were presented in class just a week ago. In fact, the day after class I sent a text to my pastor that described some of the ideas because I truly think this is what the church needs to put a large amount of thought into, and these suggestions seemed to spark my enthusiasm. My church just underwent a change in leadership as our two pastors stepped down and a much younger man with took their place, who I think (or hope, at least) will encourage our congregation to think more broadly and be more open-minded when it comes to incorporating something he thinks is important into our mission—the global church. He happened to be my youth pastor and Bible class teacher throughout most of my high school years so we have spent much time in discussion about where we see the church headed. I remember one meeting we had over coffee a few years back where he told me, “Emma, what I think our church community needs is a spiritual revival.” The way he said it really stuck with me and throughout the years I have been keeping his observation in the back of my mind, looking for ways this might be done.
There was a point in my life when I just gave up on the church. It was a messy time in my congregation—a situation filled with mistrust, cold shoulders, and shattered relationships. As a young girl, it was hard to see this all take place, especially since I felt uninformed and powerless. What I would have absolutely loved to do in that situation was start my own church—one of those living room churches that doesn’t have to be a part of a conference and would not have to go by any regulations. I felt like everyone had been so caught up in church politics that they had forgotten what we were ultimately there to do on a Sunday morning. I thought of churches around the world, like our sister church in Mexico, who would probably look at us and laugh at how silly we were being: my Mennonite church that had existed for years and years was struggling more than a church just founded recently. Perhaps we had fallen into the notion that many Mennonites seem to battle—that we think more of local congregations and have a view of the church that makes it difficult to think about global identity.
So how could we get past all those “things” that tend to overpower and move towards becoming more united as a body rather than focusing on things that will so often tear us apart? What could this revival look like? As lofty as it sounds, I believe that if we brought our burdens together as a global community, we could share a sense of togetherness despite the struggles that so many people have gone through. Just as the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century spent time in secret, risking their lives to be together, and as the persecuted MWC group in Zimbabwe shared goals of keeping together in times of trouble, we could collectively do the same.
We must remember that “the earth is the Lord’s” and work at sharing our gifts with those around us. I call myself a Mennonite today cautiously. I am at Mennonite-affiliated college but I have not attended a church since I came to Goshen in the fall. Why? Because when I left Harleysville, Pennsylvania I was not excited about the initiatives my church was taking. They had become almost too self-centered and locally-oriented and I was worn out from all of the involvement I had been a part of over the years. Not regretful, just tired. Regardless, I call myself a Mennonite because I have been taught and believe in the values that make up the faith. I was baptized by choice, which allowed me to have time growing up in the church to really ask questions and watch as others modeled what it meant to be a devoted member. I fully support the pacifist stance that the church has taken and the forms of missions and outreach that have been established and continue to be formed. I believe that the emphasis put on simple living will have a huge impact on how the rest of the world may view us, and is a key step as we try to connect with other Mennonites around the world. I used to be skeptical of how progressive the Mennonites have become in comparison with their Amish and Hutterite kin, but while I still admire those churches that are fully rooted in tradition, I think that Mennonites have a different responsibility, especially with the younger, more diverse churches being formed all across the globe. Less emphasis should be put on the idea of “separation from the world,” since this can so often lead to isolation. As Wood mentions in his article “Mennonites and Mammonites in Paraguay,” "’The Mennonite principle always was that we live in the world, but we try to maintain a difference from the world, and now the more modern groups think [they] have to make a difference in the world.’” It is my hope that these modern groups are doing just that, and as a part of the next generation of leaders within the church, I hope creative ideas and initiatives will continue to form.
I call myself a Mennonite even though I cringe at some of the things I see within the church, such as a lack of inclusion which can cause division. I believe that the Mennonite faith should not be exclusive—but changing tensions such as these is where I see the church headed today, and I, as a baptized and committed member of my congregation and the Mennonite faith, am ready to continue this search. What I believe it takes to form and maintain a Mennonite identity is to be ready and open to face challenges, but also use them as tools for learning.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 2011.