What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Matilda Yoder, April 2011
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My understanding of what it means to be a Mennonite has shifted several times over the course of my lifetime, and although it continues to change, these shifts still play a big role in what I consider Mennonite. When I was younger I realized that my family was different than others in my hometown and (Catholic) school communities, but I couldn’t have pinpointed the difference except to say that during school mass people stood up and sat down a lot, and at weekend church people liked to sing from books. Beginning when my classmates went through their First Communion, however, I was pushed to learn what exactly the differences between Catholic and Mennonite denominations are – and, for that matter, to learn what denominations are. At first things were not very in depth – my parents explained that differences were mostly in practice, but that we all were Christians. I don’t actually recall when the emphasis on peace entered my consciousness – I just know that it was there early on, and that by the time I reached junior high school I was aware that not all of my Christian friends were pacifist, and that some of my Buddhist friends were. I recognized that peace was important to my family and home congregation, and took it as such by integrating it into my moral code (albeit with a rather un-Mennonite sense of pride and superiority). Overall, my attendance in Catholic and non-denominational schools resulted in many minor shifts in thought in which I gradually learned about the uniqueness of Anabaptists and about the history of the Mennonite church through my own search for identity among communities I never felt fully a part of.
Although it wasn’t exactly pleasant to feel I was a minority among my peers, it certainly wasn’t a harmful experience either. I understood that there was an element of ethnicity in my Mennonite faith and heritage - loosely defined by sauerkraut, pie, and family histories involving farms, quilts, and head coverings – and I took pride in it as one might take pride in nationality, prizing it as unique, morally upright, and even superior. Looking back now, I suppose it was a bit of an attempt to make my life more interesting than it would have been if I were just another white, middle-class, European-descended American. I don’t suppose this pride abated until college: in fact, going to Mennonite conventions alerted me to the fact that there were many others who identified with being Mennonite, and thus I learned about the importance of singing 606/118, four-part harmony, the peace stance, and other traditions I had been unaware of. I was, however, disturbed by the evangelical nature of the conventions, and by the fact that so few of my own Mennonite Youth Fellowship and my age group understood what it meant to be Mennonite. I had been pushed to learn about the history and core tenants of the Mennonite Church, and others hadn’t, and I felt rather righteously that I had a grasp on what the essence of the Mennonite faith was while most of my peers did not. Unfortunately, I was too shocked by the mass-produced nature of the conventions to understand that I could have learned much more about the nature of today’s church in the US, Canada, and in the world. The church moves with its members and the age, and although I still cling to ethnically German Mennonite traditions, I should have been more understanding of the positive aspects of a widespread church regardless of my instilled preferences.
Coming to Goshen sparked what is perhaps the largest shift in what my mind defines as being Mennonite. It is the first time in my life that I have been surrounded by people who share similar backgrounds, beliefs, and values as me. This community has both nurtured me and reminded me that I am not alone in my perceptions of what it means to be Mennonite, but it has also resulted in a lot of dialogue and debate that has shifted how I feel about certain principles and issues. For instance, prior to coming to GC, I would have been very against mission work unless it was done through MCC. I also tended to focus more on issues of social justice without concern for the religious reasons for working for social justice. In many ways college has helped me to recover from disturbing interactions I’ve had with Christians who are bigots, who don’t care about peace or justice, or who have offended or hurt me in a variety of ways I won’t bother to detail. Just seeing others committed to a Christian community I admire has been enough to remind me that there are things more important than ethnic traditions.
I suppose what this all amounts to is that my definition of what it means to be Mennonite has expanded to include other incarnations of the denomination regardless of evangelical or Pentecostal methods: what really matters are things such as peace, justice, faith, and a commitment to living a good and meaningful life, whether one of Amish simplicity or modern practicality. This doesn’t mean I don’t still prefer my own cultural trappings – I suspect I always will – but it does mean that I’m more open to benefiting from other traditions.
As for why I identify as Mennonite - well, there are a variety of reasons. The first one that comes to mind is rather snarky, and essentially holds that I am Mennonite because I was born into a Mennonite family and raised that way. That is not entirely the truth, however – my parents and church community gave me a fair amount of space to figure out what I believe, which is a process I am still undergoing. I have yet to make the decision to be baptized and I still have many doubts and questions, but I still consider myself to be Mennonite - and not just because I identify with a particular stand of Mennonite culture. Full member or no, I have committed myself to tenants of peace and social justice, and I am supported by Mennonites and Anabaptist in my home congregation, college, and family. I have friends and fellow church members who are not ethnically Mennonite, but who are just as devoted to the principles I am. I do not want them to be excluded because my church clings to cultural practices. I belong to a community that, as I am increasingly made aware, is rather large and which spans the globe. It’s a good place to be in, I think.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 2011.