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Having grown up in a Mennonite church, it is often difficult to articulate what “being a Mennonite” really means to me. The church is in me and I am in the church in thousands of ways I am not even conscious of. However, it is important to reflect intentionally on why I remain part of the Mennonite church and how this distinctive identity will continue to shape my life.
Growing up I identified closely with Mennonite ideas about peace, serving others, following Jesus’ actions, and living simply. When I first came to college I was in the Religion in the Americas colloquium class in which we discussed the Mennonite tradition. This was the first time I realized that these beliefs which I took for granted as Mennonite beliefs were not important in all Mennonite churches. The progressive Goshen type of Mennonite does not represent even the majority of Mennonite believers. Numerically most Mennonites are in the United States are quite conservative and the most mind blowing part- the peace witness is not even a central part of all Mennonite church visions!
Spending time serving with the Mennonite church in Peru further complicated my understanding of the Mennonite label. When I asked members of the church there about what it meant to be a Mennonite, I received two common responses: it meant that they were evangelical Christians that believed God died for their sins and it meant that they were no Catholics. After further digging I often found that they believed in Jesus’ teachings of peace and serving others, but these were not ideas they pinned their own identity on. Was my own ideas of what constitutes being a Mennonite more right than the Peruvian’s ideas? On what basis do we determine who is more in line with the tradition?
Taking Mennonite/Anabaptist History has helped me better understand how Mennonites have defined themselves in the past and pointed me towards potential frameworks with which I can understand my own commitment to the church. I find that I resonate deeply with the early Anabaptist understanding that faith in God should be evident in the way that one lives their lives. Their commitment to nonresistance even unto death serves as a powerful example of living like Jesus. There is a lot that I can learn from remembering the beginnings of the Anabaptist tradition. However, subsequent Mennonite migrations to the Netherlands and Russia remain important stories from which I can learn how to better live in a society that does not persecute me for my beliefs.
I have benefitted greatly from our conversations about the global Mennonite church. As the church continues to grow in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, the church becomes less and less similar to the specific Mennonite world in which I grew up. The church is becoming more evangelical, more conservative, and less rooted in the European Anabaptist story. But it is also becoming more diverse, more energetic, younger, and has an incredible array of perspectives. It will most likely become increasingly difficult to find a set of beliefs that we all share and indentify with.
Perhaps rather than identifying myself as solely a set of beliefs then, I can identify myself as part of a conversation and part of the community committed to staying in conversation especially about specific topics such as peace and serving others. This will not be easy due to cultural differences, language barriers, and physical distance. Yet I am amazed at the power of this commitment. While doing research on the Peruvian Mennonite church I have learned of collaborations between indigenous Quechua Mennonites and indigenous K’echki’ Mennonites from Guatemala. Would these groups have come together without this commitment to the Mennonite identity? I was also struck with the idea presented by Kauffman in her article “Hope for Change in Zimbabwe” that we each maintain personal connection with a Mennonite congregation in a different part of the world. As I finish up my research on the Mennonite Church in Cuzco, I hope to remain in contact with the congregation in any way that I can. As I am about to graduate and head out into the world, joining a Mennonite church will be an important aspect of living out my Mennonite identity. I need to remain in community with not only the global Anabaptist world, but also local Mennonite world. During college I have had a rather abysmal church attendance record. I have had the Goshen College community which is in many ways Mennonite, but it is not the same as a church community. Going out from here I recognize the importance of engaging in worship as a community. God should always be at the core of the Mennonite identity, and it is easy to forget this when I do not worship regularly.
Therefore, when I claim to be a Mennonite, I claim that I look to the history of the Anabaptist movement for inspiration, that I embrace and commit to the ongoing conversation between Mennonite churches all around the world, I find community within a Mennonite congregation, and I have personal faith and devotional life that undergirds it all. I continue to believe in the importance of the peace message, serving others, and living simply and will continue to advocate for adherence to these ideals both within the church and in the world. As I travel outside of this Mennonite bubble of Goshen, I am sure my Mennonite identity will be challenged in new ways. Yet I look forward to it as a time of growth as I learn how to carry my Mennonite identity with me even when the external world may not understand what a Mennonite is.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 2011.