Why Am I a Mennonite? Anne E Horst, April 1999 (United States)
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Around midnight on a warm June night four years ago, I was stranded with a friend in a tiny town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. We were almost out of gas and facing 25 miles of trees between us and our destination on the edge of Lake Superior.
After passing the one closed gas station in Seeny, Mich., we pulled into a dark parking lot next to a deserted grocery store. Hearing sounds from the Friday-night crowd in a nearby bar, my friend decided to look for help.
He soon returned with a sporty-looking and slightly tipsy man who offered to sell us some gas from his home down the road. As we got in the car, the man looked at Matthew and said to our extreme surprise, "Are you Amish?"
We said, "No, but close; we're Mennonites."
Matthew was wearing a blue oxford cloth shirt, brown pants, a full beard, and a Salvadoran straw hat that hid his ponytail. I had on a choir festival tee-shirt and a longish homemade skirt that I enjoyed for hot weather. As I fished out quarters to exchange for the gas, the man said, "So, I've never really understood Mennonites. Like, it's basically Christianity, right?"
I said "Yes," and started explaining the first things that jumped to mind: believers baptism as distinct from Catholicism and our pacifist convictions. The man's quizzical facial expressions indicated I was not exactly speaking about familiar ground and I wasn't connecting very well.
We learned later that a conservative Mennonite owns the grocery store in Seeny. We assumed that the man who helped us had noticed Matthew's appearance. As liberal, enlightened, even rebellious Mennonite high school students, we hadn't consciously dressed like Mennonites, much less Amish. Even so, a stranger recognized our similarity to the public's picture of our religious identity. The unintentional cultural marker of dress spoke more clearly to the stranger about who we were than my late-night attempts to explain theology had.
Am I a Mennonite because of outward indicators or because of my family history and ethnicity? If I have an ethnic identity more specific than a white American, I claim a Swiss Mennonite and Amish heritage. Mennonitism: farms, old hymns, coverings, quilts, Pennsylvania Dutch, church splits, straight coats, bishops, Indiana, shoo-fly pie. These are what the public might associate with my religious ethnicity. However, cultural and historical Mennonite markers make me a Mennonite only in the limited way that covered wagons, log cabins, cowboys, Plymouth rock, and prohibition make us Americans today. To be genuine Christians in a believers church tradition, most would agree that we must reach beyond our ancestors' folk ways, our "Mecca" communities and our favorite hymns. But why does it sometimes seem difficult to discuss the faith side of our religious identity?
As college students today, we can easily articulate the outward cultural parts of Mennonitism, even as we shy away from vocalizing clear and concrete particulars of the Christian faith. In a post-modern academic context that values the subjective perspective, distinctive heritages and cultural pluralism, having an ethnic Mennonite identity is somewhat easy to appreciate. But if we are to escape the tribalism and shallowness that comes from focusing on our entho-religious boundaries, we must find a way to engage our faith beyond its outward markers.
Although I hold some traditional ethnic characteristics, I'd like to think that theology, values and faith are what make me really Mennonite. I sense ethnicity most at extended family gatherings when I play Rook, pass dishes of home grown food and listen to conversations about an old friend's relative's funeral, a struggling new pastor, a Sunday school series, a Bethany Christian High School basketball game, a church membership transfer or hail damage in the garden. I love Mennonite history, foods, genealogy and hymns. But Mennonitism becomes most meaningful to me when I find an identity distinct from society because of my religious beliefs and actions. I appreciate the emulation of Christ that the Mennonite faith community supports. From the Anabaptist writers of the 16th century to modern Mennonites I admire, "following Christ in life" is foundational. We also have a continuing sense of being different, distinct and specially called out in the world: not because we are better than others, but because we strive to be God's servants-salt and light for the nations and for our communities.
If my clothing won't make strangers say, "By the way, are you a Mennonite?" then I hope my actions will in some way. If my Mennonite identity is not to rest on cultural traits, I need to develop my ability to articulate theology.
I remember another midnight, this time a cold one in November two years ago. I argued with a man holding a sign outside an execution building, trying to explain that God doesn't sanction government officials to kill or carry out divine judgement. The man's Christian convictions and desire for righteousness were as strong as I hope mine are, but my religious allegiance led me to a minority dissident position in a way that his did not.
I appreciate the way the Mennonite faith tradition cultivates our ability to remain distinct from loyalties in the society around us. This is an essential part of having our ears free to hear God's voice.
This sense of differentness was especially cultivated when I was a seventh grader. Americans were waging war in the Persian Gulf, and throughout the city, American flags that had come in the newspaper hung in windows, supporting Desert Storm. When we drove through four-way stops, I was sizzlingly aware of these flags looking out all around. I searched for the few houses with empty windows, like ours, wondering who their owners were and what they were like. I was proud to see that across the street, our Mennonite neighbors' house displayed a faded newspaper insert with a white peace sign blurring the red stripes.
My ethnic markers may contribute to my Mennonite identity, but they are not the most important to me. I continue to relate to the Anabaptist faith tradition because I want to live as a part of God and I need to remember how to be different from society to do so.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.