Why Am I a Mennonite? Rachel Geissinger, April 1999 (United States)
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As I look at this question, why am I a Mennonite, numerous muddled thoughts run through my head. Although being a Mennonite is very important to me I have never really had to put my beliefs and convictions onto paper.
Why am I a Mennonite, I now ask myself? I make the realization that I have never really thought of this question before to any great extent. I began to think about what it means to be a Mennonite. Do all Mennonites share common beliefs, what links us together and where do I fit in this link? The more I thought about it, the more confusing it seemed to be. Putting my thoughts on Mennonites down on paper now seems like a difficult task. I will be grateful though when I have written this paper, for my convictions will be clearer and when I am asked this question again, I will be able to articulate my thoughts and others will better understand why I am what I am.
After much thought I realize the best place for me to start my journey into my Mennonite past, present, and future, was at the beginning, my childhood. I was born into a Mennonite church. I was dedicated as a baby into a small urban church in Minneapolis. As I child I remember enjoying going to church with my family every Sunday. I gladly attended church, Sunday school, but my favorite part was playing with the children at church. When I was a child I never thought about or understood what it meant to be a Mennonite, not surprisingly. Even though I didn't think about it, as a child I did learn the basic concepts of being a Mennonite. At the age of two or three, I understood at least one simple belief of being a Mennonite. One day my family and I were driving down the road and stopped at a stoplight. A man was standing on the corner wearing an army uniform. I looked at the man and then said to my family in the car, "the army, I wouldn't go in there for diamonds or gold." It is amusing to me that I knew even then that the military was something bad. My parents and church had taught me at a young age what it meant to be a Mennonite even if I didn't realize it. For this I am extremely grateful.
As I grew older the question of baptism arouse for me. I approached 15 years of age and so did others in my church, it was decided that it was time to go through catechism and get baptized. I went through the process and did get baptized, but at the time I don't think I really understood the importance of being baptized. It seemed like a ritual, something my brother had done before at the same age and now it was my turn. I am glad I was baptized at the time, even if a better understanding of what it meant didn't come until a few years later.
Besides this class, there are two memorable times in my life where I really had to try to figure out what my religion meant to me. The first was when I decided to work at a summer camp in Alaska. It was a religious camp, but not Mennonite. The people I met there were very forceful in their religion and wanted you to believe as they did. If you didn't share their beliefs, you had to be able to defend yourself in what you did believe and why. This was a difficult task for me as a 17 year-old. I took it on with full force because I was determined to show them that there is more than one option in the world for how people believe. Although my efforts were thwarted by their lack of understanding and willingness to be open, it made me realize that I was glad to be a Mennonite and it gave me a better understanding of what I believed, since I had to defend myself. My freshman year in college was my second experience, this is when I really began to question and discuss my religion. This became even more important than my first experience. I entered a state school for my freshman year. This was an experience in itself. I quickly became a friend with many different individuals. As I got to them better we began to discuss more in depth issues, including religion. In high school I had been asked what a Mennonite was before, but I never really knew how to answer and no one every pushed me for an answer, so I never had to think about it much. It was not until one night when I sat up talking about religion with a college friend that I really started to think about what it all meant. He had no idea what a Mennonite was and was very interested in what it meant to be a Mennonite. As I began to talk he had a lot of questions, some I tried to answer; some I didn't even know how to answer. I realized there was so much I didn't know about being a Mennonite. My convictions became clearer, but there was still so much to learn.
That is why I was so excited to see a class at Goshen called Anabaptist history. It would finally give me a chance to learn about the Mennonite past, learn what Anabaptists had to go through, and how the beliefs that I have now evolved through time. As I approach the end of this class, I find myself so much more enlightened. I feel as if I know where I came from and my beliefs now make more sense on a broader scale.
I have now explained my journey of growing up and becoming a Mennonite, how I have evolved throughout my life, but as I look back on the past three pages it doesn't really explain why I am a Mennonite. This task still lies ahead now in this paper and for the rest of my life. My beliefs are now held firmly, I know what I believe and why, but the question is what do I believe and do these beliefs reflects a Mennonite tradition?
For as long as I can remember, maybe the most important thing about being a Mennonite to me is being a pacifist. The two seem to go together hand and hand. It surprised me when I was in Anabaptist history and read that some of the early Anabaptists had participated in war and thought that carrying arms was acceptable. But as I read on and learned more I realized that many different groups of Anabaptists believed different things, true even in today's Mennonite society. Throughout time many authorities have found this strange and discomforting. If a group was unwilling to carry arms, they were questionable. Why wouldn't they want to help to defend their country? Grebel, Simmons, and people are continuing to believe this today, believing that we should live like Christ had lived. Jesus suffered for his beliefs; he never rose a hand against his opponents. He loved all and never advocated using violence as a means to an end. Mennonites of today still believe this. We gain our understanding of pacifism from certain passages in the Bible and from those Anabaptists who died for their beliefs. Pacifism runs strong in my family and church, peace is what we strive for.
Pacifism is not the only belief that I feel strongly about as a Mennonite. People all their lives look for communities that they can feel a part of, to be accepted at, to feel as if they are loved unconditionally. My church has given me this feeling. Even after being gone for long periods of time, for instance when I am at school, whenever I go back to my home church I feel wanted, accepted, and loved. People I haven't talked to in months will come up to me ask me how life is going, what I am doing, what I am planning on doing in the future. Some will even offer advice if I ask for it. There are not a lot of people at my church who are my age and yet I feel very close to a lot of them. I have grown up with a lot of them, they watched over me, watched my progress as I matured into an adult. I feel as though they are all a part of my family. I feel at home when I go there. It is a wonderful feeling.
Anabaptists throughout time have looked for this sense of community and have found it in their churches as well. Some Anabaptist groups have taken the understanding of community to a higher level, where all live in a small group, cut off from the world, their sense of community must be even greater than the one that I feel. I admire the Amish and Hutterites for their great importance they put on community. Community has been very important all throughout the Anabaptist history. I know that my community feeling is not nearly as tight of those of the past and even some of the present, but I feel a strong sense of community in my church. Even though some of us in my church live a half and hour or hour from church, when we do get together there is a sense of togetherness. We may not see each other everyday but that doesn't mean they are not in our daily thoughts. The word community can mean many different things depending on the group one is talking about, but the feeling does encompass all Mennonites. When I used to talk about baptism with others, my friends would always be so surprised that I hadn't been baptized until I was 15. They did not understand why and for a long time I didn't understand why either. After three months of this class, I now understand the concept of adult baptism and I feel it is very important. I always knew baptism was important. It meant that you were becoming a new person that you were part of a greater group, but I didn't associate that with why we were baptized as adults. Finally, I understand why being an adult is so important. When you are a baby, you don't understand anything about the Bible about religion; you can't make a conscious decision to become a Christian. If you don't have to think about why you are joining a church, the whole meaning of baptism seems lost. People should be baptized when they realize that they want to be a member of the Christian community, when they feel ready for that commitment. I am glad that I was brought up this way this meant I had a choice. I could chose to become a Mennonite, but it wasn't just assumed and didn't just happen when I was a baby. I had to make the decision for myself. I know have a much better understanding about baptism and now even more than when I was baptized I am glad I did do it and understand why it is such a big deal.
Another thing I think is very important to being a Mennonite is the acceptance of everyone, no matter what age, race, or gender. All need to be welcome in the Mennonite church. I know that this feeling is not united in the Mennonite church. This has become apparent in the conflict in North America about whether homosexuals should be allowed to be members of the church. My church has been through this struggle and though it caused a lot of pain hardship and even a split, we did decide to allow homosexuals to be a part of our church. For this I am extremely glad, just for the fact that we are showing that we do allow anyone to be a part of our community. Throughout Anabaptist time there have been numerous conflicts about this same type of issue. In the past the issue was whether we should let any outsiders into our community, where does one draw the line at how much of the outside world is ok. Now that most Anabaptist churches do integrate with the outside world, we are now trying to decide who is allowed in our church and who is not. To me there should be no issue, how can we even think about not letting a person into our church just because they are not exactly the same as we are. Jesus was friends with everyone, he never outcast anyone, in fact he even befriended people who were considered the sinners of the times. If we are supposed to follow Jesus then we should follow him to the fullest. He accepted all, so should we. People must remember the Anabaptists of the past, so often they were not accepted and even persecuted by the larger community so how can we do the same thing to people now?
The above topics are only a sampling of what many Mennonites believe. It is hard to classify a Mennonite now since there are so many different groups that believe so many different things. As the Mennonite church groups grow worldwide, we all now realize that we are not going to think or worship the same way. But I think that we all do share some common characteristics and we all share a common past. This unites in a large community feeling. Being a Mennonite is very important to me, the beliefs that Mennonites have carried on from the past and are still very important to me in the present and in the future. Through this class, I feel as if I have become even more connected to the Mennonite community. I know where I came from and what Anabaptists went through, some of them being my ancestors. This gives me a strong feeling of connection to the past. I also now better understand what it means to me to be a Mennonite today and I am proud of what I am. My beliefs are why I am a Mennonite.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.