Why I Am Mennonite, Anonymous, April 1999 (United States)
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Upon considering the question of why I am a Mennonite, I began brainstorming and writing down anything and everything that came to mind when I thought of my home congregation. My family has gone to one church for all of my twenty years and my parents attended there when they were in college as well. In an effort to explain why I am Mennonite, I will share both positive and negative aspects of what it means to be a Mennonite as well as the relationship between Anabaptism and Mennonitism.
While it is not an earth shattering reason, one major factor as to why I am a Mennonite is simply that I was born into a Mennonite family. Both sides of the family have long histories of the Mennonite tradition, which has been passed down through the generations. In a way, it also feels like my Mennonite community of faith is another extended family in the ways that we are concerned for another. As a college student, I have chosen to remain within the Mennonite faith because of all the denominations that I have been in contact with, it fits most closely with my beliefs. While some of my friends in college have questioned for various reasons whether they want to remain Mennonites, I have found that my connection with the Mennonite faith remains strong.
Theologically, a mission statement that is included in our church bulletin every Sunday makes reference to the Anabaptists. It reads, "[Peace] Mennonite Church is a Christian community--rooted in Anabaptism and coming from diverse religious traditions-devoted to worshipping God and to extending God's love to the congregation, to Goshen, and to the world." Essential to Mennonite beliefs that began in the Anabaptist movement of the Reformation are a Christocentric faith meaning that one follows the example of Christ in daily life, baptism of adult believers, pacifism, an emphasis on social justice, service, and love.
I have many positive memories of growing up in a Mennonite church which shapes what being Mennonite means to me. One thing that Mennonites are especially noted for is the wonderful four-part singing. Hymn number 606 in the old Mennonite hymnal and 118 in the new one has become a kind of theme song that most everyone has memorized. Singing the Doxology is also often done. Being Mennonite means attending Bible School as a child and dressing up in robes, having rocks painted gold for money, and meeting in tents like the Israelites. As children, we also attended our church camp, Camp Friedenswald (meaning "peaceful woods") during the summer. We also had the honor of putting on the Christmas play every year. There were junior and senior high youth groups as well which did many activities together, including fundraising to go to large Mennonite youth conferences that were held every two years.
Being Mennonite means carry in/potlucks which are all church dinners where everyone brings one dish to share. It is also the church picnic held every June at a member's farm. Collecting items for hurricane kits or school kits to send overseas is commonplace. Being Mennonite means acronyms, from MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) to MBM (Mennonite Board of Missions) and MMA (Mennonite Mutual Aid) as well as several others. Prayer chains are used when people have concerns that they would like others to pray for. Our pastors lead prayers for people all over the world as well as praying for both Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton. Small groups, church sports leagues, visiting Menno-Hof (a museum telling the stories of the Mennonites, Hutterites, and Amish), and selling pork tenderloin sandwiches at our church booth at the annual Mennonite Relief Sale, where proceeds are sent overseas for the sale of foreign crafts, and Mennonite food etc. are all Mennonite activities. Interfaith-Hospitality Network is another part of our church in which people who temporarily do not have housing stay in churches and are supplied with food as well. The mentor-mentee program establishes a relationship between an adult and a young person who do activities together. To be Mennonite can mean Christmas caroling, having the Lord's Prayer memorized, singing Handel's "Messiah", and attending Mennonite affiliated colleges.
I, like Harold Bender and his "Anabaptist Vision", may tend to idealize Mennonitism. While my experience within the Mennonite church has been overwhelmingly positive, I also recognize that there are negatives as well.
For example, we had David Grimes, an African American Mennonite as a guest speaker in our class on Martin Luther King Jr. day. One comment that he made really caught my attention about faults within Mennonitism. He said, "The Mennonite church did not embrace the Civil Rights Movement. If it had, the Mennonite church directory would not be all Millers and Yoders." I also realized that my home congregation has been almost entirely white. Another negative aspect is that the images of Jesus that I recall from Sunday School materials depict him as light skinned. While the people surrounding Jesus are of different ethnic backgrounds, Jesus has remained primarily white. In addition, there are not many people who are baptized into the Mennonite faith if they have not been born into Mennonite families. This is definitely unfortunate and one wonders as to what the reasons for this are. Of course, as with any denomination, people are far from perfect and are in great need of God's forgiveness. Two extreme examples are stories I have heard of a person working in the pastorate who had an affair several years ago. A church's mission partner working overseas did the same thing. A final aspect that has been lacking in my Mennonite church experience has been an education in Anabaptist Mennonite History. It was not until college when I took this class that I realized how much I did not know.
Finally, there is a relationship between the Anabaptist movement that came out of the Reformation and contemporary Mennonitism. When one studies the beginning of Anabaptism and its succeeding generations, it is obvious that it was a diverse movement as Mennonitism is today. While Michael Sattler and the Swiss Brethren held to Biblicist dualism, Hans Hut focused on apocalyptic revivalism, and Pilgram Marpeck sought to be more accommodating and find middle ground. Menno Simons was one leader who was caught in the middle of disputes regarding the ban and civil avoidance. Modern examples are Mennonites who are more conservative, those who like Marpeck are more in the middle, and those who are more liberal. Today Mennonites are divided over homosexuality and whether or not to put congregations out of the Mennonite church that do accept homosexuals into membership. There still continues to be disagreements among some Mennonites on women holding leadership positions in the church or what sort of dress is appropriate for Mennonites etc.
While in any diverse group such as the Anabaptists or the Mennonites, there is bound to be disagreements, both groups obviously had or have a lot in common regarding their overall theological beliefs. The Anabaptist message of the authority of scripture, the availability to lay people, the baptism of adult believers, new life in Christ, anti-clericalism, pacifism, and love continue in my home Mennonite congregation today.
Yes, I am a Mennonite and am glad to be so. However, it has not been my purpose to convince those readers who are not Mennonite to join the denomination I have chosen to be a part of. I consider it important to find a faith that fits one's own beliefs while being open to listen to others' beliefs as well. I would also recommend learning the history of a personal faith tradition because it can greatly enhance one's appreciation for the background of his/her religious beliefs.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.