Why I Am a Mennonite: The Struggle to Give Reason to My Practices, Jodi S Hochstedler, April 1999 (United States)
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There are two images which come to mind that illustrate for me what it means to be a Mennonite and why I am a part of this body of believers. One is from the early Anabaptists and the second is from the 20th century Mennonite story.
The first is the etching in the Martyrs' Mirror of the early Anabaptist Dirk Willems going back to his pursuer and rescuing him after he had fallen through the ice-covered pond. Because of his kindness, he was rewarded with the return to his prison cell and eventually being burned at the stake. The second image is of the beginnings of Mennonite Central Committee in 1920 when Clayton Kratz and several other young men left their comfortable lives to help the Russian-Mennonite refugees out of Russia. Clayton never returned home. Both of these men did what wasn't asked of them and realized what is truly important-following the example of Jesus even at the cost of their own lives.
Right now I am struggling to find what is truly important for my own life. Is it attending a Mennonite college so I can become more Mennonite? Is it following a legalistic idea of what it means to be a "good person"? Is it going back to my home community and becoming like my parents and grandparents? I am not satisfied with any of these answers. They have all been used in the past in the Mennonite church, but they seem to fall short of the larger picture and for what Kratz and Willems died. They died for the idealisms of community, discipleship, service, and love. These may be idealistic goals, but they provided the framework for the Anabaptists and continue to for us as Mennonites in our beliefs and practice. Today we live in a different world, but are called to apply the principles we have learned and retained to our current context.
The first time that being Mennonite really affected my decisions was in jr. high. I was a member of the choir and since the Gulf War was raging in the Middle East, our choir sang many patriotic songs to support our country and the persons serving in the military. I didn't know quite what to do or think. I knew that Mennonites didn't believe war was right, but the school was telling me how virtuous it is to be patriotic. At the same time, I had several friends from church who also sang in the choir and decided that they shouldn't sing the patriotic songs in practice or in our program because it went against their beliefs. At the time, I assumed that I should believe this, since I was Mennonite as well. The decision to protest singing was not my own initiative and I wasn't quite sure all the reasons behind the decision. I don't look back on this experience as an example of my finest moment of righteousness or discipleship. Instead it reflects the tensions I felt growing up between the world and the church. I knew I was a part of the church, but just wasn't quite sure why.
Later I started to develop reasoning behind being Mennonite, but it wasn't based on theology. When I was deciding what college to attend, I talked with many of my close friends. Even though they too were Mennonite, they couldn't believe I wanted to go to a Mennonite college. They assumed it would be just like high school and wanted to get away from this. During this period, I thought about who I wanted to be and knew that the Mennonite church was where I belonged. This too was a decision not really based on doctrinal beliefs but rather on the notion that being Mennonite is mostly about one's ethnic background. I liked that I was a part of this "family" of Millers, Yoders, and Hochstedlers. I wanted to be in at a college where the majority of students would share many of my beliefs and experiences. Being Mennonite wasn't a choice for me at that point. It was just who I was, but I still didn't really know why.
I found out for myself why I am a Mennonite (as much as that is possible) last summer when I was a part of the Ministry Inquiry Program at Salem Mennonite Church in Oregon. That summer reminded and reinforced in me what I love about the Mennonite church and how my Mennonite upbringing and heritage have shaped me. During that time, I felt the community and love the Anabaptists died for and was pushed to discipleship and service to be more like them.
As I was contemplating giving my first sermon and feeling quite nervous, my summer host said to me, "Just remember that there are many people who have been praying for you." Behind those words were a deep compassion, concern, and care for me as a person-a person he had only known for a month and a half. Those words also came to symbolize the true meaning of community and love. I had been concerned that the congregation would be looking to criticize me, but instead I was reminded that in community, people want the best for each other and truly love each other. I don't think I said too much profundity in my sermon the next morning, but the community I felt a part of was the essence of the joy I have found in being a part of this faith. That church wasn't one that I was born into or forced to attend, but rather had been chosen. I found believers there striving to grow in relationship with one another and more importantly with God.
During that summer I theologized with pastors, talked about life issues with teenagers, and threw around life's biggest questions in my head. I was pushed to search for more and not be content with just getting by. I couldn't just talk the talk. Real people were looking to me to be authentic and follow my words up with actions. It wasn't about following a set of rules, but instead as a servant of Christ, I felt the inner desire to live out my faith in a way I had never felt before. I couldn't give people easy answers, because I didn't have them. All I could do was love those around me and accept their love-the ultimate gift.
Where does all that put me in relation to Michael Sattler, Pilgram Marpeck, Conrad Grebel, Menno Simons, and the many other early Anabaptists willing to challenge the authorities and die for their beliefs? Where do I fit in relation to Dirk Willems or Clayton Kratz? Where is my suffering and sacrifice? This is the hardest part about calling myself a Mennonite. I feel like I am following along behind great people who did what they believed in at the cost of death. As Mennonites we tell those stories to say who we are, but they aren't about us. That's the problem. Mennonites today aren't like their Anabaptist ancestors (not completely bad by any means!) in the sense that scripture isn't new and alive for us. Most Mennonites in North America grew up Mennonite and heard the Bible stories and scripture all their lives. The joy of suffering for God is rarely seen and we take our faith for granted.
Today we live in a very different world from Sattler, Grebel, Marpeck, and Simons. At times this causes a haze to set in and make it hard to decipher what we really believe and stand for. That haze makes it seem like being Mennonite is about last names, four-part singing, and quilting. When the haze lifts, one is able to see a bit clearer. The problem is that when one can see clearly, the site before their eyes is quite complex-like the early Anabaptists and their varied opinions. And like the early Anabaptists, Mennonites today, four and a half centuries later, are still dealing with schisms, harsh words, and indirect shunning.
It has been easy for Mennonites to focus on acts and practices over inner feelings and beliefs. Many don't get past that and are stuck in trying to do their way into God's favor. Unfortunately this tends to happen when movements become institutionalized and beliefs are passed through the generations-the initial motives and desires behind the actions give way to actions alone. At the same time, I don't know if this is completely negative. I have seen that in my own life, I have taken part in practices before I had the theology to back them up. I have made many decisions because the Mennonite community is a comfortable place to be (as a fellow Mennonite) and it feels good to belong. It is only after one gains the theology, purpose, and reasoning for their actions that they can truly appreciate what they have done.
Now that I have a better understanding and reasoning behind being Mennonite for myself, I can no longer do things only because the "other Mennonites" are doing it. I can no longer do things because of my ancestors and I have the "right name." I can no longer sit here in comfort while refugees from Kosovo need help, Guatemalans fight to be heard, and Hispanics in Goshen struggle to be respected as individuals. I can only act because I have experienced, know, and believe in the same reasons that Dirk Willems and Clayton Kratz responded to the needs around them.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 1999.