When people hear that I’m Mennonite, one of two things usually happens. Either they don’t know what ‘Mennonite’ means, which is understandable – it’s a rather obscure term for most people who live outside of certain farming areas of Ontario, Manitoba, and Pennsylvania – or else they look completely shocked and ask, in a rather awkward and roundabout way, where my horse and buggy are. Then I explain that there are Old Order Mennonites and modern Mennonites, and my family belongs to the latter group. I’m not a theologian, nor am I closely affiliated with any Mennonite church any more (due to location), but I will try to explain what it means to be a modern Mennonite.
Mennonites are Protestant Christians who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. Taking it a step further, Mennonites were part of the Anabaptist Reformation, led by Menno Simons, who believed that babies should not be baptized because baptism should always be the free and informed choice of adults. Persecution followed and large numbers of Mennonites spread throughout the world, with many arriving in Pennsylvania in the late 1600s. By the early 1800s, some Mennonites moved north from the United States to Upper Canada, and that’s when my family arrived, traveling by covered wagon and fording the Niagara River to claim a land grant near Waterloo, ON.
Being modern Mennonite means that we have electricity in our homes, drive cars, and wear normal clothes. We have Internet in our homes and many people have TVs. (The fact that I don’t own a TV has nothing to do with religion.) What differentiates Mennonites from other Protestant sects of Christianity is several fundamental principles. One is Anabaptism and the belief that baptism is only for consenting adults. Another is an adherence to pacifism. Mennonites cannot be conscripted to go to war and believe that violence in all forms, even self-defense, is wrong.
Mennonites are committed to working toward social justice in an entirely non-evangelical way. Converting people is frowned upon, while exemplifying Christ’s love, acceptance, and compassion through actions is encouraged. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a large non-governmental organization that many modern Mennonite families are affiliated with in some way. I think it’s safe to say that there’s an underlying expectation for young Mennonites (at least in my family) to involve themselves in social justice work of some kind, hence my year spent in Brazil with MCC. My grandparents spend years overseas working with MCC in Greece and Lebanon. My parents worked on a First Nations reserve in northern Manitoba. Other relatives have spent time in the Philippines, Brazil, Vietnam, Laos, the Netherlands, and Nigeria, all with MCC-related projects. It’s just part of what we do.
Being Mennonite is, in many ways, a cultural identity as much as it is a religious one. There are quintessentially Mennonite foods, such as vareniky (like perogies), paska (like challah), platz (open-faced fruit pie), and borscht. Mennonites love to sing and, whether at church or singing grace around the dinner table, can break out into four-part harmony that sounds more like a rehearsed choir production than a spontaneous sing-along. Of course I’m biased, but I don’t think any other church’s music can compare to the soaring harmonies of a Mennonite service.
I am proud to call myself Mennonite for so many reasons. I love the open-mindedness of the Mennonite faith, the way in which people are encouraged to question and challenge the status quo and even engage in acts of civil disobedience, i.e. withholding the portion of one’s taxes that would go toward supporting the government’s military budget and allocating toward peaceful humanitarian projects. I love the liberal, non-judgmental, and egalitarian acceptance of too-frequently-ostracized women and the LGBTQ community. I love the intellectually stimulating sermons delivered by educated individuals for a critical, equally well-educated congregation, and the lively debates that ensue. I love the communal approach to worship, the inclusion of lay worship leaders, and the integration of music into the service.
As someone who believes that church institutions need to stay relevant to the times, the Mennonite church is a refreshingly progressive and fulfilling place to be. Now if only there were a church closer to where we live…