In January 2017, a TV show drew attention to Mennonites in Canada. The CBC crime series Pure portrayed fictional Mennonite communities in Ontario and Mexico that were running a large illegal drug operation. A Mexican Mennonite drug lord controlled the operation through intimidation and violence.
Mennonite viewers posted their opinions on social media, pointing out the many inaccuracies and the disrespect of our Old Order and Old Colony neighbours. We at Canadian Mennonite suspected that many viewers knew little about the beliefs and values of the larger Anabaptist community. We guessed that they would make generalizations about all of us based on what they saw on screen.
Could we bring a bit of clarity to the situation? We commissioned Barb Draper to write “10 things to know about Mennonites in Canada.” The piece included basic information about Mennonite history and beliefs, and pointed to the variety of groups present in the country. We included links to sites of Mennonite service organizations, visitors centres and historical societies.
Almost immediately online readers starting clicking on the article, liking our Facebook and Twitter posts, and sharing it in their own circles. Since then, this piece has been viewed more than 41,000 times, and readers have spent an average time of 6 minutes 44 seconds on it. It has been our most viewed story in the past three years.
Also near the top of the most-viewed list are “Old Order Mennonite groups in Ontario are growing” and “Customs vary among Ontario Amish,” both written by Barb. Also on the list is “Mennonite me,” a piece written by a self-described Mennonite atheist who returns to his Old Order roots.
In general society, Mennonites are seen as a quaint countercultural people who stick to their own kind. Some outsiders assume we’re like an exclusive club or an ethnic group. Do you have to be born into the Mennonite church? they ask.
As a “cradle Mennonite” who became a convinced Mennonite by choice, I confess that I like some of the things associated with Mennonite culture. I’ve shopped for solid-wood “Mennonite furniture,” and I enjoy traditional foods at the local MCC relief sale, which bills pupusas and spring rolls as Mennonite food, along with apple fritters and fleisch piroschki. But I mourn if plain clothing, a colourful quilt or a simplistic TV show were the only things people knew about us.
As people who believe in witnessing about our faith, we should take outsiders’ interest in us seriously. The challenge is for Mennonites in Canada to share with their neighbours something authentic about their life and beliefs. We have a great opportunity to move beyond the quaint customs, and the selling of “Mennonite recipes” and Amish novels. It’s time to show the difference between a culture and a lived-out faith:
- What if there was no such thing as a “Mennonite name” or maybe if we considered any last name as a candidate to become a Mennonite name? (Because that is already the case in many Anabaptist communities outside of North America.)
- What if our loyalty to the Jesus way led to a theology of inclusion and respect that welcomed all curious bystanders and observers?
- What if we attracted attention because of how we loved other people rather than for our lovely singing?
- What if people saw us dealing with our disagreements in ways that build up our unity as a Christian community rather than splitting off into yet another group?
- What if we were so dedicated to the work of justice and reconciliation that outsiders would scratch their heads in amazement and long to join in?
- What if others sought us out wanting to learn about our commitment to following Jesus rather than wondering about our German dialects?
- What if we were countercultural in an inviting way: rejecting materialism and practising generosity in all aspects of our lives, cultivating friendships outside our own circles, upholding kindness and fidelity in our relationships, and acting with integrity in all our business dealings?
I believe this kind of Mennonite would draw curious seekers into our midst, and that we would be enriched by their presence. Can we practise this kind of faith? That is my hope and my prayer.