The best part of growing up in a close-knit church community is the sense that people who are not your relatives become your extended family. At Sherbrooke Mennonite Church in Vancouver, and then at Peace Mennonite in Richmond, where I was baptized, I was part of a community with common values and lifestyles.
Then, unfortunately, my worldview and material aspirations changed. I did not abandon my commitment to the way of Jesus, I just responded to new challenges: equality between the sexes, fair distribution of wealth, care for the environment, just working conditions for labourers, advocacy for minority groups, understanding and addressing the legacy of colonization, and so on.
I’m still Mennonite, but I have wandered theologically and geographically. I miss that sense of community that goes beyond family and household. Part of this is the nostalgia that comes with age, but it is also a wish for more mutual support for an alternative way of life.
This is why I had an unexpected religious experience last month.
In early June, I was part of a Do-It-Yourself Homesteaders Festival in rural Manitoba, about an hour’s drive north of Winnipeg. About 350 people gathered on a Saturday to take part in more than 20 “back-to-the-land” workshops, listen to music and eat together.
I was invited to lead a workshop on building an outhouse with a composting toilet. Eight of us built walls, roof, floor and stairs for a large bin that captures human waste and sawdust for composting and returning to the land.
At the end of the event, workshop leaders and volunteers gathered for a banquet in the barn. There were announcements, brief speeches and presentations. I had a familiar feeling. It felt like a church banquet. For that day, I felt like I was “home” again, in church.
The more I think of it, four factors came together to afford this sense of the Spirit:
1. Re-connecting with the land and its bounty. We purposely met to respect the land and learn from it. We learned how to grow gardens, keep bees, tend chickens and make pollution-free toilets. It felt like we were reconnecting with the Source of Life.
2. Re-discovering our interdependence. We relied upon the experience, wisdom and resources shared within our group. When we learn from each other, we build trust, friendships and community.
3. Re-kindling the importance of self-reliance. This “do-it-yourself” ethic is a direct affront to consumerism. The impulse to shop for food, clothing and tools is normal, but it is also fracturing. In the do-it-yourself way of life, things are rarely convenient and often not cheap, but the effort expended builds character and delivers an enthusiasm you want to share with others.
4. Eating together. We essentially had a picnic with hundreds of people gathered under an open sky to consume fresh bread, eggs from local chickens and asparagus grown by a neighbour. It was simple yet magnificent.
There was nothing overtly said about God or religion, yet it felt like church to me and I’m grateful for it. I look forward to new encounters with this Spirit as we continue to learn how to live on this land with each other and with all creatures.
Aiden Enns is co-editor of Geez magazine. He is a member of Hope Mennonite Church, Winnipeg, and can be reached at email@example.com.