Getting over my Mennonite stereotypes

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August 30, 2011
Susie Guenther Loewen |

Earlier this month, I had the chance to attend a graduate student conference at Conrad Grebel College, hosted by the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre (the “Mennonite club” of my department in the University of Toronto). The conference focused on issues surrounding the land – farming practices, rural life, ecological issues, etc. – from a Mennonite perspective, so one of our activities was to visit a conservative Mennonite farm just outside of Waterloo, Ontario.
Having spent most of my life in Winnipeg, this kind of a visit was a novelty for me. I’d been to a Hutterite farm once or twice, but I didn’t grow up seeing horses and buggies drive by. When we did visit family in Ontario, seeing the Mennonites and Amish at the farmer’s market in their distinctive clothes was out-of-the-ordinary, to say the least. Also, since there is such a high concentration of Mennonites in Winnipeg, I was virtually never asked whether I drove a horse and buggy or had electricity in my home, something I would suspect Ontario Mennonites have to deal with a lot more often. Aside from skewed media representations, I haven’t really come up against those tourist-y Mennonite and Amish stereotypes.
So we were off to this conservative Mennonite farm, and I was expecting to enter an entirely different world, a world without electricity or machinery, a simpler, profoundly counter-cultural world. I wondered what kind of food we would eat, how exotic it would be. At the back of my mind, the idea of time travel hovered, a trip into the history of our faith tradition, the possibility of getting a step closer to the early Anabaptists (those wild radicals!). Well, I wouldn’t say I was disappointed so much as caught off-guard. You see, the experience didn’t really match my expectations at all.
The conservative Mennonite farm we visited was in some ways more familiar to me than I was expecting, and only slightly different – but not in the ways I had assumed. For one thing, the family we visited – a couple in their 50s – had electricity. We walked into their home to find several fans going to keep the heat at bay, and a regular, conventional fridge and stove in their kitchen (their fridge even had magnets from different places they’ve travelled to in the U.S.!). They informed us that a lot of conservative and old order Mennonites have such things, except that they run on compressed air or other alternatives to the power grid. Meanwhile, outside, one of their sons was working with a regular forklift, stacking hay bales. There was the customary tank of purple-dyed farm gas, just like on the prairies, beside a garage full of regular farm machinery – the main difference being that most of the machinery is communally-owned, so farmers harvest everyone’s fields together.
The meal, and the conversation, felt to me a lot like a typical, “modern” rural Mennonite home; actually it reminded me a lot of visiting my grandmother-in-law, who lives in a small town in Saskatchewan. Even the food was similar to what she or my own grandmother would have served: sausage and potatoes, sliced tomatoes, homemade bread and of course, homemade pie for dessert! And from where I was sitting at the table, I could see their couch, which was the exact same navy, flowery couch I have – what are the chances of that? So aside from their clothing, particularly the woman’s head covering, and church practices (they briefly described the choosing of their next pastor by lot, from among the congregation), there weren’t too many major differences between their lifestyle and, say, that of my grandparents, who were fairly “modern.” Instead of going back ten generations in time, as I’d expected, I’d only gone back about two. In fact, I think my visits to Mennonite relatives in Paraguay when I was a kid were more rustic than this particular farm, and a visit to any number of non-European Mennonites’ homes would probably involve more culture shock. Even the visit we conference-goers had made earlier in the day to the Little City Farm, an urban farm in Kitchener, Ontario, was probably a better example of radical eco-friendliness.
But what was pretty humbling about the experience for me was the way it didn’t fit my preconceived ideas about conservative Mennonite life, and the way I had idealized the unknown. Sure, they used a horse and buggy to get around, and kept to a few traditions I don’t follow, but they haven’t avoided modern conveniences altogether, with the rigidity and severity I was expecting. Granted, this was only a one-time visit, only a first impression, really. But it left me struck by the stereotypes I have about a different branch of my own tradition, and wondering, as I tend to do, about what it even means to be a Mennonite these days.

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