I am from the Mennonites

A reflection on the importance of Mennonite culture to someone who doesn’t come from any place

February 1, 2012 | Young Voices
Elise Epp | Special to Canadian Mennonite

It happened often enough in grade school. My classmates would talk about where their families lived before they came to Canada. They would say things like, “I’m half Norwegian and half Irish,” then ask, “What are you?” I would say, “I’m…Mennonite. We’re not really from a country.” In grade eight, my social studies teacher corrected the detailed family tree I had submitted: how could I use the German words Oma and Opa for my grandparents if their families came from Russia?

Historically, nationality has not been important to Mennonites. Instead, they have clung to their faith community, moving together from country to country as it no longer became safe to stay where they were. Their status in their countries was tenuous; their faith was not. For centuries, Mennonites lived in insular groups separated from local society—and yet not, as they absorbed local foods, worship styles, music, and new surnames into their own traditions.

I grew up in a Mennonite home in a Scandinavian Lutheran town—Camrose, Alberta, and with the exception of my earliest years, I did not feel like I was from there. In grade 11, I went to Rosthern Junior College, a Mennonite high school, and continued on to the University of Saskatchewan, trying to be from somewhere.

In Saskatoon, I was near many relations as well as the homesteads of my dad’s family. It helped me to connect to my roots, but I’m still not from anywhere. I’m not from Alberta or Canada. I like to say that I’m from Saskatoon, but I’m not. I live in Toronto, and I love the city, but I’m not from here. I am Mennonite, in culture and in faith.

As a young adult, I have finally found people who share this unique past. Starting at RJC, I was no longer the only Mennonite. I was able to share my heritage with people like me, to meet people with names like mine, to look forward to Pfeffernüsse (peppernuts) at Christmas and have people understand what that meant. To find a new meaning for the question, “where are you from?” I am from the Mennonites.

Still in the excitement of newfound belonging, I learn that Mennonite-the-culture has become taboo. The fear is that if we talk about “Mennonite” names and food, we will exclude people who are from other ethnic backgrounds. That concern is fair. But it is one thing to welcome people of different backgrounds into our communities; it is another to shy away from our own heritage.

There is also resistance to “Mennonite” being seen as anything other than a faith. It is not lamentable that what began as a faith movement grew into a culture. It is wonderful that we have been so shaped by our faith to have it extend to all aspects of our lives.

It should be natural for Mennonites to include people from all over the world, because from early on, we have been world travellers. Even “Mennonite food” is a multicultural combination, and cookbooks like More With Less include recipes from all over the world. It makes sense for us to welcome onto our potluck tables foods from a variety of cultures.

We came out of a movement that aimed to make God accessible to all, so it makes sense for us to adapt our worship services to the members of our congregations, to sometimes read scripture in Spanish or sing songs from various traditions. But we can do so and still acknowledge where we came from. We can be rooted in our culture in order to be hospitable and able to enlarge our story. There is a difference between our heritage and our current churches, and yet they exist in overlapping space. By recognizing them as separate but compatible entities, there should be room for both.

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