Mennonite: culture or denomination?

A reflection on what it’s like to be part of a faith community where the culture sometimes keeps people out

February 1, 2012 | Young Voices
Karen Allen | Special to Canadian Mennonite

Over the last few years, I have encountered a strange conversation amongst my co-workers. It comes up occasionally, each time with a different group of people and a multitude of opinions. The enthusiasm for this topic has long fascinated me, as it seems far too ordinary a thing to elicit such emotion from people.

The hot button topic: the best place to buy Farmer’s sausage.

Apparently, the location is somewhere out in Saskatchewan and if I’m not mistaken, a colleague’s second cousin’s neighbour knows the guy who makes it. Even now, after listening to this conversation countless times, I am still amazed at how excited people become. What is the point? Farmer’s sausage all tastes the same to me.

This small, quirky part of the Mennonite world is a reminder that while I might worship and work within this community, I am the proverbial fish out of water. Almost fourteen years after my family’s immigration from South Africa, and I still find myself on the outside looking in. I have learned the customs of this community, the great fondness for schmaundt fat (cream gravy) and farmer’s sausage and the truly astounding feat of gathering 150 of your closest relatives for a family reunion. But these cultural landmarks have yet to permeate my personal life.

Why do I continue to be part of a world in which I don’t always fit? It always comes back to the idea of community. Immigration is lonely, and a phone call or Facebook can only do so much to connect you to your loved ones. In the absence of extended family, I have readily jumped into the world of Mennonites, simply because it was easier to belong to an established community than to have to deal with the grief of being so far from my own family and community.

There is great comfort in being swept along with the communal aspect of this culture, but there are always two sides to the coin. There is a strange exclusivity amongst Mennonites, a general, unspoken, assumption: if you are attending a Mennonite church or working in a Mennonite organization, you should already know the ins and outs of this complex culture. Howard Yoder should be a household name, your grandmother should’ve taught you how to make perogies and you should be related to at least one Mennonite in order to play the Mennonite Game.

I am a fifth generation South African with roots in England and Wales. My grandmother taught me how to make fishcakes and shepherd’s pie, and I was almost 26 before I learned about Yoder. Over the years, I have focused on just living in this community rather than assimilating into it. And after my trip home to South Africa in 2010, a trip that renewed the connection to my home country and family, I am questioning the way we, as a church community, approach the idea of multiculturalism. I want to be a part of the church, to worship God in the Anabaptist faith, but I want to be South African as well. I cannot negate my cultural and family ties any more than Canadian Mennonites can deny their cultural and historical backgrounds.

There is more to our faith community than just Russian Mennonite and Swiss Mennonite. Part of being a community is not just to embrace the similarities between individuals but also to respect the differences. The ideology of our group seems lop-sided to me. So much emphasis is placed on inviting different cultures into our churches and institutions, without giving thought to how they will adapt, and eventually thrive, in these settings.

I wonder what our church will look like 25 years from now. Will the majority of members still claim ties to the early Mennonite immigrants? Or will the congregations have diversified, spread out to many different cultures—Congolese, British or Portuguese. Because at the end of day, what or who are Mennonites? Is it a culture or a church denomination? And can I be a part of it if I don’t have a Mennonite last name?

Karen Allen was raised in Kempton Park, South Africa, a town co-founded by her great-great-grandfather. She now lives in Winnipeg, where she works at Canadian Mennonite University and attends Bethel Mennonite Church.

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