What’s in a name?

January 11, 2017 | Viewpoints | Volume 21 Issue 2
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld | Alberta Correspondent

We eyed each other’s books and wondered who would ask the “Mennonite” question first. Our names, Donita Wiebe-Neufeld and K.V. Doerksen, were emblazoned across our books (Thirty Bucks and Blessed are the Dead, respectively), and since book sales were slow at the library, we had time to talk.

Although we discovered some shared heritage, the name “Mennonite” carries different meanings for us. For me, the name brings positive thoughts of a peace-church identity, a place where questions are welcome and current issues discussed. Conversely, she had associations with a culturally backward community that her mother’s family had left a generation ago. “Why keep Mennonite in your church name?” she asked.

It’s a question Suzanne Gross, manager of community engagement programs and partnerships, has heard debated for the full 16 years she has worked at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. Some feel the name is limiting or a turn-off for newcomers looking for help. “Every now and then the question, ‘Do you serve only Mennonites?’ comes up,” she said.

She has also experienced the name drawing people into the centre. One man came in wanting to donate money to help refugees. He told her, “I am not a man of faith, but I believe in Mennonites,” Gross recounted. Many newcomers who access the centre refer to it simply as “Mennonite.”

This past October, the Mennonite Foundation of Canada took Mennonite out of its name as an invitation to a broader ministry, hoping the move will attract partnerships with other denominations. In an article in the Aug. 10, 2016, issue of Canadian Mennonite, executive director Darren Pries-Klassen is quoted as saying: “We believe changing our name to Abundance Canada will invite Christians across Canada to partner with us and experience the joy of generosity” (bit.ly/mfc-name-change).

Any name can carry expectations that may be limiting or inviting, depending on the observer’s past experiences. Often those only cursorily acquainted with Mennonites equate the name to a particular conservative cultural group. For example, Gross, who used to live in Indiana, has experienced Americans confusing Mennonites with the Amish. In a similar way, Mennonite Church Canada Mennonites in Ontario are sometimes confused with Old Order Mennonites, while those in Alberta may get associated with Hutterites or even Mormons.

While such assumptions may not be negative, they can affect the number of people who walk through the doors. When asked about the pros and cons of the name of his church, Lethbridge (Alta.) Mennonite, Pastor Ryan Dueck said in an email: “One thing that is perhaps unique to our area is the ‘problem’ of being associated with Mexican Mennonites. This group doesn’t have a great reputation down here, particularly in the Taber/Grassy Lake area. They are associated with being kind of culturally backward, causing social problems, having high rates of addiction and family conflict, and even occasionally running drugs up from Mexico. So I sometimes have to explain, ‘No, wait, we’re not those Mennonites.’ But it’s usually an opportunity to have a good conversation, if nothing else.”

Dueck values the associations the name has with Anabaptist peace theology, community discernment and believers baptism. “I think ‘Mennonite’ continues to mark out theological territory that we continue to think is valuable,” Dueck said.

Edmonton Christian Life Community Church—formerly Edmonton Chinese Mennonite Church—had compelling reasons for its name change. Pastor Ken Tse said: “We took ‘Mennonite’ out of our church name because the Chinese translation of Mennonite has one word the same as ‘Mormons.’ Many Chinese people had the impression that our church was a Mormon church. We also took ‘Chinese’ out of our church name because we are not a church just for the Chinese. Non-Chinese are welcome to join us and feel they belong.”

There are many positive stories about the branding that goes along with the name that speak in favour of its retention. Referring to the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, Gross said, “I was at the point of saying, maybe we’ve outgrown the name; then the Syrian refugee crisis happened.” The reputation of Mennonites, built through years of the relief work of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and good refugee settlement work at home, has resulted in a wide diversity of people calling Mennonite institutions to ask how they could help during the recent refugee crisis. “Donations came in at an unprecedented rate,” she said.

And Ev Buhr, office administrator of Edmonton First Mennonite Church, said she regularly receives calls from people who “know that Mennonites help refugees” and she directs them to the Centre for Newcomers or MCC, as appropriate.

So, names can carry a powerful freight of history and identity. Depending on who is responding, the message may be either restrictive or welcoming, leaving each institution with the opportunity for good conversation, if nothing else.

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