Me and Mennonites

As a Canadian child born to Old Colony Mennonite immigrants from Mexico, I led two distinct lives.  My home and church vinelife consisted of Old Colony food, dress, language and traditions.  My school life was made up of English speaking, English peers and English fun.  My need to fit in drove me to cultivate this life and to take the other one for granted.  Ultra-conservative ways, home-sewn, floral-patterned dresses and Low German conversation were fine at home but in public, they were downright embarrassing.  In Kindergarten I struck a deal with my mom: I’d wear a dress to school every other day.  In between, I’d wear pants, just like the other little girls in my class.  By grade 2, Mom gave up trying to put me in a dress, except on Sunday.  She wouldn’t suffer her last-born to gad about like a boy on Sunday.

My attitude toward the Old Colony people shifted in my twenties.  God gave me a love for them and pride in them.  I marveled at their traditions.  I chuckled at their unique brand of Mennonite humour.  I was thankful that my parents hadn’t allowed me to speak English to them.  I would have forgotten how to speak Low German otherwise, or maybe never even learned.  I hurt when I saw an Old Colony immigrant standing on a sidewalk, scratching his head and trying to decode a bank statement.  I hurt worse when other people mocked their outlandish ways and made them feel unwelcome in our community.  I was caught between the same two worlds, but this time I longed to bring them together.

I volunteered as a driver and interpreter with MCS, a local charity that helps Old Colony Mennonites integrate into Canadian life.  Soon after, I found paying work as a Low German and English interpreter.  It’s rewarding work but building trust with these people is rarely straightforward.  I’d fulfilled my childhood ambition of Canadianizing myself – too well.  I no longer resemble anyone they’d think of opening up to easily.

My family background often helps to put them at ease.  Many of them know my Dad who’s a retired minister in the Old Colony church.  They visibly perk up when they hear that I’m his daughter.  I think they figure that anyone who started out with such promise can’t be a total heathen.

vine3

But the invisible fence that divides us remains.  No matter how friendly we become or how many Mennonite recipes we exchange in the waiting room, I’m beginning to realize that being a credible witness for Christ to them may require more of me than I’ve been willing to give thus far.

A lovely exception to this happened yesterday.  I stopped by a local farm to buy ornamental corn with which to decorate my church at Thanksgiving.  The farmer happened to be an Old Colony Mennonite pastor.  A girl in a long dress with her hair tied back (who turned out to be the farmer’s daughter) helped me to fill a cardboard box with corn.  I paid her and asked her for a receipt so that I could charge the cost to my church’s visual arts budget.  She left for a moment and returned with her father. He asked,

“Where do you go to church?”

I said, “EMMC, at Summer’s Corners.”

He gave the money back to me and said, “You can have it for free.”

I looked at the money. I looked at him.  I said, “Are you sure?”

He replied, “Onns freit daut wan Menschen aun Gott jleewen.”, which forfeits poignancy and warmth when rendered into English, but means roughly, “It gives us joy when people believe in God.”

I scarcely dared to trust my ears.  There I stood, looking every bit a Welt Mensch in my wrinkled pants and short, frizzy hair (frizzy hair alone could not be held against me but in my case, it’s a direct effect of shortness) yet this Old Colony pastor counted himself my brother in Christ, and not only mine, but every believer in my anglicized, rowdy, rock ’n’ roll church.   I cast about for something to say that would cement his approval… “Hey, we both know someone.  Yeah, my vine2Dad, he used to preach at your church…” but for the first time love whispered, “You don’t need to…it’s okay.”

Instead, I composed myself, thanked him as graciously as I could, gathered up my corn and went home.  He’d already accepted me, exactly the way I was.  As I had him.  We were finally and properly, in every sense of the word that mattered, family.

horn of plenty

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4 responses to this post.

  1. What a beautiful story!! I lived in that community for a few years. I even went to school with one of the pastors at your church. I remember seeing the Old Order Mennonites and thinking nasty kid thoughts – “they’re weird”. I’m so sorry for that. I’m glad you’ve connected your “two halves” and are helping connect the communities together. We well all be better for it.

    Reply

    • That’s lovely of you to apologize, Holly; of course I forgive you!

      You’re talking about Michael, right? Yeah, he’s one of our Anglicized, rowdy, rock ‘n’ roll pastors. 🙂

      Reply

  2. Yes, Michael. Hard to imagine as him as a rowdy rock’n’roller though. I’ll have to come visit sometime when he’s doing his thing.

    Reply

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