Since I’ve been living in Wisconsin, this has been a conversation that I’ve had a lot:
“So where are you from?” they ask.
“Pennsylvania,” I say.
“So you’re a student at the UW?”
“No, I went to college in northern Indiana.”
“What took you there? What brought you here?”
And that’s where I pause. Sometimes I give the short answer: “I went to college in Indiana because I had friends who went there and then I followed some of those same friends to Madison with a program that’s basically Americorps.”
If the inquisitor seems particularly interested and I have time to kill, I give the long answer, which requires a bit of context. What context? It boils down to one word: Mennonite.
I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a county that has one of the largest concentrations of Mennonites in the country (It also, incidentally, is more demographically similar to 1950s American than any other metro area outside of Utah). Both of my parents grew up in Mennonite communities; I grew up attending a Mennonite church. I went to a private Mennonite high school and when I went to Indiana, it was to attend Goshen College, which is owned (in part) by the Mennonite Education Agency.
When I lay out these facts, I get blank looks.
“But,” they say, “don’t Mennonites wear funny clothes?”
“Some do,” I say.
“But you don’t?”
I look down at my outfit. “Not really. And mostly you’re probably thinking of the Amish. Or Old Order or ‘plain’ Mennonite communities like the ones Jonathan Groff calls ‘watered-down Amish’.”
This internet meme, tweeted by writer Kate Baer, sums up a bit of the challenge of the long answer:
The truth is that “Mennonite” can mean a whole bunch of things.* I have an aunt, uncle, and cousins who dress very plainly. They drive modest, dependable, utilitarian, and, most importantly, black vehicles. The last bit dates to the age of chrome on cars when conservative Mennonite communities suggested painting shiny bumpers black to remain humble, thus the “black bumper” moniker is sometimes given to these “Old Order” groups as a whole.
In the two-thirds world (there were 736,801 Mennonites in Africa last year; 431,313 in Asia, the Pacific, and Australia; and 199,912 in Latin America and the Caribbean), “Mennonite” may just mean another stream of Christianity, distinct from Catholics and Lutherans only in that the first (or most active) missionaries in an area were Mennonite. Or it may mean a dedication to working for peace even in the midst of conflict.
About half of Americans who identify as “Mennonite” are affiliated with the Mennonite Church USA denomination (120,381 out of 319,768 in 2000), a body which formed from a merger of two pre-existing denominations (that merger is a story for another day, perhaps). Most MC USA members are indistinguishable (visually) from any other American, apart from the occasional “coverings” on some women’s hair, a throwback to previous generations, and perhaps a greater presence of jean skirts than the American population as a whole. Central tenets of the denomination (those that distinguish Mennonites from broader Christianity) are simplicity of living, humility, pacifism, and a general sense of disengagement with the state and mainstream culture. Theologically Mennonites tend to foreground the New Testament, especially the gospels and the Sermon on the Mount.
Even within MC USA, however, there are great divisions, vastly different understandings of what some of those central tenets mean. Politically, the MC USA median is right of center, based largely on social conservatism (many Mennonites feel a kinship with the Religious Right) as well as a history of successful agribusiness and entrepreneurship that has coupled with ideas of simple living to result in concentrations of wealth and an emphasis on passing it down to heirs. That is, the estate tax isn’t too popular.
On the other hand, there are Mennonites who feel an affinity with the political left. They feel an affinity with one of their fellow “Historic Peace Churches”: the Society of Friends. Whereas other Mennonites see the connection between disengagement with the world and small government/low taxes, more liberal Mennonites have actively protested the United States’ involvement in conflicts around the world and protested their tax dollars funding the military. Whereas simple living has allowed modest wealth to accumulate in some Mennonite communities, others (on both sides of social and political divides) have dedicated their lives to non-profit organizations and work abroad, whether in mission settings or more service-oriented capacities. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and the Mennonite Disaster Service are two widely respected organizations (focusing on international service of varying stripes and disaster management, respectively) that reflect this impulse. I grew up in a church firmly in this more liberal wing of the church and today, on the rare occasion that I attend church, I go to another that is similarly progressive.
Which leads into another facet of my biography: I spent three years of my childhood in Tanzania when my parents worked with MCC. International service is also stressed at Goshen College, so I was able to return to Tanzania for a semester as a college student.
Just a bunch of Mennonites on safari!
So what does this all mean about me? It means if you ever run into a Mennonite (especially one who has left one of the enclaves in PA, VA, OH, and IN), I probably know them or someone they know. It means I care a lot about the idea of peace and the reality of war. It means I know cultural the meanings of in-group terms such as “Relief Sale,” “606,” and “zwiebach.” I asked one of my non-Mennonite roommates what, if anything, he thought set the Mennonites in the house apart from society at large: “I’ve never lived with people so ready to share their food.”
I value the cultural and ethnic markers of the Mennonite bubble, but they’re just another facet of myself, intersecting with my white male privilege, my love of trivia, my appreciation of craft beer, my respect for the works of Terry Pratchett, and lots of other identities and preferences and experiences.
“So after I finished Mennonite high school, I went to Mennonite college, and after I finished that, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I joined Mennonite Voluntary Service–it’s basically Americorps–and found a placement in Madison, Wisconsin and now I’m here. Where are you from?”
* You can go over to the Wikipedia entry on Mennonite for a more comprehensive rundown, but here I’m mostly concerned with summarizing Mennonite culture and ethnicity in broad terms rather than providing a primer on the history or doctrine of the Mennonite church and the broader Anabaptist tradition. GAMEO.org is also a great source for quick reference. My experience is far from the only Mennonite experience; here’s another one: http://www.anabaptistwitness.org/2014/12/hyphenated-mennonites/