Culturally half-bred Mennonite: Theologically completely Anabaptist

Jessica Walter

When other Mennonites meet me they don’t assume that I grew up Mennonite and most certainly don’t ask where I’m from or who my parents are. In fact the only time I get people to engage in “The Mennonite Game” with me is either through happenstance; my resemblance to my mother and the front plate of my car have
been random clues; or when I throw out the information that my home congregation is Slate Hill Mennonite Church and/or my mother’s maiden name is Zimmerman.

Ever since my days at Eastern Mennonite University I have been keenly aware that my last name, being from an area not readily associated with Mennonites, and not having gone to a Mennonite high school set me on the outside of the world I thought I grew up in. In an attempt to join a system I cannot beat I jokingly call myself a half-breed Mennonite.

Two years ago I made the conscious decision to remain Mennonite. It was a decision tempered by exclusion from people who were supposed to be like me. People who grew up in Mennonite churches, know what Whoopie pies and Relief Sales are, can identify different coverings, and chose to go to a Mennonite college like myself. I walked onto the campus of EMU and walked into a world I had not been aware of before. I met peers who were far more developed in their theology yet underdeveloped in their patience and understanding for those of us who had not been submerged in the Mennonite world. I felt looked down upon for my still developing understanding of Anabaptist history and theology. Many of my classmates had little patience for my newly expanding world view.

It seemed that none of us had learned in our prior church and school experiences that there is a difference between the culture of our denomination and the theology. It was assumed that because we were all Mennonites we would not only understand that not all of us are plain-dressing but that we would also all be on the same page in theological praxis. Truthfully, beyond the cultural differences, knowing I was pacifist, and a vague knowledge of the Martyrs Mirrors, I had no real clue what was different about being Mennonite compared to the variously denominated Christian friends I grew up with.

Interacting with my less than patient Mennonite peers led me to question my allegiance to the denomination. I started to identify myself as Christian but not Mennonite and became friends with EMU classmates who were either a lot like me in their Mennonite status or not Mennonite at all. It wasn’t until after college, when I participated in a service-learning program, Mennocorps PULSE, that allowed me to live with people who were not Mennonite but excited about our theology that I began to learn and embrace what it means to be theologically Anabaptist.

This issue of Intersections is filled with stories of and encounters with Mennonite brothers and sisters who are culturally different yet theologically the same. In his reflection on La Paz, David Landis notes the cultural problem Mexican Mennonites have in simply identifying themselves as Mennonite; they are “confused with the plain-dressing German colony Mennonites who are publicly known for their cheese-making skills.” Instead they have embraced the broader term Anabaptist (Anabautista in Spanish) which encompasses their theology but not the cultural entrapments from which the movement has emerged. The truth is that our sisters and brothers need not be attached to our cultural practice in order to embrace Anabaptist theology.

It is encouraging to know that Anabaptism transcends cultural differences and is relevant to those who are not descendants of the original Anabaptists. In the stories of Ivan and Martene Histand, Ryan Badorf, and Devon Levengood, it is beautiful to witness how our theological praxis opens doors for us to not only reach out to others who are culturally different but to have those we serve change our lives in the process.

As the Mennonite World Conference’s latest edition of Courier notes there are nearly 1.5 million Mennonites around the world. These brothers and sisters abroad and in our congregations may not look alike, eat the same foods, dress alike, or even speak the same languages but we share a bond that goes beyond all these cultural norms and more…an Anabaptist faith.