Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Half-Mormon Catholic Mennonite?

Dwight Schrute has to be a Mennonite, or at least a lapsed one.

Just to spare you for a moment from my health-related complaints,  I shall share with you that I'm thinking about becoming a Mennonite. I won't be an old-order Mennonite who dresses in prairie clothing and covers her head at all times (probably even when she's sleeping and shampooing her hair), but one from one of the more normal conferences of the faith. I even ordered one of their hymnals. I've been watching some of Katherinethe19th's videos on her youtube channel, and I've become quite taken with the culture. The problem is that if I look up "Mennonite"  in the book section of Amazon, most of what is offered is literature related to the Amish.  

I've been to Amish country, and my curiosity of the Amish has been thoroughly satiated. My family spent a night in a town called Intercourse, Pennsylvania. Matthew and I were just old enough (nine, I think) to know the meaning of the word, or the most popular meaning of it, anyway. Matthew loved telling everyone for months afterward about our night in Intercourse. I think he described it as "our night OF Intercourse," which probably made it all the more scandalous to the Mormon relatives he regaled as we made our way westward to Utah.

The night in Intercourse was especially miserable for my dad. It's a dry county, and while I exaggerate my dad's alcoholic tendencies, I will admit that he does not drink every single night of his life. The past two nights he hasn't had a drop of anything stronger than Grape Crush as he monitored the status of my state of hydration. When he was stuck in a car all day with two bored and slightly contentious nine-year-olds, at the end of that day he didn't merely want but genuinely needed alcohol. I had tried to warn my dad that he should pick up something he might want to drink before we reached Amish country, as anything truly potent might be difficult to come by once we got there. It was just one of those odd facts I knew at a young age for no particular reason, but my dad thought I was merely trying to come up with an excuse to stop at any store that might sell candy. (My usual method of operation in those days was to score candy in any way I possibly could.) He had to learn the hard way that on that particular occasion  I was not merely looking to feed my own sugar addiction. To top things off for him, because of a motorcycle convention for which people were traveling from all four corners of the nation to get to Sturgess, South Dakota, we were unable to get a suite or adjoining rooms in the little motel. We were lucky to get the single motel room with two double beds that we got.  The point is, not only was my dad sans alcohol  on that night in Intercourse, Pennsylvania,  he was also, ironically enough,  sans intercourse.

Because she's a prolific producer of kidney stones which can strike with no warning, my mom never travels without Vicodin. My dad doesn't like narcotics even when he legitimately should take them, much less as a recreational outlet, but that night he pulled a "House, M.D." maneuver and self-medicated with Vitamin V from my mom's stash.  

Hydrocodone does not have a soporific effect on my dad (a trait the two of us share), but he was a happy insomniac that night. My mom drove most of the rest of the next day.  Before departing Intercourse, my mom insisted we have a proper breakfast at the restaurant adjoining the motel where "we" had eaten dinner the night before. I had refused to eat anything from the restaurant because pig stomach was a featured entree on the menu. My parents tried to explain to me that just because an item was on a restaurant's menu -- that they had no intention whatsoever of eating pig stomach, either -- didn't mean that the chef slipped a bit of pig stomach in as a secret ingredient in every other entree or side dish he or she prepared, but I was taking no chances. My mom picked up a few piece of fruit and a loaf of some sort of German bread at a grocery store across the street so I wouldn't starve. Curiously, I recall a sign posted directly outside the entrance of the store. The sign read, "Please do not photograph or videotape the Amish inside this establishment." Even at the age of nine, I recall wondering what sort of a person would  snap pictures or videos of people going about their business just because they happened to dress differently than most of the rest of the U.S. Obviously someone must have done such things, or the sign would not have been needed.

We couldn't cross the county line soon enough for my father's liking the next morning. He never drinks in the morning or even really in the mid-day, but that day at about 10:00 a.m., he had some form of libation he called a Bloody Mary, concocted with tomato juice, some form of booze (probably more booze than anything else; the tomato juice probably existed primarily to lend the appropriate coloring to the cocktail), tabasco sauce, olives, and a bit more booze. He dozed comfortably in the passenger seat that day as we made our way across the Pennsylvania countryside. I do recall him dragging himself out of the car so that he and Matthew could sneak onto the main field at Williamsport, where the Little League World Series is annually played. Rain was coming down in a drizzly fashion as I recall, and nothing seemed to be happening there that day, so my brother and my dad  were able to make it onto the field without detection. My dad and Matthew took turns pitching to one another as my mom and I chased down the balls that they hit. My dad can pitch and  hit even when he's over the legal limit for driving.

That was a most labyrinthine way of explaining that I've seen all I ever need to see of the Amish or of the Mennonites who look and dress so much like the Amish that they may as well be Amish. My interest lies in the mainstream branches of the fold, as in  Mennonites of North America, who, curiously enough, live primarily in the prairie and plains provinces of Canada, in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Nebraska, and in, of all places Fresno, California and communities immediately south of Fresno. Some also live, oddly enough, in New Mexico, and in a region of Paraguay and Bolivia known as el chaco, or simply the chaco; those are the ones in whom I have an interest.

Mennonites needed to leave regions of the Netherlands and Germany because of their leader Menno Simons' insistence upon "believer's baptism," which contrasted sharply with the popular Catholic (and later Lutheran) perception of the day that infants or children who died without having undergone the sacrament of baptism were lost.  This disagreement became so contentious that followers of Menno were literally on a regular basis losing their heads over their refusal to denounce their new-found beliefs.  Many escaped into less-populated parts of Prussia and to Russia. Russia welcomed them with open arms because they were skilled farmers and industrious workers.  For generations Catherine II's successors continued to welcome Menno's followers to their nation and to grant them waivers for military service because of their pacifist beliefs. Sometimes alternate service was substituted.

It should be noted that by this time, as is typical of religious groups, while still in Prussia and Russia,  Menno's followers had broken into numerous groups, from the Amish, to the Older Order Mennonites, to what became the Mennonite Conference USA, to the Mennonite Brethren. Canada has roughly equivalent denominations. There are probably more Mennonites in Canada than in the U.S. The fractures were less contentious than religious splits typically are. (Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Conference USA have a tendency to accuse the other of being more legalistic, but it's still largely an amicable relationship. Menno's followers are a peace-loving people.) When worshiping together as a group became difficult because of differences in interpretations of doctrine, one group would quietly move from another group and begin worshiping separately. This was usually done without either group condemning the other to hell. From what I've been told by my former violin professor, if  Mennonite USA family were to move to a location in which only a Mennonite Brethren congregation is located nearby, the family would typically attend the Mennonite Brethren Church, or vice versa. Contrast this with the Mormons, who either broke off with or were broken off with (who did the breaking depends upon whose version one chooses to believe) the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  If a family belonging to one branch of Joseph Smith's movement moved to a location in which their own branch was unavailable but the other branch was, the family would either hold a religious service by themselves in their own living room, drive three-hundred miles every Sunday to attend the '"right" church, or give up on religion altogether. The Mennonites believe that the differences that separate their respective denominations are possibly trivial, but their desire for peace and harmony outweighs practically everything else. They have their separate lists of items that are considered tests of faith, but belief in the Bible, belief in baptism only of individuals old enough to make a faith commitment, and refusal to go to war are central among them.

At some point after the onset of the 1905 revolution, the military waiver for Mennonites was eliminated in Russia. Mennonites of all factions needed to leave Russia in order to avoid going to war. Because of their skill as farmers, Canada welcomed to them, as did states in the U.S. plains that were in need of farmers to farm the land and build up homesteads. Pennsylvania's offer of  religious freedom was something many of the branches found especially attractive. Eventually Menno's people ended up all over North America, though larger concentrations are still found in the Canadian plains and now even in Ontario, in Pennsylvania, in the U.S. plains and prairie states, and in the greater Fresno area.

At some point in my life  when the time I'm at home is not limited to times when I am either sick or asleep, I shall check out a couple of Mennonite churches. I'm not sure of what is available in my area, but their greater denomination is worldwide enough that I'm reasonably certain of finding some aspect of their denomination. I'm just very curious.  I'll probably never formally join any branch of their faith, as I don't think I can ever be a total pacifist. The issue of me personally going to war is probably a non-issue. Any branch of the military that is desperate enough to accept me into its ranks, much less to mandate my inclusion, is an army that is doomed for defeat. And if the military branch isn't smart enough to figure that out on its own, I have health conditions that would stand in the way of my military service, not the least of which is my weight. Military uniforms are not made in my size.

Beyond my own personal means of escaping service, and perhaps this is hypocritical of me because I'm not in any big hurry to sign up if the draft is reinstated and women, too, are required to register, I believe that a cause for war can be just.  I wouldn't say that of every war that's ever been fought, but someone probably needed to stand up to Hitler. World War I was probably similarly needed. I can't ever seriously place my faith in a religion that cannot accept that a despot must be stopped.  I'm not sure exactly what is their justification for maintaining peace at all costs, especially when it's not true peace when a despot is ruining the lives of those living under his reign. Perhaps the Mennonites have a perfectly clear explanation for how this should be handled, but I've yet to hear it. Peace should always be the ideal, but we all know the ideal cannot always be achieved.

Still, I'm highly intrigued by the faith, and particularly by what must be a genetically influenced  ability to sing in four-part harmony from a very young age. 

Should I ever have a son, I'm considering naming him Menno.  What do you think? Would a little Menno be bullied because of his name, or would he be cool? Regardless, I'd rather have a little Menno than a little Liam any day. Today's Liams are becoming  the Jasons of 1.5 generations ago. Thirty years ago it was easier to find D.B. Cooper's discarded cash than it was to find a well-behaved child named Jason.  The same can be said of little guys with the name of Liam in today's world.


  1. There are a lot of Mennonites in Virginia, too. Especially near Harrisonburg.

    1. My violin professor from UC lived somewhere in Virginia and attended a large Mennonite Church there before coming back to CA. Wherever the were, it was for her husband to study either architecture or philosophy -- 2 very different areas of study, I recognize, but I just can't remember which it was. Was there a a university anywhere near Harrisonberg?

    2. There are several. James Madison University, Eastern Mennonite University, and Bridgewater College are all in or around that city.