Worldly: Part 6

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

OK, so some of our early choices were a little…reactionary?  Neither Rhoda Janzen nor I married a nice solid Mennonite Brethren man, a believer, an early-waking guy who reads a lot,  has a general knack for fixing things, and, possibly, a beard.  Instead of the “smart, kind, humorous, attractive and affluent” MB Karl Kroeker, Rhoda married a gay athiest.  Instead of an intelligent, gentle, mathematical Mennonite Brethren man with a passion for social justice (and a short beard), I chose an illegal alien who pumped gas for a living.

And then, the reckoning.  After our failed marriages, some flailing about, wondering, who am I? The reactionary approach didn’t work. So now what do I do?  I’ve peered into the chaos and have seen that there is no Truth with a capital “T’.   So now, what’s true for me?

Darting away from a tradition of four and a half centuries of living a set-apart life and learning to make one’s own decisions: the way I see it, this behavior is not a break from the Anabaptist tradition but a bold continuation of the path of our ancestors, on the roam for one’s soul, intensely concerned with protecting and nurturing one’s individual experience.

Then, after some amount of individuation, what’s it like to come back and try to take a place in the Mennonite world again?

And here is where another aspect of the Mennonite Brethren church culture, one of the most attractive aspects, comes into play: family solidarity. The story of the prodigal son is not lost on the MBs, and I have seen many examples of young people decisively abandoning their Mennonite homes, communities and churches, becoming worldly in every way that they can – and then being warmly and lovingly welcomed back home. As has happened to me, more than once. As Rhoda experienced, when she returned to the family structure during a time of crisis, her mother “has always backed her daughters up, always supported us, always welcomed us into her home with open arms, no matter what choices we’ve made.” I can say the same for my mother, the essence of spiritual hospitality.

My mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, says that when she was a child growing up, when a guest was about to leave, she remembers that the host would remonstrate and say, “Doaut nobaat noch so schoen” (The conversation is still great. Let’s not quit so soon).   But I’ve said enough for now on this topic of my distant cousin and her book.  So for now, my fellow writers of poetry, eaters of borscht and zwieback, lovers of education, my MB brothers and sisters, the ball is in your court.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen

New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009; 241 pp.; ISBN-13: 978-0-8050-8923-7, ISBN-10: 0-8050-8925-X; hardback $22.00.

3 thoughts on “Worldly: Part 6

  1. Hi Joanna, I stumbled on your website, searching for the year your mother was born I think, because I’ve been reading a biography of Gloria Steinem and wanted to compare their ages… Anyways, I’ve enjoyed reading your site, especially the “Worldly” series – I don’t think we’re related (!), except that KFW was your real mother and for me and many others perhaps something of a “mother” too — Looks like our paths have been different, but we’re close in age (I’m from ’50) and grew up MB (though I’d never known or imagined that Hillsboro was worldly!) and we have writing in common and I’m feeling a kinship through your words… Much more I feel like saying but maybe some other time… Hope you’re finding a place for your book to land… Dora

    • Dora, thanks for the nice comments. I’ve been reading your blog too and agree that we are sisters in some ways. I have submitted my book to two agents, so far, and I’m waiting…waiting…In the meantime I’ve started another book about my summer at Reba Place Fellowship the summer of 1967. Fun stuff.

  2. Hi Joanna.
    I want to thank you for the historical perspectives on the early 20th century MB migration to Canada. My own Wiebes are a different tribe than yours, which is not to say that we aren’t related in some way. My Mennonite great-grandparents came to the US in the 1870s migration. I am sorry to say that I haven’t really understood the 20th century migration to Canada until now. I am also grateful for your inclusion of Lynda Klassen Reynolds’ research. Both the history and the psychological research validate reactions my mother and I have had to Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.

    Before I got the book I had read some reviews and interviews with Rhoda Janzen and was mystified by what I perceived as excessive conservatism in her upbringing. Janzen is about 20 years younger than I am and I hadn’t observed that kind of conservatism among the MBs in Fresno when I was living there in the 60s, which is around the time Janzen was born. My mother is not an ethnic Mennonite, but she lived in Fresno for 35 years as the wife of a FPU professor and academic dean, and she was an active member of an MB church there–albeit the “liberal” one. When I asked her about some of the things that puzzled me her response was, “Well, her parents are Canadian.” Whether or not she knows the history (I am sending it to her), she seems to have a visceral understanding of the psychological and behavioral differences of the 20th century immigrants to Canada.

    My husband, whose ancestors also came to the US in the 1870s, had a more conventional and conservative MB upbringing than I did. I lived largely outside MB communities until I was 17 and had somewhat liberal parents. But my husband too was perplexed by the level of conservatism I described to him as I was reading the book. At one point I suggested to him that maybe Janzen’s experience was so much different from ours because her parents were closer to the immigrant experience. Now I can see that is probably the case.

    Like you, the theme I understand the least in the book is mistrust of education. Everywhere MBs settled in North America they immediately began founding educational institutions. Two colleges and a seminary in just the US is a pretty good record for a small, marginalized denomination. I agree with you that there has been a mistrust of secular education. When my husband transferred from FPU to Fresno State College in the early 60s, his pastor made a point of keeping in touch with him to make sure he wasn’t being tainted by a worldly (his pastor’s word) institution. At that same time, however, it was understood that to be a professor even at a MB college like FPU one had to have a PhD, of necessity from a secular university. It is interesting to me that Janzen identifies her father as a theologian and conference leader, but not as a professor of theology and the president of FPU for 10 years.

    My father, who would have been third generation in the migration study, rebelled somewhat like Janzen did. He left the MBs, married an “English girl” as it was called then, and got a secular education. In the end he came back to the fold, but, like your mother, was not unchanged by the world he experienced. I believe both he (and his children) and the MB church, which he had never left in his heart, were better for it.

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