Worldly (in Low German:  weltlijch)

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

I was charmed by Rhoda’s saucy discussion of body parts and secretions, which reminded me of late-evening chats overheard during my childhood, when the adults got raunchy in a diasporic flavor of Low German, a language that seems to have grown directly out of the earth. I guffawed at Rhoda’s brittle, brilliantly funny sentences. I cringed when she described how she interacted with her in-laws, on her sojourn with her Mennonite family after her handsome husband Nick left her for a guy named Bob whom he had met on gay.com. More than anything, as I read on, I began to get the feeling that Rhoda’s back story intersects mine. I discovered that this was the case, and that our Mennonite Brethren grandparents were friends and neighbors in rural Saskatchewan, where they immigrated after the Russian Revolution.

It puzzles me that Rhoda did not disclose that she sprang from the Mennonite Brethren. The Little Black Dress of the title gains a sharper meaning when one understands that Rhoda has been assimilated into the dominant culture from this particular subgroup, for that black party dress is an apt symbol of the “worldly” behavior that the Mennonite Brethren have historically believed keeps a person from walking closely with God.

Who are the Mennonite Brethren, and why the concern with their “worldliness”?

A restorationist group, the Mennonite Brethren were vigorously evangelical Mennonites who seceded around 1860 from the mother Mennonite church in Russia. The Mennonite Brethren promoted an inward spirituality, spontaneous preaching, exuberant singing, and spiritual renewal. To them, salvation was a personal experience which could be known and celebrated.  My grandfather Jacob Funk, who joined the Mennonite Brethren church in its early days, remembered the founders as intense people who tended to think that they were truly spiritual, unlike their cold, non-believing, worldly Mennonite neighbors.

While working at the Mennonite-run Bethania Mental Hospital in the Ukraine, my grandfather Jake Funk married Anna Janzen, the niece of the hospital’s housefather. Another early Mennonite Brethren, Anna’s uncle Jacob Kornelius Janzen was an educated theologian. Rhoda Janzen is his grandchild.

Our grandparents were part of the exodus of almost 20,000 Russian Mennonites after the 1917 Russian Revolution. In the mid-1920s, these two families made new homes in the northern Saskatchewan prairies, where the Canadian government expected them to become farmers.  Jacob K. Janzen, his second wife Tina, and their seven children landed in Laird, Saskatchewan. My grandparents and their children settled in Blaine Lake, about sixty kilometers away, where my grandfather Jake fortuitously found a position working for a relative’s grocery store. Having been ordained as a deacon/evangelist in Russia, on the weekends he preached in the local Mennonite Brethren churches. My mother, Katie Funk Wiebe says “Our family often visited (Jacob K. and Tina and family) in summer and they came to our place in Blaine Lake by horse and caboose in winter. We were poor but they were poorer.” She mentions the challenges Jacob K. Janzen faced in his transition from being a well-to-do, respected professional in Russia, to being a novice Canadian farmer with seven children to support.  In the early 1940s, he moved his family to a fruit farm near Grimsby, Ontario. He became one of the ordained ministers of the nearby Vineland Mennonite Brethren Church. His youngest son, Edmund, married Mary Loewen, and in the mid-1960s, Rhoda Janzen was born. Edmund later became moderator of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, and so one could fairly say that Rhoda grew up steeped in the ways of the Mennonite Brethren.

Rhoda’s title highlights the worldly/spiritual conflict inherent in growing up in modern North American culture as the child of a Mennonite Brethren immigrant from Russia. As I have mentioned, this church grew out of the founders’ desires to be more “spiritual” and less “worldly”. The members already had the tendency to stay to themselves, for throughout their migrations, the Mennonites’ host countries didn’t really want them to mingle with the general populace, infecting the peasants with their virulent memes of pacifism, Biblical literacy, and religious self-determination. This was not a problem, because the Mennonites saw that it was easier to adhere to their religion if they stayed away from the fallen world — and maybe also because the Bible-reading Russian Mennonites felt superior to the illiterate Slavic cultures.

The elder members of the churches Rhoda and I grew up in had survived four years of world war followed by four years of revolution and counter-revolution. Their farms, villages, schools, businesses and homes in the Russian colonies had been a theater of conflict for the fronts of the Red and White armies. They had survived typhoid fever and smallpox epidemics, periods of famine, loss of homes, intimidation, mass burials, anarchy and general panic. My mother writes that after the German troops withdrew from the Ukraine, “complete lawlessness ensued, with a civil war between the Red and White armies and an uprising of peasant anarchist forces competing for dominance at the same time. . . The area where the Mennonites and other Germans lived in the Ukraine was the territory   most affected by the civil war between the Reds and the Whites.” The village where my grandparents lived, Rosenthal, “was an ideal location to station troops because it was situated in a deep and broad valley, but its farm land was located on a high plateau, affording an almost limitless view of approaching forces in all directions except south.” The windmill owned by my great-grandfather sat on top of this high plateau. The Red/White front passed through this area about seventeen times in the next few years, and even across our family’s yard, giving the family “a front-seat experience of the war with bombs flying over their house and  dead soldiers in their backyard with arms and limbs shot off,  empty eyes staring at the  crows overhead, waiting for the furor to stop.” Mennonites in Russia personally saw members of their families, friends and neighbors killed, tortured and raped. They spent time in prison because they were Mennonites. Many of their homes were destroyed. Members of their families were arrested and never heard from again. They lived in fear. The heavy darkness of those earlier times was carried by the senior members of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren churches, and they communicated to the younger people a deep, palpable paranoia of the “world”, which we caught. As contemporary theologian Tom Finger says, “It is understandable why marginalized Anabaptists often attributed the intense opposition they experienced to a single systemic entity, the ‘world’.”

A consistent concern for the immigrants was how to be more “spiritual”, and less “worldly”, and here in Canada, with its openness and freedom, their daily life was shot through and through with worldliness, in the form of media, popular culture, public education and the loss of their cultural languages of Low and High German.  (In 1922-27, several thousand very conservative Russian Mennonites who had come to Canada in the 1870s immigrated further, from Manitoba and Saskatchewan, into Mexico and Central and South America, in a desperate bid to preserve their language, cultural and religious identity, objecting strongly to their children being Canadianized in the public schools.)

Dancing, as Rhoda mentions in her book, is forbidden in the Mennonite Brethren world both because…it leads to sex!…and also because “There was something about the lighthearted frivolity of dance that suggested a fatal weakness in priorities. Mennonites were supposed to work with dignity, and when the work was done, there would be something to show for it.”

Chapter Eight: Rippling Water talks about Rhoda’s intense childhood longing to dance. I was moved to read about the dance training Rhoda’s brother is providing his daughter, and how together they watched  this young dancer perform, interpreting “the elemental concept of rippling water, her hair unfastened, cascading behind her like the sheer azure chiffon that clung to her slender form…it spoke volumes that this man, who knew nothing about dance and who had probably never danced a step in his own life, was prepared to go without a second car so that his daughter could ripple like water.” Finger says, “Historic Anabaptists . . . often overplayed Spirit and downgraded matter.”  Rhoda’s description of her dancing niece and supportive (Mennonite) father is a beautiful intertwining of matter and spirit.

Rhoda suggests that in her generation, the line is blurring between inner and outer, creation and creator, and perhaps, Mennonites could even be “in the world, but not of it.”  A recent issue of Mennonite Weekly Review talks about how urban the Mennonite church is becoming.  Many Mennonites around the world today are not ethnic Mennonites at all.  In an urban, global setting, it’s hard to make fine distinctions about what’s in and what’s out.

Rhoda speaks of a Mennonite “mistrust of education” and quotes an old Low German proverb “Ji jileada, ji vikjeada (the more educated a person is, the more warped)”.  Her viewpoint may be a degradation of a traditional Anabaptist approach, that “Christians must not value a person according to the amount of education he has. Wisdom can be received by every member of Christ’s body, for the Holy Spirit gives wisdom to each member as he or she asks for it in faith.” (J.C. Wenger, What Mennonites Believe, P. 24). But the truth is that I’ve rarely met Mennonite Brethren immigrants from Russia who didn’t want their children to be more highly educated than themselves. Mennonites in general have always sought literacy and education. In fact, they became religious rebels back in the 1500s because they had read the Bible for themselves, and interpreted it differently from the priests. The Mennonites in Russia had managed their own education until World War I, when educators were forbidden to associate. After the March Revolution in 1917, the educators re-formed but in a few years, the Soviet took oversight of all educational efforts.  When the Russian Mennonite Brethren immigrated to Canada, they immediately began thinking about higher education. A two-year Bible institute in Herbert, Saskatchewan was operated as a sort of ecumenical Mennonite school but it wasn’t Mennonite Brethren. So in 1927, the Canadian Mennonite Brethren founded Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn, Saskatchewan, “ To give our . . . youth foundational Bible instruction in the German and English languages . . ., to wrench our youth away from frivolous pursuits and the contemporary ‘Zeitgeist’ . . ., to nurture the German language as a special possession handed down from our fathers . . ., to raise believing youth for the battle of the faith . . . [and] to take into account the needs of the congregations in the methodical training of Sunday school teachers and sundry (church) workers.” Two years later, in Alberta, the Coaldale Bible School was begun. Mennonite Brethren Bible College was founded in Winnipeg in 1944.  So I don’t get Rhoda’s comment about a “Mennonite mistrust of education”. She’s not talking about the Mennonite Brethren that I know. It’s a worldly education that the Mennonites don’t trust, and it’s the education of women that Mennonites have sometimes viewed as diabolically worldly.  Young Mennonite girls in Russia were not educated past the third grade (my grandmother Anna Janzen Funk, for example), whereas young boys would go on to high school, and even, like Rhoda’s grandfather Jacob K. Janzen, go on to advanced studies.

In the 1966, when Rhoda was a toddler and I was a teenager, Mennonite Brethren women were just starting to look up from their borscht and their babies and take a step into full participation into the life of the church. Marlene Epp comments in her book Mennonite Women in Canada, “Until the mid- to late twentieth century, and in certain subgroups still today, Mennonite women were explicitly excluded from important aspects of church organizational life and expression. In their literal understanding of female subordination and silence before man and god, Mennonites differed little from other Christian denominations.”  Understanding her Mennonite Brethren background, it’s probable that Rhoda left the church because she did not see a place there for an intelligent, strong-minded, creative, zesty woman.

Some reviewers have commented negatively on Rhoda’s slick tone, and her cautious disclosure of her inner experiences. In this, however, Rhoda is solidly within the tradition of Mennonite Brethren immigrants, who developed defense mechanisms with which to cope with their trauma. They often employed intellectualization and rationalization — and humor.

The psycho-social effects of the whole experience of leaving Russia and coming to the US have rippled down through the generations. For a view into this, I am lucky to have in hand a 1997 dissertation researched and written by Lynda Klassen Reynolds.  Recruiting Canadian interview subjects from Mennonite churches and personal referrals, she tested 67 first generation respondents (for example, my grandparents and Rhoda’s father Edmund Janzen), 104 second generation respondents (like my mother and Rhoda), and 42 third generation respondents (me). Because her father was the last son of a second marriage, Rhoda in the same generation of respondents as my mother, although she’s younger than I am by more than a decade.

Lynda Klassen’s goal was to compare scores of her test subjects against the norms on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (MMPI-2) and Personal Experience Questionnaires, to investigate the psychological effects of trauma and immigration on the first generation, and to see if transmission of these symptoms was occurring across generations.

  • Lynda learned that people in the first generation had greater levels of anxiety, somatic complaints, psychasthenia (a psychological disorder characterized by phobias, obsessions, compulsions, or excessive anxiety), inhibition of aggression, need for affection, and lesser levels of ego strength.
  • The second generation manifested significantly greater levels of inhibition of aggression, over-controlled hostility, and anxiety and depression.
  • The third generation showed significantly greater levels of anxiety and depression.

Rhoda’s flippant tone and caustic remarks are typical of people who inhibit their aggression, a trait found in higher-than-average levels amongst second generation Russian Mennonite Brethren immigrants in Klassen’s study.

I’m believing that Rhoda also experienced the anxiety and depression which might be expected in second-generation Mennonite Brethren immigrants. She talks about her Childhood of Fear.  “Why we were always so afraid I cannot say; we weren’t abused, attacked, or violated in any way.  On the contrary: as Mennonites, we lived remarkably sheltered lives. . . Somewhere, somehow, the Mennonite culture had taught us that all non-Mennonite men were would-be rapists. Thus whenever we stepped outside the protective shield of our Mennonite community, we moved in a terrifyingly unfamiliar world.”

After some amount of individuation, what’s it like to come back to the Mennonite Brethren world again? Here is where the more attractive aspects of the Mennonite Brethren church culture come into play: forgiveness and family solidarity. The story of the prodigal son is not lost on the Mennonite Brethren people, 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 Rhoda experienced when she returned to the family structure.  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.”

Joanna Wiebe, Vashon, WA

This review was first published in the journal of the Communal Studies Association, Communal Societies, Vol. 31, Number One, 2011

1 thought on “Weltlijch

  1. I enjoyed the book too, but agree with you that the MB part of Rhoda’s Mennonite heritage nuances her tale in significant ways. Education certainly was a high value in our home. But “worldly” was always a threat, a caution. And our generation was supposed to navigate that tension!

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