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

At the Red Bicycle

At the Red Bicycle

Ordering a bacon gorgonzola burger with fries

watching the lead singer screw his mike stand together

and the keyboardist hunch over his keys.

The mustard walls are stained on purpose to look old.

Two of the bar lamps are missing.

The waitress has five children at home.

She’s smiling at me as she lights the candle on my table.

Words fall from the ceiling: estrella, nunca, besos.

The plastic floor is revealed in long fingers of sunlight

A patron with a cane rocks across the floor to the door and out.

After waiting an hour for my family to join me here,

I’ve ordered a bacon gorgonzola burger with fries.

I’m drinking my second glass of cabernet

Waiting to get a feeling of freedom.

Could I be free?

Or am I trapped in the Amazon?

At the Red Bicycle II

Here is my bacon gorgonzola cheeseburger.

The patty glistens under the flows of cheese,

The translucent  ribbons of onion,

The  intelligent pig.

How do they get those pickles so wavy?

How can I be like that small girl next to me, twisting her striped legs under the table, picking her nose, knocking over her water with a straw between her teeth, examining the children’s menu like the Holy Bible.

At the Red Bicycle III

Wondering why my family isn’t here.

I’d have to stop writing if they were here,

So why do I care?

Chords from the keyboard overwhelm the ceiling words.

Nothing I have ever eaten is as good as these French fries,

hot and soft, with chewy salty edges.

My phone batteries are completely dead and I can’t call them any more.

Christine is online!

A self portrait of Christine

Visit the CMW Journal today!  The October issue of the online magazine published by the Center for Mennonite Writing  in Goshen, Indiana, came out on Tuesday, thanks to a great labor of love by editor Ann Hostetler. The journal features a wonderful selection of Christine’s poems,  a biography  and bibliography by my mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, an article by myself, and also great articles by friends Ellen Kroeker  of New Zealand and Jeff Gundy of Bluffton University. It also has an edited version of Chrstine’s book, How to Stay Alive, with its wonderful little sketches.

This publication means a great deal to my mother, for it gives Christine a lasting legacy.  Being online will mean many more readers will see Chrstine’s  poetry.

Special CMW issue on my sister Christine Wiebe

I’m looking forward to a special issue of the Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, centered on my sister Christine Ruth Wiebe. The issue will be published October 18, 2010.

My sister Christine’s significant creative contributions as a poet will be explored through publication of a selection of her work, and essays by Ellen Kroeker and Jeff Gundy, our mother Katie Funk Wiebe, and myself.  To prepare to write my essay, I read through almost 30 years of her journals. I found dozens of poems and some drawings which had never before been published.  I learned that she studied dance at one point, considering becoming a liturgical dancer.  And I also learned that when she was in Chicago she was in a Centering Prayer group, which is a discipline I also practice.

The photo above came in an email yesterday from Ellen Kroeker,  writing from New Zealand: “The Southern Ocean winds (the roaring forties which sweep across at that latitude) have been battering New Zealand for five days now.  I  have ignored the essays that need grading for too long.  I light a candle, pull my freesias closer and make a pot of tea (under the tea cosy in the picture) and pull out the Christine teacup.  Ah, not even alone, while the cold wind is rattling windows and doors.  I feel more settled now, an old friendship warming a very chilly spring day. I wish my students had some of her song in their writing.  I sigh, open another folder on the computer, and resolve to put some of Christine’s grace into my attitude and comments. When we think of her, she is alive in us, right?” Thank you, Ellen.

O Trees

O Trees

You have stood by me these two and a half years

and I still don’t know your names.

Nameless, you have steadfastly endured

beside me,  slender, tall, always reaching

you rise straight up from the earth

past the concrete, the glass, to the sky.

At night you brush the soft grey light

You even out the clouds.

While I sleep, you are the roost of angels

In the day you pull down the sun

You suck it out of the sky

You entice it to stay

You hold the light in your arms while I sleep.

My sister Christine Ruth Wiebe wrote this poem when she was living in Chicago, on Tuesday, February 12, 1991.

Ann Hostetler and my mother Katie Funk Wiebe are working on a special issue of the Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing focusing on Christine and Sylvia Bubalo, two writer/artists whose inspiring spiritual and artistic journeys deserve a wider audience.  Both struggled with chronic illness as well. Christine’s flavor was systemic lupus erythematosus.

I have been going through Christine’s letters and writings to find poems which she never showed to anyone, and this is one of them.   She also made the drawing, which was separate from the poem, but I joined them together here.  For the most part I have preserved her punctuation, but I am thinking that had she lived to publish this poem,  she probably would have added a few periods here and there.

Take courage

Many of the letters written by Anna Janzen Funk to her daughter Katie, my mother,  contained the phrase, “Take courage.”

I have thought of that short phrase often: Take courage. What does that mean? Faced with a blank page, I will take courage and fill it with words.

OK, let’s get serious. What if I make a mistake? I’ve gathered materials about grandma’s life for years; yet I often struggle with getting the facts right!   Can I trust this process of writing?

My red-haired great-grandmother, Anna Janzen Funk, was born March 15, 1895, in Friedensfeld, Sagradowka, southern Ukraine, one of 12 children of Franz J. Janzen (who also had red hair) and Katharina Boldt Janzen. Growing up in a well-developed Mennonite culture, Anna matured into a strong-willed, spiritual, intelligent person. She developed a hatred of crocheting, much preferring to read.  She did not have much time to read, however, as she began working seven days a week when she was 15. When she was 20, on a dark, rainy Sunday, she took the train about 90 miles to her second job. She was going to be a baker’s helper at Bethania Mental Hospital, near the Dnieper River. While she was at Bethania, in February 1917, the Russian government collapsed and the socialistic Bolshevist regime took power. Their army (the Reds) took over the area, taking livestock, food, and household goods, killing and razing estates. Anna’s family disappeared. The opposing White army battled the Reds back and forth across the Ukraine.

So, after that long setup, here’s the story about the importance of creativity, and how critical courage is in expressing creativity. One winter day, about 30 Red soldiers had stolen all the extra clothing from the male hospital patients. Now the revolutionaries were warmly dressed, slurping their soup in the dining room. As fast as she could slice bread, the soldiers grabbed it. Anna rushed into the spacious, bright kitchen with its tiled floor and huge stainless steel kettles to get a new batch of bread which the kitchen girls had just pulled out, and to ask them to punch down the rising dough and form it into more loaves to be baked. She heard a sharp knock on the back door of the kitchen. When she opened the door, she was startled to see a couple of dozen soldiers from the White army, who had been able to cross to Bethania on the frozen Dnieper River. “Let’s have lunch!” they demanded. What was she to do?  The Reds were having their soup in the dining room!  As she stood on the doorstep, the bright sun lighting up her coppery hair, she squinted at the hungry White soldiers, many of them her own age or younger, and rubbed a floury hand over her forehead. She could see that the Whites had added a lot of mud from the thawing banks to their uniforms and boots. Of course!  She grinned as she scolded them, “Please, boys, do you think I will let you in the house with those boots! Scrape the mud off completely! Knock again when those boots are clean, and I will give you a nice meal.”  Truly disarmed, they smiled back at the saucy young woman and began working on their boots. Anna brought the trays of bread into the Red group, encouraged them to fill their pockets for later, and opened the front door for them. As she saw the last Red soldier’s back going through the front door, she motioned silently to the kitchen girl to let the Whites in for their meal.

Now that I’ve written the words, I know quite well that this is not exactly the way it happened. I have left things out—big things, like the Makhnovist bandits. I have made things up, like the dialog. But—I have steadfastly shuffled phrases and sentences like jigsaw puzzle pieces to achieve that moment when I am not only seeing a picture that feels true, I myself am standing beside Anna on the back step at Bethania, close enough to see the flour dusting her forehead, to hear her steady breathing as we stand in the sunlight, facing those hungry, rough young men. I watch with my entire self, to witness her in the very moment of taking courage. She uses what she has—her bright hair, her confident smile, and her memories of her lost brothers—and speaks. The ugliness of war transforms into a homely backyard scenario: big sister telling the boys to clean their boots before coming inside. Anna’s courageous creativity has brought life to the day.

Opportunities for life-giving creativity occur daily. Filling a page with words is good practice.

Joanna Wiebe, May 1, 2007