Birth Mother

Birth Mother by Joanna Wiebe

My first book, BIRTH MOTHER, available for the Kindle, opens in the weeks preceding Christmas 1975.  I longed to celebrate the holiday with my family in Hillsboro, Kansas, but the relationships were tense.

Why, after having a baby out of wedlock, did I take new lovers like I was sampling chocolates?

What did my worldly lifestyle lead people to think about our Mennonite Brethren family?

And, when was I ever going to begin to have a personal relationship with Jesus?

Six years earlier, on Christmas eve 1969, my son Matthew William was born. Three days later I gave him to a social worker. Soon he was in his new home, in the process of being adopted by a loving Western Kansas family.  As I understood the law, adoption meant “final surrender” and I would never see him again.

Since then, the holidays always triggered bleak, black states of being. Now as the 1975 festive season approached, I attempted to solve my problem by launching a Christmas road trip to Mexico with my current boyfriend and my dog, Perfect Master Lord Shiva. However, my dog was soon run over by a truck, my van’s transmission broke down, my friend left me to go back to school, and I was out of money.

After a 7.3 earthquake, I disappeared into the social chaos of Guatemala City, playing a temporary role as La Maestra with a street gang, embracing a dark, dangerous, and all-absorbing way of life.

A journal of my journey toward wholeness, my book BIRTH MOTHER includes drawings and Mennonite and Guatemalan recipes. The book includes descriptions of the closed adoption process in Kansas in 1969, and my experiences at the Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Wichita, Kansas.

If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can read this Kindle version at no cost. Others can purchase the Kindle version for $2.99.  I am working to make a hardcopy version available on Amazon later this year.

If this book resonates with you, please be in touch and write a review on the Amazon page for my book!

The incredibly perfect cover illustration is by Ellen Greene, an artist born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, and a friend from our homeschool association when our family lived in Chicago. 

Questions as you write your spiritual journey

“A spiritual autobiography focuses less on the people, events and experiences of a person’s life and more on what these people, events and experiences meant for him/her and how they formed him/her or shaped the course of his life. It allows the writer to communicate who she or he is as a person and what is important in her or his life.”  —Jesuit brother Charles J. Jackson

Here are two dozen queries to spark you as you write your spiritual journey.

  1. How did you perceive God or the sacred when you were a child?
  2. Who first helped shape your view of the Divine?
  3. Does your name have a meaning or story attached to it?
  4. Have you been influenced by a variety of spiritual traditions or were you brought up in a single faith?
  5. Who have been the important spiritual role models in your life? Who are your saints, holy people, spiritual mentors today?
  6. What authors have influenced you the most, and what do you read for spiritual nurture?
  7. How has your faith changed or grown?
  8. How have you learned to incorporate discipline and accountability in to your life, for example your finances, education, professional work, and physical health?
  9. What spiritual practices shape your spiritual life today, and how do you connect with others in these disciplines?
  10. If married or partnered, how would you characterize the spiritual relationship you have, including shared spiritual practices?
  11. What spiritual resources do you need now?
  12. Where do you think you are heading in your faith and practice?
  13. Draw or describe a metaphor for your spiritual journey. For example, some people imagine life as a ship sailing across uncharted waters, and their faith, values, and beliefs as the wind in the sails. Others imagine it as a spiral of experiences and realizations, as a journey over mountains and valleys, or as a river.
  14. What scriptures or other books did your family regard as holy? How seriously were the teachings in them taken?
  15. Did your family observe any religious rituals? How were those rituals related to their beliefs?
  16. Have there been times when you felt the presence of the sacred outside your place of worship, when there were no priests, pastors, rabbis, or other teachers around?  What was that experience like?
  17. When have you experienced awe or wonder? Where were you, and what happened?
  18. What holy days do you celebrate?
  19. Are your spiritual beliefs or values relevant to what you wear, what you do, who you are friends with, how you educate your children, how you relate to the earth, animals, plants, water?
  20. Do seemingly random events of your life seem to reveal interconnectedness?
  21. Call to mind the significant turning points in your life; what are they?
  22. What are the most significant decisions you have made?
  23. What are the most intense struggles and conflicts, successes and failures you have experienced?
  24. Have you ever felt or experienced a sense of being “called” to do something?

Second thoughts

Katie Funk Wiebe, my mom

Go over to and read my mom’s blog.  Here’s a little sample:

“In a used bookstore I picked up a copy of Frederich Buechner’s Listening to Your Life, a compilation of selections from his books arranged for daily reading. Sixty-five cents, the tag said. Why not? I have enjoyed Buechner’s books in the past, especially The Hungering Dark.

“His idea of good writing is to stick a pen into a vein and start writing. Passionate, life-giving writing is fueled by blood. I have sometimes told would-be writers to think of writing as wearing your heart on your sleeve for all to see what makes it tick.”

That’s what  I love about my mom.


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 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.