Exploring

I find my mother’s old Dutch oven.
Heavy, black, spherical—
I imagine it looked like this
when father gave it to her 40 years ago.
Now as I study that black hole in my kitchen,
I feel conditions must be right
to slip through this density of memories
to their time, or at the very least,
by some chance tilting,
to snatch compressed messages
from that dark space before my birth.

Christine Wiebe – January 1989
********************************************************

This is one of the poems by my sister which was included in the recently-published book about my mom, Katie Funk Wiebe.  The editors gracefully inserted a number of her poems into the chapter which I wrote, What would mother do?   The book is The Voice of a Writer: Honoring the Life of Katie Funk Wiebe, recently published by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission, edited by Doug Heidebrecht and Valerie G. Rempel.

Katie Funk Wiebe: The Voice of a Writer

There’s a broad view of green fields and blue sky from my window at the Country Haven Inn, here in Hillsboro, Kansas. I’m here to attend the gala Festschrift event being hosted for my mother Katie Funk Wiebe by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission.  Last night, as the sun was setting over the farm fields, at a dinner at the Milk and Honey Bed and Breakfast just northeast of Hillsboro, co-editors Doug Heidebrecht and Valerie Rempel presented mom with the book, The Voice of a Writer: Honoring the Life of Katie Funk Wiebe, which describes her life, writing and impact on the world.  I have a copy too, which I started reading at breakfast this morning.

From the back cover, by Linda Huebert Hecht:  “Katie Funk Wiebe has shown great leadership, from the time she was elected president of the young adult group in her Saskatchewan Mennonite Brethren Church to the present day. She wrote about her own experience, addressing both women and men and became a strong and prophetic voice in the Mennonite community and beyond. Although no one mentored her, Katie became a trailblazer and a model to others. The variety of approaches in this book enrich Katie’s story and make it an appealing and excellent book to read.”

In coming days, I’ll be posting on this blog the chapter I contributed to the book, Chapter 3: What would mother do?

Book launch for Katie Funk Wiebe April 24

Katie Funk Wiebe 2007

A reception and program honoring the life and work of Tabor College Emeritus Professor of English Katie Funk Wiebe will be held on Saturday, April 24, at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas.

That’s my mom, for those of you who don’t know!

The highlight of the evening will be the unveiling of a new “Festschrift” book, The Voice of a Writer: Honoring the Life of Katie Funk Wiebe, published by the Mennonite Brethren Historical Commission.

I wrote a chapter for the book, describing life with Katie Funk Wiebe as our mother. It’s a page-turner!

Mom, who is 85, began teaching at Tabor in 1966 and remained 24 years as professor of English and Journalism. Author of numerous books about the role of women in the church, she was named one of the 20 most influential Mennonites of the 20th century.

Aside from that, I love her just for being herself — questing, curious, perseverant, loyal, invitational, brave, true, a great story-teller, and always learning and growing. 

More information:

http://www.tabor.edu/about-tabor/news/2010/4/13/tabor-reception-book-unveiling-to-honor-katie-funk-wiebe-april-24

Playing violin on the wagon

My grandfather Peter P. Wiebe was a poet and musician, although Canadian immigration policies compelled him to earn a living, meager as it was, by farming.  I was once told the story of how he would make music by throwing differently sized pebbles into a pond. Now I have a new picture of him, practicing violin solos standing on the wagon bed on the way to church.  It’s from a new book of poetry,  Paper House, by my cousin Jean Janzen.  My mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, says the opening line refers to a huge portrait  of the entire Wiebe family, in the Ukraine, about six by eight feet hanging in Jean’s hallway.    Peter Wiebe was the oldest son in this family and left for Canada in 1913, together with his wife’s family.  He left his own family behind in the Ukraine. Two brothers followed a few years later. One of them was Jean Janzen’s father.

FAMILY PORTRAIT — In memory of Peter Wiebe, 1886-1951

Now that you stand life-size in our hallway,
I talk to  you, my uncle, oldest son
standing tall in the triangle of misery
and loss, the one who dared to leave.

Leaning into the heave of the ship,
ocean spray blurring the future,
you opened a path for my father
to follow, away from desperation,

not toward wealth, but music and a love
for words where fields lay open to rain
and drought, those furrows testing you.
Can beauty germinate in stony land?

My father found you plowing when
he arrived, northern light pouring
its long hours on your shoulders.
And then at night, hands sore and swollen,

with pen you seeded for us all
a raw loveliness of telling,
mud-caked and fertile. They say
your practiced violin solos standing

in the wagon on the way to church,
Aunt Lena driving the horses.
Dear Peter, I stand here holding
your songs, stories, and poems,
all rooted in struggle, even this page,
where I plant your wounds
with gratitude and remembrance. –– Jean Janzen

Worldly: Part 4

Women at the Back: 1966 Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference

Worldly (in Low German:  weltlijch): A response to mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

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

Worldly…what does that mean to a Mennonite Brethren person?

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’.”

I think this was true of the Russian Mennonite Brethren churches that I grew up in Saskatchewan, populated by immigrants fresh from heavy “opposition”, as Finger puts it, during the Russian Revolution.  In other words, after living through five or ten years of torture, rape, shootings, loss of homes, intimidation, mass burials, famine, etc., it’s understandable that the older people around me when I grew up created an atmosphere of extreme distrust of the “world”.   Although my mom and dad were exceptionally lively, open-minded and eager to explore the world, (for Mennonites), the heavy darkness of those earlier times was carried by my grandparents and their friends, and they communicated a deep, palpable paranoia, which I caught.

I remember that when I was six and had broken my arm, I was petrified to tears whenever the nurse came near me, because she wore lipstick, which meant for sure that she was going to hell.  I was afraid of the Lutheran children in my school, because they were “worldly”.  Some entertainments were fine, like the filmstrip on how aluminum is made, which we watched over and over again in the third grade.  Premarital sexual behavior was definitely worldly, and I remember a girl being excommunicated because she was pregnant and unmarried.  Marriage between believers and unbelievers was as worldly as it could get. Divorce was a terribly worldly thing, something you shouldn’t even think about.

Dancing, of course, as Rhoda affirms, is verboten in the MB world both because…it leads to sex!…and also because “There was something about the lighthearted frivolityof dance that suggested a fatal weakness in priorities. Mennnonites were supposed t work with dignity, and when the work was done, there would be something to show for it.”  Unless, of course, it’s “liturgical dance”, which some of the more liberal Mennonite churches have toyed with.  Rhoda’s best chapter, in my opinion, is Chapter Eight: Rippling Water, which talks about her intense childhood longing to dance.  I was teary reading about the dance training  Rhoda’s brother is providing his daughter, and how 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.”

Tom 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.

As Rhoda suggests, 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.”  And they are in the world more and more all the time, although sometimes in the form of intentional communities, like Reba Place Fellowship, where I live, in Evanston, Illinois.  A recent issue of Mennonite Weekly Review talks about how urban the Mennonite church is getting these days.  “Person by person, a new network of urban Anabaptist leaders is growing,” says Linda Espenshade of the Mennonite Central Committee, on the front page of the March 8, 2010 issue. And a huge number Mennonites around the world today are not ethnic Mennonites at all.  In a MB universe like that, it’s hard to make fine distinctions about what’s in and what’s out. About the only really tough issues of worldliness, anymore, are homosexuality (“Love the sinner but hate the sin!”) and abortion (“Hate the mother and love the baby!”), as Rhoda describes.

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)”.  Maybe she is talking about the Kanadiers 🙂  Because I’ve never seen Russlanders who didn’t want their children to be more highly educated than themselves.

Or it could be  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).

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 the Canadian MBs decided to create something new. In 1927, they founded Bethany Bible Institute in Hepburn, Saskatchewan, (where I spent several of my childhood years living in the student dorm because my dad was a teacher there). The purpose of Bethany was: “ 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. Another of these institutions played an important role in my own life: Mennonite Brethren Bible College, which was founded in Winnipeg in 1944, and where I also spent a few memorable childhood years living in the student dorm, because my father was a student there. That’s also where my sister Susan was born.

So I don’t get Rhoda’s comment about a “Mennonite mistrust of education”. I haven’t seen it. It’s a worldly education that the Mennonites don’t trust. 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.

Take a look at the photo at the top of this page, which I found on the Internet site of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.  This photo depicts a group of women attending a session of the 1966 Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. The women sit apart from the men in the back rows of the Eden Christian College gymnasium.  Scrawled on the back of the photos is an interesting comment:  “Even the women attended in fairly liberal numbers. Who knows, by the time we get to the next conference, we may have half a dozen delegates from their ranks!”

The year that photo was taken, of women sitting at the back of the conference room, women around the world were taking a front seat.

  • Indira Gandhi was elected India’s third prime minister.
  • Betty Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW).
  • Roberta Bignay became the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon.
  • Janis Joplin gave her first live concert.
  • Billie Jean King won her first Wimbeldon singles title.
  • And my mother Katie Funk Wiebe was saying, “women can no longer look for safe, easy roles away from the social and intellectual ferment of our age.”

For most of their history, Mennnonite Brethren women were expected not to contribute to the thought life of MB society, to preach from the pulpit, or to take any overt leadership position in the church or community – as my mother Katie Funk Wiebe has done, leading the way for many other Mennonite women, and for women in general.

“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.”  “In 1975, the Canadian MB conference for the first time provided food service and childcare so that women were freed to attend all sessions” (From Marlene Epp’s book, Mennonite Women in Canada.)

When I was a teenager, deciding what to do with my life, my mother was just beginning her journey into taking these stronger roles in the church. As a young woman, I was driven to educate myself, explore the world, to write fearlessly, to be all that I could be. I didn’t know any Mennonite Brethren woman who I could look up to as a role model. I certainly did not see any MB women who were living the kind of life I dreamed of for myself – a life of vigor, intellectual honesty, and engagement with ideas, people and change. My soul didn’t feel at home in the constrained environment of Gnadenau MB Church in Hillsboro. No woman there had connected with me on a soul level, or intellectually, or had encouraged me to grow into who I was as a person, or had shown me how that mysterious activity is done.

In 1967, at the age of 19, I explored the borders of a wider world as I interned at Reba Place Fellowship, which at that time was still a pretty new and radical experiment in Christian intentional community (It’s now over 50 years old and going strong. ) In the fall, I enrolled at the University of Kansas. I tried out some new behaviors, which distressed my family.  My sister Christine was afraid that I wasn’t a Christian any more. She prayed for me and worried about me. Mother drove three hours north to visit me at KU, bringing the children, and picnics. She began the practice of writing me a weekly letter, with detailed news, encouragement, support, jokes, and family updates. But despite all that she did, I was lost to the family, not to mention myself.  After a year and a half, I dropped out of school and stayed for a few months at the Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Wichita, until my son Matthew William was born.

In 1970, I launched a commune with my boyfriend, on St. Francis Street in Wichita, blocks away from our friends at the Mennonite Voluntary Service house. Christine worried about letting slip any information about my living arrangements to Mother’s friends in Hillsboro. “I wouldn’t care if my friends knew,” Chris wrote. “But if some of the people in the Parkview church knew there would be a big stink. What kind of a church is that? We put on a front as if everything is just fine. We never really communicate about what bothers us most deeply with the people in the church. We never get past the surface.”

Mother struggled to understand my actions, an unsteady mixture of individuation, rebellion, and stepping in her feminist footsteps. She had written about how men and women in the church “need each other’s support, but not at the expense of one another.” I was not patient enough to work through that struggle in the Mennonite Brethren Church.

I left the Parkview MB Church (they’d changed the name from Gnadenau by this time, the abandonment of the German moniker being yet another sign of adaptation to the world).

Even though I don’t know Rhoda at all, I resonated with her words around leaving the church. I saw that ultimately, like me, she left the MB church because she did not see a place there for an intelligent, strong-minded, creative, zesty woman.

And so we went out into the world. How brave, how rebellious,  how Anabaptist — to leave our church.   To become worldly.  And find our souls.

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

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.

Worldly: Part 3

mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

Worldly (in Low German:  weltlijch): A response to mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

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

Leaving the Mennonite Brethren church is a momentous life event. Either you are in or you are out.  When I left, it didn’t seem possible to say, oh, I’ll stay in the church and be partly worldly and explore all my questions about pantheism and existentialism in the context of the gemeinde.  But it’s not easy to leave the church and keep your toe in, either.  This is a historical approach, of separation from the world. This was maybe largely due to the fact that as Mennonites dispersed across Prussia and Russia, their 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 themselves saw that it was easier to be themselves if they stayed away from the fallen world — and maybe also because the book-reading Russian Mennonites saw themselves as superior to the illiterate Slavic cultures.  Many Mennonites employed Russian laborers, but they didn’t necessarily treat them like full human beings. (This was not going to help the Mennonites later during the Russian Revolution, but that’s another story.)

Part of Russia’s approach to keeping the Mennonites contained was to restrict the amount of land they could occupy. By the early part of the twentieth century, this policy  resulted in the division of  the approximately 110,000 Mennonites in Russia into an elite landed and a discontented, proletariat, landless class, because there just wasn’t enough land to pass on to the kids.

So here we have the Russian Mennonites at the turn of the Twentieth Century, living with the uneasy tensions of Frisian/Flemish, worldly/spiritual, land-owning and landless. As the Russian Mennonites struggled internally with their own polarities, they began to experience the effect of similar class struggles in society at large. They were directly impacted by the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the German occupation, the destructive impact of the Red and White Armies, and the Makhno Occupation, with its continuous climate of violence, plunder, confiscation of property, starvation, bloodbaths, epidemics, and rape.

I don’t know any details of the suffering Rhoda says her family experienced during this time, but I can imagine that there are parallels with my own. For more than half a century before the Russian Revolution, Mennonites had been leaving Russia for Canada and the US, in response to the political and economic upheavals that had been going on for even longer. During the German Occupation, my mom writes, the Mennonites, who were of Dutch origin, were German-speaking and thus were labeled “’agents of Germany’ and ‘enemies of the state’. They were forbidden to use the German language in the press or in public assemblies of more than three persons or face a fine or prison term. From November 1917, until the German occupation troops arrived in March 1918, roving bandits robbed, imprisoned, tortured and murdered the Mennonites.  The leader of these bandits, Nestor Makhno, claimed that his molestation of the Mennonites was due to a Mennonite employer’s earlier mistreatment of him.

Mom 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 overheard 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.

Almost every Mennonite decided to leave Russia for Canada; Canada finally opened its doors to approximately 20,200 Mennonites between 1923 and 1929. A sizable percentage of those who were able to go to Canada were Mennonite Brethren (including my grandparents and Rhoda’s grandparents). These immigrants experienced further trauma as they uprooted themselves from the Ukraine. The members of the Janzen and Funk families had called the Ukraine their home for about 130 years. Rhoda’s grandfather, Jacob K. Janzen, was an educated professional with a large family to support. My grandfather was a clerk; his family had owned a successful flour mill.  Now they were expected to become farmers, for that was what the Canadian government wanted them to do.

These immigrants had survived four years of world war followed by four years of revolution and counter-revolution. Their farms, villages, schools, businesses and homes of the Mennonite colonies had been a theater of conflict for the fronts of the two armies. They had survived typhoid fever and smallpox epidemics, periods of famine.

Now they were in Canada, being encouraged to learn English and assimilate into Canadian culture, which most of them did, although not without great soul-searching. For hundreds of years, the Mennonites had been living separately from their cultural milieu – first in Prussia and then again in the Ukraine.  A consistent concern of theirs 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.)

When the Mennonite Brethren immigrated to North America, their issues came with them. The Frisian/Flemish polarity fell away with the emergence of a new form of class consciousness: the newcomers vs. Mennonites who had come to Canada from Russian earlier. Relationships between the two groups were strained. The Kanadier viewed the newly-arrived Russian Mennonites as “too proud, too aggressive, too enthusiastic about higher education, too anxious to exercise leadership, too ready to compromise with the state, too ready to move to the cities, and too unappreciative of the pioneering done by the Kanadier. As far as the Russlander were concerned, the Kanadier were too withdrawn, too simple-minded, too uncultured, too weak in their High German. . . too afraid of schools and education.” (Frank Epp, Mennonites in Canada: 1920-1940.)

Rhoda’s father, Edmund. Janzen, and his wife were both Russlanders.  In my own family, my mother was a Russlander who grew up in a Canadianized home, because Blaine Lake did not have a Mennonite Brethren church. My father, Walter William Wiebe, was a Kanadier who grew up in a Russlander community (and absorbed their values).  I grew up in Russlander communities in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, before moving to Hillsboro, Kansas in the early 1960s, the place where my father died.

In Hillsboro, settled in the late 1800s by Russian Mennonites, our family struggled to figure out how and who to be. We swung between the values and practices of the conservative Russlander culture we had known in Canada, and the temptations of the American Mennonite Brethren culture.  I could see by the names on the tombstones in the Gnadenau church cemetery that these people who had died in Hillsboro, Kansas, were my people:  Janzen, Wiebe, Funk.   But — Hillsboro Mennonites were so…worldly!

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

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.

Worldly: Part 2

mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

Worldly (in Low German:  weltlijch): A response to mennonite in a little black dress by Rhoda Janzen

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

I was immediately charmed by the bold way in which Rhoda launched into a discussion of body parts and secretions. To be honest, it reminded me of those late-evening chats round the dinner tables of my childhood, when the adults got raunchy in a diasporic Mennonite 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, causing people in nearby seats on the plane to crane their necks to see what was so hilarious. I cringed when she described her interactions with some of her relatives and in-laws.

Of course, Rhoda’s story is uniquely her own—a visit back to her Mennonite family and the community in California in which she had been raised, after her handsome husband Nick left her for a guy named Bob whom he had met on gay.com.  However, as I read on, I began to get the feeling that  Rhoda’s back story intersects mine. I saw similarities:

  • dramatic and drastic flights from our Mennonite Brethren roots
  • ability to whip up dinner for ten with an hour’s notice
  • puzzling early choices in men
  • happy-go-lucky academic demeanor
  • quest for meaning
  • ultimately, respect for and participation in the values and principles of our parents

When I got home from my trip to Portland, I emailed my mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, to tell her about this book. Of course, she knew about it. Being the leading Mennonite feminist writer means she’s always got her finger on the pulse of Mennonite literature.

Not surprising. It’s a fun parlor game among Mennonite Brethren people to dig up these kinds of family connections. In fact, given the small gene pool, it’s not unusual to discover that you are related to another person in more than one way (Come to think of it, at the funeral of my husband’s grandmother Ruth this past summer, I discovered that my paternal aunt Susie was married to the grand-nephew of the man who married my husband’s grandmother’s sister. Was that fun for you? If so, you may be a Mennonite Brethren.)

Some of the details in this essay are drawn from an extensively-researched history of my grandfather Jacob Funk, which my mom is writing. The history of this side of my family begins with the August 1, 1789 arrival of 20-year-old Frantz Peter Funck and his young wife Maria at Kronsweide, near Zaporoschye,  South Russia, in the first group of Mennonite immigrants from Prussia. I also dug up a history of my grandmother Anna Janzen Funk, which mom wrote awhile ago. From these pages, and a few other sources I had handy, I was able to delve into the history which Rhoda and I share.

I already knew that some time in the 1500s, some of our Dutch ancestors read the Bible for themselves, and felt led to disobey the state church (and thus, the state) and re-baptise themselves as adults. These rebels, our great-etcetera grandparents, were from the Flemish and Frisian areas of Holland. For their effrontery in claiming freedom of thought and action, they were burned at the stake, roasted on a slow fire, tied to the stake, drowned, buried alive and otherwise persecuted. (Read the Martyrs Mirror if you want to know more, but I warn you, it’s scary.)

The Mennonite survivors fled to the northern lowlands of Germany and the Danzig area, which later became Prussia. Here they lived from 1540 to 1790. They learned German, which became the language of God and Mennonite culture — Low German in daily life, and High German in church. Non-conformity to the “world” was important, both in their material and spiritual practices. They honed their spiritual approach, sometimes squabbling between themselves over culturally-related expressions of what exactly non-conformity meant. The Flemish Mennonites saw themselves as an elite, progressive group, and considered the Frisians low-brow. These two groups took their class consciousness and divisiveness with them to the Ukraine, where they migrated after an1786 invitation from Catharine the Great. Here they continued the great debate over how best to live a spiritual life.  Frisians accused the Flemish of being worldly in their choice of clothing; the Flemish said the Frisians were less than spiritual in their style of houses and furnishings. They differed in their modes of baptism: the Frisians sprinkled, the Flemish poured. Who walked closer to God? was the question.

A small but fervent group of restorationists seceded from the mother Russian Mennonite church around 1860, calling themselves Mennonite Brethren. They considered themselves the true believers, as opposed to their cold, non-believing, worldly Mennonite neighbors. This group considered themselves really spiritual – when they baptized, they dunked the entire person!

My grandfather remembered these early Mennonite Brethren as intense people who tended to think that they were better than others. They were vigorously evangelical. They promoted an inward spirituality, spontaneous preaching, exuberant singing, and  religious services of spiritual renewal. They believed that salvation was a personal experience which could be known and celebrated.

Rhoda and I grew up drenched in Mennnonite Brethren-ism. Her grandfather, Jacob Kornelius Janzen, joined with the Mennonite Brethren soon after the group formed.  Not long after, my grandfather Jacob Funk also joined the MBs, because he agreed with their theology. My father was a Mennonite Brethren pastor. My mom is a famous Mennonite Brethren writer.  Rhoda’s dad, Edmund, was for some years moderator of the General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

When I was growing up in the MB church, it seemed to me that the folks in the church had an idea that they had a good handle on the truth, and the other branches of the Mennonite church were not as close to God.  The GCs, or General Conference Mennonites, weren’t rigorous enough in their beliefs or practices, I learned. The GCs might go to heaven when they died, but then again, who could be sure.

In1984, my mother, Katie Funk Wiebe, wrote a book, Who are the Mennonite Brethren?, which included an outline of the 1976 Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith.  Jesus Christ, the Confession says, is the eternal Son of god, sent by the Father to reconcile a sinful humanity to himself. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary, and lived a holy and sinless life. He was crucified and died for the sin of human kind and rose from the dead. He is now with God the Father, interceding for all who believe in him. He will come again to judge the living and the dead and to establish his eternal kingdom.  Jesus is the key to understanding the Bible.  He is the mediator between God and humankind. He came to redeem the human race from the judgment and power of sin and to reconcile men and women to God. Through his death on the cross, Christ became the sacrifice which was sufficient to atone for sin and which established God’s new covenant with humanity. The Holy Spirit lives in every Christian and transforms him or her into the image of Christ. He empowers the believer to follow Christ and to be an effective witness for him. The Christian is expected to live in fellowship with God and other believers and to join a local church at baptism.  He or she helps to build the body of Christ with spiritual and material gifts. Nurtured through the Word, fellowship and prayer, the believer grows more Christlike and glorifies God by being a witness for him in everyday life. All followers of Christ continually need the forgiving, chastening and cleansing grace of the Lord. The fruit of the Spirit is increasingly evident in the believer’s life, especially in relationships with other people.

Whoa! that’s a lot of stuff to think through. I thought and thought and after several years concluded that maybe by the end of my life I might have some understanding of some of it. I couldn’t honestly say that I believed it all, or even substantial sections, or even one full sentence.  Who or what exactly is “God”?   What does “eternal” mean?  Isn’t blood sacrifice a little. . . extreme?  What about that nice Jewish boy in school…was Jesus not interceding for him, then? Seemed kind of picky of Jesus…no, I am not going to put in a good word to God for Howard, because he doesn’t believe in me. Yet I had said that I believed the whole Confession of Faith when I was baptised at 15.

At the conclusion of the chapter discussing the MB Confession of Faith, mother quoted a MB theologian as saying, “If there are articles in our Confession that a person cannot accept, then he or she should find a church with those teachings he or she can fully agree.”  Mom said, “These words may sound hard, but it is important for all Christians to find a church home where they are comfortable with the teaching, with the approach to the Word of God, and with the ministry of the church.”

Well, I left the MB church, at the age of 19. I don’t know when Rhoda left, but I am guessing that confession of faith didn’t resonate with her either.

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

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.