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.