For those of you who are Mennonite, you have likely been asked at some point, when sharing about your faith tradition, whether or not you are Amish. And if you happen to have a sort of nebulous Swiss-German-Western-European look like myself, you probably get asked this question fairly often. I usually don’t mind when people ask me this question because: 1) My grandpa was actually Amish and left the church, so I’m not that far removed, and it gives me the chance to tell a family story ; 2) It shows me that people are interested in my faith tradition and it gives me a chance to explain a bit more about who Mennonites are and what I believe; and 3) I really like and respect the Amish.
Living in California over the last few years, I have had many opportunities to perfect my “elevator speech” about the relationship between Mennonites and Amish. So, when this question comes up in casual conversation, I usually give a short answer that goes something like this:
The Mennonites and the Amish do share a common Anabaptist lineage, but today we are actually two distinct Christian groups. The Amish still cultivate a very intentional counter-cultural lifestyle: still relying on alternative forms of transportation, very tied to rural areas and agriculture, and dressing in cape dresses and plain clothes. Mennonites do share some beliefs with the Amish: a commitment to nonviolence and a desire to live simply (although this gets expressed in very different ways), but today, Mennonite Church USA (the group that I am a part of) might have more in common with Quakers, Brethren or other historic peace churches. (For a longer description, visit Third Way Cafe).
Sometimes this is enough to assuage people’s curiosity, but there are often follow-up questions and a good discussion ensues. But over the course of the last few years, living outside Los Angeles and traveling around the United States a bit more, I have encountered some pretty hilarious questions about my religious identity as a Mennonite.
So, without further ado, here are variations on 7 common questions I’ve encountered and the responses I have often offered:
1. So you’re Mennonite and married? Does your husband have a really large beard?
Sadly, no. I think Justin would fail at being a good Amish man, because, despite many attempts, he has been unable to produce a respectable goatee, let alone a full-blown beard.
2. A question posed at a restaurant, while enjoying a glass of wine. So, you must be in the midst of those “wild years” (rumspringa)?
Nope. Unlike the Amish, Mennonites don’t really stick to any beliefs about a “free period” during adolescence when you can just “go wild” before committing to the church. So, depending on who you ask, I’ve either always been a pretty responsible Mennonite or my choice to drink wine means that I’m living in a perpetual state of heresy.
3. I love Beverly Lewis’ book, The Shunning. Has your church shunned you for dressing like that?
Nope. Mennonites don’t practice plain dress, and aren’t too prone to shunning (and actually, many Amish communities practice the “ban” very infrequently, too). Although what does the fact that you are asking this question say about your thoughts on my clothing choices?
4. So you are a grad student studying at Claremont, right? Is it hard to read process theology by lamplight?
OK friends, let’s be honest here, it’s sort of hard to read process theology by any light, but don’t worry. Mennonites are all about the electricity, although one would hope that we have developed our ecological sensibilities far enough to use it responsibly.
5. Where do you park your buggy in Los Angeles?
Alright people. There is a reason that many Amish communities are located in rural areas, and that they rent vans with drivers when they travel to urban areas. No one in their right mind would take a buggy on the I-10 freeway with all that traffic, and, as a Mennonite, my little Hyundai Elantra works just fine and is also doctrinally acceptable.
6. So you pretty much have to be born into a Mennonite group, right? Or do you allow converts?
No worries here! Everyone who wants to can be a Mennonite. Yay! In fact, although it is less common, some individuals have been able to join Amish communities, too. But like many other Christian groups, the Mennonite church welcomes any new members who have found an affinity for our particular brand of Christian beliefs and who wish to follow Jesus in community with other believers.
7. Do you churn your own butter and raise all of your own food?
Urg, I wish. Actually, Mennonites are historically agricultural people too (although we are becoming increasingly urban), and do have a history of simple living, eating off the land, and being locavore eaters. I did dutifully buy my own copy of the Saving the Seasons:How to Can, Freeze or Dry Almost Anything cookbook, and Justin and I have always aspired to be gardening and canning machines, who make their own homemade pickles and jam. But alas, we have yet to find space in our small apartment for a butter church and a local cow to buy milk from, and our attempts at patio gardening have been flops (despite producing one surprisingly robust crop of basil).
So, if you are a Mennonite, what interesting questions have you been asked about your identity? And if you’re not, what questions do you have? Any question is fair game!