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Last updated March 14.

March 14

Stop using the term 'ethnic Mennonite'

By Naomi Yoder Harris

A recent blog by Robert Martin and Chris Lenshyn, “Mennonites or ‘Ethnonites’?” spurred much conversation. Naomi Yoder Harris gave Martin her own take on the topic and they agreed to share it here. Yoder Harris describes herself as “an atypical ’ethnic Mennonite’ raised in (and still active in) a culturally diverse, mostly black, Mennonite church in New York City.”


Recently I’ve been thinking about my experience as an atypical “ethnic Mennonite.” I’m uncomfortable with that label; it’s not like “New Yorker” or “used-to-be-brunette-now-streaked-with-grey,” which describe me in concrete ways. But “ethnic Mennonite?” That’s something that other people — who don’t know me or my church experience — call me. Because I’m white. Because of (the first half of) my last name. Because I know what “the Mennonite Game” is and sometimes I can play.

But “ethnic Mennonite” is not something I’ve ever called myself. Because although I’m white, I identify with the expressive, joyous, openness of the black/urban church. Because of (the last half of) my last name, which I happily carry as a visible connection to my Virginia-born husband of African- and Native-American descent. Because sometimes I’m not able to make the mental moves required by the Mennonite Game — and even when I can, I sometimes choose not to play.

When someone identifies me an ethnic Mennonite, does that person imagine my lifelong connection to a culturally-mixed, predominantIy black, church? I highly doubt it. Or imagine that I consider my spiritual godmother to be my first and second grade Sunday school teacher — a warm, outspoken, African-American single mother, now in her 80s, whose father was the pastor of a large Baptist congregation in Charleston, S.C.? Again, highly unlikely.

My parents, both originally from an Amish-Mennonite enclave in western Maryland, moved to New York City in 1965 so my dad could attend grad school. Knowing they wanted to be connected to a local Mennonite congregation for as long as we’d be in the City — which, as it turned out, became our permanent home — found a possibility listed in the telephone directory (no Internet then!), and we headed to Harlem to check out Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church.

I liked the children’s Sunday school and my parents appreciated the warmth of the group and the Bible-based teaching and preaching. We had found our church home. And I was raised in — and by — a Mennonite congregation that looked and sounded, worshipped, preached, reached consensus and argued, in ways that were very different from the majority of the broader U.S.-American Mennonite church.

But I didn’t know all of that as I was growing up. I knew that I was loved by my church family, and that it was good to ask questions, speak up, be honest about struggles and doubts, shout from the rooftop to share good news. I knew that people came from different places — ”down South,” Jamaica, Pennsylvania — and cooked different food — collard greens and macaroni and cheese; curried goat and rice and peas; homemade bread and graham cracker pudding.

I heard, sang, internalized, the songs of the ancestors: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “Gott Ist Die Liebe,” “Precious Lord.” And I came to understand that every person and every group has a personal and collective journey that matters; that God leads his dear children along; that it is up to each one of us to decide to follow the call of Jesus. And then the real work happens, because we have to continuously figure out what that means for our lives. And then we really need the church family! Because it is in this community, where discernment and encouragement and prayer and laughter and action and conflict and continually looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, all comes together, and moves us along the way.

It is this merging of so many people’s lives, perspectives and experiences that have shaped my way of seeing the world, my way of experiencing God, my way of expressing what Jesus means to me — and what it means to be an Anabaptist Mennonite Christian. When my parents first brought me to Harlem as a pig-tailed little girl, our church met in a storefront on Seventh Avenue. Since then, a lot has changed. Now the church is located three buildings down from its original site, which was destroyed by fire in 1974. The gut renovation of our new church/apartment building (on the original site, plus an adjacent building), is finally almost completed. Years ago, our street address changed even though our location did not, when the City renamed Seventh Avenue north of Central Park in honor of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. In 2008, at a time of pastoral transition, we changed the name of our congregation to Infinity Mennonite Church.

continued on next page »

Comments

  • I think that saying someone is ethnically Mennonite should in no way be insulting or offensive. To me it means that my ancestors were Mennonite; I'm proud of that fact. It isn't meant to belittle others, it's just my ancestry.

    - Amy (mar 14 at 9:38 a.m.)

  • Amy,

    That may be true. But at the same time it is too often used as a bludgeon within the Mennonite church to give some indication of "I'm more Mennonite than you". Because my Mennonite pedigree goes back to 1726 here in the US (and I can trace it even back to the "old country"), somehow that gives me better qualifications than someone whose pedigree may only be 10 years in the Mennonite church.

    This is the point, as I understand it, that Naomi is making and the similar point that Chris and I made in our own articles. There's nothing specifically wrong with having the pedigree (it's rather fun to do the whole Ancestry.com thing) but what should be more important when it comes to church matters is how we live and what we do, not who our grandparents were.

    - Robert Martin (mar 14 at 10:03 a.m.)

  • Robert, I understand that if people use it to belittle others, it's not a good thing. The way we live is much more important than our ancestry. I suppose I just don't think of using the term "ethnically Mennonite" to degrade others. I feel it's the same as someone who is proud that they are Italian, Russian, whatever ancestry they might have. I think it must be a term where it depends on your meaning as to whether it's a "bad word or not. My thinking is probably too simplistic. I'm definitely not saying that you, Naomi, nor Chris are wrong. I'm just trying to explain that for me it doesn't mean I'm better or worse; it means to me that I have a link to something I think is good. It's something of which I can be proud. I'm sorry;I didn't mean to offend anyone.

    - Amy (mar 14 at 10:14 a.m.)

  • This "ethnic Mennonite" has also traveled my own distinctive road and am now a US Episcopalian who is oh so thankful for his Mennonite childhood and youth. I never have had a problem with questions about my heritage even though I didn't have an obvious "Mennonite name". I'm thankful that there are those who still find their path of serving God and Jesus Christ through the Mennonite family, no matter their ethnicity. It will serve them well.

    - Gerald Tschiegg (mar 14 at 10:27 a.m.)

  • No offense taken, Amy... just explaining why the term "ethnic Mennonite" may have some negative connotations. I have seen first hand this effect, hence the concern.

    - Robert Martin (mar 14 at 10:38 a.m.)

  • Firstly, I really think it's great that MWR provides a forum for diverse perspectives and opposing views. I have no problem with the idea of Mennonite ethnicity. It exists. I do think Mennonites have an incomplete lexicon when it comes to talking about a lot of ideas along the lines of what the author is addressing. But while we shouldn't stop examining the language we use, terms that sum up the entire ancestry or faith of individuals are going to be increasingly hard to find. Someone like Barack Obama, especially in light of the position he’s reached in society, is a perfect case in point. "African-American" hardly paints a full picture of his background. But I don’t think many people consider the term insidious or devaluing when it’s applied to him.

    - David George (mar 14 at 10:41 a.m.)

  • I am a white woman who grew up in a troubled family in an area with no Mennonite churches around. Now I am older and have discovered the way Mennonites teach bible principles and am very interested learning more and finding community. Yet sometimes it seems to be an exclusive and restrictive club, where only some are allowed to join. Sure, I could sit in on the sidelines and learn, but never actually join. How does an outsider get in? So I empathize with the idea of disliking the term 'ethnic Mennonite' it's just one more perimeter drawn that includes some while excluding others - not unlike the existence of 'white privilege'.

    - Nancy Babbitt (mar 14 at 11:10 a.m.)

  • I disagree with this column. Most people can understand the difference between being of Mennonite heritage and one's theology. Of course it's wrong to be superior to those who have a different background, but just refusing to name one's heritage doesn't solve the problem. Then one can feel just as superior for not naming one's heritage! The more we understand about our Mennonite history, the more reason we have to be humble about it while still acknowledging that we are part of it. Unfortunately, this article appears to promote a new way to judge others.

    - Laura Tiessen (mar 14 at 11:20 a.m.)

  • FYI, for anyone reading this article that would like to write one of their own (as Naomi did) you can contact me at tristaanogre at gmail dot com.

    Whether you want to express agreement with this article but with different nuance, or disagreement, or simply just add to the conversation with your own perspective, please let me know and I'll publish it on my blog at http://abnormalanabaptist.wordpress.com/

    The conversation is important for the future of the Mennonite church as Anabaptism is gaining interest across the Christian spectrum.

    - Robert Martin (mar 14 at 12:32 p.m.)

  • Hi Robert,

    Thanks for the great news that the Mennonite church and Anabaptism is gaining interest across the Christian spectrum, I do hope that means here, in the U.S. too. There are no Mennonite churches near me, so I can only rely on the information I find online. (and I'll never be accepted in the Conservative congregations that are here in upstate NY) I long for community, even if I don't completely fit in.

    Nancy

    - Nancy Babbitt (mar 14 at 8:45 p.m.)

  • Nancy,

    Look up http://www.missioalliance.org/ and look at the names of some of the folks listed... This is how wide spread Anabaptism is becoming. They may not take on the name "Mennonite", but there are folks who are certainly aiming towards Anabaptism and we in the Mennonite church would do well to pay attention.

    - Robert Martin (mar 14 at 10:00 p.m.)

  • It's a simple fact the "Mennonite" is an ethnicity as well as a religious denomination, and we should all thank the ethnic Mennonites for bringing the denomination forward from 1500's Reformation Europe to a global denomination today. Whether ethnic Mennonite or not, from the global north or global south, we all have unique gifts to share within the denomination, but the roots remain the same. It reminds me of Romans 11 where Paul compared the Gentiles of the church to branches that were grafted in to share the rich root on the olive tree (Israel). He tells the Gentiles, "do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you." Paul also said in Galatians 3:28, "There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." So for the Mennonite church today, neither ethnic nor non-ethnic Mennonites are better than the other, but that is not to deny or lessen the importance of the roots and acknowledge and thank ethnic Mennonites for carrying the traditions and theology into modern times - and to thank them for graciously sharing with those of us who are non-ethnic Mennonites.

    - srs (mar 14 at 10:45 p.m.)

  • Anyone who belongs to a Mennonite church is an ethnic Mennonite. Some ethnicities in the Mennonite church are Germanic with long Anabaptist connections, some are Hispanic or African with shorter Anabaptist connections. As in the New Testament church, the Mennonite church needs to be pressing toward the day when all ethnicities are equally valued and none are given greater status than others. mg

    - Byron (mar 15 at 8:21 a.m.)

  • Lauara and srs,

    While there is nothing wrong with enjoying and honoring one's heritage and history, the problem is how it is perceived by outsiders coming into a very "ethnic" Mennonite congregation. If you can't trace your ancestry as a Mennonite back to the "Old Country", if you don't know what "shoo-fly pie" is and can't dig up pictures of your horse-and-buggy Mennonite relatives, etc., then you're "not quite".

    There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a personal history and heritage. But, unfortunately, intended or not, for folks seeking Anabaptist teaching, there is a feeling of being on the outside looking in if you don't have that heritage...be it Swiss/German or Russian Mennonite.

    I don't think Naomi (or me) are necessarily saying it's bad to have the heritage... the problem is when the heritage gets in the way of true community and even, in some cases, pushes people away.

    As Byron said, we are all Mennonites if we belong to a Mennonite church. We need wrap ourselves around that and not equate being Mennonite with a particular subculture and then join with others in celebrating ALL the cultures that we can find within our congregation.

    - Robert Martin (mar 15 at 9:41 a.m.)

  • Thank you, Robert for the missioalliance link, and also for your support concerning those of us who wish to learn but feel like we are on the outside looking in.

    This 'outside' can feel very extreme. For example, I subscribed to the Mennonite Magazine, and found the writing in it to be another form of the English language I had not known - using language and concepts I had not learned in mainstream U.S. culture - and it has taken me years to try to 'figure out' this 'other way'. (I think of it as getting eyes that see and ears that hear)

    Now that I am able to attend on-line classes I am taking 'cultural studies' in an attempt to learn 'peace studies', because peace studies are not offered in my local, affordable, on-line university. All four courses I signed up for this semester are about some sort of conflict, and war. This is not what I had intended to study. This is evidence of how difficult it is to gain this knowledge of peace if you are on the 'outside'.

    Another example is that I spoke to some conservative ethnic Mennonites about visiting their church, and the possibility of joining. Because I am divorced and remarried, I was told that I would have to leave my current husband and have my first husband support myself and my two children to be able to join. I understand there is biblical teaching to 'support' this idea, but my children are my second husband's children. So this suggestion of theirs is not an ideal situation for my family, now is it?

    So I felt very happy for the folks who have had such lives to not have experienced the trauma I endured, so that they could maintain such boundaries. I am not saying this in any critical manner, because I too, do whatever I can to limit 'outside' influence that might have negative consequences to my children. So in this situation, I feel the pain of the boundary imposed on me, while at the same time maintain boundaries designed to protect my family too. It's quite an interesting situation, isn't it? It has led me to the conclusion that if I want to learn this 'other' way, I just need to set myself to patching it together for myself somehow.

    In all of my on-line classes, I attempt to bring this alternate way of thinking into view. Many of my classmates and teachers appreciate it. It's as new to them as it was to me. One of the ways I am doing this is by mentioning the More-with-Less books, and how it was the discovery of these books that led me to a complete new way of thinking and acting in this world.

    With U.S. economy the way it currently is, I have great hope that these concepts will continue to spread. Promoting the More-with-Less books and all their companion books is the best way that I can think of to do this. Those of us on the 'outside' so very much need your positive influence. Maintaining online presence and resources is also an important way that Mennonites make themselves available to us 'outsiders'. Thank you for what you do.

    Nancy

    - Nancy Babbitt (mar 15 at 2:02 p.m.)

  • Anyone notice the delicious irony between Nancy's words and her "last name?"

    - Sharon (mar 15 at 5:13 p.m.)

  • It is a sad testimony to the Mennonite church that there are names associated as Mennonite. What this means is that the primary means of growth through the ages has been through children, not converts since the 1600's. While it is exciting to think that we could possibly identify someone as possibly Mennonite if their name indicates membership in the club, how much more exciting if we could sense a Mennonite through their actions. If you attempt to play the Mennonite game in public, you will find that there are more "Mennonite named" people outside the church than are in it. Just ask the next Miller or Hostetler if they are Mennonite.

    How exciting it would become if the new names associate with Mennonites, were Rockefeller, Ryan, Porrazzo, Bush, Adamczak, Reagan, and Gianopoulos. It is possible because, remember, the first Mennonites had ethnic Catholic names.

    - keith (mar 15 at 6:47 p.m.)

  • Many of these comments have underscored a long time suspicion I've had that we as Mennonites need to accept that we are exclusive, unwelcoming (and clueless about it), and that we are not intentional congregations of Anabaptist belief living out Jesus' love, but are really extended networks of distantly related family. Since our church's biggest idol is family, the over-valuing of certain surnames will never die. Whether we identify as ethnic Mennonites or not, promoting or discouraging it as a label is merely a band aid on a gaping shot gun wound we created by ignoring those who identify with our beliefs but didn't go to the right Bible school or live in the right area of the country. I don't have a solution, but trust that God will sort us out in time. May He be merciful.

    - C. Martin (mar 16 at 11:53 p.m.)

  • The author writes, “My challenge to our friends in the broader Mennonite Church is this: Stop using the term “ethnic Mennonite. Don’t apply it to yourself or anyone else.” My problem with this is that self-identity is very important to people and this asks ethnic Mennonites to deny their heritage as part of their self-identity. For those concerned about non-ethnic Mennonites feeling unwelcome, I think it would be helpful instead to break down the issue further and address each problem area. For example:
    If non-ethnic Mennonites feel as if they are being given the stereotypical in-law treatment such as portrayed in TV shows like “Everybody Loves Raymond”, and over time they are truly never accepted or never have the same comfort level as an immediate family members have with each other, that is of course a problem.
    Or maybe the negative feelings of not being an ethnic Mennonite in a church full of ethnic Mennonites is analogous to being unable to get excited over St. Patrick’s day due to lack of any Irish ancestry (even though, as they say, “everyone is a little Irish on St. Patrick’s Day”). As long as the person is invited by their congregation into the full Mennonite experience, there’s not much that can be done since a person can’t choose their ancestry. A person can still identify with and celebrate their own family’s heritage. (Even if they don’t know their own ancestry, it can be researched on genealogy websites and it’s even possible to take a “genetic admixture” test to find learn genetic ancestry.) If someone is new to the Mennonite church but can’t sing at all much less in 4-part a cappella, if they don’t know Mennonite/Anabaptist history, or if they are unfamiliar with Mennonite jargon like “shoofly pie” or “swords into plowshares” they can ask for help from the congregation, buy or borrow CD’s with songs from the hymnal to practice singing, take singing lessons and read Mennonite books (e.g. search for “Herald Press” on Amazon). I did all of these things and just gave my mind some time to connect the dots and I over time I see the Mennonite picture fuller and with more clarity.

    - srs (mar 17 at 5:52 p.m.)

  • The term "ethnic Mennonite" serves a purpose in that it describes a (somewhat) distinct lineage of people. Granted, it's an imperfect term, much like "ethnic Jew", in that Mennonitism is a religion and the New Testament makes clear that religion has nothing to do with ancestry, and it's different from "cradle Mennonite" (which is someone who was born & raised in the church as opposed to converting) and culture (which has changed and diversified over the centuries even among "ethnic Mennonites").

    As a global denomination that values congregational autonomy, we naturally have members and congregations with a wide variety of cultural practices; some are important to God, and others are significant only to us. If Naomi is dismayed when our original ethnoreligious group gives its practices more relevance than they deserve, that is a valid concern, but I don't see how refusing to name the distinction would make people more welcoming.

    "Ethnic Jew" often means "Ashkenazim". Perhaps a cause of this debate is that we don't have an equivalent term for "ethnic Mennonite" that distinguishes the lineage from our religion.

    - Matthew Bricker (mar 18 at 12:11 a.m.)

  • One of my "relatives-by-marriage" once said to me, "Annie, what language does your tribe speak?" And I was happy to be able to explain a little bit about Mennonites, about my Swiss German Mennonite and Scots-Irish ethnic background, and how I could not speak either Gaelic or Pennsylvania Dutch, and how I felt sad about how disconnected I was from "my people". We found out that we shared similar experiences, even though he was ethnically Anishnaabe and I wasn't....what was I? I'm proud to say "I am an ethnic Mennonite" even though I no longer am a member of a Mennonite congregation. It is the total Mennonite experience that contributes to my core beliefs and identity, and since I no longer affiliate with Mennonite church practices, etc., I can't say "I'm a Mennnonite". I can say: "I'm from the Mennonites, and the Scots-Irish, and I'm a settler descendant under the protection of the Loon Clan of the Anishnaabe." It's a happy place to be.

    - Annie Wenger-Nabigon (mar 18 at 3:04 p.m.)

  • As a non ethnic Mennonite deeply involved in the Mennonite church I have met all kinds of ethnic Mennonites. Some are open accepting people some are not. But my experience has been that the urban Mennonite churches are the place non-ethnic Mennonites can thrive as there are often full of folks who are seeking to identify with Mennonite theology. I personally laugh at the name game but then I feel secure in my church, because it hasn't been used against me. But the problem with the Mennonite church is it is full of people. And people,are fallen. Sometimes ethnic Mennonites can forget that fact about themselves. But that is pretty normal for all of us.

    - Michael Bade (mar 18 at 10:20 p.m.)

  • What?????? Aren't all Mexicans Catholic?

    - John Pitts (mar 21 at 11:27 p.m.)

  • I've thought about this column for a few weeks now, folks. I showed interest in joining your little group, and entered the conversation. Sharon's hurtful response still rings in my ears. Sharon, did you never learn that you should speak TO PEOPLE and not about them? I understand this to be your way of letting me know that I am not welcome here.

    - Nancy (mar 28 at 9:32 a.m.)

  • Nancy, I feel for you on this. I was surprised that the response you are referring to wasn't deleted since it obviously would be insulting toward you and had nothing to do with the article. There is another similar example under the Jan 7th article "Unmarried at Church" where after several women posted comments a man commented, "Neurosis is pervasive". This one-liner appeared to be nothing more than an insult to the author and people who had previously posted comments. It shouldn't surprise anyone that that was the end of commenting on the article! That comment also was never deleted.

    - srs (mar 28 at 7:27 p.m.)

  • I am sorry to say it, but the label 'ethnic Mennonite is here to stay, unless Mennonites get off their kick of not diversifying their population pool in North America.

    I was an urban Mennonite, not by choice, but it was a faith my parents embraced before I was born hence I do not have a typical Mennonite last name even though I was a cradle Mennonite.

    Growing up Mennonite without a typical Mennonite last name led to being asked such questions like "Was your mother a missionary that married a native during her tour" and comparable comments, which truly identified me as an outsider.

    In the 1960's I was forced to wear the puritanical garb of a conservative Mennonite even though my Philly-ease was a true give away, since I did not have a Pennsylvania Dutch accent. I look back and think of myself as Rocky in a plain suit. Rocky was the movie about Rocky Balboa a Philadelphia Boxer played by Sylvester Stallone.

    My elder brother, who served his VS term in Atlanta, GA coined the term Mennonite Holy Name. He told me stories that his fellow VS family received handsome checks from their home churches, while he struggled on the 15 bucks per month paid by the Mennonite Mission Board.

    I am still a practicing Mennonite, only because I am a strong proponent of pacifism, and I live in a region with a dense Mennonite population. On the other hand, my brother, who was schooled Mennonite while I was schooled Quaker. The later afforded me a more liberal prospective on the mores of the era.

    My brother left the church after completing his VS tour and is now a Catholic, where the way you talk and your last names are meaningless.

    One incident I will never forget was my 5th grade Sunday school teacher, who I truly admired invited only ethnic Mennonites to his wedding. I remember once asking him if drinking alcohol was such a sin, why did Jesus turn water into wine during the Wedding of Canna ? His reply, was "it was not wine it was grape juice" To which I replied, "I am much younger than you, and didn't attend the Wedding of Canna" or perhaps the Wedding of Canna also limited the invitations to only ethnic Mennonites.

    I have also heard of instances, where an ethnic Mennonite marries an outsider, that the groom takes the wife’s last name to preserve the Mennonite ethnicity. The truth is William Penn, a Quaker, ended the persecution of early Mennonites by providing them sanctuary in the new world. Most new world immigrants acclimated to the melting pot we now call America while Mennonites chose to preserve their old world customs, and discouraged marrying outsiders.

    Also, even though Mennonites are no longer persecuted ethnic Mennonites still prefer to stick to their own, and continue to treat converts as outsiders.

    I have also never seen a faith with as much infighting as the Mennonites. In my lifetime, I have seen the church population divided three times secondary to older members rejecting progress. In the small town, where I live the population is a mere 7000 yet we have 8 Mennonite churches representing the whole spectrum of black bumper Mennonites to mainstream modernist, who embrace diversity.

    Also, mega churches, which are Mennonite off shoots seem to be motivated by profit and popularity, and the Anabaptist identities are lost all together.

    I think the first step towards ending the ethnic Mennonite stereotype is to stop the infighting among the group and embrace diversity and have reconciliation between the most conservatives and we modernists.

    Otherwise, I think Mennonites will perhaps become extinct within another generation or two.

    - TPM (jul 2 at 10:10 a.m.)

  • TPM - email me, please. dhbender@gmail.com. We'll talk.

    - Debra Bender (jul 2 at 11:25 a.m.)

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