Recently my friend and former student, Kathryn, came back to Oregon from her home in Texas for a visit. 30 years ago, she was a little fifth-grader in a simple plaid Mennonite dress, with her hair in two long braids. Kathryn is now grown, and Reformed. We talked about what it means to be Mennonite.
Kathryn said, “There’s Mennonite how I grew up, with no radio and wearing a white covering when you get baptized. And in Texas there are the Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico, where the guys wear overalls and the ladies wear long-sleeved dresses and flip-flops. They go shopping on Sundays, which we wouldn’t have dreamt of doing.”
Some of us love to sort things into neat categories, place them in boxes, and label them. It works with old photos, but it doesn’t work with people. Just when you think you’ve got a cultural group all figured out, someone messes up your carefully organized “facts.”
There’s an understandable fascination with the Amish and, to a lesser degree, with Mennonites, who are siblings under the Anabaptist umbrella. As a Mennonite minister’s wife and former Amish girl, I have answered innumerable questions about “us.”
“But—you have buttons!” an alarmed woman greeted me once at a book sale, staring at my blouse instead of my face.
“But, I thought you were Amish, and Amish don’t have buttons!”
I explained that most Amish don’t have buttons on most garments, but I am no longer Amish, and Mennonites are free to have buttons.
I should have said: We’re not all the same. There’s an enormous variety on the Amish/Mennonite spectrum. Every community is a little bit different.
Some differences are easily seen: round head-coverings vs. heart-shaped coverings, steel vs. rubber tires on buggies, horses vs. tractors for farming. Others are more subtle like attitudes toward travel and education, which biblical doctrines are emphasized, or how much freedom is given to young adults.
My father, who is now 97, attended college as a young man in his 30’s and he remained Old Order Amish. He says that no one objected and he became one of the most well-educated Amish men of his day. He was a gifted horseman who loved to read National Geographic.
Was he unusual? Yes. But he was still accepted as a genuine Amishman, who never fit neatly into any box, ever.
This is the wonderful thing about people: for all their similarities as humans, they are still utterly unique. The same is true for every Amish and Mennonite person as well. It’s hard to put us in neatly-categorized boxes, because while we may wear a general label, every congregation has its own way of doing things, every family its own quirks, and every person his own individuality.
Confusing at times, perhaps, but surely as it ought to be.
Dorcas Smucker is a Mennonite minister’s wife and mom of six who lives in a 100-year-old farmhouse in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. She is the author of the books, Ordinary Days: Family Life in a Farmhouse and Tea and Trouble Brewing, among others. She writes a monthly column, Letter from Harrisburg, for the Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene, Oregon, and she speaks frequently to various groups.
Mostly, she’s busy with cooking, giving advice, doing laundry, and listening to people who need to talk. She loves sunshine, porch swings, good books, and black tea.