Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Living like a Mennonite

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Living like a Mennonite

Article excerpt

I was startled, like one rudely awakened from a deep sleep. A letter came, addressing me as a "former Mennonite." It was a kind letter, completely devoid of rude intent, inviting me to submit an essay that would inform readers of the Mennonite Quarterly Review about the influences that shape my life and work by reason of my once having been a Mennonite. In a literal sense, the editor's assumptions were correct: neither my family nor I presently belong to a Mennonite church. My wife and I are active members of a community church that unites Baptists and Congregationalists and accepts others from a variety of denominations.

So why did I so strenuously resist being called a former Mennonite? In recent years, I have increasingly asked myself whether I would be living and thinking as I do if I had not been born and raised in a Mennonite family and had not, as a youth, chosen to be a member of a Mennonite church. Consequently, I seized the opportunity to give this question even more careful thought.

As I prepared to write this essay, I concluded that, whether I am best described as a Mennonite, a former Mennonite or a returning Mennonite, I live like a Mennonite. It will be interesting to see if MQR readers agree with that claim. What follows is my understanding of what it means to live--and happily so---shaped by my Mennonite heritage.

My parents were faithful, active members of a General Conference Mennonite church in Leamington, Ontario. I was six years old when our family took up residence there and I began attending Sunday School, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There I learned German and the Bible as Luther had translated it. The church was made up, probably exclusively, of German-speaking immigrants from the Ukrainian steppes, though they spoke of their former homes in "Russia." They had come to Canada after the Russian revolution. I listened intently to the stories of how they suffered from armed bandits and later from famine and grave illnesses. Many, including some of my relatives, died. My memories of lessons learned, sermons preached and German chorales movingly sung are vivid and deep. My love of sacred music persists and I have sung in choirs almost continuously since my youth. "Nun danket alle Gott" and "Ich bete an die Macht der Liebe" still can bring me to tears. The latter hymn was sung by a relative at the funerals of my mother and father. My mother sang it, often at home, until she was no longer able to sing.

Leamington was then a town of 5000 residents surrounded by fertile soil and prosperous farmers who could make a good living growing fruit and vegetables, even on less than thirty acres. At the town's one high school I befriended almost exclusively youth who happened to be members of the Mennonite Brethren church located near the school. Among those friends was Sylvia Willms, whom I came to love and marry, happily, now for fifty years. For that union, I am exceedingly grateful to God. When I was baptized, I chose to join the Mennonite Brethren church, for I was already active in their youth fellowship, choir and Sunday morning services.

During my fourth year in high school, the Tabor College choir gave a concert at the Mennonite Brethren church. Afterwards, to show my appreciation, I spoke to the director, Professor Richert. Sensing my enthusiasm, he said to me, simply and directly, "Why don't you come join us?" I did just that the very next year. Professor Richert was willing to welcome me to his choir, and I was more than willing to be a member. At Tabor I majored in sociology but also took many courses in psychology and read as much as I could in philosophy.

Sylvia joined me at Tabor as my wife in my senior year, taking courses as well, and I graduated in 1953. From Tabor I went to Kansas University, where I finished MA degrees, first in psychology and then in philosophy. After that, I entered Harvard, because among the few doctoral programs in philosophy then available, Harvard offered the most generous scholarship. …

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