Academic journal article Family Relations

Striving toward Self-Sufficiency: A Qualitative Study of Mutual Aid in an Old Order Mennonite Community

Academic journal article Family Relations

Striving toward Self-Sufficiency: A Qualitative Study of Mutual Aid in an Old Order Mennonite Community

Article excerpt


Most contemporary groups limit attempts of mutuality to specific instances of need. This paper reports on a qualitative study of the structures and systems of mutual aid in a traditional, closed ethnoreligious Old Order Mennonite community in Ontario. We examine the structural characteristics, systems of mutuality, tensions, and conflicts that face the community. Whether the need be material, medical, relational, emotional, moral, or spiritual, diese Old Order Mennonite communities are unusual in their tenacious commitment to collective mutuality and self-sufficiency. Implications for policy and practice are discussed, including the importance of protecting and reinforcing the shock-absorbing qualities of mutual aid groups in the countervailing forces of mobility and individualism, particularly in situations of forced confrontation between conflicting cultures.

Key Words: closed communities, fraternal, mutual aid, natural helping processes, Old Order Mennonites.

Steadfast communities of fraternalism and mutual support have not been readily visible on the social landscape of North America since the Great Depression of the 1930s (Beito, 2000). At the same time, certain groups, often defined by religion and ethnicity, have attempted to defy general trends toward social volatility, seeking to preserve principles and practices of mutual aid and fraternalism in the 21st century, with varying degrees of success (Hechter, 1990; Nolt, 1998; Sabar, 2002). For example, reporting on their study of informal helpers or "cultural brokers" in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, Lightman and Shor (2002) noted that such communities are usually closed or separate by choice and "coexist uneasily with the dominant majority culture" (p. 315). The fixed boundaries that serve to protect traditions, lifestyles, and ideas do so by defending against outside influences. Such disengagement from mainstream society is often associated with a collective refusal to participate in the benefits and conveniences available to most, and social and financial problems that arise are usually addressed from within.

This article reports on a qualitative study of the specific structural characteristics and group processes that establish and sustain systems of mutual aid in an Old Order Mennonite community in Ontario. Similar to ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in their desire to remain traditional and separate, the gemeinschaft-Vike. relations and systems of mutuality in Old Order Mennonite communities have remained remarkably consistent since this ethno-religious group first emigrated from Germany to North America over 250 years ago. The comprehensive system of mutual aid embedded in a well-defined social structure, accomplishing essential autonomy and self-sufficiency for church communities, resembles that of fraternal mutual aid societies of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These countercultural efforts to provide a distinct group identity, along with social, emotional, and material support to individuals and families, offer unusual opportunities to examine the specific forms of community organization and interaction that resist the cogent forces of individualism in the secular society around them. We begin with a historical discussion of the Old Order Mennonite people in general and a description of this community in particular.

The Old Order Mennonite Community

Old Order Mennonites, of Swiss origin, share their roots with a diverse and fragmented religious group named after Menno Simons, a priest of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century who renounced his Catholic faith and was baptized as an Anabaptist elder. Departing from the newly formed Protestant Church on several points of religious ideology and practice, the Anabaptists emerged as a small group of radical reformers. Persecuted for their religious beliefs for nearly 200 years, they became a divided people, as a Swiss group moved through Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and France, and a Dutch group moved north and east to the Netherlands and eventually Prussia and Russia. …

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