WHO ARE THE MENNONITES?
Protestant Christians called Anabaptists
Today’s Mennonite Church is one of several groups that grew out of the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s. A small group felt that the New Testament taught that the church should be separate from the state. They believed people should voluntarily follow Christ rather than join the state church through baptism as an infant. They showed this voluntary decision through being baptized as an adult. The group was called “Anabaptist” or re-baptizers. Since this was not appreciated by the government (nor the church) of the day, they were persecuted and martyred for their beliefs for the next two generations.
Followers of Menno Simons
As a result of the persecution, these Anabaptists responded – with non-violence and scattering throughout Europe to find safety. They decided that the example of Christ, who did not resist persecution was their model. The Anabaptists became pacifists: defenders of and promoters of peace. As they fled persecution and sought safety, they scattered throughout Europe. During these early years, a catholic priest named Menno Simons converted to Anabaptism and became a travelling preacher who encouraged the various groups. Eventually, these Anabaptists took on the name of this encourager and came to be called “Mennonites”.
Further persecution and hardship continued to spread the Mennonites throughout Europe. In 1789, they began to move into the Ukraine upon the invitation of Catherine the Great. There, they lived in colonies and farmed the fertile lands becoming experts in agriculture and business. They were valued members of the society, although they retained their German language and did not serve in the Russian military. This lasted until the Russian Revolution in 1917.
There were several migrations of Mennonites to North America. The Mennonites who settled in the Fraser Valley are primarily from the migration from Russia that took place during the Russian Revolution. They migrated from 1923 – 1929. This group was terrorized during the Russian Revolution when the Tzar could no longer protect them. There was a period of lawlessness during which bandits pillaged the Mennonite villages – stealing, raping and killing the people. Many Mennonites could not leave Russia, were sent to Siberia and died there of starvation.
During this time, Canada was seeking to settle the western part of the country. Mennonites took the opportunity to immigrate and settled in Ontario (around Kitchener), southern Manitoba (around Steinbach), southern Saskatchewan (around Herbert), southern Alberta (around Coaldale) and the Fraser Valley in British Columbia (around Yarrow).
Another migration of Mennonites came after World War 2. When their lands in the Ukraine came under German control, they were placed back into German citizenship. Many immediately sought refuge in Canada through their relatives who had immigrated 20 years prior.
Committed to Serving and Helping
During the initial massive migration from Russia, the Mennonites formed the Mennonite Central Committee to manage the administration and funding of immigrants from Russia. Traumatized and grieving, the Mennonites began a new life. Many of them had a travel debt to repay CP Rail – the equivalent of $10,000 per person. The Depression hit and they endured years of poverty. In World War 2, the Mennonites served in Alternative Service Work Camps as conscientious objectors. They continued as pacifists. An easy-read Mennonite History book is Through Fire and Water
What do Mennonites Believe?
Today’s Mennonites continue to follow the Anabapatist core values as outlined in Palmer Becker’s booklet, “What is an Anabaptist Christian?”:
- Jesus is the centre of our faith
- Community is the centre of our lives
- Reconciliation is the centre of our work
The Mennonites in the Fraser Valley homesteaded this land which was forested. Using dynamite and horses, they cleared the land for farming. Known for their capability as farmers, they were also known to value learning. Mennonites became highly skilled and innovative farmers. They also sent their children to school and many encouraged university education. Second and third generation Mennonites became teachers, nurses, doctors and pharmacists. They flourished in dairy farming, chicken farming and greenhouse farming. It was not uncommon for these Mennonites to give back to others through generous financial donations, service in developing countries and receiving immigrants and foster children into their homes.
The Mennonites in the Fraser Valley have continued to reach out and invite others into their community through caring initiatives such as: Mennonite Central Committee (Refugee Assistance & Thrift Stores), Mennonite Disaster Service, Menno Place and Tabor Village; and Communitas Supportive Care Society. They founded and operate educational institutions such as: Columbia Bible College, MEI Schools and MB Biblical Seminary Canada. Mennonites value reaching out internationally and have a long history of bringing support, education and medical help to the needy around the world such as MB Mission and Mennonite Central Committee. Mennonites have also formed a foundation, Mennonite Foundation, to help individuals and organizations invest and donate funds effectively. There is also a very strong value for running summer camps and giving young people the opportunity to explore faith. Locally, Mennonites own and operate Stillwood Camp and Conference Centre as well as Camp Squeah.
The Culture of Mennonites
Mennonites from Russia have developed a culture alongside of their faith beliefs. Some hold more dearly to their culture than others. Mennonite culture includes food; Mennonite Girls Can Cook; quilting/sewing, hand-made furniture and music; Pacific Mennonite Children’s Choir . Mennonites are also know for their non-demonstrative worship, emphasis on community and generous way of living. Many Mennonites speak German and some continue to speak a dialect of German called PlatDeutsch or Low German. Apparently, this is a very funny language where the words sound like their meaning and can be used for hilarious punchlines. PlatDeutsch has relatively few words in the language, but the Mennonites felt it was important to have a word for that juicy center of the watermelon that has no seeds (and can so easily go missing)- the word is ‘obrumpcha’ pronounced “oh-brom-cha”. Clearly, delicious food is key to the Mennonite people. The PlatDeutsch language is gradually being lost as it isn’t often passed along to the next generations.
As for clothing? Most Mennonites in the Fraser Valley do not have distinctive clothing or any visible way of identifying themselves as a Mennonite. The Holdeman Mennonite women do wear distinctive long skirts as well as a head covering.
Mennonites in the 20th century had huge families. It was not uncommon to have 10 – 16 children in a family. Families then were poor and tight-knit. They built their farming lives in the Fraser Valley through cooperative efforts and sharing. Church life was expected and Mennonites were encouraged to marry within their own faith. With this background, it is no wonder that many of the Mennonites in this area are related to each other. Mennonites often spend some time at the beginning of a social encounter figuring out how they are connected to each other within the Mennonite circles. This is referred to as the “Mennonite Name Game” and can feel excluding to those from outside of these ethnic ties. Don’t worry, eventually, they stop.
Most Mennonites have joined the Anabaptist tradition without having the historical or ethnic background. They find their own faith best aligns with the Anabaptist way of expressing faith in Christ. The majority of Mennonites globally are not ethnically connected to the group who were encouraged and led by Menno Simons. The majority of Mennonites reside in the United States, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are 99 church conferences who have joined together to form the Mennonite World Conference. They are from 56 countries. They meet together on a different continent every six years since 1925. Most recently, the Mennonite World Conference Assembly was held in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in July 2015. The next conference will be held in Indonesia in 2021.
Mennonites at Menno Place
At Menno Place, the Mennonite Benevolent Society Board is made up of members who are actively participating in Mennonite churches Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite Church Canada and Church of God in Christ, Mennonite (Holdeman). Aproximately 25% of the residents who live at Menno Place call themselves Mennonite. There is no expectation that residents who are not Mennonite will align themselves with the Mennonite faith. Some of the Menno Place meals will be traditionally Mennonite including Vereneki (perogies), Farmer Sausage, Platz (fruit crumble coffee cake) and Plumi Moos (cold plum soup).
Notable Mennonites (or from Mennonite background)
Brian Doerksen, worship leader
John Denver, folk singer-songwriter
Cindy Klassen, five time Olympic medalist, Canadian long-track speed skater
Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet
Miriam Toews, best-selling author, winner of the 2004 Governor General’s Literary Award
Malcolm Gladwell, best selling author of “Blink”, “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers”
Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons cartoon
James L. Kraft, founder of Kraft Foods
Milton Hershey, founder of The Hershey Company
Jonathan Toews, Captain of the Chicago Blackhawks
Rudy Wiebe, best-selling author, two-time winner of Governor General’s Award for Fiction