Archive for the Community Category

Book review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christian, Christianity, Community, Mennonite, Religion, Theology with tags , on December 6, 2010 by fuzzysoul

I spent the weekend in Lancaster, Pa., which I repeatedly and annoyingly refer to as “ze Fatherland.” I was there for a family funeral, and I was stuck with a bad case of insomnia and an abysmal selection of television channels. So I pulled out my Kindle and finished reading Rhoda Janzen’s memoir “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” for a bit of topical entertainment.

Janzen is the rare English professor who can actually write. Nay, she can write really damn well. As a result, I didn’t stop reading this book until 2:30 a.m.

Trying to summarize this book is tough, because the underlying structure is simply Janzen’s account of a few months she spent with her Mennonite family after her life spectacularly imploded, complete with a crushing car accident and her husband dumping her for a man he met on the Internet. It’s intensely personal, but rarely self-indulgent. Even in the depth of the book’s most self-help, you-go-girl, chick-lit sections, Janzen’s self-effacing humor and zinging prose kept me reading.

Whether she is observing that “Mennonites tend to live in clumps” or recalling that “my mother braided my hair so tightly that my eyebrows buckled,” Janzen’s four-bladed wit cartridge scrapes her family for the bulk of the book’s material. While occasionally making her family look cartoonish, she seems to do so out of genuine affection or bewilderment, not spite.

If the book has a major flaw, it is one that can be induced by the reader. Janzen has written a humorous collection of personal anecdotes, not a work of sociology or historical scholarship. She tends to take personal observations and extrapolate them to sweeping generalizations, so take her broad pronouncements about Mennonite life with a bit of perspective. Her Mennonite clan came to America’s west coast by way of Canada and the Ukraine, so her family shares different religious and culinary traditions from those of the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Her tendency to extrapolate carries over to the history section of the book, where Janzen gives readers a quick and dirty romp through the complexity of Anabaptist history. I e-mailed Janzen with a couple nit-picky questions about this section, and, to my great surprise, she quickly answered, addressing my questions and suggesting additional reading. So, beware this gracious professor, kids. She hands out lots of homework.


Kissing cousins are … normal?

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Community, History, Mennonite, Pennsylvania Dutch with tags , on October 17, 2010 by fuzzysoul

Now here is an interesting Wikipedia article: Cousin marriage.

Such marriages are often highly stigmatized today in the West, but marriages between first and second cousins nevertheless account for over 10 percent of marriages worldwide. They are particularly common in the Middle East, where in some nations they account for over half of all marriages.

Yes, yes. Tell me something I don’t know.

According to Professor Robin Fox of Rutgers University, it is likely that 80% of all marriages in history have been between second cousins or closer.

Well … that was something I didn’t know. Perhaps my family isn’t all that unusual. We’re just better at keeping records.

Ultra Orthodoxy…

Posted in Amish, Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christian, Christianity, Church, Community, Fundamentalism, Fundamentalist, Fundie, Mennonite, Religion, Theology with tags , , on February 18, 2010 by fuzzysoul

The German magazine, Spiegel, has published an article on Israel’s ultra orthodox Jewish communities, which “live in a parallel universe cut off from the modern world in tight-knit communities where everything revolves around religion.”

Sound familiar?

At least the Stauffer Mennonites and the Amish are smart enough to allow Rumspringa

An old family yarn Pt. 3: Those strange black folk

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christianity, Church, Community, Fundamentalism, Fundamentalist, Fundie, History, Mennonite, Pennsylvania Dutch, Religion with tags , , , , on December 29, 2009 by fuzzysoul

I chuckled heartily while reading the part of Willis Brubacher’s Shunned in which he recounted my grandfather getting his bootleg liquor from an old black man down the road when he moved to Southern Maryland. But I outright guffawed when reading JoAnna Stauffer’s depiction in Harry’s Journey of my great-grandfather’s family’s reaction to seeing their first, real-life brown skinned man in 1940s Maryland:

The children were wide-eyed when they met Negro people for the first time. “Mom, we saw a man who was black all over!” one of them said in an awed tone. They had never seen any in Pennsylvania.

“But why are they so dark?”

“That’s how God created them,” Magdalena explained. “They’re just like everyone else otherwise. Don’t stare at them.”

“But their talk is different too.”

“They do speak a little different from what we’re used to,” their mother agreed. “But so do the white people here in the South. You’ll get used to it before long.”

There are so many reasons why this is funny, starting with cousin JoAnna’s use of the term “Negro people,” which would get her more than a few impolite stares of her own at an NAACP meeting. It’s also reminiscent of Chris Rock line about how there are only five parts of the country that have black people.

But the thing that made me Laugh Out Loud was my great-grandmother Magdelena’s admonition about staring at black people. Stauffer Mennonites are spectacular starers. It’s not meant to be intimidating or hostile. They are just easily awed and not very good at hiding it. They stare at outsiders, unfamiliar vehicles, gadgets, “English” girls – you name it. It’s a family pastime and a consequence of living in an insular community. And black people fascinate the hell out of them.

They are getting better at hiding it. For my 30th birthday, I invited some black family friends as well as my Mennonite relatives to a party. I caught the Mennonites staring from time to time, but only the children were obvious about it.

The final reason I find this funny is that racism is not an institutional thing in my family the way it is in some of my white friends’ families. That is not to say that I have no racist relatives, but it’s not part of the fabric of our culture. JoAnna later recounts in her book that my great-grandparents treated their black workers the same as whites, eating with them around the family table at the noonday meal. This upset the local white workers, who threatened to not come an thresh the Stauffers’ wheat fields if they had to eat with “darkies.” The book has Harry Stauffer telling his wife, “Apparently, the Civil War isn’t over yet.”

An old family yarn Pt. 2: Quick roundup

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christianity, Community, History, Mennonite, Patriarchs, Pennsylvania Dutch, Religion with tags , , , , , , , on December 28, 2009 by fuzzysoul

So, I finally forced myself to sit down and read the rest of my cousin’s book, Harry’s Journey, after initially picking it up over two months ago. I didn’t want to to get lost in the stack of new books I received for Christmas. It was a lot to absorb, so I’ll just start with a few minor curiosities and delve into the more weighty stuff later.

  • I’ve remarked already about how uncomfortably intertwined my family tree has been, but reading about how my Stauffer great-grandfather was competing with a Martin boy for the attentions of his future wife, a Brubacher, was especially grueling. I have approximately a million and a half first cousins named Martin, my mother was a Stauffer and my father was a Brubacher. Ugh.
  • I now know what a “shivaree” is and that my great-grandparents were subjected to one on their wedding night. Thinking back to my own exhausting wedding day, I doubt I would have has as much patience or tolerance for a bunch of fools banging pots and pans on my front lawn on that of all nights. Sex be damned. All I wanted at that point was sleep.
  • My great-grandfather apparently made much of his money supplying tomatoes to the Chef Boyardee cannery. I assume this was long before it became the nightmarish approximation of cat food that it morphed into under the ConAgra regime.
  • I finally understand the actual reason that World War II spurred both my Stauffer great-grandfather and my Brubacher grandfather to move to Southern Maryland. The land was cheap, and farmers usually received deferments from the draft. Land was expensive or unavailable in Snyder county, so the young men faced the choice of either moving or violating their pacifist beliefs by serving in the military. My great-grandfather followed this movement after a nasty split in the Snyder County, Pa. church.
  • My great-grandfather was a preacher; hence, my grandfather was a preacher’s kid. Well, that explains the rebellious streak.
  • My family initially settled in Oakley, Md., further north than Loveville, where most of the Old Order Mennonite community is settled today.
  • Mennonites are big on humility. You can’t even become a preacher with out getting a subtle kick in the teeth. The way you are informed that you have been made a deacon, preacher or bishop is with the phrase “God has not spared you.” Ouch. Personally, I think this practice should be put to wider use.

Hardcore idiocy

Posted in Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christ, Christian, Christianity, Church, Community, Fundamentalism, Fundamentalist, Fundie, Jesus, Mennonite, Ordnung, Pennsylvania Dutch, Religion, Theology with tags , , , on December 3, 2009 by fuzzysoul

The Pastoral Musings blog alerted me to a fresh collision between an outdated Old Order Mennonite Ordnung and modernity.

According to Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier newspaper, and Iowan state representative is now publicly lecturing the state’s attorney general about free speech law, because his Mennonite constituents don’t want to put tires on their steel-wheeled 19th-Century farm equipment, per county law.

I’m sorry, steel wheels have ceased to be a sign of plain, ordinary living and nor are they a free speech matter. They are now a bizarre throwback infliction on modern asphalt roads. These Mennonites are not digging in their heels over a matter of scripture, just a matter of personal identity. This is just good old Hochmut raising its head again, or it is an example of Anabaptists’ historical inability to modify their communities’ Ordnung without a nasty, divisive throwdown.

And oh, Mitchell County? If the Old Order Mennonites haven’t left Southern Maryland yet, they aren’t leaving your county anytime soon either, especially not in the middle of a recession.

An old family yarn Pt. 1

Posted in Amish, Anabaptism, Anabaptist, Christian, Christianity, Community, Fundamentalism, Fundamentalist, Fundie, History, Mennonite, Patriarchs, Pennsylvania Dutch, Religion, Schism with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2009 by fuzzysoul

Now THAT's meta.

My mother’s cousin … who I guess is my first cousin once removed? Anyway, she has just published a book, Harry’s Journey, chronicling the life of my mother’s grandfather (my great-grandfather, pretty sure about that). I would love to link the publication for you, but, well, I can’t.

The book is published by Pathway Publishers, an Amish imprint operating in LaGrange, Ind. and Aylmer, Ontario. No web site. No Amazon store. There are apparently a few things in this world that are still beyond the reach of the all-seeing eye of Sauron Google. The book has a very DIY feel to it, featuring a font that looks like a san-serif version of Courier New.

This cousin, Joana S. Stauffer, lives out in Missouri, where much of the Stauffer Mennonite church has migrated over the decades. Hers is the second book I’ve read that deals with the Stauffer Church’s expansion to Southern Maryland. The first was my uncle’s book, Shunned, which I’ve mentioned before. Both books actually cover the same time period. My maternal great grandfather and my paternal grandfather were contemporaries, both coming to Southern Maryland with their families at about the same time.

I’m not too far into the book, but there are already some points of interest. First, both this book and Shunned are written in a historical fiction fashion, filling in details for the sake of telling a good story, rather than staying to the straight-and-narrow of nonfiction detachment. This is a quality that I’ve also seen in the Martyr’s Mirror, hearkening back to a time when history telling was more of a literary art than a strict science. Joana Stauffer readily confesses to taking poetic license in her book’s introduction and admits that some people may dispute the exact facts of the tale. She said her book splits the difference between the different stories she has heard and also changes the names of secondary characters. Uncle Willis’s book did the same thing.

The other thing that I was shocked to discover was that my great-grandfather was an orphan, whose father abandoned him and his siblings after the death of his mother. Harry was shuffled from home to home in both Harrisburg, Pa. and in the Mennonite enclave in Snyder County.

I’ll post some more once I finish the book.