Just Trying to Fit In (or Not)

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“A society is an act of communal imagination and belonging is the outcome of that imaginative act.”  Adrienne Clarkson

The first time I heard the word Mennonite, it sounded like belonging.  As my parents explained their ancestral history, of coming to Canada as refugees from war and revolution in Russia, I gained access to an identity.  In a world where everyone appeared Canadian-same, all of a sudden, I was special..

In university, I attended a Mennonite church, a space where the music, the art and the socially progressive messages allowed me to connect heritage with a theology that lined up with my own passions for peacemaking and social justice.

As time goes by, however, I find myself defined more by questions than by certainty.

Last week, I sat in an arena surrounded by seven thousand Mennonites from around the globe. It should have felt like a homecoming, but instead, I felt a sense of disconnection as I listened to all of the speeches and songs.

To be a Mennonite in a global context has nothing to do with fresh noodles and everything to do with doctrine. In our registration packets, nicely packaged into school kit bags from the Material Resource Centre of MCC (of course), there was a small book outlining the shared faith convictions of members of MWC.

Speaker after speaker, from all parts of the globe, expounded on what it meant to be a Mennonite church. While some of the ideas, such as love in action, were broad enough to belong to everyone, the majority of ponentes, at one point or another, would narrowly define what it means to be church.

“To be involved in missions and evangelism is the mark of a true church.” “A true church preaches Jesus as the only way.” “A true church engages in social justice.” Conclusion: if you are not _____, you are not a true Anabaptist community.

Some of the ideas, such as social justice, I find more appealing than others, but when anything become the defining characteristics of what it means to belong in a true way, I become wary. Even Mennonite history has taught us that to to define some as insiders and some as outsiders causes violence.

I do think discussion is important, especially when it involves hearing from many different cultural, gendered and age perspectives. What better place than an space organized to talk about these things together, such as a global gathering? There are many people, such as my Colombian colleagues, who have found powerful spaces to belong, speak and participate within such discussions.

The conference was based on the idea of coming together in unity, celebrating what is shared and leaving differences at home. It is a privileged position, however, to decide what differences are to be left behind.  Questioning is permitted, but only within a pre-established framework of maintaining global unity. For example, topics like sexual orientation were not discussed, and this silence left not only the differences behind, but an entire group of people whose identity was not acknowledged. I was reminded of the church I grew up in, where the phrase “equal yet different” silenced women to the nursery.

Perhaps because I have been trying so hard to belong in Colombia for the past four years, I am tired of being told what I need to believe and do in order to fit in and not rock the boat. I crave spaces where I can be honest about doubts and non-faith convictions.

As the conference went on, however, like many “good Canadian cultural” Mennonites with a strong Protestant work ethic, I did find small spaces of belonging in the doing and the practice.

Conscientious objection!
Conscientious objection!

I interpreted and lead workshops with my Justapaz colleagues about our work in peace-building and conscientious objection. There were many moments, in the midst of following my boss around with my camera, that I was filled with an incredible sense of pride to be understand the work that we do enough to not only translate, but also to speak and answer questions.  Once again, I saw what peace convictions can look like in practice.

Picnics on the lawn with the Colombians and a pie.
Picnics on the lawn with the Colombians. And a pie.

There were over 100 Colombians present at the conference and every time I finally felt alone, someone that I knew was calling me over in Spanish to sit with them or stand in the lunch line together. Ironically, it took leaving the country for me to at last feel like I was part of the Colombian group, as it was impossible to escape their welcoming presence and desire to include me as part of their group.

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I was moved to tears when I took a brief ten-minute break to wander an art exhibit above the global village.  A group of Winnipeg artists, in collaboration with families, created composite sketches to tell the stories of Mennonite women who had fled Russia to create new lives in Canada. As I read about violence, courage, faith, music, and new beginnings, I found myself once again with a sense of connection with my past. The stories of these women are also the stories of my great-grandmothers.

More than a connection with their personal journeys however, was the very fact of seeing my culture, my history, my story, on display. It was a celebration of a space that was mine, no matter what my doctrinal leanings. As much as l love living in Bogota and all of the challenges and creativity that comes from fusing different cultures, lifestyles, and expectations, there are very few spaces where my own culture and heritage is celebrated in Colombia and it was a joy to simply relax in the presence of my grandmothers.

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And, for a few brief hours, I became a supermennonite, at least in one cultural version of Mennonitism. While this act did not include a head covering or a book about peace theology, sitting around a quilt frame attempting tiny stitches was enough. In a space free of lectures and deep discussions, eight of us ranging in ages from fourteen to seventy, sat together in silence and in conversation and simply tried to stitch something together.

IMG_3000_2Woven in and out of my entire two weeks in the US were conversations about life and faith, work and doubt. Over laughter and peanut butter chocolate flavoured beer, we created spaces for questions.I was reminded once again of the beauty of being Mennonite, as much in cultural expressions as in faith.

When all is said and done, I have found, belonging is partly based on how safe we feel in a space, not simply words from a pulpit. But what is spoken and who is speaking reveal the privileges and assumptions that allow some in and keep others out.

I don’t think I have a conclusion; rather, I want to leave you with a poem written by Jeff Gundy, who spoke at Community Mennonite Church on the last Sunday of the conference. As he shared poetry, filled with textures and sounds, not doctrinal certainty or ethnic identity, another space for belonging, as simply human beings, was created.

The Cookie Poem

“Here are my sad cookies”

The sad cookies. The once and future cookies.

The broken sweet cookies. The cookies

of heartbreaking beauty. The stony cookies

of Palestine. The gummy and delicious

olive and honey cookie. The pasty

damp cookie trapped in the child’s hand.

Sad cookies, weird cookies, slippery

and dangerous cookies. Brilliant helpless

soiled and torn cookies, feverish and sweaty

cookies. Sullen cookies, sassy cookies,

the cookies of tantrum and the cookie of joy

and the sweet dark cookie of peace.

The faithful cookie of Rotterdam. The wild-eyed

cookie of Muenster. The salty Atlantic cookie.

Cookies in black coats, in coveralls,

in business suits, cookies in bonnets

and coverings and heels, cookies scratching

their heads and their bellies, cookies utterly

and shamelessly naked before the beloved.

Cookies of the Amish division, cookies

of the Wahlerhof, cookies of Zurich and

Stassburg and Volhynia and Chortitza,

Nairobi Djakarta Winnipeg Goshen.

Cookies who hand their children off

to strangers, who admonish their sons

to remember the Lord’s Prayer, cookies

who say all right, baptize my children

and then sneak back to the hidden church anyway.

Cookies who cave in utterly. Cookies

who die with their boots on. Cookies

with fists, and with contusions.

The black hearted cookie. The cookie with issues.

Hard cookies, hot cookies, compassionate

conservative cookies, cookies we loathe

and love, cookies lost, fallen, stolen,

crushed, abandoned, shunned. Weary

and heroic cookies, scathingly noted cookies,

flawed cookies who did their best.

Single cookies, queer cookies, cookies of color,

homeless cookie families sleeping the car,

obsolete cookies broken down on the information

highway. Sad cookies, silent cookies,

loud cookies, loved cookies, your cookies,

my cookies our cookies, all cookies

God’s cookies, strange sweet hapless cookies

marked each one by the Imago Dei,

oh the Father the Son the Mother The Daughter

and the Holy Ghost all love cookies,

love all cookies, God’s mouth is full

of cookies, God chews and swallows and flings

hands wide in joy, the crumbs fly

everywhere, oh God loves us all.

2 comments on “Just Trying to Fit In (or Not)”

  1. Pingback: The Llama Diaries

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