I remember the puzzled look on Ellen B. Kauffman’s face as she tried to place me in her social geography of biological relationships. “Who are you parents and grandparents?”
As a junior high kid at the annual Winter Bible School for the Mennonite Churches of Greater Johnstown (Pa.), I gladly told her my parents and grandparents names. I don’t think it helped either of us to navigate our relatedness together as my family had only recently joined a Mennonite congregation. We were on our own, it seemed, to build a relationship together, to co-construct our Mennoniting.
Over the summer, we’ve had excellent writers reflect on what it means to Mennonite. To many of us and many persons in the culture beyond Mennonite congregations, we know that it’s about the relatedness. These blogs evidence this relatedness in refreshing and hopeful ways that give a real glimpse of Mennonite relatedness as Good News.
When my family became part of a Mennonite congregation, we adopted some cultural practices that seem to epitomize Mennoniting in traditional senses. My mom even took to wearing a netted prayer covering. We bought milk in glass bottles from the local dairy. My parents did some communal gardening with people from our church—they even canned and froze vegetables together. These were all the sorts of things that I’d imagine Mennonites do. It’s easy, from the outside, to assume these marking practices are what it means to be Mennonite, or to Mennonite, whether it’s a verb or a noun. What surprises me about our blogs is that there is little conversation, really, about these cultural practices often rooted in agrarian lifestyles alone.
Our writers this summer have pointed toward something beyond practices, beyond even our radical reformation heritage and distinctive acts of footwashing and believers baptism. From their diverse viewpoints, what emerges to me is the sense that it’s our relatedness that is our distinction. It’s this relatedness that is both our biggest strength and potential as well as our possible Achilles heel.
Mennoniting, as our bloggers have stated, has to do with how we relate to God, each other, the world, our past, and our future. It’s not something ever done in isolation. All of the blogs present authentic encounters and relationship. Some, like John Ruth, Aldo Siahaan, and Ron White, highlight reflective action that pulls us inward to move us outward. Some, like Noah Kolb, Maria Byler and Alex Bouwman, celebrate our historical practices and pacing. Other stories by Donna Merrow, Michael King, and Dennis Edwards highlight holy discontent in the world. Some, like Ervin Stutzman, Emily Ralph, and Ubaldo Rodriguez, are pondering new identities.
What becomes clear is that this Mennoniting thing is about relating—with God in all of God’s interrelated Trinitarian identities (Creator, Redeemer, Spirit), with the world, with our neighbors, with our enemies, with our brothers, sisters, cousins (biological and otherwise). Mennoniting is knowing we are not in this world alone—there are enemies and friends, there is God and there is a universe called forth into being by God. It’s a radical response to contemporary individualism and isolation, to “me-ness.” It’s a witness of love and a response to God’s declaration in Genesis, “it’s not good to be on this good planet alone.”
Sister Ellen was ultimately right; though she couldn’t find the strand of my biological connection that day, she knew that I hadn’t arrived unrelated on this earth (or in her Bible school class). Ultimately, we are all created to flourish in our relatedness. Mennoniting, then, seems to be doggedly and joyfully living in those interrelationships between family and strangers, future and past, enemies and friends, the Creator and the created. And in the midst of that to hold a willingness to be transformed by the grace of God, the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.