Mennonite Novice Reads “The Mennonite Starter Kit”

I might have some explaining to do. Why am I reading The Mennonite Starter Kit?

I seem to have positioned myself as a professional Mennonite. This is accidental. This is me trying to find out what it means to be a Mennonite, for me in particular, because I’m fairly self-interested that way. I feel a need to find out why I have no idea about so many Mennonite-isms when that is 100% my heritage and I’ve always lived in Southeastern Manitoba so you’d think there wouldn’t be anything that needs explaining.

Oh, but there is!

It’s a bit of a tangled-web situation. I want to be honest about being really Menno, while at the same time admitting I don’t really know very much. There’s only so much you can learn by osmosis, you guys. The next step, it appears, is to read The Mennonite Starter Kit, so let’s go!

Here’s the story of my relationship with this book. I first learned of its existence when I encountered it waiting for me upon the shelves at the Steinbach MCC Thrift Shop. At just 84 pages, it seemed like a great starting point.

But wait. Am I a “new Mennonite”? I’ve belonged to churches with “Mennonite” in their names all my life! Plus I have a Low German accent (though, it’s fairly faint for the most part and I cannot actually speak nor understand the language… yet). However, when Andrew and I began attending a GC church (now called Mennonite Church Manitoba… though the GC name appears to persist, now merely a nickname or a reflex, I suppose) we realized there’s a lot we had no clue about. It seems this book is a little bit more geared to these kinds of Mennonites, and less the FEBC and EMC types we were more familiar with in our youth. This all requires more digging. For now, I’m just gonna talk about this little, hilarious introductory book.

Okay, so, even the cover is a bit of an education for me.

First, I see a familiar image of Dirk Willems… but is he rescuing his pursuer from the icy depths? Nope! He’s got a baseball mitt on his outstretched hand, and appears to be running to catch an errant baseball. Guess this book will be mocking Mennonites, then. Nice!

Second, I see the author’s names: Haas and Nolt. I have never in my life encountered any Mennonites with these kinds of names. This is a clue that this book will be introducing me to American Mennos, specifically those of the Swiss Menno variety. (This is my assumption any time I encounter a Mennonite with an unfamiliar last name: “Must be American Swiss”… the Mennonite variety, not the cheese.)

Next, a confession. I brought this book with me to The Public on a sunny Saturday afternoon where I sat at the window in a sunbeam sipping a beer:

Mask, mittens, McNally Robinson bookmark, mostly-finished pint of Chocolate Stout, and “The Mennonite Starter Kit”.

Here are the notes I took as I read:

Wow I should’ve read this a long time ago.

Ooh, this is satire! 

I like how it jumps into identity in the third paragraph: “… the novice in search of a Mennonite identity.” Is this me?

5- the most “enigmatic” aspect of Mennonite-ism is “people and heritage” — yes.

7- this book is very American, BUT for an American book, it sure contains a heck of a lot about Winnipeg and I’m here for it.

11- re: “write vivid, disturbing poetry”, do they mean Di Brandt? I bet they do. I should read more Di Brandt.

39- U2 is “marginally acceptable” ha

40- this hits (Top Ten Things Mennonites Save & Re-use Way Too Often) — I’ve encountered every one of these in my immediate family.

50- had to look up Superb Mennonite Church. (Sadly, it is now defunct.)

52- multiple choice re: how you got this book — I feel like for me the truth is the most Mennonite of all: at the MCC! But it’s not one of the choices. Boo!

60- seems there is frustration with Mennonites selling their historic meeting houses. I am unfamiliar with this, but I appreciate the frustration.

There. I’ve shared my cryptic, beer-fueled notes with you.

One more note! The Mennonite Trading Cards at the back were a real highlight. Apparently Frank H. Epp was a “Hall of Famer” and Phyllis Diller attended Bluffton College and evidently this was a fairly Menno thing to do. My education continues!

This book was published in 1993 but it only found its way into my hands in 2022. While tongue-in-cheek, I feel like I’ve gained a bit of insight into the North American Mennonite world of the early 1990s. For an American publication based in Pennsylvania (Intercourse, if you must know), there’s an impressive amount in this slim volume about Manitoba Mennonites. Guess we’ve really made an impression! Ha.