Third Session at Menno Conference! MHSC: Mennonite Identities

(Feature photo: Richard Lougheed, Christine Kampen Robinson, Brian Cooper, Chair Ken Warkentin; Jeremy Wiebe at the podium.)

When it was time for lunch, well, it was really super-cold and we tried to find a place to eat very nearby, and very quickly. Extreme Pita it was.

For the afternoon session, we chose seats on the other side of the room.¬†Andrew tried to discourage me from this, whispering, “People don’t like it when you change seats!”

“No way!” I argued, “The same people aren’t even here for all of the conference, it’s impossible for everyone to keep the same seats the whole time anyway, plus it’s good to move around.” (I say this to myself as well, as I have some introverted tendencies and want to push myself out of my comfort zone.)

Brian Cooper asked What’s in a Name?: The Canadian Mennonite Brethren and the Struggle for Direction. Even I have heard of the MB’s and their “crisis of identity”… asking, “What, if anything, lies at the heart of MB origins and theology?” My interest was piqued by the honesty of the observation that personal preference within the membership seemed to determine the direction of the denomination. Also that theological conversations are becoming more fractious and fewer altogether; it’s a challenge to develop a unified focus. Competing visions and agendas: “save me” vs “empower me”, and aspirational vs actual. These are the things I scrawled down. I loved hearing about them…but I’m not so good at interacting with the text.

Jeremy Wiebe shared an interesting paper entitled Official Multiculturalism and the Celebration of Ethnicity during the Manitoba Mennonite Centennial, opening with this slide of the interior of the Winnipeg Arena in 1974:

Mennonites often debate whether to be “Mennonite” is cultural or religious…and I wonder if this was the first time (the centennial) that Mennonites were presented as an ethnic group. The idea behind the government celebrating these different commemorative events (the Mennonite centennial wasn’t the only one being celebrated in the 70s) was to “foster a sense of unity among the groups”, reflecting “the ideal of multiculturalism”, “to encourage unity and a sense of nationalism”. Another aspect was, as Gerhard Enns noted in 1958, that children weren’t being educated in their history. This was (part of?) what led to the establishment of the MHV. I appreciated Jeremy calling out the narrative of the “prevailing pioneer”, and it’s certainly taken hold. Often the history told is that of how our ancestors were such self-sacrificing pioneers, but the specific aspects of their Mennonite-ness, how they interacted, what motivated them, the messier details such as schisms, of which I do believe there are many, are generally omitted. It was interesting to hear about the proposed “Mennonite Monument” which was originally going to be at the Legistlature (celebrating “faith, farming, family”) was shelved because Mennonites were uneasy about a monument that suggests they get along with the state. Instead, there’s a plaque there now. Jeremy displayed a photo of the plaque, I feel like I see it all the time because there’s one at the MHV and also one at the hospital fountain here in downtown Steinbach:

Mennonites wanted to appear good and right in the eyes of their neighbours, and this caused them to participate in the centennial, but some Mennonites felt they were abandoning modesty, and criticsized their lack of emphasis on faith values. In the end, Mennonites were presented “not as a peculiar people, but rather one of many in the Canadian cultural mosaic”. In the Q&A, someone (was it Jeremy or someone else?) mentioned it was interesting how Mennonites arrived in 1874 as a sect, but by 1974 the government was positioning them as an ethnic group. Someone asked if it was unifying, in 1974, for the Russlanders to also be celebrating the coming of the Kanadier? A good question, I thought.

Photo from Jeremy Wiebe’s presentation, depicting “Start of 1873 delegate tour ‘safari’, Upper Fort Garry, Winnipeg.”

Christine Kampen Robinson’s paper was entitled The Poetry of Mensajes Schriewen: Texting in the Construction of a Dietsche Space. For me, this was probably one of the most surprising presentations. Language is fascinating in and of itself. As is the idea of how people position themselves when communicating casually with others. So in her analysis of texting among the Dietsche people of Mexico, there really was so much going on: several different languages, High German, Low German, English, plus of course the combination of calling to explain or double check about the messages being sent and received via text, the idea of also using emoticons, and “trying it” — texting in a different language, then. They integrate aspects of where they come from and where they are today, into their language. It’s creative and flexible. Knowing, composing, imagining, connecting. A fascinating study in how they assert their identities through language. Print legitimates language, but text suberts this; it’s an empowering practice. Something else I should mention…and this was news to me and I’m glad I was made aware, that the Dietsche people of Mexico reject the term “Mexican Mennonites”. They call themselves “Dietsche” people, so, it’s about the language they speak.

Richard Lougheed then spoke on Mennonite Mission in Quebec since 1956: A Diversity within a Diversity. Now this was something I hadn’t expected to learn about either: a personal, telling, honest, reflective, and kind of painful glimpse into this history. Not only was Richard sharing an analysis of this history…but his own part within it, too. So, beginning in 1956, missionaries, touched by evangelical revival, began to set up missions in small towns north of Montreal.

Towns where first missions were set up.

They knew no French, but had much “evangelical enthusiasm”. Incidentally, their home churches in Ontario had “warned they’d be killed in Quebec by Catholics”. (This was met with laughter at the conference.) Somehow they held worship in French, even though attendees spoke English, and conversions were rare, except among people who were marginalized (such as the divorced, as the Catholic church condemned this).


Evangelical Mennonite efforts in Quebec — photos from Richard Lougheed’s presentation.

No one came to replace the burned-out missionaries. By 2018 all congregations are closed, except some house churches. When Richard interviewed the missionaries, they considered themselves failures. Richard displayed photos from these churches, including photos of his own participation, a photo of him being baptized in the 80’s. Richard then also reported on the different Mennonite missionary endeavors in Quebec, the most interesting to me was Holdeman, which certainly is counter-cultural in Montreal, they evangelize every Friday night in the subway and have been doing this for 20 years. They have never had a convert, but it has not occurred to them to close.

And thus, the third session of the day came to a close. Time for coffee and books!

Nita Wiebe sells books from the MHV book & gift shop — it’s a very busy space at the conference!
Books books books! I want them all!