My Mennonite Heritage

“Common Threads and Seasonings”
by Anita Wansley
October 30, 2005

Introduction

One day this summer I went to get my hair done. Halfway through getting the color paste put in my hair, the conversation turned to my job at the tutoring program. I was telling the lady that the program was held at Jubilee Mennonite Church and I also made the comment that this was the church I attended. The lady immediately stopped painting the color on my hair and with the paint brush still dripping said, “Oh, my God I can’t be doing this. I will go to hell! They don’t let you get your hair cut, do they? And I don’t want to be responsible for doing this!!” The lady in the next chair, a well known woman in Meridian, stated, “Oh, no you don’t know this church, they are not like that. They do all kinds of things!” Okay, I don’t know what all kinds of things she was talking about, but somehow we convinced my hair dresser to finish the job on my hair and that she was not going to be eternally condemned for cutting a Mennonite’s hair!

What I experienced at the hair dresser’s is maybe what some of you have experienced when out and about, or it even may be similar to what you felt when first learning about Mennonites. Today is Mennonite Heritage Sunday. It is a day to reflect on where this concept of Mennonite came from. A day to remember Mennonite heritage, who were the founders of our Mennonite faith, and what it means to call ourselves Mennonite. This Sunday there are most likely sermons being preached from Mennonite churches across the nation about people like Menno Simmons, a group of people named the radicals, and many martyrs from the early church. Today here at Jubilee you are not going to get a history lesson or a well-versed lesson in Mennonite heritage or theology. You are going to hear about Anita Zendt Wansley’s Mennonite heritage. This is what my forefathers and foremothers demonstrated to me about what it means to be a Mennonite.

This personal heritage hopefully will make some connections and uncover some common threads to others’ heritages as well. As I was asking Elaine some thoughts on this topic we got into a big discussion as to what is culture, what is heritage, what is theology. Oh, dear, these were a little too much for me to decipher. But what I do recognize is that my personal story is flavored with Pennsylvania Dutch culture. If Paul Shelly were up here his story would be flavored with the Russian Mennonite culture. If John Opel were up here his story would be flavored with Appalachian Maryland culture. If Elaine Maust were up here her story would be flavored with Mississippi culture. But what I hope is that maybe all of you could along with me find a common thread in our heritage that teaches us.

Why Speak about Mennonite Heritage?

As I pondered this topic I also thought about our congregation and the fact that over half our congregation did not grow up Mennonite. Chris often reminds me that not every one is in the know about EMU, MCC, VS, MDS, etc. It is an important reminder. So why speak in this congregation about Mennonite heritage? Elaine compared it to a marriage. When we marry our spouses we marry into a different experience. I had to learn about Chris’s Southern heritage. Dianna probably had to learn some Canadian heritage. In some sense you who have come to call Jubilee home have married into this family of Mennonite. It becomes more than knowledge. It becomes a part of your heritage as well.

What is a Heritage?

I went to the dictionary to explore what exactly was the meaning of the word heritage. This is what I found: 1. Practices that are handed down from the past by tradition; 2. The status acquired by a person through birth, a birthright; 3. Any attribute or immaterial possession that is inherited from ancestors.

So what was handed down to me? What were the practices, the status, the attributes given to me by my ancestors? How was that done? Who were the influential persons that impacted my heritage? To answer these questions I did some interviewing of my parents and some gathering of artifacts.

Illustrations:

I have gathered some of the things that represent what I believe to be my Mennonite heritage:

1. The Martyr’s Mirror and the tongue screw: Here are two objects that I felt for me could possibly represent the foundation or beginnings for Mennonite heritage. This book is a collection of stories of early Anabaptists who died for their faith and beliefs. I remember vividly during winter bible school probably around the time when I was in 3rd grade learning about the story of Dirk Willems. He was an Anabaptist who was being arrested for his beliefs. As he was being followed, the person pursuing him broke through the ice. Seeing that the person’s life was in danger Dirk turned around and helped him out. He was then arrested and put to a tortuous death. I learned about this tongue screw. It was an instrument used to keep the persons like Maey ken Wens, the wife of a faithful minister, quiet as she being put to death. It was supposed to prevent any sharing of one’s faith to onlookers. Maey ken Wens and others like her endured suffering in peaceful protest and incredible displays of faith.

2. The wedding dress: This is my mother’s wedding dress that was made over to be Lisa’s wedding dress. My mother wanted to have a wedding dress that did not have a cape or modesty panel. This was an addition to the dress that went over the top to conceal the shape of a woman’s body. This was the tradition in conservative Mennonite circles in Pennsylvania and in other places at the time and still some places today. The bishop in her home congregation wouldn’t marry my parents in her church if the dress code wasn’t met. My mother felt as if the rule was not a part of being the Christian God was calling her to be and with the support of her still conservative mother going with her they went to visit the Bishop. After much discussion the bishop still didn’t allow it and my parents had to be married in another church. My mother designed her own dress without a cape.

3. Here are some symbols that my grandmother on my father’s side passed on to me. This is a ladle. It was used to serve drink, usually home-made root beer or home made grape juice to workers in the field. I remember helping her take drinks to the men helping my grandfather put hay in the barn. This is the bonnet she wore as we did it. This is a menu we found in her cabinets after she and my grandfather passed away. She was well known to be always having people over for dinner. My father remembers that whenever there were any guests at church they were often invited home for dinner with his family. Cans of meat were brought up, more potatoes were added to the pot, and the guests were welcomed.

The Common Thread

In these and many other stories that I have been told over the years, what is the common thread that I believe is my heritage? What are the attributes, the traditions that I inherited? I believe the common thread is from Matthew 22:37.

“Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it, Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments.”

1. My Mennonite Heritage is one of being radical in loving the Lord my God. The early Anabaptists believed in believer baptism instead of infant baptism. This went against and threatened the power of the religious authority of the day. They loved the Lord with their lives. They suffered tortuous deaths in order to remain faithful to what God called them and to show their love of God. I believe my mother was radical in her day. She loved the Lord with all her heart, soul, and mind and by following the Spirit discovered that it didn’t take dress code rules to show her love of the Lord. She also was willing to stand up to the religious authorities and share her faith. In the end she also sacrificed for her faith.

2. My Mennonite Heritage is one of loving my neighbor as myself and one of the greatest ways of showing this is demonstration of service. Dirk Willems demonstrated love for his neighbor and saved the life of the very one who threatened it. My grandmother did the menial task of taking drink to the workers with a joyful and often humorous heart. She and her family welcomed many into their home and shared resources that in her day weren’t taken for granted.

3. My Mennonite Heritage is also one of making mistakes but continuing in the pursuit of the greatest commandment. Dress codes that excluded people, religious leaders who dwelled on ritual at the expense of the spirit, and exclusion of persons outside the faith are all part of my heritage as well. None of our heritages are exempt from the thread of sin, selfish ambitions, and drifting from the good. But it is my belief as I reflected on the stories from my family that the great majority of the heritage bestowed upon me was one of great faith lived out in all aspects of life.

Conclusion

As I was pondering this message, I thought about if Hanna or one of Mary’s daughters was up here in 25 or 50 years what they would say about their Mennonite Heritage. What would being a Mennonite and having the stories of all of their ancestors mean to them? What would the thread be that tied their present to their past? I would hope that their Mennonite heritage flavored with southern culture and maybe still a hint of Pennsylvania seasoning would continue to be that of the greatest commandment. I hope they can say that their forefathers and foremothers taught them about loving the Lord their God with all their heart, all their soul, and all their mind. I hope that traditions of service, traditions of sacrifice, traditions of radical, peaceful displays of faith will be their Mennonite heritage.


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