My Peek into the Mennonite World

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In this part of Alberta, there are 3 main cultural groups, roughly in thirds: First Nations, Mennonite, and everyone else. I have several friends who are Native or Mennonite, but that doesn’t mean I know very much about their culture. I know a little, sure, but haven’t actually experienced or partaken in many cultural activities (that’s something I need to change). When my friend’s dad passed away a little while ago, I wanted to support her, so I got the opportunity to go to a Mennonite funeral. I thought I’d share a little here, as most of you won’t ever get to do this.

Another friend of mine had the presence of mind to warn us about a few things, which was good! I had forgotten that in the old colony Mennonite churches, women and men don’t sit together. In fact, the women have a separate entrance. We used the men’s entrance, but we clearly were not Mennonite (I was wearing PANTS!), so we knew we could get away with it, without offending anyone or ruffling too many feathers. Although they have very strict traditions, they don’t seem too offended if non-Mennonites don’t follow them. If you’re Mennonite, though, look out! Bending the rules is a no-no and will start a pretty feisty rumour mill, from what I hear. Some women wear long skirts all the time (yes, even in the middle of winter, or while doing farm chores…), small kerchiefs on their heads, and at a funeral as we were, black from head to toe. That is out of respect, and it makes sense. You wouldn’t go to a funeral wearing flowery/showy clothes or sequins! Their regular dresses are interesting — quite colourful and homemade, sometimes in, um, rather interesting (ugly) patterns. My friend told me that at home, many women do wear pants and “normal” clothes. The men, on the other hand, dress completely modern, carry cell phones, and you cannot tell by looking that they are Mennonite. Some women have cell phones too, and I guess overall there are many anachronisms — contrasts between the traditional and modern.

The church itself is spartan, to say the least. I heard that their belief in humility is what influences their design. Mennonite churches are plain buildings — Sommerfelder churches are white and old colony are blue — with wooden siding. Churches in most denominations have at least a simple sign to say what church it is; not so with Mennonite churches — no signs at all. There is no power, so the funeral was performed simply by sunlight coming in the plain windows. There were hooks in the ceiling for lanterns. There is no heat, but there was a small stove on the men’s side.  The walls are plain white, no signs or artwork anywhere. The floor is plain plywood. Most of the seating is benches; they aren’t pews — there is no back on them. They truly are plain wooden benches, painted white, placed quite close together, and you have to rely on your back muscles to keep you upright! A little uncomfortable to say the least! There were a few chairs with a little padding and backs, and these were used by the elderly. Other smart people got there early and sat at the back, so they could lean against the back wall. We were early, but not smart enough to get a wall-spot!

Speaking of getting there early… we were about 30 minutes early when we walked into the completely silent church, already about one-fifth full. We sat. We whispered a little, but mainly just sat. The family walked in just before the start time, all together, and sat near the front. There were benches and a row of chairs facing inward, at right angles to the rest of us; those were for family. The plain wooden casket was placed in the center. This time it was a closed casket, but they are sometimes open — it’s the family’s choice. A procession of about seven men walked in and sat at the front; my friend told me they were the song leaders. Another procession came in, about 12 men, who were the pastors. The song leaders announced the song number, and there was much rustling to get song books people had brought. Oh, have I mentioned yet that the entire service was in German? The official parts were a mix of High and Low German (it’s the pastor’s choice what language to use, or to mix them together), and a tiny section at the end that discussed going to the cemetery was in Low German, what everyday Mennonites speak. So I understood nothing. Not a word. The song leaders started the singing, which was unlike any other church music I’d ever heard. There were no instruments to accompany this very sad-sounding singing (probably in a minor key), with minimal annunciation; it sounded quite similar to middle-eastern music, except with no instruments. At times, everyone’s voices were so strong, it was hauntingly beautiful… singing in perfect unison to a rhythm and melody that I couldn’t even get a slippery grip on.

The preaching began, and I had no idea what to expect. Despite having no expectations, I still didn’t think the pastor would talk that long. One of the 12 pastors did all the speaking, every phrase in a liturgical lilt, somewhat similar to Catholic ceremonies — evidence of Mennonites’ origins. He talked and talked. Of what, I don’t know. I think at one point near the end I heard names, so he was probably listing surviving family members. I wish I knew what he had talked about… if I did, this blog post would be even longer! My friend said that to sum it u, his sermon title would be “clean up your house,”  your body being your house (God’s house). He said to clean up your spiritual house because life here on earth is short, and he encouraged everybody to be ready in case God calls you home suddenly… and to mind your own house and not somebody else’s.

At the end, the pall-bearers carried the coffin into a vestibule in the men’s entrance. Then, an usher told what rows to start and we all filed out the men’s entrance, past the coffin, leaving the family behind. They had a short time of special comforting from the ministers, and then came outside. The coffin was loaded into a pick-up truck (with a truck topper on it) and started toward the cemetery. An usher again, seemed to indicate that certain people needed to wait and others go first, although we could not determine the logic. Our friend, who we car-pooled with to the cemetery, knew the people in basically every vehicle and was baffled as to why certain people needed to go first — a tradition that we were unaware of, perhaps. At the cemetery, the deceased man’s brother spoke for awhile, in Low German, telling stories about him and sharing how much his brother had meant to him. While I didn’t really understand what he was saying — a few words here and there, and the few English words mixed in — I understood very clearly the emotion in his words, and could empathically hear his message. After that, there was a prayer by a pastor and the pall bearers moved the casket to the hole in the ground. They put straps under it, and manually lowered it down (which makes sense; if they don’t have powered conveniences, why would they have an electric motor to lower the box?). Then, any men who had attended the funeral grabbed shovels and started moving dirt from the pile to fill the hole. I liked that — simple, and genuine. A job that needed to be done, and the community pitching in to make it happen. My friend and her family cried a little; so did I. But somehow we felt surrounded by people who cared, who were there in a time of need.

We drove back to the church property, where we went into the hall beside the church. Did I mention that there were no washrooms? Four of the cleanest outhouses you’ve ever seen did the trick (that must be cold in winter)! The hall was very similar to the church, except they had propane lanterns installed in the ceiling, which led me to think that they aren’t necessarily against innovation, just technology. They want to be “off the grid” and independent, and live very humble lives. We had buns, butter, coffee and sugar cubes, the traditional funeral lunch. Some people cut the bun open, butter it, and smoosh a coffee-dunked sugar cube inside. I skipped the sugar cube part, but I think sometime I’ll try it.

The people we interacted with were very nice to us. At the ceremony, the few people my friends whisper-chatted to were exactly as I would expect someone to be — respectful, and quiet, but not overly morbid. At the lunch, the same — friendly, pleasant, humble. The woman beside me had a job outside the home, so she was not as traditional as others. She had 5 kids, which seems pretty common. We talked about laundry, work, farm stuff (I grew up on one, so I could talk about that!) and pets.

So, that is a small glimpse into the Mennonite culture. It’s always difficult and risky to make assumptions or observations as an outsider, but I just had to share with you. While their stance against technology is quite contrary to most of Canada, they are resourceful and some of the hardest working people out there. Although they have strict rules for behaviour, I think some people like that and are happy living in that way. They have very well-defined roles, which is confining but also comforting in a way. Women are not valued as much as men, yet I don’t think they are mistreated, as a rule. I wonder why this inequality remains… I have heard of the judgment that people who don’t conform or measure up are subjected to, and it only seems to be directed within; outsiders are not as harshly judged, as far as I can tell. I wish I understood more; maybe this will open up a dialog with some of my Mennonite friends (yes, many of them have computers, especially my generation and younger)!

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2 thoughts on “My Peek into the Mennonite World

    Martin Fehr said:
    May 28, 2011 at 8:48 pm

    Very intresting about no lights…here in Manitoba, the old colony church has air conditioning in it and washrooms are inside… Wow, you attended a church service like the 1920s. I would like to see that church and would like to know where in Alberta this is.

      Teresa responded:
      May 28, 2011 at 9:02 pm

      The church is in La Crete, Alberta. (You can look it up on Google maps). it’s pretty far off the beaten track, and in many ways it’s a bit like an island — remote, and therefore more resistant to popular cultural influences.

      You can always come visit! 🙂

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