What an incredibly humbling experience it is for me to stand here before you on this auspicious day. Twenty-some years ago I sat where you do now and, like you, I pondered the life that lay ahead of me as I took my first tentative steps out of the Mennosphere. Some of you come from backgrounds like mine — a semi-urban fairly liberal upbringing in which the Mennonite world was paramount but not completely isolated. Others of you come from small towns and villages that were predominantly Mennonite. Some of you have set yourself apart from the world through your dress or even your language. Others, not so much. Some of you have extensive schooling; others have very little. You may be looking around yourself now and thinking that you’re not that much like your fellow graduates. But you have this one thing in common: you are all moving out into the world and brushing the Mennonite dust off your feet as you go.
How you feel today has more to do with your past than your future. You might feel bitter or scared. You might be angry or frustrated. But you’re probably also excited about the possibilities out there in the great big glittering world outside of the Mennolands. I have for you a few things to remember as you step out.
First – the world isn’t as you think it is. People have been telling you all your life that it isn’t like in the movies or TV but part of you doesn’t really believe them. And you’re right. Some things are like the movies; some things aren’t. Of course, if you come from a branch of the Church that limited your Hollywood exposure to regular screenings of Hazel’s People and And When They Shall Ask, this won’t be a problem for you.
On the other hand, you might be imagining that you will walk out there and take the world by storm like the post-Menno celebrities who have made themselves into public intellectuals, cultural icons, award-winning authors or Olympian speedskaters. You might. But as far as I can tell, for every post-Menno celebrity, there are 200 unemployed post-Mennos with PhDs in Anabaptist history. Here’s a thought: You might want to stay away from Anabaptist history as a career path if you are honestly trying to leave the Mennonite world.
You may be baffled by some of what you see and hear out in the world. People will make jokes that you don’t understand. It came as a great relief to me to learn that even non-Mennos do not immediately understand all the jokes they hear and that some of the jokes repeated simply aren’t funny. Do not assume that the jokes you don’t understand must be about some bizarre sexual practice. At least half of them are about run-of-the-mill ordinary sexual practices. Even by Mennonite standards.
And some of them just touch on the corners of culture which are beyond your experience. Don’t let it bother you. You will never learn to be fluent in the language of the world if you just purse your lips and look knowingly scornful at every joke you misunderstand. And you will only alienate your new peers by assuming unknown jokes are come-ons in disguise, no matter what your response. My advice for you is to admit your ignorance. Sure, it kills a joke to ask for it be explained. But it only does that once and if you are to thrive out there in the world, you’ll want a sense of humour that can last a lifetime. Your new friends will forgive you your ignorance. They’ll probably find it quaint. It’s not that bad to be quaint.
This leads to my second point – the world won’t see you the way you see yourself. Despite the plethora of Anabaptist scholars, most people you will meet do not know about your 400 year old post-traumatic stress disorder. You may feel like a member of a minority group that intimately knows persecution but if you are a white North American or European, the rest of the world will not see you that way. The grandchildren of Holocaust survivors will not appreciate you equating your grandparents’ arduous trek across Russia with their experiences in death camps. Though people may stare at you if you stay seated in protest during the playing of the National Anthem, you are not the disadvantaged. You won’t be arrested for suspected terrorism or stopped at the airport. You’re part of the systems of power and oppression that your Anabaptism may have taught you to abhor. You always were, but when you’re really out in the world and can start to see yourself as the world sees you, it might be a little more obvious. Learn to get used to it.
In addition to not understanding your Mennonite persecution complex, you may find that the people you meet will also not have the same sort of cultural knowledge as you. Just as you won’t understand all their jokes, they may not find yours all that funny either. Many people do not know Bible passages by heart and do not find puns based on the Bible, hymns or issues of Church governance terribly amusing.
Some of them won’t even have heard of the post-Menno celebrities you have spent your life idolizing. Or if they’ve heard of them, they didn’t know or care that they were Mennonite. Many will not even have heard of Mennonites and will confuse them with Mormons or, if they know a little bit, the Old Order Amish. They will not know the infinite variations within our faith community and they will ask you questions that you will consider stupid. You will find their assumptions grating and their ignorance appalling. It’ll get tiresome and you may consider keeping your background a secret as you assimilate into the world to avoid the questions and annoyance of needing to repeatedly educate strangers into the place of Anabaptism in the broad sweep of history and the distinguishing characteristics of the Mennonite faith, culture and practice.
I encourage you to avoid that temptation. It’s not a bad thing to have a Mennonite heritage. Some will think you exotic for it; some will think you quaint. That’ll depend on how you play it. If you are young, you can blend easily into a hipster subculture. If you’re a little older, you may have some practical skills like baking or carpentry that’ll come in handy in your new non-Menno social networks. Have no fear, you’ll find a place for yourself out there in the world with all the atheists and capitalists and Catholics and communists. You have much to offer and your Mennonite upbringing is part of that, even as you are now saying good-bye to all that.
Finally, despite your growing disgust at the Mennonite community of your past, don’t feel that you can’t come back to visit from time to time. Your parents will still want to see you and there will be weddings and funerals that are worth attending. Coming back will be hard at first because the world will change you. But it will get easier and eventually you might find a place in the Mennosphere more comfortable than the one you left. You might, like me, find a place where you can balance the tightrope of love and hate with a martini glass in one hand. Or you might not. That’s ok. A martini glass doesn’t really need a tightrope. It’s a beautiful world out there and it’s worth exploring. Let it change you even as you remember your Mennonite roots. Just remember to stop and smell the roses, dare to eat a peach, and, of course, have a cocktail.
1 oz lime juice
1/2 oz cointreau or another orange liqueur
1/2 oz simple syrup
1/2 oz unsweetened cranberry juice
lime wedge for garnish
- toss all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with a few cubes of ice
- shake vigorously about 30 times
- strain into a pretty cocktail or martini glass
- Garnish with a lime wedge and sip, feeling very worldly.