We’ve been called worse.

Once upon a time when I was an adolescent, my mother told me that some of the other Mennonites in the area sometimes called the Church we attended the “Garbage Church” because we apparently accepted anyone. My mother thought those other Mennonites were not being very nice when they did this.

She had a point.

But being a pious and obnoxious teenager, I thought we should own the title — after all, hadn’t Jesus hung out with the so-called garbage of his day? Didn’t we have a sign out front that said, “Welcome all”?

But I was alone in this.

Perhaps if the Church actually had a fair contingent of people who lived on the margins of society, we could have thrown the insult back in the faces of all of the naysayers. But, in fact, our membership was much like most of the others in Kitchener-Waterloo. A little more progressive than some, a little less than others. And with about an equal percentage of the dregs of society as any other Mennonite Church in the vicinity.

The name also might have stuck had those Mennonite Mean Girls done a better job coming up with one that was appropriately insulting.

They should have looked to our past.

Throughout our history, we Mennonites (or subgroups of us) have been called a lot of things that were meant to be insults. And usually we knew it, too. But when they really worked, we found ourselves grudgingly accepting the name that had been thrown at us in scorn.

Those people who derided the Church of my youth would have been wise to have learned from this history. They could have called us the Hat-Wearers Church, for instance, or, since we began in the 1920s, the Cloche Congregation. And we would have been stuck with this somewhat ludicrous name because it was true.

That was the hallmark of the insulting names that stuck. There was always a grain of truth in them.

For instance.

As everyone reading this knows, before we were Mennonites, we were Anabaptists. None of us really mind being called Anabaptist now but it was irksome back in the day. This is because it meant “re-baptizer” and our spiritual ancestors didn’t think they were “re-baptizers.” Since the first baptism didn’t count as a baptism, they weren’t redoing anything. Just correcting an error.

It sounds pedantic now and, well, it might have sounded pedantic then too. But it really annoyed our forebears. From all I can tell, the main reason we accepted the name Mennonite was in order to stop people from derisively calling us Anabaptists.

By the nineteenth century, we had learned from our enemies and started calling each other similarly passive aggressive names.

My favourite is the Mennonite Brethren in Russia who started calling the established Church — previously known just as Mennonite — the “Kirchlige” Mennonites. Literally, the Church Mennonites. And the Kirchlige knew that it was an insult. The Mennonite Brethren were claiming that they followed their faith all of the time and everywhere whereas the others were limited to Church time and space.

But the Church Mennonites couldn’t deny that they used Churches and found themselves accepting the moniker when it was tossed in their direction and so it became a descriptive term, even if no one actually ever forgot that it was an insult.

I, myself, am descended from Church Mennonites. Though I find I can bear the shame.

Later, the Russian Mennonites brought our name-calling habits with us to Canada. In the early 1920s, something like 20,000 Mennonites immigrated to Canada, joining the ones who had come earlier. The Russian Mennonites who had been in Canada since the 1870s called the newcomers the Russlanders (Russians) and the newcomers called the earlier Mennonites the Kanadiers (Canadians).

And it wasn’t an insult at all. Except that it was.

The Kanadiers had spent the better part of fifty years trying to live in Canada without being of Canada, and the Russlanders had dropped their Russian identity like a hot potato the moment the word “Revolution” got appended to it. So neither really liked being identified with their nation.

But they both accepted it as descriptive and knew that if they pushed back, in all likelihood the other group would find something worse to call them.

My parents were one of each but I never heard them use the terms, though they were happy enough to define them for me (and correct my pronunciation) when I asked.

I might have learned the terms earlier in my life if I had been raised in Manitoba but in Ontario, the main distinction was between the General Conference Mennonites and the so-called Old Mennonites.

The Old Mennonites hated being called that. Like the Church Mennonites before them, they just called themselves “Mennonites” and thought that this should be enough. In their view, “Mennonite Church” was a fine enough descriptor — they were the ones who needed no qualifiers.

Also, calling them Old Mennonites always confused people into thinking that they were Old Order Mennonites, old-fashioned, and not welcoming of youth. Which they denied.

I suspect that the Old Mennonites agreed to the merger with the General Conference Mennonites back in the early 1990s at least partly so that they could stop hearing themselves be called Old Mennonites.

They were probably Old Mennonites that called my home Church the Garbage Church. Mine was a member of both the Old Mennonite and General Conference Mennonite groups but nobody ever called us Old Mennonites.

I expect the name-callers were jealous.


The Kirschlige Cocktail

This cocktail will appear in my forthcoming cocktail book. It, of course, references the Kirchlige Mennonites, but today we can consider it a tribute to all name-calling Mennonites everywhere.

  • 1 oz kirsch
  • 1 oz gin
  • 2 oz dry vermouth
  • 1/2 oz lemon juice
  • 1/4 oz simple syrup
  • dash vanilla

Measure all ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled halfway with ice. Shake thoroughly and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with cocktail cherries.


5 thoughts on “We’ve been called worse.

    1. I petitioned my Texas congressmen about the concerns about President Trump’s relationship to Putin. I gave my congressmen a brief history of Russian Mennonites.
      The Chronicle of a shunned Mennonite.
      I found myself homeless in the intercity of Seattle Washington. I was joined by ,black, Asian, native Indian and white women. Mr possessions consisted of a small grocery bag of clothes and a Bible. I was very sick. It was a very dangerous situation, but God was with me. One time as we were sitting at the table discussing life.I looked across the table at a black woman and I told her she was very angry. I told her,’ I wish I could take her to my family farm to the back fourty and get that anger out of her.I saw her face melt and we became friends.
      One night I was very sick and instead of laying on the mat; I sat at the table reading my bible with the woman watching over us. She asked me,’some day I want to know more about your faith because I have never met anyone that has affected so many people. She asked me to do a review on her when her evaluation is due.’ I was humbled.
      Pray for me.God has spared my life from cancer and lynch syndrome for a time such as this.I am in the middle of the hot mess in Houston,TX.

  1. I appreciated the history. My family is from old order Mennonite and whistler Mennonite in Indiana and Ohio. I knew my grandfather helped pay for Russian Mennonites to immigrate to Canada.I have met Russian Mennonites in California and here in Texas.

  2. I absolute love this site. I was raised Mennonite Brethren. But I fit into your not so MB categories since I haven’t been part of the community in forty years. My grandparents were Russian Mennonites, but maternal grandparents were Kanadiers.

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