A Mennonite rebel?

Years ago my father made the comment to me that I had always been somewhat of a rebel. I took that mostly as an affirmation; I am not sure he intended it as such! I like to think that in some ways I lived on the cutting edge of things, but I’ve never thought of myself as a true rebel. My “rebelliousness” has always been on the quiet side. I do things because I view them as the right thing to do, as living according to the truth as I see it. I have never been a “crusader”, trying to get others to change the way they do things, trying to get others to do things the way I do them.

A lot of what I do happens only in my own life, lived quietly, sometimes lonely. Yes, living this way is often a lonely existence. I can remember even in my teen years thinking that I was living more maturely than most of my peers. While I did a lot of things, escaping a lot of adventures relatively unscathed, I seldom participated in the high-jinks of my fellow students. While there were high schoolers from Lincoln, Nebraska (where I grew up) who would go down to Kansas, an hour-and-a-half drive to buy booze (because of lower age limits) and have late night parties around campfires in the countryside, I stayed away. Sure, there were times when I sort of yearned to be part of that sort of camaraderie, but I mostly kept to myself and a few close friends.

Part of that reluctance to party with my peers was my strict religious upbringing. But even in this area (my religion) I was often “ahead” of my community of fellow believers. Beginning in my early twenties I began searching for a more genuine expression of faith than I could see in the churches I participated in. This search led to some very intense experiences which were formative and life-changing. (For more detail about this, see the section of this blog titled, “Out of Winkler”.)

Several weeks ago I was part of a conversation which helped me put all this into greater perspective. At a choir social event, I found myself in a bar-booth, part of a group of five. As we were becoming acquainted we discovered that four of the five were from Mennonite Brethren background! This started a sharing of how these roots had shaped us, what steps we had taken to deal with this aspect of our beginnings, and so on.

Sure, we played the “Mennonite game” of talking about Mennonite names, connections, relations, Mennonite communities we had lived in and so on. For example, I discovered that one of the participants, whom I had known only vaguely as having Mennonite roots, was a cousin of some very close friends of ours.

But following this evening of very interesting talk, I reflected on this conversation at some length. One of the results on this reflection was that my family-of-origin contained several “rebels” within the faith community. My two great-grandfathers on my father’s side of the family, plus my grandfather, were all very highly esteemed leaders in the Mennonite Brethren Church. For example, my great-grandfather Voth was instrumental in establishing the very first Mennonite Brethren Church in Canada (the Winkler Mennonite Brethren Church) in 1888. One of this church’s early leaders was my Grandfather Warkentin (whose daughter became my Grandma Voth!). My Grandfather Voth was one of the top leaders of the Mennonite Brethren conference in North America for fifty years, the entire first half of the twentieth century.

What I began to see in my reflections was that all three of these highly esteemed men was that in their own way, each one had been trail blazers, had been known to do things not always accepted by more orthodox members of their churches. Great-grandfather Voth, for example, blazed a huge path by leaving his Minnesota home and travelling to Manitoba to preach among the “Old-Colony Mennonites”. He was criticized and persecuted for doing this. Then, in his last years, he loaded farm equipment onto train cars and moved to Vanderhoof, British Columbia, to be a leader/shepherd to a group of Mennonites seeking to homestead there.

My great-grandfather Warkentin left his own previous home community of “Old-Colony Mennonites” and established a new life among more progressive Mennonites, along with new understandings of the message of the Bible. His children were very inquisitive and often searched out wisdom not in keeping with their conservative Mennonite roots. Although I don’t know all the stories real well from this side of my family, I know that at least one of his sons became a university professor in the Maritimes. I also am aware that my father’s older brothers (and likely his sisters as well!) loved to visit with these Warkentin uncles and engage in stimulating discussions.

Even my Grandfather Voth, understandably more conservative as a second-generation offspring to these “giants” in the Church community, was known for doing things which garnered criticism from his peers. For example, I am aware of one story where my grandfather agreed to marry a couple when other Mennonite pastors refused to. I think the groom was from a military background, something quite seriously anathema to the Mennonites of that era.

So, as a result of this seemingly random conversation, quite unsought after, and certainly entirely unexpected, I was able to see that my “rebelliousness” has honest roots!!! For anyone, seeing themselves in this light is very helpful in self-acceptance. It helped me see my own place in the progression of family history. It helped me see my own task on this earth with new light. I owe no apologies to anyone for who I am, whom I have become.

So, thank you to my friends who were part of this conversation on a recent Saturday evening in Calgary!!!