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Pride of the Mennonites

Had a wonderful weekend in Portland with the family. Lots of great conversation, and if this one sticks with me, it's probably because it was the last one. As things were winding down after Mother's Day dinner, Mom started reminiscing about life with some of the less pleasant factions of the Mennonite church. In particular she talked about the church in Sheridan, Oregon that she and my dad belonged to when they had a farm in the area. This was before I was born. I'm sure I've heard these stories before, but they struck with particular force this time.

She said that church elders came by one evening when my dad was away playing basketball and criticized him to her for leaving his wife alone with two children. Mom said she didn't have any problem with his going off to have fun without her, but I actually found it interesting that the church was so concerned about the father sticking with his family. As intrusive and annoying as it was, I can actually see the reasoning behind that kind of attempt at social engineering. Keep the father connected to the family; don't put all the child-rearing on the mother.

She also told a story about how two church elders stopped by the house one time to criticize my dad for wearing ties. The Mennonites are against ornamentation and ostentation, which they believe is an exhibition of worldly pride. The more conservative of them join the Amish and certain varieties of Quaker in wearing what are called "plain clothes," which is, as the name suggests, a style of clothing that supposedly looks plain, because it avoids bright colors and ornamental features such as collars. Mom said that Dad replied to these busy bodies, "I'll tell you what. I'll wear the brightest red tie I can find, and you wear plain clothes. We'll walk down the street, and we'll see which one of us gets stared at." Which is to say that plain clothes are extremely ostentatious in their difference from "worldly" clothing. They draw attention to themselves by looking so different. I guess I inherited from my dad the feeling that plain clothes are a form of spiritual pride themselves.

Mom told the story of a preacher in the church pointing out a man in the congregation who was wearing a watch. He accused him of pride and told him the watch offended him. "Take off that watch, because it offends me." This story really chilled me, because it is essentially a form of thought policing and public humiliation. It feels authoritarian to me.

There are family stories along these lines that are told for humor, too. My mom had a cousin who was more than a bit of a black sheep, and one Sunday a bishop of the church spotted him working in the field. He walked out to him and said, "Ron, don't you know this is the Lord's day?"

"Ain't they all?" Ron replied.

Dad's rebelliousness was a sign of concern to the church. After my parents lost the Sheridan farm because the state took the land for a highway, they moved to Grants Pass. Then Dad went to college, albeit a Mennonite college, which was another sign of dangerous thinking. When they moved to Salem after he got his degree, the Grants Pass church refused to give the Salem church a letter of recommendation, which was their way of saying they doubted Dad's faith. The Salem church accepted their profession of faith, but clearly they were on warning. Rightfully so, as it turned out, because they would leave the church entirely just a few years later, while we were living on Yap.

Mom asked me what I remembered about going to church, and I said, "Very little." I have vague memories of being on the grounds of the Salem church. On Yap we sometimes attended the generic Protestant church, and then when we got back to Salem four years later we went to a Methodist church for a year or two. I never got a serious indoctrination into any of it. The Salem church was on the liberal edge of the Mennonites, so if they had stuck with it I probably wouldn't have gotten the more egregious thought policing that my parents experienced when they were younger. To hear these stories is a bracing reminder of the nastier side of the Mennonites that I avoided thanks to my parents' alienation from the creed. It does make me wonder what I'd have been like if I'd been subjected to that social engineering, but I'm glad I never had to find out and proud of my parents for questioning what they were taught.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 11th, 2015 06:09 pm (UTC)
The answer to "Take off that watch, because it offends me" is "Get off your high horse, because that offends me."
May. 11th, 2015 06:37 pm (UTC)
Or: Take this church and shove it.
May. 11th, 2015 10:38 pm (UTC)
I'd say no to that, because it seems more like a Person thing than a Church one. I guess that's because I've experienced a considerable number of (non-church) Fans who have expressed the "I have the Right to prohibit anyone from offending Me" Attitude. I'm generally (being of an older generation) too polite to say "Fuck off!" but I'm young enough to think it, and to act on it.

Don Fitch


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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