I aspire to simplicity, but it’s complicated. Consider: Is Mennonite simplicity more cultural than theological? Let me tell you the stories of two horses and two cars.
Rural Saskatchewan, 1940s
My mom drove a horse to school. Trix was the designated horse because she was easygoing and didn’t get spooked. It was three miles, perhaps shorter when my grandfather made a path across the snowy fields. Saskatchewan gets a lot of snow. The reliable “but not the speediest” Trix pulled a sleigh on runners when the snow was deep enough. The enclosed sleigh had a stove inside to keep my mom and her brother warm on the trip.
Trix pulled a two-wheeled cart on the road the rest of the year. The rubber-tired cart was quite a smooth ride, according to my mom. My grandfather built both the cart and the sleigh from materials found on the farm. In retrospect, my grandfather must have been inventive.
Mennonites who had migrated to Canada from Russia lived simply in Saskatchewan (and elsewhere). My parents grew up without electricity, a telephone or indoor plumbing. My mom remembers getting electricity. They could turn the light on to do chores in the evening. They didn’t need to use kerosene lamps any longer. They could heat water in a kettle instead of melting snow by the stove. They bought a radio so they could listen to the news and, perhaps more important, the weather forecast. Technology was welcomed.
While it seems Trix didn’t need much direction or many commands to get to school, my mom would have spoken to Trix in Plautdietsch (Low German). My mom learned English in school. Trix would have waited in the horse shed and probably never learned.
I am visiting Belize, a country in Central America, with my parents. The climate is warm, and there are palm trees. However, in many respects, my Mennonite kinfolk there live like they did in Saskatchewan during the 1940s and ’50s.
At my request, I am riding in a horse-drawn wagon with one of my cousins. For the occasion, the family has washed both the horse and the wagon. My cousin (and presumably the horse) speaks Low German; I do not. I smile and laugh with delight on the short ride. I wave at everyone we see.
My parents have rented a car. As we tour farms to visit my father’s many cousins, I take pictures with my cellphone and print out tiny photos on a small Bluetooth printer. While some of my cousins have photo albums, others have no photos of their children. These mementos are well-received.
On my dad’s side, two of his mother’s sisters moved their families to Belize when my father was a child. My grandfather, my dad’s father, didn’t want to move. It seems unlikely that I would be sitting at my computer typing this article in my suburban home in Ontario if my father’s family had moved to Belize. Did they move to preserve their faith? Their language? Their culture? A simple life gets complicated really fast.
Eating with my cousin’s family in Belize was like time-traveling back to my grandmother’s kitchen in Saskatchewan. The soup tastes the same. I hug one of the family matriarchs when I leave, which is apparently a faux pas. I think I was forgiven, because I learned that she got a car and driver to take her and one of her grandsons to the city so that they could watch my plane take off.
I see no hypocrisy in their choices about driving. Not driving cars keeps their community together. They have cars and hire drivers as needed for both personal trips (like the airport) and for business. They have made choices both big (migration) and small (horses) to protect their culture.
While I regret that I can’t speak Low German to ask them theological and other questions, I suspect women don’t ask many theological questions in their culture. It’s complicated.
Ontario, present day
My husband and I drive a lot. Too much. Hundreds of miles a week. It’s an electric car powered by renewable energy, but still.
We live in the suburbs, a location chosen for its proximity to a commuter train line. However, my husband no longer catches the 7:02 express train downtown each weekday morning. This year we’ve spent considerable time driving to assist either my husband’s 93-year-old mother or my 80-year-old parents. They live more than 100 miles apart, and in opposite directions.
My daughter and her husband live about an hour away in yet another direction. We live near the lake, so there really isn’t a fourth direction of travel unless we had a boat, which we don’t.
We drive about half an hour to church, which is quite near where my son and daughter-in-law live (bless their hearts!).
Ironically, it would simplify our life if we didn’t attend a Mennonite church. Walking to the local Presbyterian church would be the simplest, but I really like our church. How much of that is cultural and how much is theological is an excellent question. Something to think about in the car.
Lori Guenther Reesor is an expert in Christian giving and author of Growing a Generous Church: A Year in the Life of Peach Blossom Church. She attends Hamilton Mennonite Church in Ontario and blogs at lgreesor.com.