This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Miller: Objects of curiosity

Tim Huber’s editorial, “A Name Worth Keeping” (March 12), supported keeping “Mennonite” as an identifier even though it raises questions among many people unfamiliar with us. I found it timely and thought-provoking. I think about it often.

JB Miller

I’ve taught classes about Mennonites and Amish for more than three years through an adult education program sponsored by Sarasota (Fla.) County Schools. Between classes and speaking to groups, I’ve interacted with more than 1,000 people interested in learning more about us. I’ve had the opportunity to find out what their perceptions are.

Many people have very limited knowledge of Mennonites and Amish. Often, their only contact is seeing Amish and conservatively dressed Mennonites pedaling around on “three-wheelers” or visiting one of the restaurants located in Pinecraft, an enclave home to primarily Amish and conservative Mennonites.

We discuss the wide continuum of beliefs and practices among Mennonites in the U.S., emphasizing we are not a homogenous group, and there are few, if any, beliefs or practices we all agree on.

Conservative groups’ distinctive garb is of particular interest, and occasionally someone wonders why some of the women dress distinctively, but not men. Nevertheless, while most of Sarasota’s Mennonite congregations are theologically conservative, there are always surprised expressions when students learn the majority of Sarasota Mennonites cannot be identified by attire, and most of us do not live in Pinecraft.

People are inquisitive and ask lots of questions. The most frequent is about the difference between Amish and Mennonites. Many assume Amish are the older of the two groups and are surprised when they learn the Amish split from the Mennonites.

“Would I be welcome to attend a Mennonite congregation?” is asked occasionally. This surprised me at first. I assumed everyone knew they’d be welcome. So, my first reaction was to say “Oh yes, of course you’re welcome.” But after a lesbian asked, now I hesitate and explain that anyone is welcome to visit, but attending and participating on a regular basis could be another matter. And I’m reminded that more than just people from the LGBTQ community may not be welcome in some of our congregations.

I have learned from my interactions that even though many people know little about Mennonites, they are interested in who we are. When asked to describe Mennonites, words like “honesty,” “strong work ethic” and “kind” are often mentioned. No doubt this is due in part to many Mennonites working in the building trades in Sarasota. There are few, if any, negatives mentioned. While most identify us as Christian, few know what sets us apart theologically from other groups. When it comes to what we believe, we appear to be a blank slate.

So, what about the question: Is “Mennonite” a name worth keeping? I say “yes,” definitely. The “blank slate” is a tremendous opportunity to communicate who we are and how we live out our desire to follow Christ in daily life. I believe, for many of the unchurched, “Mennonite” has a more positive appeal than “Christian.” We need to build on the positives “Mennonite” holds and fill in this blank slate with actions that welcome all so they can see the love of Christ in the way we live out our faith.

As one of my students told me at the end of the class, “In today’s environment, if I were you, I’d rather be identified as a Mennonite than as a Christian.”

I would agree.

JB Miller lives in Sarasota, Fla., and attends Covenant Mennonite Fellowship.

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