In the past year, two fine memoirs about the search for Mennonite identity have been published, both using a motorcycle journey as the vehicle — literally and figuratively — for the quest to understand the writer’s Mennonite roots. Liz Jansen’s Crash Landing, out in summer 2019, traces the narrator’s motorcycle trip across Canada, and her attempts to reconcile her Mennonite upbringing with her current spiritual formation.
Cameron Dueck takes a somewhat different tack in Menno Moto: A Journey Across the Americas in Search of My Mennonite Identity. His motorcycle carries Dueck south through the United States and then on to Central and South America. Dueck’s memoir explores his identity within the context of Mennonite communities far removed (both geographically and theologically) from his own faith heritage. Such differences compel Dueck to wonder about the idea of Mennonite identity altogether, given that there are so many differing Mennonite streams from which to draw.
As a journalist now living in Hong Kong, Dueck begins his journey to “find out if I was still Mennonite” and “to find out if my definition of Mennonite was still relevant.” In his home community, southern Manitoba, he is considered a wayfarer, the “curiosity” who traveled broadly and landed in Asia; and still, when living overseas, his Mennonite identity makes him “exotic,” too, especially because of the particular food and language that define a Russian-Mennonite heritage.
Decades of travel and of living away from home have left in Dueck what he sees as a residue of Mennonite identity, both culturally and religiously. Dueck admits there are parts of his Mennonite past that embarrass him, including a fastidious adherence to rules and the humble pride that can accompany thriftiness; still, the Mennonite ethic of hard work, its embrace of simplicity and its dedication to pacifism and social justice appeal to Dueck. Fundamentally, he wants to discover what it means to be Mennonite, not only for the Russian Mennonites in Canada but also for those with similar roots to his own in vastly different contexts.
In many ways, Menno Moto is as much a cultural exploration of Mennonites as it is a memoir about Dueck’s motorcycle trip. Dueck starts his journey on the banks of the conjoining Rat and Red Rivers in southern Manitoba, at the spot where his ancestor, Johann, landed from Russia in 1874. This provides a symbolic launching place for Dueck: Johann immigrated to Manitoba because his Mennonite faith made it unsafe for him to stay in Russia; Dueck embarks on his own journey because he is no longer sure what his Mennonite faith means to him.
In Mexico and Central and South America, Dueck begins to understand more clearly the cultural threads tying Mennonite communities together, as well as the differences that separate one Mennonite group from another. In each Mennonite colony he visits, he discovers an affinity for the people he meets, because of their shared language (he still speaks Plautdietsch, or Low German) as well as a connection through his Dueck lineage, especially as many white Mennonites in Central and South America emigrated from Canada.
Despite these similar cultural and theological threads, the most compelling discovery Dueck makes is in the differences that distinguish one Mennonite group from another, sometimes even when they live within miles of each other. As throughout Anabaptist history, there are schisms that continue to separate people, based primarily on interpretations of Scripture and on what it means to live a godly life, set apart from the world.
Menno Moto’s strength resides in Dueck’s ability to tease out these differences and to use his interactions with Mennonites at each colony he visits to explore fundamental questions about what it means to be Mennonite.
Dueck acknowledges the complexity of Mennonite history, noting that the stories we hear are often told by those with power and privilege, even within seemingly homogeneous people groups. This point is most compellingly presented in his chapters on Bolivia, and on the incidences of sexual abuse there that made international headlines a decade ago.
At the heart of this excellent memoir is Dueck’s discovery that the journey toward finding one’s Mennonite identity is complicated and ongoing for all of us, no matter our ethnic background.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newburg, Ore.