Becoming a Mennonite Quaker

LOIS FREY*

     Ten years ago when I was first becoming Quaker and told my older son about what I was doing, he said, ?Oh, Mom, you?ll always be a Mennonite.? In some ways, he was right. Being Mennonite has a very strong cultural as well as religious basis. Many of my closest friends have Mennonite roots like my own. In some ways by becoming Quaker I feel as though I am truly Anabaptist because out of my own study and experience, I?ve found the way that seems to most genuinely express my relationship to God and others.

     As a young child in a Mennonite home, I was taught about caring for those beyond my immediate community. I remember going to see slides of Germany and relief work by Peter Dick there when I was five. Each year, I made a Christmas bundle for a child my age in Europe and sometimes developed a correspondence with the recipient. When I visited in Germany many years later, the host of a family where I stayed for a month told me the story of his father preaching against the Nazis and being sent to prison while he and his mother escaped on foot. His first clothes came from a Christmas bundle. With his hospitality he tried to express his appreciation for how Mennonites had helped his family. Three of my sisters served in home missions, international missions and relief work under Mennonite organizations and we sometimes entertained persons from other states or countries in our home. Despite our provincial life, I had a sense of an international community.

     Growing up Mennonite meant being different, marginal within the larger culture. Julia Kasdorf has spoken of it as ?a doctrine of difference,? which sometimes means feeling inferior to others. My grade school teacher spoke of Amish as smelling bad, and I figured that Mennonites were close enough to the Amish to be seen in the same way. I also felt fiercely protective of having a secret identity when relating to the larger world. When I lived in New York City and no longer dressed plain, people recognized that I was different but did not know how to define me. When I attended a two-week seminar in Chicago with Madeleine L?Engle, people again puzzled over categorizing me. They guessed I was Jewish, American Indian or Italian. No one guessed my true Swiss-German identity.

     While teaching a class in a social work program, I came across an article that spoke about ?positive marginality.? This clarified for me my own position in the world and how I can be a bridge between two cultures when I?m on the edge of each and can see each from the outsider perspective. Because I was curious about how the roots of creativity are nurtured, I brought together a group of highly creative persons who had similar backgrounds to my own. The group included an anthropologist, a botanist, a fashion designer, a painter, a poet and a writer/historian/film maker. For several years, we met twice a year and spent a day together talking and making peace with our identities, forged out of growing up Mennonite. In the years since than, we have supported each other in our creative work. The bond of similar developmental experiences and feeling challenged as we moved beyond familiar boundaries created a spirit of mutuality.

     My father was an astute businessman who believed that quality, integrity and biblical compassion were more important than making money. As a self-taught Bible scholar he especially enjoyed studying eschatology and practiced his faith in the everyday. He loved the beauty of the natural world and enjoyed diversity in people. His example greatly influences how I live my life.

     I enjoyed attending Lancaster Mennonite School as a dormitory student for four years. A number of teachers had a significant influence on me, especially A. Grace Wenger, who mesmerized me with her readings, taught me how to present readings and encouraged me in writing. My teachers modeled committed Christian living. They taught me how to think, which was very different from being told what to think as when I attended an independent Bible college for one semester.

     Eastern Mennonite College also significantly influenced me. I remember taking ?Mennonite History and Thought? and, for the first time, feeling proud of being a Mennonite. The early Anabaptists were heroes of faith to me. This was different from the self-effacement I had felt among contemporary Mennonites.

     When I spent two months in Germany as part of a team from Mount Joy Mennonite Church, we went to see a cave in Switzerland where the Anabaptists had worshipped. I felt a visceral connection to my roots for the first time. I knew how strong the early Anabaptists? faith must have been to want to risk so much to follow their leadings, and I wanted to claim that heritage.

     I studied the life of Andre Trocm‚, a charismatic leader in a small French village who had helped save 5000 Jews during the Nazi regime. As a twentieth-century man, he exemplified for me Anabaptist beliefs of each life being precious. A Quaker had mentored him.

     During many of my years as a Mennonite, I was in leadership positions. I had learned very well from my father how not to express all of my understanding of the spiritual life, lest I offend more traditional believers. When I taught Sunday School, I would challenge people?s beliefs enough to stretch but not disorient them. Eventually, too much of myself felt unexpressed, and I knew I needed to leave. I found a maverick Mennonite church where I could express my more complex beliefs. However, my mystical side lacked a home. The congregation often felt more social than spiritual, and even the social aspect felt too limited for me as a middle-aged divorced single among mostly young families.

     Disillusioned, I decided to visit Lancaster Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. The first Sunday I visited, I was experiencing a very difficult time in my life. Unforeseen circumstances meant I needed to make a temporary move and I was feeling overwhelmed. In the Meeting for Worship, a young woman gave a message that felt as though it was just for me. The gist of the message was ?All will be well.? That message comforted me all week, and I was hooked on the Friends style of worship. For just a bit, I went back and forth between Mennonite and Quaker services. I thought I couldn?t give up music, but I came to feel that I missed the quiet of Quaker meeting more than I missed the music of a Mennonite service.

     I continue to prefer the quiet of Quaker worship and find programmed services too busy. I felt as though I?d ?come home? when I joined Friends Meeting. Some aspects of Quaker life now seem more like the Mennonite church I grew up in than does the contemporary Mennonite church. Simplicity is a strong principle for Quakers, and the meetinghouse with its simple benches reminds me of the Mennonite meetinghouse of my childhood.

     As a book reviewer for Provident Books, I reviewed John Punshon?s Encounter with Silence several years before I became a Quaker. I was very impressed by the Quaker practice of Meeting for Business as a worship experience. Decisions are not made by majority vote. In fact, there is no voting. The minority viewpoint is listened to with the belief that the minority may have the truth. Each person?s opinion is to be valued and respected. This process goes beyond consensus and, although it takes a long time, when a decision is made it is then well supported.

     By the end of my first year as an attender at Friends Meeting, I was invited to be on the Worship and Ministry Committee. After two years, I became a member of the Meeting, a sign of wanting to be fully invested. Our particular meeting has a healthy spirit of community, so most of my social activities are with those from meeting, just as in childhood the church was the center of our social life. Probably one-third of the people at my meeting have some Anabaptist background; only a handful of people are birthright Quakers.

     My Mennonite background has influenced me to feel comfortable with being different, out of the mainstream. I expect to have a minority viewpoint and am comfortable stating my position. Probably the strongest theme that joins Mennonites and Quakers is the peace position. I find it impossible to understand how violence and war can be justified.

     As a peace issues coordinator at Pendle Hill, a Quaker Center for Study and Contemplation, I organized an international conference on peace. Through this job, I came to understand the differences between Anabaptists and Quakers regarding the peace position. There seems to be less unanimity among Quakers regarding what to do. Some Quakers were not supported by their meetings when they took a conscientious objector position during the Vietnam War. Mennonites had a more established system for alternate service at that time. Quakers in the past have been more activist and challenging of government than have Mennonites. They believed in ?speaking the truth to power.? An article that helped me understand the differences is ?A Journalist?s Private Reflections on the Mennonites,? edited by Robert S. Kreider and appearing in Mennonite Life (December 1990). It contrasts Paul French, a Quaker, with Orie Miller, a Mennonite.

     Mennonites can create very caring communities that quickly go into action to respond to disasters or individual physical needs of families. This ethic continues to inform how I live. With Quakers I also find the support to address more complex emotional and spiritual difficulties through the practice of clearness committees, in which a group of people sit with a person needing direction and help the person to ?get clear? by asking questions. It is a truly wonderful process.

     My experience with unprogrammed Quakers is that they focus more on the Spirit than on Jesus. This fits with my own experience of understanding Jesus through my inner experience of God rather than experiencing God through Jesus. Quakers speak of ?that of God in everyone? rather than speaking of accepting Jesus. The understanding of the Bible is more symbolic than literal, which also fits with my own perceptions.[1] 

     At present, I have little access to what is happening in the Mennonite church except for what I hear from friends and family who remain Mennonites. There seems to be enormous diversity in terms of ethnicity and theology. Some Mennonites seem to have become mainstream, more right wing politically and fundamentalist religiously. Some become more materialistic and embrace the theology of financial success as a sign of God?s blessing. That does not feel like the Mennonite church I grew up in; I feel more comfortable with the Quaker focus on acceptance of diverse beliefs and integrity in practicing simplicity.

     Perhaps in becoming Quaker, I am very Anabaptist. Assuming personal responsibility for one?s beliefs is the core of Anabaptism. Out of my Mennonite religious education and my personal pursuit of spirituality, I have come to Quaker faith and practice as the best way for me to express my own understanding and experience.


[1] . The unprogrammed meeting I attend is part of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. This branch of Quakerism predominates in the northeast. In other parts of the country and around the world, there are also programmed meetings, which are more like regular Protestant churches. 328 The Mennonite Quarterly Review 329 Becoming a Mennonite Quaker *Lois Frey is a clinical therapist at Ephrata Community Hospital, Ephrata, PA. 323