January 2000

           

 

THE MENNONITE YEAR IN REVIEW

Purple Clematis and Yellow Pine:

On Cemeteries, Irony and Difference

 

MARLENE EPP*

     Although I am a historian, I am not drawn to cemeteries. I rarely visit them, either as a researcher in quest of genealogical information or a mourner visiting loved ones who have passed on. I remind myself to visit my father's grave about once a year and, when there, usually move quickly on to my nephew's stone not far away. When I travel to Canadian Mennonite communities where my grandparents are buried-Leamington, Ontario and Abbotsford, British Columbia-it never occurs to me to pay my respects there either.

     Ironically, then, it is two cemetery experiences during 1999 that provide the springboard for my wandering impressions on Mennonitism at the turn of the millennium (which, by the way, seems a topic far too portentous for anyone to take on). They form the basis for no conclusive statement about Mennonite identity, purpose or past foibles, but rather serve as an organizing tool for random thoughts about irony and difference. As a further qualifier, I should note that, because I am a person strongly influenced by her physical, sensual environment, the meaning I derive from these two visits may have been shaped as much by sights, smells and intuitions as they were by the presumed significance of the events.

     The first set of impressions were created in Ukraine, on the site of an Orthodox cemetery in the village of Nizhniaia Khoritsa, adjacent to a former Mennonite burial ground in the village of Nieder Khortitsa. The context was an international conference on Mennonites in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, held in the city of Zaporizhzhia, that included a number of public memorial events to mark the historic presence of Mennonites in Ukraine. The purpose of this particular ceremony was to dedicate a historical monument to mark one of the earliest sites of Mennonite settlement in the Khortitsa region-one can still find a handful of barely legible Mennonite gravestones from the early nineteenth century-and also to recall the catastrophic end to that presence in 1943. Hence, the moment also remembered the victims of Stalin oppression, especially those who endured arrest, exile, and death during several waves of repression in the 1930s.[1]  Thousands of Ukrainians, Mennonites and other ethnic minorities were wrenched from their families during this time of terror, most never to be seen nor heard of again. The incomplete grief process was unbearable, especially for all those women and children who after the war migrated to Canada and Paraguay or were sent to labor camps in Siberia. They never had the opportunity to bury their husbands, fathers and brothers. This single cairn was thus profoundly symbolic of all those gravestones that were never erected.

     Even though I was touched by the words being spoken-in at least three languages-the tears shed, the nostalgic hymns sung and the flowers ceremoniously laid at the cairn, my eyes and thoughts wandered. It was late afternoon on an unusually warm spring evening. The steep but rolling banks of the Dnieper River were varied greens in the background, and assorted fruit trees were blossoming whites and pinks in the foreground. The cemetery itself was wildly lush and colorful with thick patches of roses, peonies and bright purple clematis that wound untamed around tall decorative grave markers. Unlike the stark and inhospitable plots I am familiar with in North America, this Ukrainian cemetery was not just a resting place for the dead, but also a social place for the living. At each grave were crude tables and benches where villagers could sit and commune with their loved ones below or share news and memories among themselves.

     The several hundred people gathered for this ceremony was an eclectic mix of earnest Mennonite academics and church workers-from North America, Europe, Russia and Ukraine-and local villagers. The attentive, soberly suited Mennonites stood next to kerchiefed Ukrainian "babas" and gaily dressed children chatting among themselves. For some locals, this must have been no more than an "event" with an obvious significance that demanded their attendance. but I also had a poignant sense that this was a shared remembrance, and that events which Mennonites have too often deemed as their unique history of suffering was only a part of Ukrainian national history. After all, Ukrainians perished in much greater numbers than Mennonites in the catastrophic famine of the early 1930s and also were subject to repressive political measures to force Ukraine into submission. Ironically, the two-year German occupation during World War II made life easier for Mennonites but much worse for their Ukrainian neighbors, despite their aversion to Stalin's regime. The pain of the past that Mennonites had travelled across the globe to memorialize was already firmly planted in the Ukrainian families present there. If nothing else, it reinforced the challenge to shake off that burdensome parochialism that shapes so much of Mennonite thinking and replace it with a greater sense that "our" history is but a small part of "world" history. My thoughts following this cemetery visit rested on the hope that, while Mennonites pridefully rejoice when their historic presence in Khortitsa and Molochna is acknowledged by Ukrainians, the impact will also be reciprocal. At a minimum, this means that historic evaluations of the Russian Mennonite sojourn must recognize, for instance, that borscht and paska are learned cultural traditions and not instinctive.

     My second cemetery visit took place only a month later, on what must surely have been one of the hottest, most humid days in a southwestern Ontario summer. Thus my deliberate walk to the simple white gravestone of Joseph Zehr, buried in 1845 at Martin's Meetinghouse near the border of Waterloo and Woolwich townships, was brief and almost unbearable. Some of us were thinking, as we panted through a few verses of "Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past," that we should really be singing "Oh God, Our Help in Global Warming." The environment inside the meetinghouse, by contrast, was remarkably comfortable, despite the absence of air conditioning. The breeze blowing through large open windows helped, and the starkness of the white walls and yellow pine benches had a cooling effect in themselves. Yet I marvelled at the stoic endurance of several conservative Amish men who did not remove their suitcoats.

     Martin's Meetinghouse sits near the northern perimeters of the city of Waterloo, close to a highway that grows ever busier with the expansion of "big box" commercial developments nearby and the popular tourist-oriented farmers' market. Until several years ago, the meetinghouse was shared by the Old Order (horse and buggy) Mennonites and Markham-Waterloo Mennonites (black car), but given the encroachment of the urban environment, only the latter group worships there now. The present building is about 100 years old, though the first burial in the cemetery in 1831 was that of Peter Martin who immigrated from Pennsylvania in 1819.

     The occasion for the meeting was to recognize the historic presence of Amish settlers in Woolwich township, the municipal district located directly north of present-day Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. The hitherto accepted historic tale was that Amish arriving from Pennsylvania and also directly from Europe beginning in the early nineteenth century settled exclusively in Wilmot township to the west, while Woolwich remained predominantly the domain of Mennonites and following the so-called "Wisler" division of the late nineteenth century, of the Old Order. The territorial separation, while not arising from any theological divisiveness or desire for boundary maintenance, nevertheless was part of each group's geographical identity. Today that distinction is evidenced in part by the identifiable Amish or Mennonite ancestral names on rural mailboxes. For instance, Martins and Baumans are commonplace in Woolwich, while Nafzigers and Steinmans generally hail from Wilmot.

     Research by historian Lorraine Roth, however, has found that several Amish families did in fact purchase land in Woolwich in the early nineteenth century, although after a number of land transactions the lots in question were bought by Mennonites. Amishman Joseph Zehr and his family immigrated from France in 1829 and settled on land in Woolwich, though he did not purchase any acreage. After his death, however, his widow Barbara Kennel purchased and later sold portions of the land, possibly to get a return on the significant investment her family had made in cultivating land and erecting buildings; she then joined other Amish in Wilmot township.[2]  This particular discovery is a localized one, and perhaps of seeming insignificance to any major re-interpretation of either the Amish or the Mennonite experience in southwestern Ontario. However, for the Amish, who have oft been given the position of lesser player in the history of the two Anabaptist groups, this may be an important new contribution to self-understanding.

     Even more than the particular reason for commemoration, I was drawn in by the setting-quiet in atmosphere despite the traffic nearby-and the mix of people gathered to recognize Joseph Zehr and his people: men and women of various conservative affiliations, as made "plain" in their dress; a nondescript over-50 crowd dressed casually in deference to the heat; and only a smattering of under-50s, which is regrettably often the case at such events.

     Aside from the obvious organizing motifs of cemeteries, commemoration and historical interpretation, what can one glean from these two events? Both were, of course, fully in keeping with a Mennonite propensity (obsession?) for celebrating group anniversaries and for locating historic events in marked physical places. As a historian, I rejoiced that Mennonites are continually adding new chapters and nuancing oft-told stories, thus confirming that historical interpretation is always dynamic.

     But more than that, I was struck by the dissimilarities in the "people" at the center of these commemorative occasions: Dutch/Prussian/Russian/Soviet/ Ukrainian Mennonites, now scattered diasporatically (my own word) around the world, and Swiss/German/Amish/Pennsylvania German/Upper Canadian/Ontario Mennonites rooted for 200 years in southwestern Ontario. That they hold to some commonalities attributed to a 500-year old Anabaptist tradition is true, but beyond that I wonder. They seem as different to me as purple clematis and yellow pine. Though one event was held outside of Canada altogether, and the second marked an era before Canada as a nation existed, both cemeteries carry meaning for how Canadian Mennonites today identify themselves.

     Literary theorist Linda Hutcheon has suggested that the signature characteristic of Canadian writing, and indeed thinking, is irony. The continual search for an elusive Canadian identity is evidence of such irony, since the "question without answer" itself is increasingly the only viable definition of the Canadian soul. And the more pressing the identity question becomes in this age of fragmentation, the more elusive the answer. The Canadian self-perception is reflexive, arrived at mainly in reaction to that cultural entity south of the border, or in the working out of regional and individual relationships in a bi/multi-lingual and bi/multi-cultural nation. The ironic voice and the use of parody, says Hutcheon, serve to subvert authority that claims to have a "a single and final meaning" and is also used to contest dominant conventions.[3]  I am reminded of one Canadian's response to the American concern that the new "Mennonite Church U.S." be called "Mennonite Church U.S.A." This voice from the north suggested we thus name our own national conference body, "Mennonite Church Canada, eh?" Here irony functions to poke fun at oneself even while the real jab is directed elsewhere.

     Can one extend to Canadian Mennonitism this ironic sense of a political state built of multiple identities desperately seeking a sense of nationhood? Indeed, it is ironic that I can attend commemorative services with Russian Mennonites in Ukraine and Swiss Amish Mennonites in Woolwich township and somehow feel that both of these are "my people." It is in fact ironic that these two bear any resemblance to one another at all. A recent book by historian Royden Loewen brings together edited diary excerpts of both Russian and Swiss Mennonites written in turn-of-the-century Canada.[4]  The actual fact of bringing these two ethnic streams together in a historical work that is not a survey is remarkable. But it is striking that their commonalities lie not so much in their Anabaptist ancestry but in the fact that they share the daily rhythms of rural life and also the mindset of farmers, immigrants, small town entrepreneurs, men, women, old and young. The diarists are interpreting the world which they inhabit through lenses that are multi-layered or perhaps multi-colored, and "Mennonite" is just one of those layers.

     Those layers of personal and group self-definition also include historic space/time and geographic place. I'm increasingly convinced that Mennonite identit(ies) are quite localized, and committed only in principle to large notions of "peoplehood." The 1998 "One People, Many Voices" conference on Mennonite historical writing in the United States and Canada, though varied in content, by its very title suggested a nostalgia for normative notions of peoplehood when evidence for any kind of normativity is ever more ephemeral. The conference was ironically located in Abbotsford, British Columbia, where Mennonite identity is particularized very much by time and place and worked out with reference to conservative political ideologies and relations (or non-relations) with the other dominant ethno-religious population group, Sikhs from the Punjab. But here again I have stereotyped and neglected a stunning range of response to just two sites of contestation.

      And, though I swore-nay, affirmed-for myself that I wouldn't mention the "i" word, this is why I find the intensity of feeling over Mennonite Church and General Conference integration so puzzling. It may make sense from the perspective of institutional efficiency, but will it in fact just be a mask for ongoing divergence over particular issues (we all know what those are) and create a generic Mennonite entity that is just more mainstream? I also wonder if the diminution of historic divergence may in fact have the ironic result of lessened interest in the histories of Mennonites who join from "other" ethnic and religious traditions. Most important, I wonder if there are really grounds for mergers between regional bodies, one of which may have welcomed gay and lesbian Mennonites and ordained women ten and twenty years ago, respectively, and another that continues to reject the former and grapple misogynistically with the latter. That we don't equate such issues with "core" beliefs actually makes me skeptical that any such core exists at all, despite the valiant efforts of some theologians and historians to arrive at such. Perhaps it is all about historical memory, after all.

     But in relating this to my overall premise (if such exists), I indeed find irony in the merger movement when the particularities of Mennonite identity are increasingly formed with reference to social contexts-feminism, evangelicalism, consumerism, classism-that evolve totally without reference to Mennonites. And so when I cast about for impressions of Canadian Mennonitism, I could hardly make sense of a varied picture in which "identity politics" shapes ideology[5]  but in which "Mennonite" doesn't seem to be high on the list of those multiple identities. When I stop to ponder the frameworks within which I make most of my daily decisions and form many of my opinions, the Mennonite variable doesn't jump to the fore, unless of course it is so pervasive as to be invisible. (Now that's a scary thought!) The commonalities are really about institutions and myths more than about ordinary people. To underscore this, we increasingly understand that varying identity-factors-language, doctrine, history, place, for instance-differentiate Mennonites from each other as much as, and possibly more than, they separate Mennonites from the 99% of the Canadian population that is strangely and ironically defined as "non-Mennonite."[6]  Yet I maintain a certain comfort level with this fragmentation and dissimilarity and view it neither as a regrettable consequence of Tuferkrankheit (the Anabaptist sickness) nor an embarrassing sign of the failure of denominational wholeness. Whether this places me firmly within a postmodern age or is a reflection that regionalism is alive and well in this Canadian soul, I'm not sure.

     The suggestion has often been made that Canadian Mennonites are more comfortable with a quilt-of-many-pieces identity because of our pride in the multiculturalism myth. Anyone who has studied the history of ethnicity, immigration and racism in Canada will know that the mosaic is a "myth" as much as it is "madness," so I'm not really sure if that is a helpful tool. There may be something in the fact that Canadian Mennonites do not exhibit quite the same demeanor and language of "us" against "them" as I hear in American settings, where the magnitude of civil religion, a morally self-righteous state, a morally-void consumer culture (I'm sorry but we just don't have game shows called Greed up here), and the overwhelming fear of losing all sectarian identity in the midst of homogenization may prompt a defensive cloak of unity and parochialism.

     Since the lack of an easily articulated identity is as Canadian as maple syrup, snow and beer,[7]  perhaps Canadian Mennonites do not feel the moral imperative to draw together in a common definition against the culture of "the world." It may also have something to do with the more benign relationship that Canadian Mennonites have historically had with the state. I for one am quite happy to say I am both in the world and of the world. After all, I help to shape the world and aim to teach my children about the good and bad in that world, not about us and them. My comfort with dissimilarities may also reflect the fact that Mennonite-Canadians, like other "hyphenated Canadians," are oriented to place in the here- and-now but also maintain important connections to places far away, be that Khortitsa, Ukraine or Lorraine, France. If one is Canadian, one never ceases to be an immigrant. Or maybe it has to do with what Elspeth Cameron describes as a certain Canadian comfort level with "ideological limbo." This ability to "hold in suspension two or more mutually exclusive sets of values" need not mean one is wishy-washy, but rather that one is able to live with ambiguities and shifting truths. As such, Cameron suggests that the Canadian alternative to the "American as apple pie" equation, may well be "as Canadian as might be expected under the circumstances."[8] 

     When my thoughts return to those two cemetery visits, I still am at a loss to find coherence by using the paradigms of ethno-centricity that I grew up with. But that doesn't bother me because I still become excited when sharing the particular meanings at the heart of these disparate stories with students in my Mennonite history class. In fact, one of my main goals is to instill a sense of where difference and sameness (not division and unity) lies. I talk about continuums of response, about situational morality and theology, about the crucial factor of context, about the ironies of history, and sometimes just throw up my hands and say "I don't know" when queried about the apparent contradictions and inconsistencies.

In the end, I am amazed and grateful that I can claim a connection with a newly erected cairn on the banks of the Dnieper River and also with a plain white headstone at the edge of King Street in north Waterloo, however much I may view myself only "as Mennonite as might be expected under the circumstances."


[*] Marlene Epp is editor of The Conrad Grebel Review and teaches courses in history and Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo. 1. For a variety of historic essays on Mennonites in the Soviet era, see for instance the Journal of Mennonite Studies, 16 (1988), which contains some of the proceedings of the symposium, "Mennonites and the Soviet Inferno." Return to Text

[2] . See Lorraine Roth, "The Amish Presence in Woolwich Township," forthcoming in Waterloo Historical Society Annual Report. Return to Text

[3] . Linda Hutcheon, "The Canadian Postmodern," in Canadian Culture: An Introductory Reader, ed. Elspeth Cameron (Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press, 1997), 65. Given my use of Hutcheon, it may be seen ironic that a recent analysis of irony and Mennonite historiography is developed by an American historian. See Paul Toews's excellent essay, "The American Mennonite Search for a Useable Past: From the Declensive to the Ironic Interpretation," MQR 73 (July 1999), 470-84. Return to Text

[4] . Royden Loewen, ed., From the Inside Out: The Rural Worlds of Mennonite Diarists, 1863-1929 (Winnipeg: U. of Manitoba Press, 1999). Return to Text

[5] . Political scientist Reg Whitaker cites "identity politics" as one of the most important political narratives operating in Canada at the end of the millennium. See "Canadian Politics at the End of the Millenium: Old Dreams, New Nightmares," in A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies, eds. David Taras and Beverly Rasporich, 3rd ed. (Toronto: ITP Nelson, 1997), 119-37. Return to Text

[6] . See for instance James Urry, "Of Borders and Boundaries: Reflections on Mennonite Unity and Separation in the Modern World," MQR 73 (July 1999), 503-24. Return to Text

[7] . These are some of the most frequent responses given by students in my Canadian Studies class to a question regarding characteristics of Canadian culture. Return to Text

[8] . Elspeth Cameron, "Introduction," in Canadian Culture, 8. 190 The Mennonite Quarterly Review 191 Cemeteries, Irony and Difference 183

 

 

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