Mennonite by choice
By Joni S. Sancken ’98

I have never tried borscht or shoofly pie, I cannot claim to have Amish cousins and I cannot even trace my ancestors back to 16th-century German martyrs. Despite these facts, I call myself a Mennonite. Though Mennonites can hardly claim to define themselves by ethnicity alone, cultural traits and ethnic history do play a large part in their identity. Before meeting so many “ethnic” Mennonites, I never understood how important history is to this increasingly “nonethnic” denomination. I also never understood the importance of looking beyond that legacy in my own family.
My hometown is in a largely non-Mennonite area. In fact, my brother and I were the only Mennonites in our high school. Because of this unusual distinction, we were the constant victims of anti-Anabaptist propaganda. Every day, fellow students lambasted us with their ignorance. In driver’s ed, one well-meaning girl commented, “I always thought you people didn’t drive cars.” My brother was accused of sporting button-fly jeans because zippers were against his religion, even though most of his non-Mennonite friends also wore button-fly jeans. I remember being asked questions that ranged from “Are you allowed to own a TV?” to “Can your brother have more than one wife?” Sick of the burden our religious affiliation laid upon us, my brother and I even went so far as to deny our denominational affiliation. What a far cry from the behavior of the martyrs in the stories I would later embrace at Goshen College!
I felt uncomfortable answering questions about “Old Order” Mennonite lifestyle because up until the relatively recent baptism of my parents into membership at First Mennonite Church in Champaign-Urbana (Ill.), I was just as ignorant of the Mennonites as my classmates. In fact, I had never even heard of this obscure sect before my family moved away from our cozy Quaker meeting in Muncie, Ind., to the Quaker void of central Illinois. Even after my parents, and even I, were baptized, I still knew very little of the history behind the Mennonite Church. Why did the Dyck family cry when Communism fell in Russia? Why did children have to wait so long to be baptized? Why was baptism such a big deal anyway? What was the story behind men and women having separate foot washing? I was missing out on a very rich ethnic history.
Despite my questions, I did not concern myself with the Mennonites and their history anymore until I went to Goshen College. I should have realized the importance of ethnic identity to Mennonites when I arrived and found that my roommate, a Hershberger, was related to most of my hallmates. Once I became immersed in my classes, I realized that Mennonite beliefs were integrated into much of the curriculum. I learned about the importance of peace issues, simple living and community. I learned the Mennonites’ stories. And I found myself touched by their tragic history.
I wished I could claim that colorful Mennonite past for myself. I envied my ethnic Mennonite friends who could trace their ancestors to common roots and reminisce about their common experiences in Mennonite communities. I also became angry when confronted with Mennonites who sought to distance themselves from their roots. I felt that they were wasting their rich ethnic past. I wanted desperately to belong. But, just as I had in high school, I considered the Mennonites to be my stumbling block to the mainstream. I felt this way originally because I was a Mennonite and later on because I was not an “ethnic” Mennonite.
What was I really lacking? My frustration over my involvement in the Mennonite Church had to be a defense mechanism of some type. Perhaps my true frustration was with my own ancestors. I felt that I had no contiguous past – nothing to connect me with what had and what would come.
Thankfully, I was wrong. Unintentionally, my ancestors had left me a very important legacy, the legacy of choice. Unlike the Mennonites, my ancestors did not flee to this continent after being violently forced out of another country. They chose to come here of their own free will. Also, unlike the Mennonites, each member of my family has chosen their life path and occupation for themselves. They do not feel bound to the life of their ancestors. The same comparison holds true for faith. My maternal grandfather was an atheist. My parents call themselves Quakers. I choose to be Mennonite.
Though these concrete decisions have been left up to the individual in my family, other things have not. Values, including living in harmony with the earth and its other inhabitants and remaining true to one’s dreams and ideals, are one legacy that my family has given me. I am proud of this heritage of choice and individuality that I am able to claim. Though I know that I will always struggle with my perceived lack of family history, I also know that this lack will not keep me from being a whole person.
In the fall of 1998, Joni Sancken entered Mennonite Voluntary Service in Richmond, Va., then spent a summer as a camp program director. In 1999, she enrolled at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and began serving as part-time youth pastor at Sunnyside Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind. She is a writer and marketing assistant at Mennonite Board of Missions. This fall, she will enroll at Princeton Theological Seminary to complete a master’s degree in divinity.

Return to June Bulletin contents
Commencement rites by Rachel Lapp
“Fling yourself…but, darling, don’t drop!” by President Shirley H. Showalter
Senior profiles: Ryan Kolb, Andrea Troyer, Joel Jimenez, Lora Nafziger, Greg Stahly, Melody Bennett, Deana Landis, Alicia Montoya and Rachel Glick
How Julia Kasdorf changed my life by Daniel Shank Cruz
A lifetime in family business: What I’ve learned by Leonard Geiser ’57 with Rachel Lapp
Allon H. Lefever by Ryan Miller

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