culture

Giving time

Author: Lydia Penner

Mennonites in the Netherlands, like the Dutch in general, are very active people. They believe in taking responsibility for their own  lives and for the society they live in. 

Witnessing

There is hardly a profession or trade where Mennonites are not found. At their work-place they can get into discussions about their values. Their children usually go to ordinary public schools rather than to Christian schools because Mennonite parents prefer to teach their own brand of Christianity to their children. Often the only ones in the class with a church connection, these children are sometimes asked about their beliefs and what the church is about.

 

Birthdays

The Mennonite children are involved in sports, music and theatre, activities which support personal development. Yet many are also active in the Sunday school. There they work to raise money for projects at home and abroad. To contribute to an organization supplying birthday boxes to families with a limited income, the children in The Hague, a city on the west coast, prepared goodies to sell after a church service. In the Netherlands it is very important to celebrate your birthday, which includes, for children, offering a treat to classmates.  With these boxes, children in poor families can have a birthday celebration like everyone else.

 

Bicycling

Mennonites of all ages are fervent bicyclists, as the quickest and cheapest way to get around in a crowded country, for the exercise, and from environmental considerations. In Joure, a town in Friesland, young people organized a bicycle trip in the footsteps of Menno Simons, from Witmarsum, where he was born, to Bad Oldesloe, where he died, by which they raised money, through sponsors, for a facility for the handicapped in a nearby community.

 

Volunteers

Like Christians in other churches, parents, seniors and singles are very active in volunteer work, not only in the congregations, but also in the community they live in. For example, they are hosts or hostesses at museums; serve in committees for support of cultural activities; help out in hospitals and care homes by bringing patients to activities and looking after the flowers given them; spend time with people with few contacts; do shopping for the housebound in the neighborhood; help family and neighbors in need - you name it, they’re doing it. Some congregations, like Zaandam, Surhuisterveen, Rottevalle and Drachten, give support and hospitality to refugees in the country.

 

Witnessing

There is hardly a profession or trade where Mennonites are not found. At their work-place they can get into discussions about their values. Their children usually go to ordinary public schools rather than to Christian schools because Mennonite parents prefer to teach their own brand of Christianity to their children. Often the only ones in the class with a church connection, these children are sometimes asked about their beliefs and what the church is about.

 

Birthdays

The Mennonite children are involved in sports, music and theatre, activities which support personal development. Yet many are also active in the Sunday school. There they work to raise money for projects at home and abroad. To contribute to an organization supplying birthday boxes to families with a limited income, the children in The Hague, a city on the west coast, prepared goodies to sell after a church service. In the Netherlands it is very important to celebrate your birthday, which includes, for children, offering a treat to classmates.  With these boxes, children in poor families can have a birthday celebration like everyone else.

 

Bicycling

Mennonites of all ages are fervent bicyclists, as the quickest and cheapest way to get around in a crowded country, for the exercise, and from environmental considerations. In Joure, a town in Friesland, young people organized a bicycle trip in the footsteps of Menno Simons, from Witmarsum, where he was born, to Bad Oldesloe, where he died, by which they raised money, through sponsors, for a facility for the handicapped in a nearby community.

 

Volunteers

Like Christians in other churches, parents, seniors and singles are very active in volunteer work, not only in the congregations, but also in the community they live in. For example, they are hosts or hostesses at museums; serve in committees for support of cultural activities; help out in hospitals and care homes by bringing patients to activities and looking after the flowers given them; spend time with people with few contacts; do shopping for the housebound in the neighborhood; help family and neighbors in need - you name it, they’re doing it. Some congregations, like Zaandam, Surhuisterveen, Rottevalle and Drachten, give support and hospitality to refugees in the country.

 

Vocation and profession

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

Everyday life in Mennonite families is not much different from that in any other family. You live and work together as many families all over the world would. But praying together has a special place in Mennonite families. We read the Bible and pray together to start the day or end it and to remind ourselves that we are dependent on God’s mercy. Many Mennonites in South Germany today still work in agriculture.

 

Agriculture

This is because in the 19th century king Maximilian IV Joseph did everything he could to bring Mennonites to cultivate unused areas in Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg and in the Palatinate. Since then the farms have been passed down from generation to generation or to other church members. Life on the farm is controlled by the seasons. To serve both God and creation is the main aim in the Mennonite agricultural tradition. A big manufacturing company for agricultural machines and vehicles in southern Germany has its roots in this tradition.

 

Other professions and awareness of Mission

Today many Mennonites have a job in the social or medical sector. Nursing and other health care professions are also common among members of the congregation. They strongly believe in the practice of the biblical assignment to ‘help, care for and love one another’. Today no one can deny that the choice of a profession isn't solely based on the Mennonite tradition. But Mennonites from our community obey the mission to carry Jesus' love further in all professions.

Work

Author: Svietlana Bobileva
Translator: Katerina Revunenko

Mennonite colonies in the Russian Empire were situated in a zone of risky agriculture. Lack of rains and extreme droughts sometimes converted fields into a pitiful sight. In good  years however, rye and wheat reached waist height. The Mennonites harvested with minimal losses. They carefully prepared agricultural tools and machines. All the equipment had to be ready by Midsummer Day (June, 24). On that day lobogreykas (mowers), wagons loaded with pitchforks, rakes, food and water moved to the fields. The Mennonites and their employees approached the sloping wheat in rows and folded it into big piles. The work required some skill and physical strength because the machines worked non-stop with only a meal break.

 

Camping in the fields

Harvesting took the whole day. To avoid wasting time, the Mennonites camped in the field. However, some wagons returned to the village for the night. They took some water and food for the next day. Such schedules made sure  that harvesting took only about 6–8 days.

 

Threshing

Meanwhile, other people stayed in the village to prepare for threshing. They  used ‘garbos’ – big wagons. These were used to take compressed wheat to a place where threshing stones were moved by two horses walking in circles. Short sticks (‘langvids’), connecting the front and rear wheels, were replaced with long ones. The Mennonites also fixed 1.5 metre high ladders on the both sides. Grain-cleaning machines were turned by hand. Threshing took 8–10 days and always had the risk of the weather turning bad hanging over it.

 

‘One day feeds a year’

Gradually, technological progress influenced the Mennonite colonies. Over time the Mennonites started using threshing machines. These were quite expensive, so the Mennonites often rented them for 1–2 days. In order to cope with a large amount of work in a short time, the owners hired 10–15 employees. They were the Ukrainians from nearby villages. They had to work hard: from 3– 4 am until 10–11 pm. However, the work was well paid and the Mennonites fed their employees properly. So there were no conflicts because everybody understood that ‘a day feeds a year’. Harvest time was a difficult but important time of the year. It gave the Mennonites hope for the next year and filled their lives with great joy.

 

Photo: John A. Lapp, C. Arnold Snyder eds.: Testing Faith and Tradition. Global Mennonite History Series: Europe. (Good Books, PA, 2006).

Building and construction

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer 

Rooms for church service, prayer and fellowship

These days it is normal that churches have their own buildings. Rooms in which the congregational life happens. It is also normal to share these rooms. But the Mennonite history there were many different kinds of places where the congregation gathered. In times of prosecution they even met in secret in caves or under big old trees, in open fields or secretly church member's houses. Later the church gatherings were in ordinary buildings like farms, houses, inns, barns, and warehouses.

Mennonites in South Germany didn't develop a typical architecture, although you can find distinguishing marks in Mennonite assembly halls and prayer houses. They were developed because the places were defined by the theology, the worship practices and also by the economical and political limitations of each church. So all these places have one essential aim: The congregation gathers there to read God's word, to hear it, to teach it and to fill it with life.

So the church celebrates baptisms and the Holy Supper together, as well as eating meals together. Based on the size of the congregation opportunities to build or rent assembly halls tailored to individual wishes can occur. Some congregations in southern Germany have their own places (Ingolstadt/Regensburg). Others are rent out space in other churches (Augsburg/München).

 

Not holy places

So the rooms used are not ‘holy places’ in and off themselves, but they are still rooms where believers can serve God and each other. The relationships between church members influence the atmosphere of the premises and show the living relationship to God. Church services and meetings in the name of Christ contribute to the significance of our church rooms.

 

Hospitable places as a chance for open words

In 2013 we opened our rooms to pupils of the nearby school, because it was being renovated. For three weeks they were using our rooms and in this time many opportunities for dialogues occurred. Hospitality can be an opportunity to make Jesus' message of redemption be heard again.

Buildings and constructions

Author: Svietlana Bobileva
Translator: Katerina Revunenko 

The Mennonite mentality is based on rationalism. Colonies consisted of villages built closely together. The settlements, connected by roads, were established close to the banks of small rivers. They were built according to officially approved plans which had been adapted to the landscape. Gradually, the colonies developed their infrastructure: craftsmen's workshops, factories, shops, churches and schools.

 

Well maintained and neat

The Mennonite villages were laid out along a single street, the main street, which had a hard surface. There were ditches to drain rainwater and stone paved sidewalks alongside the road. The street looked well maintained and neat. All colonies had large green spaces and gardens. Flowers grew in front gardens. A prayer house/church and a school were located in the central part of the settlement. The school was often a beautiful two-storey building with large windows, comfortable stairs and tiled floors.

 

Material

There were half-timbered, adobe and brick houses. The chimneys were fixed in the attic’s floor for better heating and convection of warm air. In chimneys, Mennonites traditionally arranged a smoking place. The gables of houses were 9 metres high and made of brick. Roofs were gabled, tiled, covered with metal or with shingles. The floors were mostly painted. The housewives washed and scraped the unpainted floors. Every house had a cellar – rectangular or arched in shape. Walls and floors were tiled and made of bricks. Sometimes the Mennonites had rammed earth floors.

 

Arranging yards and houses

The yards were 40 metres wide and 100–120 metres long. Farmyards were separated by fences  which were bleached twice a year. The mostly one-storeyd buildings,  9 to 18 metres wide, faced the main street. All the houses had two entrances. The front door faced the yard. Another one led through a corridor to a barn and then to the second door, a few metres further from the main entrance. In some houses four rooms were located around the hearth which was in the centre of the building. Houses had four areas inside the building: communal areas and two living and cooking areas. Sliding beds (‘shlopani’), sideboards, couches, wooden sofas, hanging double-wing cabinets and  chests are among the traditional furniture.

 

Wells

The wells were located in the yards and in the stables. If a village didn’t have good water, the Mennonites arranged pools covered with a wooden lid which were filled with filtered rain or distilled water. Wells were also installed on the roadsides.

 

The new open silhouette church of Witmarsum

Author: Gerke van Hiele

Next to the Menno Simons monument (1878) near Witmarsum, in 2008 an open silhouette church was built. It was initiated by the Frisian Mennonite Monuments Foundation (SDMF) and designed by Joute de Graaf. It shows the silhouette of 'Minne Siemens old meeting-house' which was demolished in 1879. The architect has taken good care not to build a replica of a secluded Mennonite church, but an open structure with space for light, rain and wind.

 

Spirituality

For many visitors this new silhouette church is an invitation to ponder the significance of the Anabaptist tradition. It is part of a meditative pilgrimage at the birthplace of Menno Simons. The starting-point of this route is the Koepelkerk in Witmarsum, the place where Menno left the Roman-Catholic Church and closed the door behind him, a moment which has become a crucial one, showing the Anabaptist tradition as a tradition of renewal. The next station is the old and hidden meeting-place of Pingjum. This building reflects a history of persecution and strife, leading to the Mennonites eventually becoming the 'quiet in the land'. The last station is this open and colourful silhouette church. Here one can sense the inspiration for the future direction of our communities. 

 

Past, presence and future

Witmarsum has finally become a proper place of pilgrimage. Before 2008 foreign tourists and pilgrims came to this place enthusiastically, but they tended to leave slightly disappointed. There was the Menno Simons monument, but now there is also this silhouette church which shows a clear profile of the Mennonite tradition and community. We may build carefully on Jesus' foundation, but we have to be careful how we build (1 Cor 3:11). It is our turn to live our personal and communal life both faithfully and authentically wherever we may be.

 

Anabaptist Characteristics

This  structure with its strong profile may also bring to mind all that we share. For example the Shared Convictions (MWC 2009), but also the characteristic elements of our tradition like baptism, discipleship and work for justice & peace. One could also think of the seven Practices of David Augsburger: radical attachment, stubborn loyalty, tenacious serenity, habitual humility, absolute nonviolence, concrete service, and authentic witness.

 

References: David Augsburger, Dissident discipleship, A spirituality of self-surrender, love of God and love of neighbor, (Grand Rapids 2006). F. Stark, E.J. Tillema (red.) Kracht van een minderheid (Zoetermeer 2011). G.J.J. van Hiele, ‘De zevensprong. Over doperse spiritualiteit’ in: Doopsgezinde Bijdragen DB 34 (2008), pp. 127-152.

The Pax Boys – Our angels of peace

Author: Isabel Mans
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

‘They were angels to us‘, said a woman who witnessed their activities. These peace angels were young men from the USA who refused to perform military service after World War II and were sent to Germany to help its rebuilding. They performed a peace service with the aid agency Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

 

Love as a Philosophy of Life

Roger Hochstetler  came to Germany in 1951 to show his solidarity with the Germans. Although Germany had caused much suffering in the world, Hochstetler felt a connection to his Christian brothers and sisters in Germany. Most Americans of the time hated the Germans, but Hochstetler said ‘Love was always my philosophy of life. We built houses to help the victims of war‘. The Pax Boys built settlements for Mennonite refugees from Prussia and Russia and new Mennonite congregations were founded there.

 

Ambassadors in the Name of Christ

The Pax Boys came to Germany in the 1950s ‘in the name of Christ‘, which is the motto of MCC. They wanted to be ‘ambassadors of peace‘; they lived in simple accommodations, declined wages and even paid $75 a month in order to be a part of this project. Dwight Wiebe wrote:

 

Peace means a time for healing, caring and repairing. ... I arrived in Europe in the 1950s, where I met 30 young Pax Boys, ages 18 to 22, who had come to Germany to put their Christian faith into action. All of them came equipped to be ambassadors of peace.

 

Without prior instruction or professional assistance they dug cellars and foundations and constructed houses with only basic tools. Local newspapers reported with surprise that they would build homes for strangers – their former enemies.

 

Tangible acts of peace

It took 5 months of work by eight Pax Boys to erect the Mennonite parish hall in Krefeld. This created a big saving for the congregation both financially and in building time. In the town of Wedel near Hamburg a parish hall and 11 duplexes were built between 1954 and 1958. By the end of the 1950s about 120 persons were living there. The Pax Boys also contributed to the youth work and helped establish the congregation in Wedel. They were a visible sign of peace in a landscape that had been destroyed by war.

 

Developing Compassion

Author: Michel Sommer

Shortly after World War II French Mennonites expressed their compassion by establishing social institutions. The majority with the help of North American Mennonites. Since then, there has been minimal development in this field, with the exception of the Welcome Centre Montbéliard, where those battling with social and economic difficulties have been finding help since 1996.

However, today the number of people in need has not diminished. Why this lack of initiatives? What are today’s challenges in launching projects to demonstrate our compassion toward everybody?

 

Lack of initiatives

The reasons are numerous, but here are three. Firstly, it is much more difficult today to establish recognised social activities than it was 50 years ago.

Secondly, the absence of a theological drive resulting in visible acts. North American Mennonites played a key role in the past, but the theology of social action apparently has not been fully integrated in our French Mennonite communities.

Thirdly, one may wonder whether, since the1950s, French Mennonites have become somewhat gentrified; better integrated into society, mostly better educated, they now have difficulty identifying themselves with the excluded. This phenomenon is amplified by the context of continual media coverage: ‘The media allow us to see, and simply ignore’ (Jean-Marc Chappuis).

 

Challenges

In the French context, what are the areas in which compassion could be exercised in new ways? Let us consider three societal groups in particularly difficulty.

 

First: foreigners and immigrants. The rise of ideas of the extreme right and their more prominent place should make Christians reconsider their position as they should be revealing a message of love towards both neighbours and enemies. Unfortunately these xenophobic ideas find a fertile soil here in Alsace. Campaigning in favour of foreigners and immigrants would be a prophetic action.

 

Second: gypsies, a stigmatized foreign population. Although some gypsies are responsible for undesirable behaviour, aggressiveness towards them and the forcible evacuation of settlements revives memories of dark days in Europe. If Jesus spoke in parables today, perhaps a gypsy would be the model of compassion that he would invite his listeners to consider.

 

Third: social breakdown, divorces have rocketed, individualism is dominant and the population is more elderly. In this context, the number of people living alone has risen sharply in recent decades. Single mothers struggling with jobs, children and exhaustion deserve answers in terms of practical and moral support.

 

Should we conclude that French Mennonite compassion no longer exists?

Witnesses of the Kingdom of God

Author: Fulco Y. van Hulst

What is peculiar about Dutch Mennonite ethics – and how is it made visible? The Bible passage that was very dear to Menno Simons was 1 Corinth 3:11: 'For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ.‘ Christ still is the guiding light for ethics from a Mennonite perspective.

 

Sermon on the mount

Mennonite ethics is best characterized as “Sermon on the Mount”-ethics, or as an ethics of following Jesus as the central example of what it means to live a life that pleases God. Particular guidance is found in the sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as in his further teachings and parables. These sayings draw our attention to caring for our neighbor, especially the weak and oppressed, to the love of God that demonstrates itself in the love of others, to overcoming violence and evil and (ultimately) to loving one's enemy These are the practices that are considered to be the measures of a good life. Peace ethics should specifically be considered a characteristic element of Mennonite ethics in Dutch context. A good example would be the way in which Mennonites practiced peace ethics by actively supporting conscientious objectors who did not want to fulfill their mandatory army duty.

 

In the world

The Dutch Mennonite community developed largely in an urban context in close contact with the social-cultural upper class of society. These contacts were much more intensive and often much more peaceful than in other countries in Europe, where Mennonites often lived in a situation of (deliberate) isolation and even persecution and suppression. Through these contacts Dutch Mennonites were able  to spread their message of justice and peace in an active and practical way within society.

Altogether we might say that the focus in Dutch Mennonite ethics is on social ethics: the congregation is considered to be the foretaste of God's Kingdom of Justice and Peace. On the one hand Mennonite congregations try to take practical responsibility in society, by supporting diaconal projects, or by actively profiling themselves as a peace church. On the other hand the Mennonite congregations try to confront society, holding up a mirror, making the reality of The Kingdom of God visible by actively witnessing to the Peace of God in words and deeds.

 

References: World English Bible, 2002.

Tolerance and Freedom of Religion

Authors: Fernando Enns, Joel Driedger
Translator: J. Jakob Fehr 

In Germany religious groups are free to exercise their faith without state control, as long as they do not contravene the constitution. This means that Mennonites can exercise their faith without restriction and can attend their church services without fear of state repression. This was not always the case.

 

Mennonites under pressure

The Anabaptists of 500 years ago were highly critical of the church and its close cooperation with political power. Consequently, many Anabaptists refused to participate in wars or swear oaths. Adult baptism was a further expression of this conviction, ensuring that the only church members would be Christians of conviction. To opponents of Anabaptism these ideas posed a great danger to the cohesion of society, and the Anabaptists faced severe persecution.

Over time this opposition relaxed. Mennonites were no longer persecuted in all parts of the German Reich, although they were obliged to celebrate their church services in private rooms. They did not enjoy the same freedoms as others, and they tended to settle in those areas where they were tolerated, though with severe restrictions by political rulers.

 

Equal rights for all

Their own painful past experience was a crucial reason why early Mennonites called for religious tolerance and religious freedom. This liberal philosophy has remained an integral part of their congregational mindset in northern Germany. A well-known Mennonite who advocated for these values politically was Hermann von Beckerath (1801-1870), He  was elected to the parliament in the first German national assembly of 1848 in Frankfurt and served briefly as finance minister. He pleaded in favour of equal rights for Mennonites, who until that time still did not possess all the rights that other citizens had. In exchange, he asked his fellow Mennonites to accept the duty of military service. In order to guarantee full religious freedom and citizenship, he was willing to sacrifice the principle of nonresistance (conscientious objection).

 

Freedom without violence

After WWII it took a long time before Mennonites in northern Germany returned to their stance of nonviolence. In 2009 the Union of German Mennonite Congregations adopted the ’Declaration on Just Peace’. The freedom of religion and of conscience that Mennonites formerly demanded for themselves is now something that they acknowledge for all members of their congregations. They also speak out publically, so that this same tolerance might be exercised toward all other religions and creeds.

Mennonites – Traditionally modern with values that last?

Author: Beate Zipperer
Translator: Anne Zipperer

When children enter kindergarten, or at the latest when they start going to school and want to attend religious class, their families will have to start explaining things. Especially in Bavaria where most people are Roman-Catholics, Mennonites are considered quite exotic. When you explain who Mennonites are, or what is special about them, you start to rethink the standards and values of this denomination.

 

A family?

To be a Mennonite is basically passed down within and through families. Are we therefore a ‘family church‘? Does the Mennonite church structure change slowly? Traditions only last if you fill them with standards and values. Those are established only through statements from Jesus Christ. These standards and values were also influenced by early Reformatory ideas that apply to other Protestant churches as well. In short, they are:

 

Sola Scriptura – the Bible is the only foundation of our faith (Galatians 2:6-9)

Solus Christus – only Jesus Christ has authority over believers (Ephesians 5:23-24)

Sola Gratia –Only through mercy can humankind be saved (Romans 1:17)

Sola Fide –Only through faith is humankind justified (Galatians 2:16)

 

Guidelines

Many churches have guidelines about faith and life. Those get adapted, adjusted and extended. Churches are living organisms, with people who seek God's promises, which are fulfilled by the Holy Spirit. In summary, at our local congregation the guidelines are:

 

Live faith: At the core for us is the God as he is described in the Bible, this is the reality of God we experience. To live for that is the meaning and the mission of all Christians and churches;

 

Live faith: turn towards the other. Jesus Christ shows us God's love and His way of living in many different ways. To us He is unparalleled in importance. We want to follow him.

 

Live faith: experiencing God's work in our daily life and giving it the space it deserves.

Through the Bible God talks to us directly. The Bible, as we understand it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the guideline for our life and our teaching. This requires, time and again, our willingness to listen to God and to each other.

 

Live faith: together we create church life and take responsibility

Appropriate to our gifts and possibilities we involve ourselves in the life of the church and are part of the testimony of Jesus Christ.