n any community, the artist is the chronicler of abstract Determined not to become another Nomi, spewing adoles-
I truths. For Miriam Toews, the medium is writing. The subject
is Mennonites. But the truth is far more complicated.
In her latest novel, the Governor General’s Award-winning
cent exaggerations and unjustified snide remarks, I decided to
look further than the sermonizing mouths that infect
Mennonitism and get to the crux of the matter.
A Complicated Kindness, the protagonist is a fictional 16-year-
old, Nomi Nickel, who struggles against the stifling Mennonite Imagine the least well-adjusted kid starting a breakaway
community of East Village and a disappearing family. clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media,
Toews is remarkable at capturing the reality of growing dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock ‘n’
photo: Amber Hildebrandt
up in a Mennonite community, or in any small community roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewellery, playing
for that matter. But I couldn’t help but feel a little irked at the pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was
historical inaccuracies of what I knew was only a fictional Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.
novel. I’d grown up Mennonite, fielded the strange questions My hometown, Grunthal, was about as typically
of non-Mennonites and was all too aware that I too didn't Mennonite as they come. In elementary school, I had half-
know the history of Mennonites. day German immersion from kindergarten to grade three. In
6 THE NEWCANADIANMAGAZINE SUMMER2005
w w w . n e w c a n a d i a n . c o m
non-believers, pacifism and the separation of church from state.
I LOUDLY PROCLAIMED THAT WE All stem from their literal interpretation of the Bible.
Although the religion carries Menno Simons’s name, the
WERE NOTHING LIKE THE
photo: Amber Hildebrandt
religion was actually founded in 1525 by Conrad Grebel, Felix
Manz, George Blaurock and others in Zurich, Switzerland.
AMISH. TURNS OUT, WE ARE. Menno Simons, an ordained Catholic priest until 1535,
when he finally renounced his Catholic faith after years of
struggling with the discrepancies between the Catholic Church
church, the women and men sat solemnly separate on the rituals and the teachings of the Bible, joined a group of
pine benches to listen to first the German, then the English, Anabaptists called the Obbenites.
sermon. In high school, I discovered another distinctive Menno Simons’s conversion to the Anabaptist faith
feature—there was a strict policy of No Dances and a sub- resulted from a series of catalysts. The first was the 1531
versive culture of book-banning that attacked classics such execution of Sicke Freerks Snijder, who had been killed
as Who Has Seen the Wind? and Brave New World. As an adult, because of his second baptism. Shocked by Snijder’s willing-
I realized that the only place to buy alcohol was in pockets of ness to die for the right to a second baptism gave Simons the
French communities tucked conveniently next to major impetus to leave the church.
highways exiting the dry Mennonite towns. For me, these But it was the Münsterites that propelled Menno Simons’s
were the characteristics of a Mennonite. rise to leadership. Led by Jan Matthys, this group of radicals
Upon moving away from Manitoba, it was in a small, overthrew the city of Münster in northwest Germany with the
hesitant voice that I told friends my little secret. goal of establishing their own Jerusalem. Hundreds of
“You’re Mennonite?” They furrowed their brow. “Can you Anabaptist followers flocked to Matthys and lost their lives to the
only wear hooks and black clothes?” heresy, including Simons’s brother.
“Nooo! Why would you think that?” Frustrated by fanatics polluting their faith and winning
“Well, aren’t you like the Amish?” over their congregations, leaders of the Obbenites gave up,
I loudly proclaimed that we were nothing like the Amish. but Menno Simons doggedly carried on. In so doing, he was
Turns out, we are. forced to define and develop his own peaceful brand of
Derived from the Greek word for “re-baptizer,” Anabaptism Anabaptism—a distinctly pacifist one.
refers to the doctrine of a group of radical reformers of the
16 -century Reformation and includes the Mennonites, We’re Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embar-
Hutterites and Amish. rassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five
As indicated by their name, Anabaptists believe in adult hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to
baptism, or believer baptism, instead of the traditional infant do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were
baptism. Other key tenets of their belief include the shunning of beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland
This monument was erected by Grunthal’s mayor around
a gravestone of the Wiens family, founders of the town.
SUMMER2005 THE NEWCANADIANMAGAZINE 7
w w w . n e w c a n a d i a n . c o m
and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right Hardship was a defining experience for Mennonites. It
here where I sit. Ironically, they named this place East Village, turned what began as just a religion into a culture by bringing
which, I have learned, is the name of the area in New York City that them together.
I would most love to inhabit. Others ran away to a giant dust bowl “History is everything for Mennonites,” says Royden
called the Chaco, in Paraguay, the hottest place in the world. Loewen, the Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of
Terror struck in my great-grandfather’s home on a Winnipeg. “Mennonites, unlike other people, do not have a
Sunday in September 1918. Abraham Thomas Wiens was a homeland to envision or feel nostalgia over.”
young man, bounding upstairs with his cousin and brothers Mennonites developed as a cultural group with the
to start a game of chess when they heard the heavy steps of acquirement of Low German (Plautdietsch) as their own
bandits in their house. dialect during that time in Poland. The adaptation of a rich
At gunpoint, the bandits herded the four boys into a recipe repertoire from time in the Ukraine introduced them to
room with his mother and three housemaids. First, they the hardy borscht, wareneki and kielke of the region.
demanded weapons. Abraham gave up his brother’s gun from Perhaps their nomadic roots stemmed from Menno
under his bed. Then they demanded 200,000 rubles or they’d Simons. After seceding from the Catholic Church, Simons
shoot his mother. The family pleaded with them, “We don’t spent the rest of his life travelling, writing and organizing
have that kind of money here!” congregations across northern Europe while hiding from
Abraham’s mother was kneeling in prayer when they shot those who wanted him dead.
her through the head. His brother, Hans, pleaded and wept. His followers had equally tough times as they sought out
They shot through his pleading hands into his face. safe havens in the Netherlands, Prussia and Russia. They finally
Then they came for Abraham. Six shots were fired, one made their way across the Atlantic to settle on the shores of
stuck in his rib, another in his back and a third went through North America.
his shoulder and exited from his throat. The cousin miraculous-
ly survived a bullet through his cheekbone, which embedded in I remembered my mom telling us about the Mennonites in
his neck. The bandits left just as quickly as they’d come to Russia fleeing in the middle of the night, scrambling madly to find a
search for their father, who had fortunately left earlier in the day place, any place, where they’d be free. All they needed, she said, was
to deposit money in a nearby village. for people to tolerate their unique apartness.
These are the stories Abraham never told his children. Coming to Canada, many Mennonites got more “apartness”
These are the stories that made him the quiet man he was. My than they’d bargained for. My great-grandmother’s first memory of
maternal grandmother only heard these stories after her father Canada was an unwelcoming introduction to its large expanse.
passed away and only then from her father’s sister. Wiebe’s parents settled into the village of Reesor in northern
“My father having watched the massacre, he always said he Ontario in October 1925, lured by the free farmland offered to them
didn’t think we as children should hear anything about it,” says and part of the 21,000 Russian Mennonites who flooded into
Martha Wiebe. “If he had lived longer, maybe he would have told us.” Canada between 1922 and 1929, fleeing the Russian Revolution.
photo: Amber Hildebrandt
The Wiens Club is now a centre for children in the community.
8 THE NEWCANADIANMAGAZINE SUMMER2005
w w w . n e w c a n a d i a n . c o m
“When they first got to Canada, they got off the train in that is responsible for making Canada the first nation to offer a
Mattice and that was seven miles from where they had a log victim/offender reconciliation program. The Community Justice
cabin built for them. Rudy was one-and-a-half and she was Initiatives was born in 1978 as part of a new program of the
photo: Amber Hildebrandt
expecting and she had to carry him seven miles down the track,” MCC and is known worldwide as having started the first restora-
says Wiebe of her mother’s experience. But even more disturbing tive justice program. Essentially, they believe in getting offenders
than the expanse was the luxurious life they’d given up. and victims engaged in the process.
“My mother resented the fact that she had to come to Canada This year marks the 26th anniversary of the MCC’s private
and [had to] work as hard as she did. In the beginning, I refugee sponsorship in Canada. In 1979, the MCC was the first
remember her crying a lot. For a person who had never even organization to sign an agreement with the government to
combed her own hair or washed dishes, and suddenly she was on sponsor and welcome refugees into their communities.
an Ontario homestead… you can imagine how difficult that was.” The Mennonite literary community is a thriving one,
Both her parents had been well off in Russia. Her father’s producing the likes of Patrick Friesen, Di Brandt, Rudy Wiebe
family had lived in a mansion formerly owned by royalty. Maids and, of course, Miriam Toews. In the business world, there is
had coddled them since birth. Art DeFehr, chief executive officer of the Winnipeg-based
They were part of the second wave of Russian Mennonites to Palliser Furniture and one of the largest employers in Manitoba.
pour into Canada. The first wave had brought more than 8,000 to Even the government has Vic Toews, the Conservative justice
Manitoba from 1873 to 1884 in response to the Russian govern- critic and a Mennonite from Paraguay.
ment’s threat to take away military exemption privileges.
The first Mennonite immigrants to North America, who It’s a town that exists in a world based on the idea of it not
were of Swiss and German origin, sailed to the shores of existing in the world. It was created as a kind of no-frills bunker.
America on the Concord and settled down in Germantown, in Mennonites are no longer the cohesive group they perhaps
present-day Philadelphia. By 1786, the earliest Mennonites once were. Historically connected through their tight commu-
ventured into Canada and settled on the Niagara Peninsula. nities and hardships, in Canada they have become disconnected
It wasn’t until 1800 that large numbers began entering with each other. In the 1940s, Mennonites began flocking to
Canada in the region now known as Waterloo County, in cities and people disparaged that it would mean the end of the
response to the American Revolution and lured by the region’s church. By 1971, the number of Mennonites living on farms
fertile and cheap land. By 1998, the region boasted more than equalled those in cities. And the 2001 census found 30,600
20 separate groups of Mennonites active in southern Ontario, Mennonites living on farms and 188,295 not.
the Old Order Mennonites of Waterloo being the most distinc- With the spreading and assimilation of Mennonites into
tive with their horses and buggies. Thousands more came urban settings, they became disconnected from what it meant
between 1815 and 1860 from Europe and from the U.S. after to be Mennonite. “We’ve lost our ethnic distinctiveness,” says
the beginning of the Civil War. Loewen. “But many urban Mennonites are supporters of the
MCC and still adhere and think of themselves as Mennonites.”
Consider this: our people’s contribution to civilization is the But it has also meant a redefining and distinguishing of
housebarn—a dwelling in which people are encouraged to sleep Mennonites. Already there are a number of distinct groups.
with livestock. There is the Old Order Mennonites for whom “non-conformity
The Mennonites were skilful farmers, a fact that more than means rejecting technology.” The MCC represents many univer-
once changed the minds of leaders on sensitive issues of sity-educated Mennonites. Then there are also those who have
military exemption and resulted in invitations from abroad. In assimilated into mainstream faiths, as well as secularized
Russia, where they had turned the barren, rocky steppes into Mennonites, who claim only to be ethnically Mennonite.
lush and fertile land, government officials tried to woo them to No matter where they go or what they do, Mennonites
stay by retracting demands that they serve in the military. always have a part of them close to home. According to Loewen,
Suspicious of the promises, most headed to Canada and the U.S., “If there’s a completely secularized Mennonite in Toronto, he
where they began to farm the plains and prairies. will still come home hoping for some wareneki.”
The most important economic contribution the Russian
Mennonites made to North America was the introduction of
winter wheat in 1874. After experimenting with several
varieties, they found the hardy Turkey Red winter wheat best
suited to the North American soil and conditions.
Farming wasn’t the only skill Mennonites brought to
Canada. They brought a culture of compassion and caring that
branched off into a number of initiatives. Their contributions to
Canadian society greatly stem from the large body of the
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an organization known
for its good deeds and interesting initiatives.
Since its inception in 1920 to provide famine relief to Russian
Mennonites, the MCC has been at the forefront of tackling societal
problems such as relief assistance, refugees and restorative justice.
“I’m a very strong believer in the MCC. Even when my
parents came across, they helped them out,” says Wiebe, who
has volunteered for the MCC for the last 15 years. Winter wheat is the most important economic
Though the roots of restorative justice lie in Aboriginal contribution Mennonites made to Canada.
healing traditions, it is the Mennonite community in Kitchener
SUMMER2005 THE NEWCANADIANMAGAZINE 9