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Mennonites fight to keep their traditions while embracing the modern era


It has been an uncertain time for Marcus Yoder as he questions what it means to be an individual in modern America within a distinct secular community that keeps its own values ​​very closely.

Yoder is an Ohio member of the Mennonite Church, a radical Protestant Christian denomination that has its roots in 16th-century Europe. The Mennomites have a lot in common with the better-known Amish. But while the word Amish instantly conjures up images of people dressed in 19th century clothing, women wearing long dresses, men wearing beards and straw hats, using horses and carts in isolated parts of the world. , most of the 2.1 million Mennonites in the world today do not live under such strict restrictions.

To outsiders, these communities can seem like an enigma. They rejected an essential component of modern capitalism in favor of what some might consider a “simple life”. Yet Yoder’s life is not that simple: he wants to preserve the culture of his people, but he does not conform to traditional clothes and uses technology and the Internet like the rest of society. A historian working at the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in Ohio, Yoder has a higher education and has a social circle that extends beyond his fellow Mennonites.

“It is difficult to maintain our traditional cultural practices and ideological beliefs in the new world we live in,” he said. I while we speak on Zoom.

A Mennonite woman rides a horse-drawn cart with her daughter in a Mennonite community in Ascension Municipality, Chihuahua state, Mexico (Photo: AFP / Herika Martinez)

Mennonites describe themselves as “in the world but not of the world,” emphasizing their separation from secularism and the consumerist traps of modern society. But it is a constant balancing act. “Am I an American or am I a Mennonite?” Yoder asks. “There isn’t a world where I would prefer something bad to happen to me, because my community will take care of me and my family, but sometimes it makes the world quite small.”

Many Mennonites left Europe for North America in the late 1800s and then migrated south, forming colonies in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America to find pockets of isolation where they could continue to live according to these 19th century traditions.

A recently published photography book presents this ideal of simplicity, isolation and a community that some say frozen in time. Photographer Jake Michaels’ fascinating images of Mennonites in Belize raise questions about how we live today and how fast we move. The photographer says he was struck by the near silence of the place, apart from the noise of horses and wooden wheels.

At the heart of their faith – what truly connects traditional and conservative Mennonites with more liberal communities such as Yoder’s – is the belief in pacifism and the view of non-resistance as the answer to conflict. During periods of conscription, most Mennonites refuse to serve in the military, acting as conscientious objectors. They also believe that you should not baptize babies because only adults can make a clear, conscious decision to follow Christ.

Paul Plett, a Mennonite Canadian television documentary filmmaker, says: “There is a fascination with the Amish and the old colony. [a particularly conservative part of the Russian Mennonite movement living in the US]. I am also fascinated by these people, because they are outwardly different. And the thing about me and a lot of other more liberal Mennonites is that we look a little like everyone on the outside, but what’s different is what’s on the inside. .

Marcus Yodder said young Mennonites face questions about how to advance their faith (Photo: Marcus Yoder)

What is identity and what it really means to be in a community is a question that many of us ask ourselves. And it’s a journey that Plett decided to take for a new documentary film, I am a mennonite, which traces its roots back to Europe. “Just in my context, Mennonites are incredibly forward-thinking, liberal-minded people who truly have a heart for social justice,” he says.

Certainly, in Plett’s eyes, the notion of pacifism is becoming “more and more relevant” in the world: “In increasingly divided societies, it is important for us to see ways of building bridges instead of them. to burn.

Tobi Thiessen, magazine editor Canadian Mennonite, understands her Mennonite identity as resisting overconsumption, being “modest, humble, and disliking flashy cars and big houses.”

“It’s about trying to be conscientious as a consumer,” she says. “This kind of material consumerism only increases pollution and waste in the world, so our long-standing concern for a simple and modest life works well with the need to tackle climate change.”

Yoder believes the current Mennonite dilemma “is how to pass this potentially healthy legacy down to the next generation.”

“The more progressive parts of our churches,” he says, “are grappling with gender now, LGBTQ issues. But the most conservative even refuse to look at this. Sexuality has been a huge issue for me, because I have friends who identify as gay and I want them to have a place. But sexuality is not an approved topic for public speaking, so when someone feels they are different, they have a hard time expressing themselves.

“If we don’t fix these issues inside, we just won’t be able to keep the young people. “

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