Recently a friend asked if I would write about some of the good things I’ve experienced from my heritage.
I thought about it for a while, because describing the Amish-Mennonite way of life is much more complicated than it may seem at first glance.
Amish and Mennonite denominations have huge variations among their congregations. Even geographical area can make a difference. Also, each person has their own perception of their culture that depends on their exposure and life experiences. I was born into something of a blend of Amish and Mennonite culture–an Amish way of thinking combined with modern technology and higher education.
Even though I know the Amish-Mennonite way of life inside and out, I can’t give a tidy package that shows what it is truly like for everyone within the culture. But I can at least share from my experience.
To keep this post short enough, I’ve picked three things from a long list of defining characteristics. These three things that my community and church valued were important in shaping me into who I am. They aren’t exclusive to Amish and Mennonites but nonetheless they are an important part of the culture.
1. Nonviolence and Enemy Love
From little up, I have always believed that human life is sacred and that love is greater than violence. Violence never fixes violence, I was taught, only love can do that.
Loving our enemies means that every person is deserving of love regardless of race, status, and behavior. This can be tricky depending how you define “love.” True love does not condone or enable bad behavior. But we do not harm people even when we don’t like them. We try to be creative to find solutions that do not involve violence.
Beyond the abstinence from war and physical violence, nonviolence and enemy love affect many other areas of life. The Amish-Mennonites I know tend to relate to people in an understated and calm way, not displaying violence even in their speech and mannerisms. Tempers are controlled. Being kind (even to people who are unkind) is paramount, almost to a fault.
I think of Amish-Mennonites as “the gentle people.” Peacemaking is perhaps one of the most beautiful strengths of the culture, and is certainly shaped after the way Jesus lived and taught.
2. Christianity as a Way of Life
The culture centers on teaching about God and serving God through loving and helping each other. Amish and Mennonites live and breathe the religious life.
Every single day of my childhood I heard Scriptures read in my home. At school we sang hymns and memorized Bible verses. Sundays we heard more teaching and sang more songs. Spiritual disciplines were encouraged and exercised. This intensely spiritual environment gave me a lot of Bible knowledge from a young age and made the transition to making a personal decision to follow Christ an easy one.
I always had a clear perception of being different from the world. Being part of a minority culture and dressing distinctively contributed to that, as I couldn’t leave my home without thinking about how different I looked from everyone else. But the sense of separation also sprang from a life saturated with God, a life that stood sharply at odds with worldly systems.
To this day, being a Sunday-only Christian is nearly incomprehensible to me because of this knowing and believing that God is part of the everyday fabric of my life.
3. Frugality and Hard Work
In the Amish-Mennonite culture, work is rarely done alone. As a girl, I loved working alongside my mother in our huge garden as she taught me about varieties of plants and how to coax them into finest health and beauty. She taught me about soil health and preservation. I learned to notice even the smallest developments in the plants we nurtured.
Many times in my childhood, my grandmother came over when we had canning or freezing to do. My grandmother, mother, sisters, and I sat in a circle under a shady tree, green grass soft on our bare feet as we cut off rows and rows of milky corn. We peeled peaches and told stories and laughed until our sides ached. The act of preserving food was a communal one. I grew up learning how to cook, clean, sew, and butcher, barely realizing what useful skills I was acquiring.
Mennonites love nothing better than a good work project. A buzz of ladies scrubbing a dirty house or cooking casseroles for the freezer, or a hustle of men putting a roof on a house or cutting firewood is a favorite way to socialize. By this community work-sharing, we save each other thousands of dollars while having fun to boot.
When I hear of a vehicle being put on payments or a parent paying a child’s college education, it sounds strange to me. I was raised to work hard and save so that I had the cash in hand to purchase what I needed. Being debt-free as much as possible was more important than having the nicest stuff. Yet financial freedom was not something any of us reached alone–we had a whole community to help.
I could write about more things that are central to the culture, such as hospitality and family-centered community. These are things I love so much and often miss.
I’m also learning to see and enjoy the good in other cultures. Every culture is made up of human beings who have the same inner loves and fears. We are all one in this glorious struggle that we call life.