A Mennonite Imposter’s Discursive Rhapsody

Three Problems with Christianity: Souldierism, Heaven, and Receipts. (And possibly some of the reasons why the author maunders along in so many stories, searching out weak actors like a Red Rock Bible Camp Councillor hunting for Playboys between the mattresses.)

Problem One: Onward Christian “Soul-diers”

  • Mennonite religion (voted *Best Guilt* at Reformerpalooza) is obsessively and unabashedly built upon an army mentality.
  • Follow orders or else. It’s just that simple.
  • Those who ask questions based on some external code or sense of moral dissatisfaction are often eliminated. Shunned, excommunicated, kicked out, shit-canned… The church is governed by court-martial law, coercively presided and prosecuted by high-ranking church officials who are put in place by you-know-who (Die Owlah! An unimpeachable authority.) Just like the armed services, to disobey is to risk extreme penalties and disgrace.

So why is an organization dedicated to peace governed by the same laws, ordinances, and traditions that are used by the world’s militaries; the same rules that were in place for the fearsome armies of the Old Testament?

  • Also like the military, most Christian conventions change, but they are grindingly slow to do so. Examples of past changes I’ve seen in my own adult lifetime: Divorce (with the caveat that it is still far rougher on women then it is for men), Tight Jeans, and Rock n’ Roll. No? Just take a look around at church this Sunday, is there not at least one divorced person in your pew? Are you and others not wearing jeans that would have drawn a hair-afire rebuke in 1970? That musical menagerie: drum kit, synthesizer, and stable full of guitars up on the (ahem) stage is at the ready and is not out of place, in fact, they are the instruments of salvation and worship.

“Last one in the mosh pit is a demon!” 

  • And yet the church, just like the military, battle on in their efforts to resist LGBTQ (see below), to sustain their sadly obvious misogynistic roots, and to disavow the nativism that the church’s unholy co-combatants—far-right conservative politicians—seek to uphold.
  • In 2012, Steinbach, Manitoba’s Southland Church led opposition to a provincial law that sought to provide protection for LGBTQ students suffering from bullying. The church took the position that the Bill would promote “wrong lifestyle choices.” A petite-but-confident and charismatic high school student (not yet voting age at the time) serenely and handily took on the Steinbach Town Council, several adult congregants, a group of not-so-petite (but plenty-surly) adult members of the local ministerial association who carried NOT ON MY WATCH! placards. This latter crew had to be gavelled into silence and was threatened with expulsion from council chambers. Despite being less disruptive than the placardists, a phalanx of spear-wielding ancient Roman soldiers was prevented from entering the chambers.
    • “We want them to change it (the Bill) to say independent faith-based schools do not have to have groups that are in conflict with their beliefs,” Coun. Susan Penner told CBC News on Thursday. —https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/anti-bullying-bill-like-persecution-in-steinbach-1.1340156 (The soldiers could be heard grunting and clacking their spears in noisy agreement outside of the meeting room.)
    • At Steinbach’s Southland Church, pastor Ray Duerksen told parishioners during a (“worship”) service on Feb. 24 that God will judge those who don’t oppose the anti-bullying bill.—https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/anti-bullying-bill-like-persecution-in-steinbach-1.1340156
  • My QUESTIONS for Coun. Penner and Pastor Duerksen include: “Is it still your watch? An elected or appointed position? Both, you say?” And, “At the point when the church and the town finally change their puny positions on LGBTQ issues, what REDRESS can be expected for your irresponsible and discriminatory actions in 2012? Will this redress be financial? A public apology? Resignation? Stoning?
  • I have no questions for the placard-waving chuckleheads or the Roman soldiers. (These two represent the same fertilizer; in different piles.)
  • It is my prediction that the petite young high school student who—armed with only five smooth stones—stood up to colossal hatred in 2012. I believe she will one day be a legislator who will debate on a level battlefield. I expect she will defeat the doctrine-wielding and the spear-wielding, alike. I suspect her “watch” will be empathetic and egalitarian.

Problem Two: Heaven

  • You rent a house. The owner stresses that you—the renter—have full dominion over that house. It’s yours to use as you please. It’s almost as though the landlord told you, “I got awesome insurance so party on, DUDE!” Additionally, you rent this house knowing that you will be moving to a castle at some point in the future. You’ve taken all the necessary steps to assure your admittance to the castle. It’s a done deal.
  • My prediction, based on close personal contact with numerous rat bastards and almost as many sweet soulful brethren is that the renter is not gonna put a lot of leasehold improvements into that rental house. The renter is not gonna worry about a drywall dent here, or a busted tile there, or a swimming pool filled with empty Tim Horton cups. (Or rusted out Chevy Blazers, dirty syringes or radioactive waste, for that matter. It ain’t the renter’s problem.)
  • The renter’s carefree attitude is in high contrast when compared to their landlord-less heathen neighbours who own their abode and who intend to hand it down to their descendants… Those dumb suckers are tasked with the constant upkeep and care of their place, unlike the renter. Renters have the same rights to live in their home as the homeowners but, ‘cuz of the whole “I’m gonna move into a golden castle in the sky” thing, renters don’t really give a Norwegian rat turd about upkeep, cleanliness, sustainability or any other word ending in pollution or climate change or extinction or any words that are not “dominion over”.

Heaven appears to be an effective disincentive to take care of the earth. “DON’T BE GENTLE—IT’S A RENTAL!”

Problem Three: Receipts

Here’s a modern parable:

You run down to Anabaptist Appliances and buy a toaster. It’s fine, until one day you don’t smell burning toast. Hot under the collar, you hustle back to the store and ask to trade-in or return the toaster or to be given warranteed compensation.

“Sure, Mister Ishmael. Do you happen to have a copy of your receipt? I’m gonna need a scriptural confirmation to verify that everything you are telling me is gospel. Know what I’m sayin’?”

“Of course. But, can’t you just take my word? Have you no, uh, faith?”

“Oh bah jo! I believe everything you’ve told me—the trilogy: alternating|direct|ground… the death of the thermostat and its resurrection via the reset button… the four horsemen of the power surge… It’s just that my boss is a stickler and I really need a  proof of purchase.”

He seems insistent, this clerk. Now, you KNOW you bought the toaster—full retail price—at Anabaptist Appliances and you never abused it or changed anything or went outside of the commandments of the operator’s manual so even though you don’t have actual written proof, you say, “Look, bro. I don’t have the receipt, but my buddy James, on King Street, he can vouch for me. Will that do?”

“Sure. As long as it’s in print, on ancient, rotting scrolls, in an appropriate language not spoken on earth in centuries, and concerns only the toaster model later built in the precise triangular region delineated by i.) the old blood-letting clinic (Abe’s Arteries) on Queen up to ii.) Spadina and then back along Graffiti Alley to the location of iii.) the common pasture … we’ll accept that as gospel!”

“Sure, partner. Sounds like we have a deal. Is it okay if the written proof from James on King is filled with ambiguities about when and exactly how to prepare and eat toast, how a toaster should properly be prepared for sacrifice, the selling of a toaster into slavery, the rules governing the crucifixion of a  toaster, and the throwing of plugged-in toasters into the bathtubs of Hittite neighbours?”

“Hittites, eh? They’re the worst. It can even be co-authored by several hundred of James’s best buddies (just not too many women, eh?) and you can come on down and revise it any time you feel like it.”

  • The main trouble with the good book is that it is the product of WRITERS and EDITORS. Untrustworthy louts, by and large. And the genre—is it literary fiction, is it reportage, is it non-fiction, is it science-fiction, is it fantasy, is it non-fiction? Astrological science?  History text-book or historical fiction? Maybe foodie lit? (What Whales Love to Eat: Old Guys with Long Beards… Superbowl Munchies? How to Feed a Crowd with Just Bread and Fish.)
  • Lots of authors. Lots of (Holy) ghostwriters. Distributors and agents gettin’ their Gideon on too and disenfranchising the Midianite Book Club. It’s quite the anthology!

The Bible is kinda like the Leity high rollers (from a long time ago) assuring all us lunchpail Leity types that a Deity won the big hand except the Deity does not want to show His cards. He wants us to take it on His word that He filled His holy straight. He understands our mortal doubts though, and instructs us to have faith. He gives His Leity pals a few tools to help with the convincing; some insider info to prove what He claims. The suite may be Clubs. (But it could be Diamonds.) He may have drawn the Ten or it may have been a pat hand. Sure, His betting pattern doesn’t support it, but… if you don’t believe the Allmighty, you just might be banished to the basement—with his relative, Diablo, who sells life insurance—for the rest of eternity, so… it’s up to you, but I know what I’d do.

~

Also, you cowboy philosophers and your John Prine mix-tapes (“Jesus Christ died for nuthin'” etc.) and your medical marijuana… you can just stop pointing out that whole, “Well, doesn’t the very presence of evil prove that an omnipotent God does not exist?” thing. The man with the long white robe and the gold throne is getting pretty tired of that whole logic spiel and if you don’t want those glaciers to start melting at TURBO speed, then—verily, I say unto you—just watch it!

Conclusion: Wherein the Author Wraps Up with a “Ha! Toro!” and a Swirl of His Fadadatj

“The Holy Fool”. Another parable, of sorts.

You know the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, where supposedly only those with “a perfect sense of fashion” can actually see the King’s new duds. Those peasants without the chic fashion eye cannot even see the King’s new apparel. At least that’s what the King’s advisors tell the King and his court in order to keep their ruse alive. No one dares point out the folly—they all pretend to be able to see the clothes, including the King—and it goes on and on.

Until, a person in the court, a jester perhaps, the so-called “Holy Fool” steps up and says the obvious. “The King is naked.”

Gasps and outrage follow. Slowly, the truth seeps in and then with a surge, everyone is busy denying that they see anything and the truth wins out after much subterfuge.

I sometimes feel like this “Holy Fool”; one who has no investment in the bullshit, a person who is not a part of it—not even close—and who without anything more than average insight utters the obvious, uninfluenced by the need to fall in line.

I am that fool. I cannot be sanctioned because I live a life within, but apart.

A believer may say to me, with force and indignation, that because I am nothing but a Mennonite imposter—a secular Mennonite—that I cannot and do not speak for Mennonites.

And yet,

  • My G-G-GF was Delegate Toews, born in Fischau and sent with 11 brooda to find a new home.
  • My G-GF and G-GM Toews, John and Sarah—late of the Kleine Gemeinde—were shunned from the Holdeman camp—shoed away like a pair of impertinent crows picking at a roadside deer carcass before the eagles had their fill. John and Sarah took umbrage at their unfair ouster and sued the church. The lowly corvids sued the uppity raptors. That must have sent tail-feathers fluttering!

Interesting bonafides, wouldn’t you agree? Plus I grew up in Steinbach Bakery—the floury bullseye of Manitoba’s cultural Mennonite dartboard. Add to that my uncommonly good and well-loved community treasure GrandMother Toews, despite her German Baptist (non-Menno) baptismal certificate. Also, my full-fledged adult-dunked Menno wife and one dunked daughter. (So our little family is 50-50: two wet and two dry. )

http___www.hendersonnebraska.com_wp-content_uploads_2012_04_zwieback

And now, at the end of this trail of breadcrumbs, I find myself standing in the court—not at the bench John and Sarah Toews stood before at the turn of the last century, but the aforementioned King’s court.

Sure enough, the king is naked. In fact, he’s got a boil on his butt the size and texture of an overfilled jambuster and a belly that must be schmaundtfat cuz jelly don’t shake like that!

The dude is, as we used to say, nuck bak-ed!

You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is good for you. And even though “I am allowed to do anything,” I must not become a slave to anything. I Corinthians 6:12 (NLT)

So, hear me when I say that I may be uniquely qualified to see it all—including the ignoble and the insincere and the hypocritical—with eagle eyes and a crow’s discernment. I am a slave to none. And with familiarity and empathy and kinship and knowledge of the waymarkers and the places to stumble and those places too, where Mennonites soar.

~

And if I’m a little bit annoying and more didactic than you’re prepared to accept from a everyday guy, an former class-clown, an ex-jock with a plentiful supply of demons and not near enough angels, well… too bad, because no one gave me this job, I just damn well took it.

“Poets are the unauthorized legislators of the universe.”—P. Shelley

Spinning Tops

I spin tales, mostly full of yarn. The following optimistic—if not quite upbeat—pieces are two of my top tjriesele; that is, they are not bad, maybe, sorta, kinda… I’m less than indifferent about them… etc.
1.) “DIED RICH”

This is the heartfelt tale of a neophyte basketball player—slash—jung Reiba ☠️and it was selected for the May 2019 Issue #27 edition of the American literary magazine Fabula Argentea. Find it HERE.

Editor Rick Taubold: “We don’t single out any pieces in an issue as being better than the others, but you might find it interesting to read and compare “Died Rich” and “Whence We Came, Whither We Go” because they both explore a similar theme, yet they are very different stories with different outcomes.”

fabula argentea.png

WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Died Rich”:

The title alone is compelling, even if it totally misleads the reader about the story’s content. After the first couple of paragraphs, the reader is hooked on the character and anxiously wondering where the story is headed. One mark of a great story is that opening hook and promise, and with his opening author Mitchell Toews promises a good story and does not disappoint with his different take on how to handle a bully, even if… (spoiler removed)

One thing we loved about this piece was Dr. Rempel’s story about the borderline cases in Hell. At the time, this seems like… (spoiler removed)

☠️ A jung Reiba is a boy pirate, according to the author’s less-than-perfect Plautdietsch.

2.) “IFS AND BUTTERS”

Another in the continuing saga of life in Hartplatz, Manitoba in the Fifties and Sixties. The Vogels make an interesting cameo here and Pete Vogel is a repeat character familiar to readers of other stories from this Mennonite Twilight Zone. The exciting new lit mag, TurnPike from Ball State University is running the story. Read it HERE!

~~~

Aug 8 Addendum: Another recent story in quite a different setting, and far up the heat registehr in all respects is “Concealment” on the excellent lit journal, Me First Magazine. https://wp.me/pawMQk-2w

“OUT OF THIS WORLD”

I’m equal parts thrilled and honoured to be included in Leslee Goodman’s anthology of The MOON Magazine 2013-2019. As a contributor (“Peacemongers” June 2017) I find myself sharing the lunar night with a wide variety of heavenly minds and rising stars.

OUT OF THIS WORLD back MOON
The back cover of OUT OF THIS WORLD

Jessica Lake, Manitoba—Local author Mitchell Toews has a short story featured in the new anthology, Out of This World: The Best Short Stories from The MOON. His story, “Peacemongers,” tells of young boys wrestling with issues of non-violence, conscientious objection, and how to stand up to a bully in Hartplatz, Manitoba, against the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis. The story is one of 23 works included in this anthology from The MOON magazine, a monthly journal of personal and universal reflections. (Full Press Release linked below.) “Peacemongers” is one of eight “Making Peace” selections in the book.

Curious and ready for a great summer read? Both Kindle and softcover versions of the anthology are available on Amazon at a great price! Take a brief exit from this world and its circular rancour, breaking news, rising water and record temperatures and find 23 new worlds to explore!

Preview a sampling of OUT OF THIS WORLD here: http://a.co/hL673Qd

Booksellers—US & Canada Retailers, Christian Retailers, International Retailers: https://www.ingramcontent.com/retailers/contact

Public and K-12 Libraries— https://www.ingramcontent.com/libraries

Press Release—Local author Mitch Toews featured in Out of This World anthology

Kits mitch zoom
Contributor Mitchell Toews of Jessica Lake, Manitoba

~ ~ ~

Invisible people | Addressing homelessness

The theme for the July 2019 issue of The MOON Magazine is Invisible People. It’s a multi-faceted look at homelessness. “If your brother becomes impoverished and his hand falters beside you, you shall strengthen him, whether he is a stranger or a native, so that he can live with you.” – Leviticus 25:35

 

Otter Redux

My short and furry flash fiction, “I am Otter” is up on the new site: Short Tales – Flash Fiction Stories. The online site, which is aimed at international readers, features stories of no more than 1500 words. https://tale.code.blog/ Editor: @samkandej

I am Otter was first published by The Machinery in August 2017.

Mitchell lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. He enjoys those splendid opportunities to fire in a one-hopper from deep in fiction’s left field, where ideas go to get green-stained and bedevilled.

 

“Died Rich” Coming to Fabula Argentea

My heartfelt tale of a neophyte basketball player—slash—jung Reiba ☠️ will be included in the May 2019 edition of the American literary magazine Fabula Argentea

https://duotrope.com/listing/8261/fabula-argentea

Thanks to Editor Rick Taubold for accepting my work. This is a “silver story” of both friendship and hardship that comes from personal experiences and a buddy who left too soon.

Active since 2012, Fabula Argentea receives over 500 submissions per year and from that produces three issues of about 8-12 stories each. Here’s an interview with Editor Taubold that succinctly describes the magazine’s approach:

https://duotrope.com/interview/editor/8261/fabula-argentea

allfornow,
Mitchell

☠️

jung Reiba is Plautdietsch (Low German) for “young pirate”.

 

The Peacemongers

Have you, as a child or in your youth or adulthood, asked yourself the question, “Would I go to war?”

The Baby Boomer generation in Canada has walked between the raindrops when it comes to war. Prior generations—in particular—and those who followed have fought for their country. In fact, WW2 Lee-Enfields are proudly slung on the branches of my own Manitoba family tree.

Part of a unique cohort, many Canadian Mennonites of military age during the war years were subject to the rigours of the Conscientious Objector process. For Mennonite children who watched John Wayne on Saturday and shared faspa with former CO relatives on Sunday, this was a confusing set of “truths” to discern. A moral minefield. Throw in our German language, a biased and reluctant postponements Judge, and more recent revelations concerning the relationship between Nazism and Mennonites for a virtual singularity of perplexity.

Did Canada’s initial mandate on September 10, 1939—to help defend the British Isles and Hong Kong—give permission for an individual committed to peace to abrogate their personal vows? To set aside their faith? If so, was there reason enough to make a case to Dee Oola at the pearly gates? Enough to quell a wretched conscience?

Or, on the other hand, was it right to act in utter defiance and effectively abandon the country that took them in and saved them or their family members from violence, and in many cases, military conscription elsewhere? Did Mennonites hide behind their promised freedom from conscription in the face of a world crisis of evil?

How could a twenty-something boy from the farm or a village on the prairies, likely without reliable access to world news, make these choices?

I’m sure of only one thing: I’m relieved and fortunate that I did not have to make the choice to fight or refuse. Or to flee. Nor have my children, nor—I hope—will my grandchildren be forced to bear arms or decide between equally unbearable acts.

#

I took a look at this through the lens of fiction in my story, “The Peacemongers”, published in The MOON Magazine, June 2017. My short story appeared in the “Swords into plowshares: Transitioning to a world without war,” issue.

I’m pleased to announce that Publisher/Editor Leslee Goodman has chosen, “The Peacemongers” to be included in an upcoming anthology from The MOON Magazine titled “Out of this World: The Best Short Stories from The MOON, Volume 1”.

I’ll provide more information on this publication here and on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter, once details and availability are determined.

My thanks and appreciation to Ms. Goodman for all she does and for giving my words a small part in it!

The MOON magazine

Support intimate storytelling for as little as $5/month: https://www.patreon.com/LesleeGoodman

See Change

“Can a sixty-three-year-old aufjefollna Mennonite living next to a lake in the boreal be part of change in the worldwide artistic landscape?”

Sure. In a small way, why the Mitchell not?

I’m quite sure some of the change champions featured in this article would agree:

12 Leaders Who Are Shaping the Next Generation of Artists

http://time.com/longform/art-leaders-next-generation/

I found this piece inspiring, even for a schnuddanäse like me.

I’m four years into a smashmouth experiment — my longtime dream to write fiction. To be published and to leave something good behind. To ask some interesting questions. All that stuff that sounds like a lot of fluff and horseshit, but is in fact, as tough it comes.

Chris Jackson

Publisher and editor in chief of One World, a Penguin Random House imprint

“But his goal is not to acquire any book by a writer from a marginalized background for diversity’s sake alone. ‘The idea that the imprint is committed to diversity is kind of absurd,’ Jackson says. ‘We want to reflect the world we live in.’ The imprint allows writers to tell subversive stories in an authentic way, without what he calls ‘white filtering,’ or couching stories in ways that feel comfortable or familiar to white readers.”

This is a helpful communication for me.

I am a grizzled old white guy, writing about real life in small towns, times bygone and present day, the northern forest, basketball and baseball, bruised knuckles, and Mennonite themes. While I personally have not benefitted directly from the near past’s traditional preponderance of white men in literary fiction, I undoubtedly benefitted in many ways in other parts of my life in Canadian and American society. I have a legacy of privilege. So, I don’t feel I can or should complain—at all—about other cohorts like minorities or women who, these days, might get a small advantage for not being a white guy.

Jackson’s clear call to, “…reflect the world we live in,” explains what has been a difficult and highly coded part of lit fic for me. I take this editor’s message to mean that I am not to be excluded, I just have to share. Proportionately, or even a little less, and accept the new status quo with some grace.

I believe I can do that, in fact, that’s just what I want to do. Thank you, Chris Jackson.

I also find clarity in his comment about “white filtering”. I know this too well. While I don’t “white filter”, per se, I sure as H-E-double-hockey-sticks know how to structure a story to appeal to conservatives, especially my Mennonite brethren. I also know how to pimp up a story to fit more liberal (my own true bearing) perspectives. Horses for courses, but not for literary honesty.

To engage in this posturing is specious at worst, unnecessary at best. My charge as an artist is to invest my work with honesty and courage, not to try to predict the audience reaction and pander my story. No filtering, of any colour or creed.

Sounds easy, but it ain’t. We writers want to be liked. But, again, Mr. Jackson’s leadership is helpful to me. Maybe I’ll be liked as one of the new age of subversive Mennonite authors writing, “in an authentic way” and without parsing readers by pew, rank, and political or social geist.

* * *

I hope you enjoy the article, I sure as hell did!

 

Smoking Jacket Mennonites

There’s a lively discussion current now on one of the Mennonite chat rooms online. It’s about the existence—like a newly discovered tribe of Yeti, I guess—of “Cultural Mennonites“.

Here follows a sizzling grenade I decided not to lob into that chat room (too much collateral damage) but, well, I wanted to share…

As Religious Mennonites will confirm, Mennonite is a religion. I feel it’s a good one, as these things go. The doctrine of peace & non-violence, above all, and the notable generosity and charity inherent in Mennonite churches are, indeed, “full of grace.” The Mennonite Disaster Service is the Gretzky of volunteer disaster relief in North America.

Many—myself included—feel Mennonitism also has a distinct, modern (awakened in the 1960s?) cultural derivative. It was during that turbulent period when the idea of being a Mennonite without baptism or a deep commitment to church life first began to gain acceptance. Around the same time that divorce, irrespective of the Sermon on the Mount, first started on the path to toleration within the plenary Mennonite church.

meat pudding
The basic argument against the existence of Cultural Mennonites

“Cultural”, btw, has interesting roots, for the etymologically inclined. “Tillage”, indicating to me that culture is tilled, or incorporated, into its subject – an individual, a gathering, a congregation, a population, a society. That root has a lot to do with why I believe I am part of the Cultural Mennonite phenomenon: I was born and raised—innocently so, but without my direct adult consent—in the cult of Mennonite. My childhood nuclear family did not attend church but in all other ways, my extended family and our community was as Menno as Dirk Willems.

The complex and often contradictory Mennonite culture was TILLED into me from birth and it continues to exert itself on me even as I cast aside the learned knowledge of others and depend more on my own experiences and my familiarity with the world.

My formative influences were different than those of my Religious Mennonite kin & kith but also far different from my non-Menno “import” friends.

I see the Cultural Mennonite emerging as a distinct sub-set because of their (my) “half-breed” existence, suspended between disparate worlds.

Those who disavow a stand-alone cultural variant often point instead to a kind of “Mennonite Imposter” creed. I and several of my antecedents are seen to be of this lowly pretender ilk. I tend to object, but maybe I should embrace this tag even if it is pejorative and imposed by others?

imposter
The Mennonite Imposter

I’ll propose a fourth iteration: “Smoking Jacket Mennonites“. Those who gather in a shadowy, virtual quorum and represent the interests of:

  • industry & commerce
  • finance
  • government
  • education

These subverters (a “den of thieves” according to one angry historical observer) are connected via interlocking directorate. They gather within the friendly, hallowed confines of the church’s tax-exempt status where they typically hold high rank or are able to exert influence by proxy.

smoking jacket mennonites

One SJM prerequisite is membership in the Religious Mennonite superstructure. Or just good’ol wealth and power. Ideally both.

Membership to SJM, the leadership elite, is by subtle invitation. Its congregation comprises fewer women than men. Likewise, there are not many “fringe” members: those financially challenged, POC, First Nations peoples, and LGBTQ are not strongly represented cohorts. By extension, those overtly tolerant of the non-mainstream or accused of “liberal extremist” social beliefs need not apply either.

These are not hard membership rules. But like the current U.S. Cabinet, it just tends to work out that way. Gender, race, wealth and social standing (or close association to wealth and power) are predictable. Good hair, a tan, and nice teeth are increasingly helpful for videos, podcasts, and evangelizing, but those attributes are furniture, not architecture, and in the hands of a deft PR shop, could be re-framed as a weakness. “He’s almost too pretty to be taken seriously.” 

Smoking Jacket Mennonites are not the first or the best at this specious, old-boyistic full meal deal of [wealth creation] & [worship of the divine], but are starting to really get the hang of reciprocal back-scratchery. I can see a Doug Ford getting a standing “O” in the right sanctuary, at the right time. Maybe he already has.

doug ford

Hmmm.

In conclusion, I don’t believe I am a “Non-Mennonite”. Nope, that just does not fit; that thread is too coarse. I definitely feel I am a “Mennonite“. In fact, I have an undeniable, unshameable set of Menno credentials and antecedents, but I am not a member of a Mennonite church so some would keep me on the büte with those who don’t know the difference between Ditsied and Jantsied.

Seeking a finer definition, you can go right ahead and call me a Religious Mennonite (if you’re willing to accept a highly non-conformist definition) or use the Cultural Mennonite tag, or brand me as a Mennonite Imposter – I’ll accept any of those labels without complaint.

As for the arm-waving megafellas of the Smoking Jacket Mennonite elite, I don’t qualify, I don’t have the price of admission, nor do I seek entry to the club. You guys go on without me.

~ ~ ~

Two stories that grab a root and dig at these themes:

“I am Otter” in The Machinery – A Literary Collection

Literally Stories presents a satiric peek at Big Church in, “The Business of Saving Souls” 

Our German Relative

A Molotschnan yarn
For fam’ly ’round Tannenbaum,
Prince of Peace, et al

Our German Relative 

Whenever our family got together, it was inevitable that we would sit and tell stories. We would gather in my grandparents’ adjoining kitchen and living room, tjinja on the floor to make room on the couches and chairs for our elders. Here at the heart of their warm and crowded house, no one would be out of earshot. Yarns were unravelled, and our feelings rose and fell. It was as if we were on a ship and the prairie around us was a rolling ocean – in all that great grass sea, my grandparents’ house was the safest harbour. And yet the stories often reminded us of the many dangers that exist in what seemed such a placid and familiar world.

At Christmas, Grandma always told the final story. That was our tradition. It was about my great-aunt Rosa when she was a child in Russia.

Enunciating with care in her precise English, Grandma Zehen told the story. Her narration was theatrical and thrilling, but still heartfelt and purely told. She would fill in detail and sentiment, adding dialogue to suit. But most engaging of all, she always told the story as if it was ours. This may not have been strictly so; it may have been cultural lore, a patchwork as much as family history. I never felt that it mattered – I just remember waiting for the story every Christmastime.

Lights were dimmed, candles lit. Out came the platters of Christmas cookies from the warmth of Grandma’s oven. Baked fresh this evening, we had been smelling them since the stories began, all of us waiting for them to arrive. I will never forget the candy taste of the pink icing, the buttery aroma with just a hint of vanilla. I can still see the warm glint of the crystal sugar in the candlelight. Best of all, dee tjinja got first pick from the overflowing trays!

Grandma began her special story once everyone had their cookies and we chewed as quietly as we could to listen.

* * *

Not too far from Odessa and the shores of the Black Sea, there was a place called Molotschna Colony – ‘Milk River’, you know, as Englanders say it. My mother’s sister, my Taunte Rosa, attended grade school in one of the villages there. By Soviet dictate, the lessons were taught in Russian. The teacher, however, was brought in from Germany for the school year. Naturally, she was fluent in Hoch Deutsch – the language many Molotschna Mennonites spoke in church. She spoke Russian too, but best of all, this Lehrerin was also able to get by in her Mennonite students’ native Plautdietsch. Obah, for the tjinja, of course, Plautdietsch was like the difference between day-old rye bread and fresh raisin toast with butter!

After Russia’s Godless Revolution, another state dictate forbade all religions. It was illegal to come together in any kind of gathering, especially for groups with obvious proclivities towards worship. Why even our little get-together today would have been banned under these new laws! Ambitious and diligent, the government officials were particularly strict in overseeing the local Mennonites in everything they did: at work, at home, and in Taunte Rosa’s school.

But there were still some aspects of Christendom that refused to fade in Russia. In a practical sense, this referred to the calendar and the arrangement of holidays, most of which were based on old religious traditions too deeply ingrained in society to go away overnight. Christmas ceased to exist, but a single day of rest near the end of December was conditionally permitted in Taunte’s village. Despite this, officially, even the most innocent Yuletide symbols were banned.

Can you imagine? We Mennonites have not experienced oppression like this in Canada, but let me tell you, it was a profound stimulant to Christmas joy back then! There is a kind of enthusiasm for celebrations that only forbidding them can produce. Ha! Bibles came out of secret hiding places. Clandestine late-night services were held in barns and haylofts and carols were sung in whispered voices. Even the auf’jefollna cast aside their backsliding ways and rediscovered their fervour! (Grandma smiled and winked at the adults as she told this last part.)

Now, kids, I’m sorry for all the big words and grown-up talk! What I am saying to you is that Christmas was taken away. And not just Christmas, but Easter too and even going to Sunday School. It was a mixed-up time, joh? But you little ones shouldn’t worry – the next part of the story is really for you, most of all!

One year, a few days before Christmas Day, Rosa’s mother baked a batch of secret Christmas cookies, and young Rosa couldn’t stop herself. She took one of the best, one with pink icing and red and green sugar crystals on top – and snuck away. She wrapped it in oiled paper, then in a folded piece of cardboard and secured it snugly with a thin ribbon she had saved from her birthday. Her coat had an inside pocket and she placed it there, near her heart. This was her Christmas gift for her teacher, Fraulein Rosenfeld. Rosa was so fond of her pretty teacher, you see, and was always broken-hearted in the springtime when Fraulein packed her trunk and left on the train.

Imagine the winter sky, children, as big there and just as blue as it is here. Think of Taunte Rosa as she hummed ‘Stille Nacht’ ever so softly while she walked to the schoolhouse, her bootheels squeaking in rhythm on the hard-packed snow path. Rosa, you see, felt guilty for not telling her mother about the gift. But, you know just how she felt, joh? She wanted to give this gift so badly and feared if she had asked permission, the answer would’ve been no.

After lunch at school that day, while the other children dressed to go out and play, Rosa walked shyly to Fraulein’s desk and placed the ribboned gift in front of her. Fraulein tilted her head, not used to gifts from children in her class.

“What’s this?” the teacher asked.

Rosa stood at the edge of the desk, her heavy parka over her arm. At first, she was terrified, sensing that her teacher was angry and that she had done something wrong. “A present, Lehrerin,” was her meek answer.

Fraulein answered with a hum and a slight frown. She was a prim woman, thin and neat and somewhat severe. Her eyebrows raised and her eyes flicked up to see if anyone else was in the room. It was empty, all the children were already on the playground. She picked up the light bundle and unwrapped it with long piano fingers, laying the shiny ribbon on the varnished desktop. She undid the folded oil-paper and looked down at the small Christmas cookie.

“Well, well,” she said, before taking a deep breath and sitting upright in her chair. “How nice, Rosa. But, tell me please: did your mother give you this, for me?” She left her steady gaze on the child but took care not to stare too hard.

Rosa looked down, her cheeks flushing. “Nay, Lehrerin. It was me,” she confessed.

“Nicht Mutti?” replied the teacher in more formal High German; her tone firmer, a hint of accusation lingering.

“Nein, Fraulein. Mother doesn’t know.”

Fraulein Rosenfeld nodded curtly. She rose and walked swiftly to the doorway, her footsteps like hammer blows on the oiled wood floor. Looking down the hall and then closing the door, she paused there, her hands clenching as she gathered her thoughts. Rosa waited, feeling ever smaller next to the tall desk. The door locked with a sharp snap.

“Nah joh,” Fraulein Rosenfeld began. When she turned back to Rosa she was smiling. “This is so nice.”

Rosa squirmed, basking in the moment.

“It’s just so nice!” Fraulein repeated. “Can we have it now, Rosa?”

The little girl studied her teacher’s face. Then, eyes shining, she said, “Joh!”

Fraulein Rosenfeld looked through the window to the playground. Then she returned to the desk and broke the cookie into smaller bits. She ate some of it, passing a small piece to Rosa.

They ate together, chewing busily like church mice, with the teacher standing between little Rosa and the door. Fraulein fretted from door to window and kept glancing at the large mantle clock on the shelf behind her, above the lined blackboard, keeping watch all the while.

Soon the cookie was gone. The teacher took the wrapper and folded it over and over until it was a small square. She pushed it deep into her pocket, together with the curly ribbon. She moistened her fingertip and dabbed at the few remaining crumbs. Holding one finger upright in front of her pursed lips, she took Rosa’s little hands and squeezed them gently, leaning over to kiss her on the forehead in the silent classroom.

“Our secret, joh?” Fraulein said in a whisper.

Rosa nodded, elated to have a secret with Fraulein – an honour she did not fully grasp. But perhaps it was just what the Fraulein had been lacking in cold and distant Molotschna, far from her native home in Germany. Just ask any Oma or Opa whose children have since begun their own lives and families, and they will tell you, it’s easier to feel lonely at Christmas than at any other time of the year.

Fraulein gazed with fondness at the tiny girl, she saw the brightness in her eyes and touched her braided blonde hair.

Just then, the first of Rosa’s red-cheeked classmates huffed into the cloakroom stomping snow off their boots and unwinding scarfs, their yarn-strung mittens wet and dangling. They looked at the two at the front of the classroom. Rosa’s friend Tina called out that they missed her for the game of fox and geese they had played, running in the fresh snow. Before Rosa could reply, the bell rang and the children returned to their seats.

Now tjinja, you might ask, how dangerous was that one innocent küak? Surely no great peril could come from something so small? But all it would have taken was for the wrong official to find out about the cookie – what would have happened to them then? Those Russians, obliged by strict orders to investigate, might have detained Rosa’s family. Maybe they would have been sent to a distant work camp or suffered some secret cruelty in Moscow, too horrible to name. Who knows?

And all because of a Christmas cookie.

* * *

Grandma folded her hands in her lap. The house fell still and silent until Grandpa prayed, his voice solemn and thick with emotion. When he finished, after, “Amen,” we sang, giving thanks for our deliverance, rattling the windows, billowing our hearts; “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”

At last, late on Tjristowend, I would lie in my bed and retell myself Great-Aunt Rosa’s story. Fraulein Rosenfeld was like a relative we saw just once a year – a loyal and trusted member of our family there in the tiny house behind the bakery on Barkman Avenue. Without this visitor from far away and long ago, our Christmas could not be complete.

Interview with a Mennonite Imposter

http://bit.ly/MennoTOEWSba

Writer interviews can be kinda boring. This is a little more in the Mennonite wiseguy range of the register, but still—you know—predictably boring. And great fun to do, especially with such an engaging set of questions! My thanks to Editor Erin Unger.