Whistle Stop: An Unexpected Conversation With Mennonites

[Note: I’m posting this from Seattle, Washington, where I’ve just arrived on the Amtrak train. Just hours earlier, I was passing through the Cascade Mountains and Puget Sound. I’m catching up on Internet in a Starbucks (though not THE Starbucks) while waiting for a 1:10 bus that will take me to the Olympic Peninsula, where I’ll be spending the next two days. The bulk of this post was written on the train.]

On Wed, Sept. 12, I boarded the Empire Builder from Union Station, Chicago at 2:15 p.m. and settled in for a long 24 hour ride to Glasgow, Montana, where I would be staying with my cousin’s family for three days. The first thing I noticed was that a great many Amish and Mennonites use the Amtrak train system. I had a chance to chat with three Mennonite women for nearly two hours in the Observation Car. It was a very interesting conversation, and I jotted down what I could remember following the conversation:

The group (six of them, though I met only three) was traveling from Lancaster County, PA to visit relatives in Tomah, WI. According to them, Tomah had been settled roughly 35 years ago by Lancaster Mennonites seeking better farmland; as a result, most Lancaster Mennonites had friends or relatives in Wisconsin. I talked primarily with one woman, who looked to be in her late 50s, while the other two were engaged in their own conversation (in Pennsylvania Dutch — which they described as being very similar to the Swiss German dialect) but jumped into ours from time to time.

This woman (we never exchanged names) was the oldest of eleven; she had four brothers and six sisters. She worked in a greenhouse, growing flowers and arranging hanging floral baskets. There was great demand for them, she told me when I inquired—they always sold off their entire supply and sometimes could not even meet demand. They had just finished with “mums” (which I learned was short for chrysanthemums) and when she returned from Wisconsin, she would be tending to poinsettias for the fall season.

On the Amish

So what are the biggest differences between Amish and Mennonites, I asked her. “Aside from dress and appearance.” (I had originally mistaken her for Amish, and she explained the differences in their dress to me). She paused at my question. “Is there a major difference in belief?” I offered. But she continued to mull my question over.

“Shunning,” she said finally. When a member of the Amish community stops heeding the Church, they’re shunned by the entire community—all ties are cut and the family completely disowns that person. But when a Mennonite leaves the Church, she explained, you’re still allowed to interact with them—to “sit with them and eat with them.” For example, she recounted—in a disapproving tone of voice—how her brother had left the Church. It was “a shock to all of us,” she recalled. He was already married to a woman in the community, had children, and had a farm. “None of us realized how unhappy he was.” Now he drives cars, watches television, and uses computers. She still talks to him and eats with him; but — she added — she can’t ride in a car that he drives (whereas she is allowed to ride in cars driven by non-Mennonites) because that would implicitly condone his decision.

Our conversation would later reveal many other differences between the Mennonite and Amish, so I found it interesting that she found the practice of shunning to be the most significant.

On Civic Participation

At one point, I asked her if members of the Mennonite community tended to vote in elections.

“Oh, we pray,” she told me in a matter-of-factly tone of voice.

“I’m sorry?” I asked blankly, unsure if that was a response to my question.

She elaborated: the Mennonites believe that God will put the right person in office — so instead of voting for the person, they simply prayed to God. They did not believe that it was for man to choose who would lead them, but for God to decide who would lead. We are all mere men, was the way she put it—and how could man profess to know better than God what is best for us?

She also added that Mennonites did not approve of the vitriolic mud-slinging in these elections. “The way they drag each other down…” she murmured with strong disapproval. She told me of a Mennonite saying that love and hate belong in same box (or something to that effect)—the idea being that both emotions were unproductive and dangerous, and that each person’s words and actions should be considered objectively and equally. I briefly wondered how aware she was of cable news networks, but I just let her talk since she seemed to be quite animated on this subject.

Finally, she went on to express sympathy for Obama, unprompted: “It seems to me that he’s tried to do right but just keeps getting blocked.”

“It seems so hard to get anything done in your system.”

On Cameras

They had spent a few days in Chicago, and I asked if they had seen the Cloud Gate sculpture. “That bean-shaped mirror sculpture in the park?” I elaborated. She still wasn’t sure what that was, so I took out my camera to show her a photo of the Bean. She appeared to flinch somewhat when I slid the LCD screen under her eyes.

“Oh! Uh- is this OK?” I asked stupidly. She responded in the affirmative. But she said that they weren’t allowed to use the cameras.

“Is this just digital cameras only, or even the old film kind?”

Both, she replied—this particular rule had nothing to do with the technology being used but rather, stemmed from the commandment prohibiting making an image or likeness of God or of anything of His creation.

“And it encourages vanity,” she added. I couldn’t help but think of how “this would make a great Facebook profile photo” was so often on people’s minds.  I wondered how much she knew of the social network phenomenon, but didn’t get a chance to ask. However, I’m guessing not all that much since I later learned that  she considered the greatest “evil” of the Internet to be…scammers.

Mennonites Play Oregon Trail, Too

“Can you imagine what it was like to make this trip in a wagon?” she murmured, as we passed miles and miles of vast open plains. At one point during that conversation, I mentioned playing Oregon Trail as a kid and started explaining what it was. But to my surprise, one of her traveling companions—the youngest one—excitedly jumped in the conversation. “Yes! We have that game, too!”

“What? The computer game? You can play that?” I asked in confusion.

No, it’s not a computer game, but it’s the same game, she insisted. And as she explained it, I realized it was indeed the same game. For example, she said, children try to toss a dime into a cup to determine the outcome of choosing to ford a river. If it goes in, you make it across; if it doesn’t, then your oxen drowned. Or you flip a coin to determine whether a team member dies of dysentery. Or how cold the winter is and how much damage early cold does to your team. It sounded like all aspects of game play are  reduced to event cards and mini-games of chance or skill. All the kids absolutely LOVE that game, she exulted.

Oregon Trail: a truly universal game!

Upcoming: Day 2 of Chicago, rural life in Montana, Glacier National Park, and train culture.


10 thoughts on “Whistle Stop: An Unexpected Conversation With Mennonites

    • Oh, we chattered excitedly about that for quite a while (I was floored). I just had to cut this post short because I’m leaving to catch a bus right now! Thanks for reading.

  1. Pingback: Whistle Stop: Train Culture | stone soup

  2. [8] Steven Mark Schroeder, “Prussian Mennonites in the Third Reich and Beyond: The Uneasy Synthesis of National and Religious Myths” (Master’s Thesis: University of British Columbia, 2001), 26.

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