The other motherland

In an coincidental epilogue to our family history pilgrimage, this week David and I landed in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for a few days.

Any story of Mennonites in North America should include Lancaster County. The dairy farms. The pretzels. The “liberal” Mennonites. The “black-bumper” Mennonites. The Amish. Their ambivalence towards each other. Their ambivalence towards with the rest of the world.

Rounds of the Mennonite Game (“where-are-you-from-and-who-were-your-grandparents?”) include Lancaster County more often than not.

It was MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) board meetings that brought us this time. David serves as a board representative from our region, so he got to spend a couple of days meeting with other members from across the country. I brought some of my own projects along to work on during the sessions, but I took full advantage of the human connections that happened during breaks and meals.

In nearby Ephrata, we got dinner at “the Udder Choice,” a restaurant standing on what used to be my great uncle’s tobacco field (yep, conservative Mennos grew tobacco).
Inside, a blend of Cracker Barrel Americana and Mennonite nostalgia. My favorite: the strawberry rhubarb ice cream (I didn’t see the meadow tea flavor until it was too late, so I reserve the right to change my mind next time).
The family farm, still inhabited and operated by my second cousin.
My Friday afternoon walk took me past a tidy farm, Martin’s Pretzel bakery, an Amish fabric store, and a church across from a quiet suburban neighborhood caught in its own cultural ambivalence.

Back at MCC, a very different material culture. And an updated Mennonite game. Points of connection have expanded beyond “Lancaster,” “Plain City” and “Goshen” to include answers like “Ethiopia,” “Guatemala,” “Harlan, Kentucky,” and “Chicago.” Over coffee and meals I heard memories of MCC’s early work with post World War II refugees, stories about marketing decisions for the first edition of the More-With-Less Cookbook, and conversations about the impact of American fast fashion on African economies. I heard Spanish and thick southern accents and people with deep theological disagreements talk about their families and the novels they recently read.

I noticed that, while the facility’s rich material culture told a detailed and intentional story of global, multicultural identity, MCC’s own story, the story of its heritage and the people who developed its commitments to service, reconciliation as Christian mission, and the humility that enables its multiculturalism, came out mostly in verbal conversation.

By chance, I spent these days wrapping up a qualitative research project on denominational identity for the Brethren in Christ, one of MCC’s supporting denominations. In 2022 they–and, I am confident, every other denomination represented–face growing tension between stories like the ones our family traced through Europe in our “Anabaptist pilgrimage” and the narratives of a far less culturally homogeneous present. There are no easy answers, but it was so refreshing to share space with people who are trying their best to align a historically rooted identity with visions of a future that moves beyond its limitations.

Spaces like this, and the connections they facilitate with between old friends and new, are such gifts. I wish they came more often, but I’m so glad this one was a part of our summer.

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