How to spot a Mennonite

EDITOR'S NOTE: This little post has somehow become the most popular thing I have ever written, as well as the first time I have gotten blowback on my blog. The blowback was about the racism that is happening in some Mennonite churches against those who don't share the heritage I describe. I wanted to add a note addressing this, because otherwise my post could be seen as encouraging this kind of discrimination. 

To be clear, I see being Mennonite as both an ethnic heritage and a Christian denomination. You can be a Mennonite because you joined a church and subscribe to Mennonite beliefs and/or you can be a Mennonite because you were born into a Mennonite family (in which case, you may not even have religious beliefs). This is possible because of the unique history of Mennonites: what began as a purely religious movement became a culture and ethnicity as the people who started the movement joined together from their different countries of origin and separated themselves from the broader culture, creating their own. Ethnic Mennonites have all the markers of a cultural identity: language (low German), names, food, and a shared story. This overlaps with, but is independent from, the Mennonite faith, that was founded on principles of pacifism and adult baptism. Anyone can join a Mennonite church and, if they wish, call themselves a Mennonite. In fact, the fastest growing Mennonite churches are in Africa. Discrimination happening in a church that was founded on pacifism and has its roots in experiences of deep persecution is backwards and wrong.

mennonites don't all look like amish children in the 50s
Mennonites: We don't all look like this. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I am here to answer the burning question in all of your hearts: how to recognize a Mennonite.

What's that? You're not even sure what a Mennonite is? Of course you're not! Nobody is, not even all the Mennonites. We vary from living lives virtually indistinguishable from the Amish to being indistinguishable from the rest of the world. That's right. You could have a Mennonites walking among you, sitting next to you on the bus or working down the hall from your office, and not even know it.

Don't worry. I'm here to save the day. Here is a handy guide to identifying a Mennonite. (Don't worry about understanding what we are - that's a long story that is somehow simultaneously full of dramatic persecutions and super boring at the same time.)

Start with the last name.

Is it Thiessen, Wiebe, Reimer, Klassen, Rempel, or (don't giggle too much) Dick/Dyck? You've pegged someone who is at the very least half Mennonite (or perhaps married to one and erased their cultural background, thanks to the patriarchy.)

Yes, that's right, there are Mennonite names. We spent a lot of time getting chased out of European countries together and thus didn't mix much with the general populace. We were like super stodgy gypsies.

Prime them with a classic Mennonite joke.

Mennonite jokes generally refer to our cheapness or distrust of dancing (terrible - leads to sex). Lead lines of Mennonite jokes include "What is a terrible dilemma for a Mennonite?" (Answer: free dance lessons!) or "Why won't a Mennonite have sex?" (Answer: because it might lead to dancing!)

It might feel weird to walk up to random people and ask them about Mennonite sexual habits, but the payoff if they are Mennonite and know the joke will... well, it will still be awkward.

Pay attention during the holidays. 

Mennonites have some very specific seasonal foods, and we take them very seriously (they are mostly deep fried dough, so why wouldn't we?)

At New Year's we will make New Year's cookies. Don't let the name fool you, these are not cookies at all but little balls of deep fried dough, often with raisins in them, even though that's gross. Often served dusted with icing sugar or with Rogers Golden Syrup.

At Easter, look out for paska. This is like Mennonite Gold. It's a very sweet, dense bread served with icing. Every family has a slightly different recipe (for example, some people erroneously ruin their paska with lemon zest, I assume to hide the secret of how good paska really is from the general public.)

In the summertime, it's time for Mennonite Gold II: roll kuchen. This time we roll our dough flat and cut it into rectangles before deep frying it. It is supposed to be served with Rogers Golden Syrup and watermelon, but some people have jam or icing sugar or whipping cream (they are still Mennonites though... I guess.) Always with the watermelon though.

Pretend you're Mennonite.

Mennonites are all supposed to know their entire family tree, so that when we encounter one another we can go back through our family histories and figure out where we are related or which village our great great uncles-in-law both lived in. This is called The Mennonite Game. (I am very bad at this part of being Mennonite - unless you knew my grandparents, the game is over.)

Ask where to buy farmer sausage.

Any self-respecting Mennonite, even ones who betrayed their heritage by becoming vegetarian (like me) know where the best place is to buy farmer sausage. If said Mennonite has left their family's rural/suburban farming community for an urban centre, they may only be able to direct you to a source in their hometown, but it still counts.

Talk more about food and heart attacks.

Like every culture, we are deeply attached to our food and eating habits. Sunday evenings is when you have faspa, a light dinner of svebach (that's a bun with a bonus bun on top), cheese, and cold cuts. Older Mennonites will enjoy pluma moos, basically a cold, pruney fruit soup. Wareneki are pierogies with cottage cheese, served with a "sauce" made of melted butter and sugar mixed together. Bubbat wurst is a thick biscuit-like dough you cook in a cake pan with chunks of farmer sausage in it, served with a heavy cream sauce.

Did I mention heart attacks?

Ask them if they are Amish.

The eye roll will be your answer. Mennonites have been mistaken for the Amish basically since Amish people separated out from the Mennonite movement.

If they are deeply confused at the question, then you just asked a random person if they are Amish out of the blue and that's super weird.

Comments

Here's another Mennonite joke:

Q: What do you get, when you relocate a Mennonite church to Montana?

A: Wiebe Friesen Fast! :D
Anonymous said…
In the Fraser Valley there's no problem recognizing Mennonites because they never let you forget for one moment that they are Mennonite. They have taken over all of our Churches, even non-Mennonite ones. Mennonite worldview is everywhere. Walking into any Church in the Valley is like walking into someone else's family reunion. Being Mennonite was supposed to mean being a Christian, and how the Mennonites have complicated blood line with the beautiful grace of Christ is simply wrong. It is very, very, very hard to attend Church if you are a non-Mennonite in the Valley. We have flat out been told that we are simply not welcome and that Mennos will always favour one another.
I'm sorry you've had that experience, Anonymous. I was never a bloodline Mennonite Brethren, and I had no bloodlines into the Mennonites, but I was warmly welcomed into the Mennonite Brethren Community. There are some that still hold to bloodlines, but due in part to history, that's becoming passe`. No one should ever be excluded because of their non-affiliation to Mennonite heritage. We're supposed to be bound to each other by the Grace Of God, & The Blood of Christ, not by the sinful, tainted blood of history, or genealogy.
Anonymous said…
Mr. Niccolls, is that your actual last name that sounds rather Mennonite? Perhaps you are related to the Nikkels. Certain people are warmly welcomed, others aren't. I actually hate it when people tell me they've been warmly welcomed, as if there's something strange about me. If bloodlines are becoming outmoded (but how scary they ever were a thing to begin with) than take a look at allllllllllllllll the lead ethnic Menno pastors in Lower Mainland Churches, even at non-Menno denoms. Why? I phoned the seminaries and they said they graduate people from every walk of life. Now, how does one ethnic group get to dominate at so many Churches in the Lower Mainland? hmmmmm. . .but yes, if we had met more people like you at Church than I wouldn't be writing this comment, I hate that I have to write this. Church in the Fraser Valley doesn't even feel like Canada. It's like 1950, where we're teaching people about human rights from scratch.
Andrea said…
Anonymous - I am so sorry to hear about your experience. It's really just wrong. I put a note at the top of my post to try to clarify that I in NO WAY am trying to promote ethnic Mennonites as "more Mennonite" than others.

I see being Mennonite as a two-headed coin: some are Mennonite because they were born into a Mennonite family and share the cultural and ethnic heritage I describe (distinct from the German, Dutch, and Russian roots that individual Mennonites may have started from), and others are Mennonite by belief. It's a both/and situation to me.

I cannot deny my Mennonite ethnic heritage, as it's all I have, but I would never tell someone else they are not Mennonite or welcome in a Mennonite church - that is simply wrong.
Anonymous said…
Thank you Andrea. We cannot help our ethnic identity, nor would I ever want anyone to feel ashamed of their roots. However, having an ethnic identity in Canada is also a privilege as our Indigenous friends were deprived of that right. It is sad that a Mennonite worldview has come to be so pervasive in many Christian denominations throughout Vancouver and its Lower Mainland--we need many worldviews to come together and bring a holistic flavour to the Gospel of Christ. No worldview or culture should be eclipsing or dominating or holding the power over another in Church. Thank you for being open to my feedback. There are many of us begging ethnic Mennonites to do better. Thank you again.
Yes Anonymous, it's my real name. It's Scottish in origin, and my lineage hails from the McNichol Clan on the Isle of Skye, in Scotland. I totally agree with Andrea. It's a DISGRACE that you were not welcomed because you didn't fit a certain genealogical demographic, or ethnicity. That Canada has a 50's mentality concerning people in the Fraser Valley, is quite troublesome, and VERY sad. I hope that you can come to a place of forgiveness and restoration, with those whom have hurt you. You aren't alone, either. I have had people tell me things similar to that in my congregation, also. Mennonites pride themselves on being non-violent, but sometimes, by just being broken vessels, our attitudes and actions can be even more destructive than any AK-47 can unleash. Thank you for being candid with your experience. I'll be praying for you.
Blessings, Anonymous.
Anonymous said…
Kindly Mr. Niccolls, as you intelligently point out, we are not alone. I think we should be praying for the ethnic Mennonites; they are also hurting the name of Christ, making Church impossible for those who can't sit quietly in the pew and accept this nonsense. We know LOTS of people here in the Valley who will never, ever, ever set foot in a Church again because of Mennonite ethnocentrism. Likewise, as it's not my first day in these parts, closed, insular communities often hurt their own. When you are an outsider to a community, kind of like that move Spotlight, you see things, you hear things, and you are told things insiders are not told. I feel sad for Mennonites; when culture and faith get confused I think you are robbed of the fullness of Christ. lol, We keep hoping that as more and more people move out this way due to the housing situation that "city folk" will help put pressure on the Churches and help improve the situation. Thank you for your kindness. Blessings.