Saturday, April 22, 2017

Who Are the Mennonites?

Great Great Grandfather Jacob (right) and Katharina Garber Kennel (center) and one of the Kennel beauty daughters or granddaughters, in the early 1900s.   Am I really related to you?   

     What do you get if you cross an Amishman with a Korean?  
      No joke, most of my father's ancestors were Mennonites who came from Switzerland, and the border region between France and Germany:  Alsace Lorraine, Rhineland Palatinate and Hesse.  The Mennonites were followers of Menno Simons (1492-1565), a church leader and theologian who is probably one of the most influential persons that you never heard of. My Dad suggests that the Mennoites represetned the left wing of the Protestant Reformation, and perhaps that is so.  
       Menno carried first of all a message of a warm, loving Christianity.  He believed in hard work, humility and avoidance of frills and fads.  I like the title of a book by Horst Gerlach "My Kingdom is Not of This World,"  which is an apt summary of their belief. Don't place your faith in things of this world, Christian, but keep your eyes on the Kingdom beyond this one.  
    The Amish were related to the Mennonites.  They were the followers of Jakob Amman (born 1644 in Switzerland) who among other things introduced more strict rules concerning excommunication and "shunning" (strictly ignoring them, as if they no longer existed) those who were excommunicated. It might be added that prior to the Industrial Revolution, there was less visible difference between the Mennonites and the Amish, as everybody used horses and buggies, but today the Amish stand out for their strict refusal to embrace change. With the Mennonites it's more of a tendency rather than  a strict code.  
    But what really got the Mennonites and Amish into trouble was that they actually believed in Christ as Prince of Peace. Hence they did not carry guns, and they would not serve in the Armed Forces, rejecting the earthly authority of royal rulers.  
This made them a threat to European royalty, and they were systematically persecuted, fined and thrown in jail and were ultimately chased out of Netherlands, and wound up settling in Switzerland and the border region between France and Germany.   They had the reputation of being excellent farmers and hard workers, so the local barons were willing to tolerate them in exchange for having them provide food for the populace.  This was stable for a long time, but eventually the decision was made to leave Europe and travel to America, where they would be alllowed to own the land that they farmed.   Likely, my ancestors came to America in order to be able to continue their Old World traditions.  This put them into conflict with the rapidly changing Americans.
      The elders no doubt preferred for the young generation to follow their practices.  But this was not to be. My great grandfather was named Thomas Jefferson Kennel, a slight hint that the Kennels regarded themselves as Americans by 1870 when he was born.     
    Things came to a head in World War I.  That's the time when both the Augsburgers and the Kennels stopped speaking German.  I'm sure it was no easy decision, but ultimately they decided that they were not going to side with the Kaiser, who was the one who kicked them out of Germany in the first place.  
     Granny Blanche told me she spoke German at home until America entered the war.  At that time her father Henry told the family that they were done speaking German.  The Augsburgers, like the Kennels and many other Mennonite families, would be Americans henceforth. 
      Grandpa Elmer heeded his country's call and joined the Army.  He was made a Medic, probably because of his Mennonite religion, but I'm told that Elmer didn't ask for Conscientious Objector status.  In the next generation my Dad joined the Navy in World War II and I became an Air Force officer.   
      There's an old cliche, "How will you keep them on the farm once they've seen Paris?"  Yeah, that was Gramps. Grandpa told me one time, "I didn't know there was any kind of a job besides farmer before I went in the Army."  He wasn't joking.  He was the first person in the family whose main job was not farming.  I'm sure that was not easy.   He went to college after World War I and met Grandma Blanche...then they moved to Dayton and Gramps got a job at the YMCA on West 3rd Street, and Granny worked at the Department Store which eventually became Rikes. Wow, they were not farmers! 
    Years later his son Byron got some even more crazy ideas and even married a Korean lady, an exchange student from Western Reserve College in Cleveland.  I didn't think about it as a child, but I'm sure that traumatized the family.  There are some wedding pictures that I've seen, and some of the people I can recognize.  There was bridesmaid Lily Rosenbaum, from France, and an African American flower girl, daughter of Julius and Yolanda Lee.  Wow, Byron and Sue were politically inclusive way before it was popular...but I'm not sure how well this went over in a Mennonite family.  
    You know what?  I'm lucky I even exist.  These changes happened as each generation moved further and further away from our Mennonite Amish roots,  but they didn't come easy.  I'm starting to understand that there must have been a lot of soul searching and inner conflict.  
     Today, the Mennonites are not that different from other Christians.  They go to "normal" churches and usually don't adhere to the  strict code used by the Amish.  
    But still, generations later, even though I am far from being an Amishman, maybe I still carry some of the teachings of Menno Simons inside me.  
    I'd like to think of myself as a modern sophisticate, very cross-cultural with friends all over the world,  and all that blah blah blah...but maybe deep down part of me is still Amish. I still tend to be anti-war, much more so that most of my contemporaries.  I believe in working hard.  You won't see me wearing the latest fashions or driving a flashy sports car.   I think I might look good with a straw hat and suspenders.  And maybe I ought to grow a beard.   


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