written by AMANDA GROSS
Around the turn of the 20th Century there was a Mennonite revival in which my ancestors enthusiastically dove into the furnace of fear-based fire and brimstone thinking, a dramatic evangelical retrofitting of our more level-headed past. After generational trauma and forced migration, after centuries of North American assimilation into whiteness, the silent suffering of stoicism, and a tight, interweaving of families to keep the community close, what prompted Mennonites to want to feel again?
Generational cycles repeat.
In my generation of ever-evolving materialism – the disconnect of object from maker, of consumer from consumed, of producer from human, of owner from owned – the revival tent wooed our souls. By revival tent, I mean the Georgia Dome, convention centers, and mega churches whose Jesus-themed rock concerts, highly-produced light shows, and (always) attractive worship teams led us through a phenomenal circus of sensuous attraction, suspense, doubt, guilt, fear, altar call and response, release, and soothing lullaby of assured rightness. Whew. An emotional, spirit-full answer to the emptiness of white, middle-class (sub)urban life that plagued our souls. While many of my classmates looked to drugs, sex, and alcohol to combat the loneliness, I hid in church.
Church felt safer and was more convenient. It also offered something I did not readily encounter in the frenetic halls of high school or the fast-moving rivers of Atlanta highway. It offered belonging.
While it is easy to see more clearly in retrospect, my church experience is and was nuanced and full of contradictions. In church I found both the spaciousness of expression and the denial of self. I felt intense belonging and severe rejection. I knew freedom and oppression. It was in my small home congregation that I was encouraged to lead. I led at the piano. I led worship. I led singing. I performed. I read. I played. I knew everyone. I wore bright dresses (as I got older sometimes short and sometimes low-cut, though rarely both) and an array of fancy hats. My eccentricity was nurtured. My brightness loved. Growing up, I was as loud and assertive as I wanted to be.
And throughout those same years, I learned to repress and deny. I learned to intentionally and then later less intentionally, ignore the small voice of wisdom within. I learned to self-censor, to compartmentalize, and to hide. When I was around seven, we were learning the story of Esther in Sunday School. Finally a female biblical character with agency! Finally a protagonist with whom I could identify! In my loudly relational way, I let every adult in sight know how thrilled I was that there was a book in the bible written by a woman. Turns out not. An elder in the church, also my friend’s grandpa, was quick to correct my nonsense. The story of Esther was not written by a woman he said matter-of-factly, in fact, there are no books in the bible written by women. And also, why would I foolishly deign such a thing?
Devastation. Ultimate betrayal. Not all bible stories are created equal. How could a community that nurtured my gifts undermine me so severely? I know I am not the only one with this story.
My therapist and I (well, mainly just I) have been considering what makes me feel safe in relationships. The quick answer is that I feel safe when there is space in the relationship to be fully myself. At church I learned that this is always a compromise. At church I learned to settle.*
One of the shared agreements we use at Youth Undoing Institutional Racism is Take space. Make space. The older I got, the less taking space was encouraged. I learned the skill of making space for others, an obvious virtuous path for good little white girls and budding young women. Socially and politically this seemed the strategic option for a wide-array of friends, emotional safety, and inspiring the trust of all kinds of authority figures. Like other versions of sneaky White Lady Ego, Mennonite Humble is the art of appearing to make space for others while remaining firmly in control (of decisions, of looking good, of one’s own self-righteousness). This North American Mennonite cultural value is consistent with aspects of White Liberalism and various Protestant traits. In whiteness, Mennonite Humble maintains a facade of sharing and accommodation while keeping one’s power and privilege firmly intact. This is not all rainbows and puppy dogs (or shoofly pies and pfeffernusse) for the Humble one. The downside being that in making space so habitually for others you end up losing sight of your own self. I am here to testify.
We all have these journeys, if we choose to take them, to sort through the muck and recover our intuitive selves. Some people are more in touch with their mucks. I am trying to be very in touch with my muck. I would warn you not to go it alone, but it’s part of the deal. You can only go at it alone.
Everyday my Mennonite Humble muck seeps through. Most recently this has developed into a passive, reactionary way of being in the world. I have been letting circumstances direct my decisions. I have been hanging back to observe what is. I have been graciously allowing others to go first, to put themselves out there, to take the risk, to show themselves, to set the standard and the tone. I have been hesitant in my confidence. In an effort to right rigidity and extend relationship, I have neglected the development of my vision. I have forgotten to discern my preferences and to declare my desires. I have overlooked my strengths.
My Mennonite Humble stems from a deep fear of imposition, of colonization, of not wanting to do harm. But in all of this not, I am harming myself. It is an illusive haven of stagnation. I do not have to take risks. I do not have to give up the privilege of Mennonite Humble thus I do not have to change. My Mennonite Humble takes swords and turns them into ploughshares. Ploughs being the primary weapon of genocide used by my peaceful agrarian ancestors in the colony of Pennsylvania against the indigenous population. When Mennonite Humble no longer works and when Mennonite Humble never did, what’s a white girl to do?
It is time to call on my creativity, my passion, and my deft ability to brainstorm long lists. It is time to get in the kitchen and (vegetarian) stew. It is time to sit still and listen to my center. It is time to move some furniture out the way. It is time to make space for me.
*A shoutout to my housemates for identifying this pattern of settling in my life.