By Georgia Klassen-Marshall
"Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Praise God, all creatures here below. Praise Him above, ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen." One hundred fifty voices echo these words through the dining hall. Cousins, second cousins, great aunts and uncles all join together in perfect harmony. Some hold musty hymnals, while others know the lyrics off by heart, having sung it every Sunday for their entire lives. Of course, I do not know the words and have not picked up my hymnal, as I can never find the right page. It's the Klassen family reunion, and the hall is filled to the brim with people I share DNA with, save the inlaws. For the first time in a while, I am decidedly not the most Mennonite in the room.
Most peers I meet don't know what it is to be Mennonite. "Is it like a religion? Is it an ethnicity?" they ask. "It's kind of like being Amish." I always reply. Oh, how my Oma would hate hearing me say that! But it's an easy comparison and the fastest way to explain Mennonites. I call myself a modern Mennonite. I use electricity, wear revealing clothes, and say that I'm agnostic, even though I subconsciously believe in God. To me, being Mennonite meant going to a Mennonite camp every summer, eating zwieback and vareniki at my Oma's house, and going to the Klassen family reunion in Manitoba every five years. Other than the older boys who would demolish anyone under five feet on the tetherball court at camp, I've always known us Mennonites to be kind people. We are pacifists. However, this belief seems to contradict our colonial history.
Like all other settlers, Mennonites played a vital role in the colonization of Turtle Island. Out of fifteen residential schools in Ontario, Mennonites operated three of them. In 1962, the Northern Light Gospel Mission opened the Poplar Hill Development School for Indigenous children. Over its fourteen years of existence, the government and the Nothern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC) received complaints about corporal punishment teachers afflicted on students at the school. The NNEC tried to get the NGLM to discontinue the strap's use in its school, but the NGLM refused. How could this respected Mennonite institution preach following Christ "in the way of peace, doing justice, bringing reconciliation and practicing non-resistance," and then physically abuse their pupils?
In the summer of 2019, I read Miriams Toews' "Women Talking." The book tells the true story of an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia. In the fictional Mennonite colony of Molotschna, women and girls as young as three had been waking up groggy and bruised to find their sheets covered in blood and semen. Some members of the traditional patriarchal colony blamed demons or the wild imagination of women. In reality, a group of nine men in the settlement had been breaking into homes at night, spraying women with a drug made to sedate cattle, and raping them, only to disappear before the sun rose.
This story struck me when I read it. What if my family history had gone differently? If my ancestors had decided that they didn't want their children to learn English when the Manitoba government eliminated bilingual schools in 1918? Would they have moved south to Mexico? Or Belize? Or Bolivia? Could I or some different version of me have been subject to these attacks? I was scared for women still living in those tight-knit communities, but I was not scared for myself. Not yet.
The same summer I read women talking, I went to the Mennonite camp I had been attending for ten years for the last time. I was doing the "Counsellor In Leadership Training" program, and I had looked forward to it all my life. As a camper, seeing the CILTs hanging out, boys and girls being the best of friends, I couldn't wait until it was my turn. The CILTs were always very open. Kids often moved their mattresses from the boys' cabin to the girls or vice versa. They would all sleep on the floor together and tell stories until deep into the night. However, when I arrived at camp, that was not my experience at all. Girls and boys were under no circumstances allowed in each other's cabins. Even on our out-trips, we could only hang out in each other's tents if every single CILT and counsellor was also in the tent. We were all so confused about why our CILT experience was so different from what we had seen every year before. Our questions did not go unanswered, and our counsellors began to tell us a story. The previous year there had been an incident at camp. We weren't told the exact circumstances or names, but we learned that a girl in the 2018 CILT group had been raped while sleeping by a boy in her CILT group.
This news threw me for a loop. At my summer camp? Camp was a place where I had always felt incredibly safe in all ways. But I'm sure that girl felt the same way about camp before that summer. And now it was a place she could never return. Though we lived in two different worlds, nearly 7,000 kilometres apart, the women of my camp and the women of Molotschna were facing the same problems.
The past few years have erased what I thought it meant to be a Mennonite white woman. The illusion that Mennonites are pacifists before anything else has shattered. The blatant patriarchal nature of the community showed its face. My favourite connection to being Mennonite, camp, had been tainted. I couldn't go back there, not for a while. A year later, I still haven't found a new way of connecting to my religion and roots. But the truth is I haven't been trying.