"Can you just send me everything there is to know . . . within reason?"
Seven years ago, Mennonite Media called with an intriguing proposal. They were looking for someone to work from home, answering questions generated by visitors to the Third Way Café website, the official website about and for Mennonites maintained by Mennonite Media, now Third Way Media, a mission of Mennonite Mission Network for Mennonite Church USA.
These questions run a complete and often baffling gamut. Many are from students who need help with research. Prime examples: "I am doing a speech and I need some informachion (sic)" or "in paragraph form tell me who they are, where they came from, their culture, what they do as a group or culture, their religion, Thank you very much, please e-mail me as soon as possible, maybe tomorrow, but please soon. The fate of humanity is in your hands." I generally refer these folks to the appropriate areas on the Third Way Café website, which is comprehensive enough to cover most queries. Some students are a bit more zealous, though, and come at me with "kitchen sink" questions—usually numbered—and covering an amazing variety of topics. I can’t resist providing my favorite as an example:
to bother you, but I need to collect information from a few different
religions regarding their belief and organization. Would you or someone
you may refer help me? I need short answers for some questions (100
words or less) for a project due in 4 weeks. The answers shouldn’t be
too technical or too profound, just basic. Thanks in advance for your
Just in case you’re wondering, I didn’t do her homework for her—I referred her to pertinent websites as often as I could and think I may have been at least a little profound once or twice . . . but have you ever tried to describe God in 100 words or less? It’s an interesting challenge—the paragraph following this one has 117 words in it.
Not surprisingly, I also spend a great deal of time attempting to explain the difference between Mennonites and the Amish and all the groups in-between. Then there are always those just itching for a good argument—usually regarding homosexuality or pacifism. And now and then I get a question completely out of left field—from the man looking for some "Mennonite sausage," like some he was served in Alberta, to the guy who wanted to join an Amish community because he was pretty sure that there would be no electricity after the rapture, compounding his worry with much talk of the beast and the ten virgins. These are the questions that make for entertaining dinner conversation.
But the ones I really find touching are from the people who are on a true faith journey. I’ve been surprised by how many letters I’ve gotten from weary souls looking for a faith which follows the teachings of Jesus who think maybe the Mennonites have what they’re looking for. These are the people who make all those explanations about coverings worthwhile. And it’s also been a lesson for me that the opportunity to share my faith can occur in the most surprising places. Ten years ago, I never would have guessed that between loads of laundry and fixing kids’ snacks I would be directing people to the nearest Mennonite church or debating salvation with someone I’ve never met, often while wearing pajamas and drinking lukewarm coffee.
I do my best to answer every person as completely and helpfully as I can—even the ones I suspect of pulling my leg (the guy who asked if burning people at the stake is part of our church discipline, for one). And I offer this little book to provide others with insight to the questions people ask about Mennonites. More than the answers I provide, I think the questions themselves highlight the misconceptions and curiosity people have about Mennonites as well as the thinking and spiritual journeys people of today experience.
If it seems that I quote too often from Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, this is also meant to be reassuring: I’m not functioning as a lone ranger but, rather, leaning heavily on accepted statements of the church as we seek to provide responses.
Each question in this book is a genuine question I’ve received but has been edited for length and grammar (unless the mistakes are deliberate or particularly charming). All names and personal information have been removed to protect privacy.
Copyright © 2009 by Cascadia Publishing House LLC