Indianapolis Writers Group: On Mennonite Identity

Vol. 3, No. 1

In This Issue

About every sixth Saturday morning, five writers gather around a cozy breakfast table in an Indianapolis home to eat, discuss current events and read to each other our most recent writings. J. Daniel Hess, retired professor of communication at Goshen College, pulled us together about ten years ago in order to encourage creative writing. Admission to the group was not based on prior writing experience or success, but simple desire. We quickly discovered a comfort level with each other that has allowed for honest, personal and insightful conversation—as well as invaluable feedback.

Our occupations vary: a poet, pastor, professor, psychiatrist and physician. Some of us have published essays or books, stories or poems; others of us have not. But at the breakfast table we are equals, eager to listen and share. Our time together has inspired us to write more—and better—than we would have done alone.

Recently we found ourselves discussing Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, which in turn led us into a discussion of what it means to be Mennonite. Each of us understood, and had experienced, being Mennonite in significantly different ways. Having already been invited to create the contents for this issue of CMW Journal, we had a sudden “aha” moment—we would use Mennonite Identity as our common theme.

In this issue—through personal essay, memoir and poetry—we explore the twists and turns, the obstacles and landmarks, that have contributed to, and helped us define, what it means for each of us to be Mennonite.

J. Daniel Hess starts us off with an intriguing autobiographical essay, “My Mennonite Identity,” which describes his journey from a conservative Mennonite home with a thick Pennsylvania heritage, to going off to a more open-minded Mennonite college, then on to secular graduate school, then a detour to what was supposed to be a temporary stint teaching at Goshen College, and finally back home for his parents’ 50thwedding anniversary. The circuitous journey is exciting, painful, enlightening and ultimately integrative. Despite times of rejection and tearing away, many worlds come together to form a new Mennonite identity that honors the good in all he has experienced.

In recent years, Hesshas been writing poetry. In his “Three Garden Poems” he reflects on his relationship to the animal kingdom: considering how to share fruit with the robins, how to imitate the seed shucking of a cardinal, and how to make peace with a black snake. The desire for harmony—never to be fully realized—becomes more apparent in each poem.

Martha Yoder Maust, like Hess, comes from a multi-generational heritage of Mennonite forebears, but she was nurtured in a more international context. In her identity essay, “Branching Out from One Foundation,” she relates her experiences with Mennonites in Argentina and Israel, across the United States and Canada, and at three Mennonite World Conferences. Along the way she has also engaged with other Christian traditions, as well as other religions, and has found the historical “dividing wall of hostility” being replaced by bridges. Intentionally mixing her metaphors, she sees her Mennonite identity rooted in the foundation of Jesus Christ while also branching out into greater diversity and dialogue.

In her personal essay, “Gleaners,” Yoder Maustdigs into the struggle to live ecologically in a throw-away society. She values and gathers what others ignore or disdain. Gleaning thrown-out food from dumpsters becomes a metaphor for the productive way we can gather insights from a variety of sources in order to create something more enriching.

Two years ago my mother died, and the way she died reflected her free-spirited, Auntie Mame personality. In my (Ryan Ahlgrim’s) autobiographical vignette, “Mom’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Party,” I recount her final wishes and how my family carried them out. She passed on to me a commitment to creative and courageous individual expression—a quality which has not always mixed well with Mennonite identity.

My second personal essay, “Bogart and Being Mennonite,” explores how I came to terms with the tensions between the values of my parents—who had no Mennonite background—and the values of the Mennonite congregation and college that nourished my mind and spirit as I grew up. The result is a definition of being Mennonite that is truly “naked” Anabaptist.

Unlike the others in our writers’ group, Rodney Deaton had no Mennonite influences prior to joining the church as an adult. This perhaps gives him an advantage in being able to understand and embrace the soldiers—traumatized by the Iraq war—with whom he does therapy. His lack of traditional Mennonite indoctrination, as well as the influence of his maternal grandmother, also gives him a clearer view of our hypocrisies. His personal essay, “An Aggressive Mennonite,” pulls no punches as he challenges us to re-think what it means to empathize, to seek peace, to know grace, and to be Mennonite.

Rounding out our writings is a set of persona poems by Shari Wagner. Inspired by frequent visits to her uncle’s farm, and stories told by her aunt, “The Farm Wife” series of poems embodies Wagner’s curiosity regarding what life might have been like if she had lived on a farm like so many generations of her family before her. In these poems we meet a conflicted woman: anchored to the land and the solidity of her cows, yet dreaming of the ocean and sometimes taking trips without a destination. She ruminates on the meaning of snakes and tornadoes, trees and grain. She also experiences the grief of eventually leaving the farm. One of the poems, “The Farm Wife Sells Her Cows,” was featured by Garrison Keillor on his radio program,The Writer’s Almanac.

Throughout this collection of writings is a profound gratitude for a vision and set of qualities we can identify as Mennonite. But getting to these gems is not easy. They must be mined in our past and in our present. We have to get scratched up and dirty. Slag has to be cut away and left behind. And what one person finds may not be exactly the same gems someone else finds. If this writers’ group is any indication, being Mennonite has a rich and diverse future.

--Ryan Ahlgrim, Guest Editor

In this issue:

  • 5 read more My Mennonite Identity

    My Mennonite Identity

    by J. Daniel Hess

    My Mennonite identity is like a thread made of strong stuff, although at places the thread has grown thin, but then it has thickened again. This thread isn’t stretched out in a straight horizontal like the 40th parallel. Rather, like a pilgrim’s path, the line meanders and dips and rises and crosses over itself and sometimes gets lost in thickets and even intersects occasionally with modern highways. Such a zig-zag route has resulted in a fabric somewhat like a shawl thrown lightly over my perceived self.

    If you want to follow this thread, you begin in a simple post-Depression Mennonite …

  • 0 read more Three Garden Poems

    Three Garden Poems

    by J. Daniel Hess


    Since you can’t
    wait any longer
    I went to Ace Hardware
    paid $42.50 for an orchard net
    got out two step ladders
    set the big one on the west side
    the little one on the east
    of the serviceberry
    then climbing the big ladder
    higher than I like
    I pulled the net up and over
    using clothespins to close gaps.
    That’s why some of you crashed
    before you reached dessert.
    I mean no nastiness,
    just a bit of sharing.
    On Monday I’ll pick
    two pails, enough for cereal
    and two jars of jam. Then
    I’ll call Teddy and Eileen …

  • 0 read more Branching Out from One Foundation

    Branching Out from One Foundation

    by Martha Yoder Maust

    They say that Menno Simons’ favorite Bible verse was 1 Corinthians 3:11: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (NIV). Menno might be dismayed to find a church calling itself Mennonite. He might have been happier with the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia, which set aside the name of Menno for a name that means “Christ Is the Foundation.”

    Menno might also be surprised to see that the Mennonite Church, after times of persecution and withdrawal, came to be identified with certain ethnic groups. My own ancestors were Mennonite for …

  • 0 read more Gleaners


    by Martha Yoder Maust

    The mural on the west wall of the old Gleaners Food Bank building depicts men and women bending over in a posture of perpetual backache, strong hands picking up grains under a hot sun. Inside the building, more privileged hands put in their service hours lifting and sorting the donations from churches and postal customers, to be distributed to food pantries all over town.

    I walk along the Monon Trail beside the mural, picking up aluminum cans to recycle. The shirt I’m wearing is one I found on the sidewalk along 25th St., and last month I found a …

  • 0 read more Bogart and Being Mennonite

    Bogart and Being Mennonite

    by Ryan Ahlgrim

    At the end of 1961, when I was four years old, my family moved from one suburb of Chicago to another, and my mother sought a new church for our family to attend. She and my father had been raised Lutheran, and I had been baptized as an infant in the United Church of Christ, but denominational labels didn’t really matter to them. My mother simply wanted to find a congregation that was friendly, genuine and did not teach that her stillborn baby was in hell because he hadn’t been baptized (as a previous pastor had informed her).

    One Sunday …

  • 0 read more Mom’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Party

    Mom’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Party

    by Ryan Ahlgrim

    “I’m dying,” said Mom matter-of-factly, sitting on the couch in my family room with my wife and children gathered around her.

    I was not surprised. She had suffered a heart attack six months earlier, and I had heard a rumor that an x-ray revealed a tumor in one of her lungs. Considering that she had been living in a nicotine fog for all of her seventy-seven years, dying from a cigarette addiction had always been a strong possibility. Even as a little boy, I remember her going to the bathroom periodically to hack her guts out. But what had made …

  • 0 read more An Aggressive Mennonite

    An Aggressive Mennonite

    by Rodney Deaton

    I am an aggressive man. And I am a Mennonite.

    Live with it.

    A bizarre way to begin an essay on Mennonite identity, I agree. Please feel free to substitute a cognate of your choosing should the word aggressive be too, well, aggressive for your taste. “Assertive” has always been au courant in empathic circles. “Zealous” might work for the ethically minded. Admittedly I have always had a soft spot for “brassy.” Yet pardon me if I stick with my original. After all, it seems counterproductive to check self-determination against the sensitivities of others.

    But, then, maybe that’s the Mennonite …

  • 0 read more The Farm Wife

    The Farm Wife

    by Shari Miller Wagner

    The Farm Wife Sings
    to the Snake in Her Garden

    Bringing in the Sheaves”
    is so you know I am coming
    to pluck green beans in the dark

    where you dangle. O garter snake
    you are the refrain that returns
    with every verse I sing. I spy you

    in the watermelon’s ropey
    vine or the smooth handle of a hoe
    half-hidden in marigolds.

    “Be Thou My Vision,” I hum,
    cutting a cabbage head
    and you jolt like an arrow

    from the crooked shadow
    of my arm. Against the picket fence,
    your discarded skin hangs

    thin as silver tissue once …