Bogart and Being Mennonite

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 morning my parents visited a pillared Methodist church that sat on a busy street corner. I remember being dropped off in a Sunday school classroom, surrounded by pre-school children and a teacher whom I did not know. I cried nonstop until my parents returned to pick me up. I don’t think we visited that church again. My parents tried a number of churches of various denominations, but my mother found something objectionable with each one—like the Baptist church that played organ music during the pastor’s prayer. My mother considered that emotionally manipulative.

Eventually my parents visited a small church down the block and around the corner from our house. The church belonged to a faith tradition my parents had never heard of: Mennonite. My mother called our previous United Church of Christ pastor to find out the relationship between the UCC and the Mennonites. He said the Mennonites were “kind of like cousins.” So our family visited the church, and my parents thought the congregation was friendly and down to earth. One day the wife of the Mennonite pastor walked over to our home for a visit. It just so happened that some Baptist ladies were visiting at the same time, trying to woo my mother. When they saw the Mennonite pastor’s wife coming up our sidewalk, they stuck their noses in the air. Right then my mother made her decision, and our family began attending Lombard Mennonite Church regularly.

Or to be more precise, my father attended the worship services, my mother dropped out after a while, and my sister and brothers and I attended Sunday school. The attitude of my parents was that worship services were for adults and Sunday school was for children. So for the next eight years I just attended Sunday school. Sometimes I arrived at the church while the worship service was still in progress, so I would go down into the basement—where the classrooms were—and wait. Above me I could hear the organ swelling while the congregation sang hearty hymns. It filled me with a sense of God’s transcendent majesty. Soon the service above me would end and children would begin streaming into the basement for Sunday school.

During those years I experienced my church as a gentle and safe place. The kids were friendlier than my schoolmates, and the Sunday school teachers were kindly and never threatening. I didn’t have to worry about grades or a report card. I simply enjoyed singing children’s songs, listening to Bible stories, pasting pictures in my pocket New Testament, making crafts related to the lesson, and eating ice cream at the annual church social.

And yet, I never felt as if I or my family quite fit in. Though my father was the church janitor and an usher, I always had the sense that we were on the outside. We didn’t know the other members as intimately as they knew each other, and it seemed as if my classmates got secretly picked for special projects (like helping with a puppet show) while I got ignored.

One morning I arrived at Sunday school, excited to talk with my friends about one of my favorite movie actors: Humphrey Bogart. But when I told them about the great Bogart movie I had watched the night before, all I got were blank stares. My best Sunday school chum asked, “Who’s Humphrey Bogart?”

“Don’t you guys watch old movies on TV?” I asked. To my amazement, their answer was no. What kind of parents did these kids have? My mother would go through the TV guide each week and circle all the classic movies: Westerns, monster movies, comedies, detective movies, adventure—all the genres a ten or twelve year-old boy would love. But the parents of my Sunday school buddies never pointed out any of these movies to their children—because they didn’t know about these movies themselves. That’s when I first realized Mennonites aren’t like other people.

During those years, my church was quietly introducing me to various distinctive Mennonite beliefs, such as pacifism. I still loved war movies, guns, swords and playing with my plastic army men, and I still wanted to be James Bond when I grew up, but I felt strangely attracted to the idea that we should avoid killing, turn the other cheek and love enemies the way Jesus did. I imbibed these ideas so deeply that when I was ten I started a neighborhood club called The Prevention of War Corporation. We were going to write letters to Congress calling for the end of the Viet Nam War. (We determined the presidency of the club through a series of wrestling matches.)

When I was twelve, the pastor announced he was going to teach a class to prepare the youth for baptism and becoming members of the church. I begged my parents to allow me to join the class. My mother was reluctant. “You’re too young. There’s so much more for you to learn about God first.” I assured her I already knew everything about God. She relented.

Several months later I was baptized, thereby becoming an official member of the congregation. I thought to myself, “Now that I’m a member, I should begin attending worship services.” So I did, but I soon made a shocking discovery: the worship services were boring. My parents had been right—this is for adults. Discouraged and uncertain what to do, I went to the pastor and laid out my problem.

“Church is really boring,” I told him. “I can’t sing the songs and I’m not getting anything out of the sermons. I like Sunday school a lot better. Would it be all right if I just went to Sunday school and skipped the worship services?”

The pastor was unperturbed. “Here’s what I suggest you do: I know the songs are unfamiliar to you, so just hum along for now. But when you get to know the songs, sing them as loudly as you can. When the sermon is being preached, write down on a piece of paper what you think is the one main idea. And when it’s sharing time and people in the congregation get up to say what God has been doing in their lives, you can stand up and share, too.”

I told the pastor I would give it a try, but if worship services didn’t get less boring within three months, I was going to go back to just attending Sunday school. Three months later I was enjoying the worship services more than I had ever enjoyed Sunday school. I sang boldly, I tried harder to pay attention to the sermons, and I got up to share more often than the members would have wished.

While climbing a tree in my backyard one day, the branch I was holding on to, and the branch I was standing on, both snapped. I plunged down and hit a fence, shattering my left femur. The next two weeks, as I lay in a hospital bed, I received no visits or even cards from my high school or neighborhood friends. I felt rejected. Then one night several kids from the church youth group showed up at my bedside, bearing letters from over a dozen teenagers in the youth group. I was deeply moved as I read the encouraging and funny letters. I decided I was going to become an active member of the MYF—the Mennonite Youth Fellowship.

For the next four years I attended every monthly MYF party, every outing and every car wash fund-raiser. I also joined the youth singing group—The Sands of Time—which rehearsed weekly and sang regularly at our church as well as at other churches. I traveled with the MYF to Germany and surrounding countries as we visited locations important to Reformation and Anabaptist history: the castle where Luther translated the Bible into German, the river where Felix Manz—the first Anabaptist martyr—was drowned, a cave where Anabaptists met secretly for worship, and a house where Menno Simons used a hidden printing press to disseminate his books. The youth in the MYF became my closest, most intense friends as we shared our innermost thoughts with each other and sought to follow Jesus more faithfully.

As I neared my eighteenth birthday, I announced to my mother that I might not register for the draft. “You better!” she insisted. That’s when I first saw my religious convictions diverging from hers.

Nearly all of my friends in the MYF were planning to go to Goshen College, so I decided to go there as well in the fall of 1975. My first semester was a culture shock as I transitioned from a Chicago suburb to rural Indiana. The students dressed differently than I did—often in bib-overalls; they played strange card games like Euchre and Dutch Blitz; some spent their Saturdays engaged in corn de-tasseling; and the big fall event for the men from the 4thfloor of Yoder dorm was going on a hayride with the women from the 3rd floor of Kratz dorm. This was a different Mennonite identity from what I had known before.

At the end of September, my excited friends took me to the Goshen fairgrounds to attend the annual Mennonite Relief Sale, where a person could ooh and ahh at handmade quilts, listen to auctioneers possessed with glossolalia, gorge on gooey desserts, and have an ongoing family reunion with scores of relatives.

Except I had no relatives in Goshen. Until I attended Goshen College, I never realized that Mennonites—aside from the strays that wander or marry into the fold, and a handful of racial minorities—are all related to each other.

Despite the shock, I found myself attracted to the quaint, shy, guileless culture of Goshen. The small college—with one-third the number of students as in my high school—was an oasis of tranquility. Amish buggies occasionally clip-clopped along the bordering streets, and one could leave a brand new bicycle unlocked in the bike rack and have a reasonable chance of still seeing it there at the end of the semester. Unlike my high school in which student fights were dismally common, I never saw or even heard of an altercation during my four years of college.

I loved being at Goshen College, but I knew I was different from most of the other students. I didn’t hanker after farms and combines, I had no passion for quilts and genealogies, and I had no talent for repressing my anger. One of the behavioral oddities I noticed was how students treated total strangers—store clerks, waitresses, people on the streets—with engaging friendliness, learning their names, carrying on conversations, as if they would meet them again. Then it dawned on me: theywillmeet them again—it’s a small town. By contrast, in Chicago, strangers will never be met again, so no one puts energy into being personable with strangers.

But the deepest impression left on me by Goshen College was not cultural traits but counter-cultural politics and the theology of Anabaptism. From a semester spent in Honduras, I got a glimpse of what the world looks like for people whose nation will never have economic or political influence. From a course on Anabaptism, I learned the idea of the church being an alternative community living out “the politics of Jesus.” When I graduated from the college and began exploring pastoral ministry, I told my pastor, “My mission is going to be promoting Anabaptism, not Mennonitism.” (My pastor responded with a smile—or was it a wince?)

Thirty years have passed since I made that announcement, and to a significant degree that has indeed been my vocational ministry. I’ve been a youth pastor, an assistant pastor, a church planter and a lead pastor; in each of these settings (three Mennonite and one United Methodist) I have consistently downplayed ethnic Mennonite culture and promoted an identity consisting of Anabaptist faith and practice. Today, when I hear some cradle Mennonites say they value their Mennonite cultural identity but have no interest in the Christian faith, I hope they leave the name “Mennonite” behind so they don’t continue to debase it by defining it as nostalgia for a certain Germanic or Russian cuisine.

When people call themselves Mennonite, I want to hear them embrace the ideals of nonviolence, reconciliation, service and mutual support in community—all emanating from following Jesus as Lord. I want one’s genealogy to play no role in what it means to be Mennonite. I want the family of Mennonites to become so broad and diverse in background and cultural expressions that “Mennonite” can be accurately defined only by the convictions that make us a community.

None of this lessens my appreciation for the distinctive culture that has been produced by several centuries of Mennonites striving to survive the forces of repression and assimilation. Sometimes I have wanted to become a part of that ethnic culture and thrive within it. (When I was in college I had a devious desire to marry a Yoder and have twelve children so that “Ahlgrim” would become a Mennonite name, and “Yoder” would be reduced by one.) But now I prefer serving a congregation in a city at a comfortable distance from the land of Goshen.

Being Mennonite is sometimes a stifling experience, especially if there’s no one else around. This tribe suffers from claustrophobic boundaries: don’t be too assertive, don’t dream too big, don’t think outside the box, don’t make waves, don’t be flamboyant, and—for heaven’s sake—don’t be fashionable! Spending too much time with culturally defined Mennonites is, for me, like being trapped in a room running out of air. I am most comfortable being Mennonite when I am around Presbyterians, Lutherans and Catholics; Jews, Buddhists and Muslims; agnostics, atheists and New Agers. To be a healthy Mennonite I need not only a healthy Mennonite community, I need a much larger, more diverse community. I think Mennonite theology and identity thrives best when it is surrounded by and interacting with other perspectives and approaches.

I am a Mennonite, a real Mennonite, a full Mennonite—whether cradle Mennonites always treat me like one or not.

I thank God I saw all those Bogart movies as a boy.

About the Author

Ryan  Ahlgrim

Ryan Ahlgrim is a pastor who always wanted to be a writer. He has served First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis for the past fifteen years, and has written frequently for various denominational magazines. He has authored a youth curriculum, Morphed: New Life in Romans, a book on preaching, Not as the Scribes, and contributed a sermon to the anthology, Keeping the Faith: Indiana’s Best Sermons. His first published short story, “The Day I Saw Bigfoot at the Zoo,” appeared in the New Fiction issue of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing (see Archives). Many of his sermons, as well as his Bible study blog, can be accessed through his church’s website:www.indymenno.org. He and his wife Laurie have two teenage children, Garrett and Savannah.