Branching Out from One Foundation

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 many generations back. On my father’s side they came from Switzerland, through Pennsylvania and Ohio; on my mother’s side they came from the area where France, Germany and Luxembourg meet.

I grew up in Elkhart, Indiana, going to Prairie Street Mennonite Church. When I was in junior high school we studied excerpts from the Martyrs Mirror, a seventeenth-century compendium of Christian martyr stories with emphasis on sixteenth-century Anabaptists. I learned of Elizabeth, who cried out to God to take away the pain of torture and found her pain relieved. Parents preparing to be burned at the stake wrote letters to their children urging them to stand firm in faith. Menno’s descendants in the faith needed to be made of strong stuff.

When I was fifteen my family spent a year in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Che Guevara had met his own kind of martyr’s death a few years earlier, and some Catholic priests in Latin America were ready to use violence in the service of liberation. Young people in the church asked, “Was Jesus a revolutionary?” In the Floresta congregation I worshipped with pietistic Mennonites who wanted nothing to do with politics. In Montevideo I met Canadian Mennonites from Russian background who ate borscht, and socially active Mennonites who started churches in poor neighborhoods. In Cordoba I met charismatic Mennonites who spoke in tongues. In O’Higgins I met Catholics, part of the focolare movement, who lived communally and worked for peace and sang about the vision of a city of Mary where war would be no more, and with whom I sometimes felt more at home than with the Argentine Mennonites.

Returning to Elkhart, I decided I was ready to join the church. I studied the Sermon on the Mount in preparation for baptism. Mennonites were people who held Jesus as central and tried to follow his teachings, supporting each other when the world around them seemed hostile. We did not go to war or give final allegiance to any government. I read the Bible through and tried to apply its teachings to my life.

Goshen College exposed me to more variety among North American Mennonites. I met some from Pennsylvania who ate apple butter with cottage cheese and who spoke with a slightly different accent. I met professors who integrated their faith with their teaching of science, and others who stretched my faith by exposing me to new ideas. I joined a new congregation and found a small group in which I could share my questions and hear from others who had questions and struggles of their own.

As I neared the end of college, I spent eight months in Nazareth, Israel, where a Scottish mission hospital served an Arab population. The Mennonite family that hosted me attended the local Baptist church. After finding that Mennonites were confused with Lebanese Maronites, I found myself starting my explanations with the Baptists and explaining that we were a lot like them—not an explanation I would have used in Indiana!

Shortly after moving to Indianapolis to start medical school, I transferred my membership to First Mennonite Church. As the only Mennonite congregation in Indianapolis, it encompassed people with a variety of perspectives, who would probably have attended eight different congregations if they had lived in Goshen. There were “Old” Mennonites and General Conference Mennonites, former Amish and Baptists and Methodists, conservatives and liberals, all trying to do church together, and sometimes getting pretty aggravated at each other. Being Mennonite, it seemed, could mean a sense of community that could tolerate a certain amount of disagreement.

I soon learned that the themes of community and disagreement went beyond my local congregation. At yearly Indiana-Michigan Conference meetings and at biennial General Assemblies of the Mennonite Church (and later, of Mennonite Church USA) I was introduced to the challenges of how a church deals with theological differences on a wider scale. How do we interpret the Bible? How do we deal with each other when we disagree? After a statement is passed, what happens to the minority that disagrees? The church includes liberals and conservatives, fundamentalists and free thinkers, scholars and activists, and we struggle to know how to speak with each other and how to witness to the world.

Through involvement on the board of Mennonite Central Committee-US I traveled to Mennonite communities across North America. Each of these communities had its own history and texture. In Winkler, Manitoba, I ate pluma moos and heard from a survivor of the famine in the Ukraine in the 1920s about the earliest Mennonite Central Committee workers who brought food to starving people. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, I met immigrants from Germany via Uruguay who did not believe that 6,000,000 Jews had been killed in the Holocaust. Some congregations in Phoenix were involved in a sanctuary movement for refugees fleeing violence and repression in Central America. For a while I felt like MCC was my church—various Mennonite and affiliated denominations coming together to feed the hungry and work for development, setting aside their theological differences to obey the clear command of Jesus to care for those who were suffering.

I have had the privilege of attending three Mennonite World Conference meetings: in Wichita, Kansas; Strasbourg, France; and Asuncion, Paraguay. The multi-racial, multi-lingual character of these meetings has been a huge inspiration to me. This is what the church really is! No Jew or Greek—or Congolese or Dutch or Colombian. I have a deep sense of excitement as I see how we can challenge each other by studying the Bible across national and ethnic lines. Spanish-speaking, German-speaking and Enhlet-speaking Mennonites in Paraguay can learn from each other about what God is saying to the church in our day.

Of course, the vision of people of “all tribes and tongues and nations” praising God together does not resolve the differences among us. Dutch Mennonites and Congolese Mennonites have very different understandings of the biblical perspective on homosexuality, for instance. Even so, I am convinced that we understand Jesus better when we look at him together than when we limit ourselves to our own narrow cultural interpretations.

Over the past couple of decades, some important conversations have taken place between Mennonite World Conference and other worldwide bodies. Roman Catholics, Reformed and now Lutherans have apologized for the persecution that our ancestors underwent at the hands of their ancestors. As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Anabaptist movement, we have an opportunity to retell the stories of the Martyrs Mirror, and to add a new chapter: we have now made peace with our brothers and sisters in these denominations and have “broken down the dividing wall of hostility” between us.

Some of my friends with ecumenical desires have become Episcopalians or Catholics. I choose to stay in the Mennonite plot of ground where I have been planted, but to reach out in many directions. I want to study the Bible with people of other cultures, acknowledge Catholics as my brothers and sisters, and create a hospitable space where I can converse with Jewish and Muslim friends.

That’s my Mennonite identity.

About the Author

Martha Yoder Maust

Martha Yoder Maust moved from Elkhart, Indiana, to Indianapolis for medical school and found her calling as a family physician in a community health center, where she has now worked for twenty-six years. When first invited to join the writers’ group, she protested that she was not a writer. She spent several years enjoying the company and the writings of the other group members before making her first forays into writing. She is married to Rod Maust, a psychiatrist, and they have four children aged sixteen to twenty-three years. They attend Shalom Mennonite Church in Indianapolis. For a magazine feature on Martha seehttp://www.mennoniteusa.org/Home/Generosity/ YoderMaust/tabid/317/Default.aspx