An Inescapable Embrace

Gender and Faith Identity in Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s Sleeping Preacher

I was introduced to Sleeping Preacher as a first-year student at Goshen College in a class called “Introduction to Literary Interpretation.” I do not think I had ever seen a poem about or by a Mennonite before, and I was thrilled to discover, in that semester of Shakespeare and Toni Morrison, that my people (or people sort of like mine) were also worthy of creative exploration and critical study. Just last semester (fall 2011), I took a seminary class through the Earlham School of Religion called “Writing as Christian Ministry.” I was uncertain about what sort of definition of “writing” or “Christian” or “ministry” this class would elicit, taught from a Quaker perspective. As soon as I received the reading list I knew I was going to be all right: Sleeping Preacher was the first assigned text.

I was the only Mennonite in the course, and at times I found myself wanting to defend my denomination. Mennonites aren’t like this any more, I wanted to say. Or, at least this hasn’t been my experience of Mennonites! No qualification was needed, however, since my classmates loved the poems and found their clarity and particularity inspiring for their own writing. Starting that course with a text filled with ethnic Mennonite markers made me consider myself not just as a “Christian writer,” but as a Mennonite one. Although the Mennonite churches I have attended are quite different than the community described in Sleeping Preacher, I sometimes do feel the weight of our legacy of humility, community, service, and martyrdom deep in my body and soul.

Both the body and the soul are important elements in Sleeping Preacher. More specifically, a female-gendered body and a Mennonite soul are central to the collection, and the interaction between these two aspects of identity is often what drives the engaging particularity and progression of the collection. In Sleeping Preacher, gender and faith identity are tied up in an inescapable embrace. The speaker of these poems, undoubtedly Kasdorf herself in almost all cases, cannot fully escape from her femaleness, nor from her Mennonite heritage—and she does not really want to. This ambiguous embrace of gender and faith identity is a large part of what makes Sleeping Preacher still important and intriguing twenty years after its initial publication.

“Catholics” and “Mennonites”

The inescapable and tension-filled embrace between gender and faith identity is nowhere more striking than in two consecutive poems at the center of Sleeping Preacher: “Catholics” and “Mennonites.” These two poems have probably drawn the most critical—and popular—attention of any in the collection. At first glance, there seems to be a clear dichotomy between the poems: Catholic faith is feminine, personal, and desirable while Mennonite faith is masculine, communal, and distant.[1] “Catholics” is rife with feminine language, even before the poem officially begins. The dedication of the poem (“for Julia”) suggests the possibility that the poem was written for the author herself—or for her little girl self—giving voice to desires and regrets Kasdorf has dealt with since elementary school. All of the feminine images in the poem are desirable to the speaker. The Catholic girls flaunt their pierced ears, which serve not only as markers of femininity and beauty, but also of spiritual growth and acceptance, since the piercings happen after their confirmation. The “white communion dress” which the speaker wants to wear is another image that implies both femininity and faith. The Catholic girls are flaunting a comfort with and a celebration of both their gender and their faith, a way of being and belonging that the speaker longs to experience.

In contrast to “Catholics,” “Mennonites” is shaped by rough, difficult, and compulsory images: “We hoe thistles…we love those Nazi soldiers…we must forgive….” Instead of the “beautiful Mother in blue,” the divine here is a masculine “perfect…Heavenly Father.” Rather than beginning with young girls getting confirmed (publically acknowledged for their womanhood and faith), “Mennonites” begins with “we keep our quilts in closets and do not dance.” In the Mennonite world of Kasdorf’s poem, there is no room for displaying feminine art forms like quilts or for displaying the feminine body in dancing. Such a situation could be read as hopelessly oppressive for women and female-made things in the community.

In an article about literary language in Sleeping Preacher, Bobby Meyer-Lee points out that quilts are used for adornment and, due to traditional Mennonite suspicion of ornament, in the world of this poem they must be hidden away where they also no longer function as quilts.[2] Meyer-Lee says that the resulting paralysis is “for the poet equally a source of hope and dismay: though kept in closets, quilts continue to be made, and may someday be brought out of darkness.”[3] Meyer-Lee also mentions in a footnote that in the Mennonite world quilts are in fact not hidden but often displayed and sold for substantial sums; surely the author intends an ironical subtext.[4] This ironical subtext carries through all the way to the poem’s final chaff image, which will be left alone here since it has been admirably dealt with by other critics.[5] It is sufficient to say that both the quilt and the chaff images serve to complicate and nuance the poem. Contrary to some strangely straightforward interpretations from both inside and outside of the Mennonite community,[6] Kasdorf herself affirms the poem’s ambiguity. In The Body and the Book, Kasdorf’s 2001 collection of personal essays, she says, “As a reader of my own work, I feel most the strain of contradiction in ‘Mennonites.’”[7]

One of the most noticeable differences between the two poems is the use of personal pronouns. “Catholics” is narrated from the first person singular, while “Mennonites” uses the communal “we.” Susan Yanos, writing professor at the Earlham School of Religion, has noted that in “Mennonites” it is as if the speaker’s voice has been swallowed by the voice of the community.[8] The speaker’s unique self—her female self—is not allowed individual expression just as the community’s quilts are not allowed to be displayed. Yanos, though, suggests that one could say that the speaker’s voice has been not so much swallowed as combined.[9] Using the word “combined” here leaves room for both positive and negative connotations. A more nuanced analysis of the communal nature of “Mennonites” certainly fits with the image of four-part hymn singing mentioned at the end of the poem. In this kind of singing there is room for at least four different parts, even if not the individual voice, and this activity lifts the community toward the divine. The Mennonite faith depicted in this poem certainly does not celebrate the speaker’s gendered self, but four-part harmony would not be complete without individual (women’s!) voices.

In The Body and the Book, Kasdorf discusses the temptation of ethnic minority writers to write as “we.”[10] Kasdorf says that use of the communal perspective can blind the author to the specific, the individual, and the singular. Of course, Kasdorf adopts just such a voice in “Mennonites.”[11] Her communal perspective is not necessarily a flaw in this poem; rather, it is part of the poem’s intent. The speaker has experienced the Mennonite community as blinded to the specific and the individual and conveys this experience to the reader through the poem’s language and images. Yet, there are several places in the poem where the individual could escape: the quilts could come out of the closets; the tongue screw could come off of the mouth of the martyred woman[12]; we could leave our beliefs behind (even though that would require becoming something else); we could recognize how important the individual part is in the hymns that lift the community toward God.[13]

“That Story”

While it requires close reflection to appreciate the nuance around gender and faith identity in “Mennonites,” the complexity of this inescapable embrace is much more overt in other poems in Sleeping Preacher. Of particular note in this regard is “That Story,” which a reader going from cover to cover would encounter several poems before “Catholics” and “Mennonites.” On a surface level, “That Story” sets up an allegory. It positions “the Valley” (presumably the Pennsylvania homeland of Kasdorf’s parents) as the Garden of Eden. The speaker’s mother is Eve, who left the Valley and became a nurse, a “silent witness to the world’s ills.” Her father is Adam, “doomed to office work.” The speaker sets herself up as Cain, “a woman / who slays with words” and “moves to the city.” The speaker remembers her father and “his children” working their poor soil armed with fertilizer and pesticide-coated seeds. The poem ends with the speaker in her small ragged city garden, thinking back to the nights “she and her father, tired together, sat / on the edge of their patch.”

“That Story” is ripe for analysis through the lens of gender and faith identity. First, there is the quite startling conflation of gender as the female speaker writers herself as Cain, a male biblical murderer. She must be Cain, though, if her parents are Adam and Eve—she is certainly not Abel, the child who tended the flocks and gave the righteous, immediately acceptable offering.[14] Kasdorf knew her writing had the potential to be disruptive and misunderstood, to be rejected by the community from which it came. Another point of interest in this poem is the speaker’s connection with her father. While many poems in Sleeping Preacher evoke a connection with Kasdorf’s mother (seventeen out of the collection’s fifty poems mention her mother specifically), there are relatively few that explore the speaker’s relationship with her father. Perhaps Kasdorf did not feel a strong connection with him until they were physically distant from one another, paralleling the way her connection to the Valley seemed stronger or more provocative once she moved to New York. In the words of the poem, “now she knows” her father’s “silent longing for that Garden.” Only now, looking back, does she understand his longing for the paradise-like existence he remembers from his past.

But was that past really so paradisiacal? Reading both “That Story” and the biblical story from Genesis, it seems to me that the decision of Adam and Eve was inevitable. How could we have the rest of the Bible without that decision to know and to go? How could we have Sleeping Preacher and Kasdorf’s many other thought-provoking writings without her parents’ decision to leave their traditional haven and her own decision to move even farther away?[15] In “That Story,” Kasdorf’s point of connection with her father comes from the fact that she and her father are both part of the same faith story, but most especially from the sense of exile they both feel from the original setting of their story. The poem concludes:

It is easy to believe that story

and to grow as weary

as Israel’s children

by the waters of Babylon.

John J. Fisher, in a 1998 article entitled “Speed the Plow,” consistently views Kasdorf’s poetry as “redemptive.”[16] In context of his discussion of “That Story,” he says, “By looking forward, when she keeps her hand to the plow her patient labor, her poetry, can be redeemed.”[17] I do not necessarily see redemption in this poem[18]; I feel most its weariness, dissatisfaction, and longing. Yet perhaps there is hope—if not redemption—in the fact that “this story” (see the first line of the poem) is not fully analogous with “that story” (the biblical one). Kasdorf’s parents chose to leave the Valley, and the way back was not barred by a sword-wielding angel. Kasdorf later chose to live in New York City, a place she said did not like but whose streets held her “as hard as we’re held by rich earth” (see “Green Market, New York,” the collection’s first poem). It may be tempting to believe “that story” and grow weary, but it is not necessarily that story that defines Kasdorf’s reality. Instead, Sleeping Preacher is filled with stories that, while grounded in Kasdorf’s gender and faith identity, help her (and her readers) see the world in more complicated ways than simply “this” and “that.” “That Story” shows that Kasdorf’s embrace of her gender and her Christian faith, while inescapable, is certainly not unambiguous or oversimplified. She can imagine herself as a male biblical villain, not just as a “good girl” living in imitation of acceptable characters in the biblical story or in the “paradise” setting of her ancestral home/faith community. Yet, “that story” (the biblical story and the stories of the traditional community) is still an important part of her continuing notion of selfhood.

Overview of Female Ancestors in Sleeping Preacher

Sleeping Preacher seems almost haunted by Kasdorf’s female ancestors. These ancestors both embody and resist traditional female gender roles; they also follow and (subtly) subvert expectations of traditional Mennonite belief and practice. Eighteen out of the collection’s fifty poems mention female ancestors other than Kasdorf’s mother, either by name or by their relational title. If one broadens this category to include the presence of female relatives of any sort, the number of poems that fit this criteria (34) jumps to well over half of the poems in Sleeping Preacher.

Vesta Peachy is referred to already in the collection’s first poem, where the speaker connects with an Amish pie-seller in New York City. The next poem, “I Carry Dead Vesta,” tells the reader more about this important ancestor whom Kasdorf never met. Kasdorf literally carries Vesta’s image on her body, which she says causes “old church ladies” to “call me her name.” This resemblance is not simply physical (she has only her hair, after all); Kasdorf also resembles Vesta in “her wide mouth that opens too quickly / to eat or to speak.” In The Body and the Book, Kasdorf reports that Vesta graduated from high school and proudly displayed her diploma on the kitchen wall, even publishing her own poems in the church newsletter.[19] In this way Vesta is not simply an ancestor of blood but an ancestor of aspirations. Within a traditional patriarchal faith and family, Kasdorf carries Vesta’s legacy not just in her body but in her dreams and ambitions.

“When Our Women Go Crazy” features no specific female ancestor, but they are all there, both past and present, in their insane actions (paranoia about there not being food) and their virtually indistinguishable sane ones (canning and freezing and packing the refrigerator full of leftovers). Jeff Gundy discusses this poem in Walker in the Fog, noting the tracing of “neurosis caused by sexism and rigid gender roles” as well as “the women’s seeming complicity with their own oppression.”[20] Yet Gundy also appreciates the understated nature of the poem’s criticism: “Kasdorf’s first impulse is often toward charity, understanding, especially toward people who become victims of communal repression or cause hurt to others through unthinking acceptance of community values.”[21] I whole-heartedly agree with Gundy here, not just regarding this poem but in terms of the collection as a whole. In preparation for this paper, I developed a list of poems in Sleeping Preacher that mentioned female relatives, attempting to classify each depiction as either positive or negative. I ended up writing “neutral” and penning whole sentences to explain the nuance after almost every single poem on my list! On the whole, Kasdorf’s poems are not angry or condemning to her female ancestors or to her faith tradition. When female ancestors do act negatively, it seems that they are caught up domineering systems over which they have little control. David Wright characterizes the poetry of both Kasdorf and Gundy this way: they “do not simply oppose the artist and the community, nor do they idealize their own tradition. Instead, they offer a way of loving a flawed community by being honestly ambivalent about it….”[22] Faith and gender, as embodied in Kasdorf’s female ancestors, are in an inescapable embrace not just with each other but with Kasdorf herself—but this embrace is not entirely negative.

Several poems throughout Sleeping Preacher invoke Bertha, Kasdorf’s step-grandmother (and her mother’s aunt). Unlike Vesta, Kasdorf had a strong relationship with Bertha. Perhaps the most notable Bertha-poem is “Where We Are.” In the poem, Kasdorf describes childhood activities at Bertha’s house and Bertha’s later letters and thanks God for her remembrance of the woman. At the end of the poem, Kasdorf describes how Bertha stitched a quilt of daisies and seeds to give to Kasdorf so that Kasdorf would remember her grandfather, Bertha’s husband. “Yet it’s her I see,” the poem says, “hunched in the soft spot / of airplane light, embroidering above him, still alive.” While Bertha wants Kasdorf to remember her male ancestor, Kasdorf instead recalls her female ancestor, Bertha herself. Long after the separation from other ancestors, whether through death or disconnect from the community or forgetfulness, Bertha stays with Kasdorf, reminiscent of the way she carries dead Vesta. Bertha was certainly not an unambiguously supportive ancestor for Kasdorf. Kasdorf’s poems and essay collection mention Bertha’s indignation at Kasdorf’s moving to New York and her refusal to visit her there; Kasdorf says she never could have published Sleeping Preacher and especially dedicated it to Bertha while she was alive, at least not without incurring Bertha’s disapproval and wrath.[23] Kasdorf is linked in an inescapable embrace with Bertha and the faith tradition Bertha embodied, an embrace of love but also of resistance.

The final poem in Sleeping Preacher is called “Morning Glories,” which is “for Bertha.” Kasdorf describes wearing Bertha’s gloves as she gardens in New York City. She wonders if Bertha would approve of her wearing the gloves and notes “how well they grasp whatever / is left of my life that you would accept.” She gathers morning glory seeds and remembers that the wall was lush with the flowers during the month of Bertha’s death. Although Bertha said she would never visit Kasdorf in “that city,” Bertha now feels “as close as the flesh.” Kasdorf waves her glove-cloaked hand at a Puerto Rican girl watching from her apartment window and ends with these lines:

It will take all I’ve got to keep enough space

clear for tomatoes next spring, when this plot

comes up all morning glories.

In “Morning Glories” Kasdorf carries her female ancestor not in but on her body. And this embrace of her female ancestor and the faith community she represents is Kasdorf’s choice; she puts on the gloves to garden without knowing whether Bertha would approve or not. The embrace is not something the speaker wants to escape. The gloves, the seeds—perhaps connecting to the seeds on Bertha’s quilt?—the tomatoes, and the morning glories hold her in the memory of Bertha even while she includes new elements in that experience of memory (cement, a chain link fence, a Puerto Rican girl, an apartment window). While the speaker’s female ancestors and her Mennonite faith in general are sources of confusion and distaste, something she broke away from, they are also sources of connection and strength. “It will take all [she’s] got,” but she can keep herself in this embrace while working in new plots, trusting that it will come up “all morning glories.”[24]


Although it has been twenty years since Sleeping Preacher was published, these poems still provide a clear yet nuanced starting point for an exploration of what it means to be a “Mennonite writer,” even if their stories do not match up exactly with my experience as a 21st century Mennonite woman. In fact, I wonder if part of the reason why my experience as a Mennonite has been so different from the world of Sleeping Preacher is because Kasdorf and others like her have bravely offered up their embraces and critiques of Mennonite culture. Such “Mennonite writers” have helped the Mennonite community make space for more voices to be heard, to make the inescapable embrace of gender and faith a little less confining.

Eight years after my first encounter with them—and twenty years after their publication—the poems in Sleeping Preacher continue to make me wonder what stories, ancestors, family histories I am carrying inside me, and if I should let them speak. I carry dead Nettie Classen and Katie Swartzentruber, but I also carry Julia, who is still alive and kicking. Sleeping Preacher was published when I was six years old, so perhaps one of the “Mennonite traditions” I am carrying is that of Kasdorf’s writing itself. I can put the voice of Kasdorf and many others like her alongside my stories of conscientious objector grandfathers and Plattdeutsch-speaking grandmothers. Kasdorf’s poetry shows that an embrace with gender and faith, while complicated, can also bring forth poetry.


Fisher, John J. “Speed the Plow: Julia Kasdorf’s Sleeping Preacher,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 72.4 (1998): 649-666.

Gundy, Jeff. “Beyond Dr. Johnson’s Dog: American Mennonite Poetry and Poetics,” in Walker in the Fog: On Mennonite Writing. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2005.

Kasdorf, Julia. The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

-----. Sleeping Preacher. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

Meyer-Lee, Bobby. “A Defense of Ornament: The Supplement of Literary Language and Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s ‘Catholics’ and ‘Mennonites,’” Mennonite Quarterly Review 82.2 (2008): 43-63.

Wright, David. “The Beloved, Ambivalent Community: Mennonite Poets and the Postmodern Church,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 75.4 (2003): 547-558.

Yanos, Susan. Comments on essay, Writing as Christian Ministry course, Fall 2011, Earlham School of Religion, Richmond, IN.

[1] This analysis stems from work I did for Bobby Meyer-Lee’s “Introduction to Literary Interpretation” class at Goshen College (May 2004), and my insights here are aided by his helpful comments on my original paper.

[2] Bobby Meyer-Lee, “A Defense of Ornament: The Supplement of Literary Language and Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s ‘Catholics’ and ‘Mennonites,’” Mennonite Quarterly Review 82.2 (2008), 61.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., (footnote 30).

[5] See Meyer-Lee, 62, and Jeff Gundy, “Beyond Dr. Johnson’s Dog: American Mennonite Poetry and Poetics” in Walker in the Fog: On Mennonite Writing (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2005), 99.

[6] See Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s discussion of “Mennonites” as interpreted by an literary anthologist and a Mennonite magazine editor in The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 66-67.

[7] Kasdorf, Body, 59.

[8] Susan Yanos, comments on my essay for her Writing as Christian Ministry course, Fall 2011, Earlham School of Religion, Richmond, IN.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kasdorf, Body, 161-162.

[11] Ibid., 65-66, 161-162.

[12] For interesting ideas about what this woman might say, see Sheri Hostetler’s poem “The Woman with the Screw in Her Mouth Speaks” in A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry, ed. Ann Hostetler, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003), 127.

[13] Of course, none of these images of the escaped individual are articulated in “Mennonites”; they have to be creatively reimagined. Although not apparent in this poem, Kasdorf throughout Sleeping Preacher engages in exactly the type of creative re-imagination that might be helpful here. At the end of “Catholics,” Kasdorf envisions the girls she berated speaking up, seeing herself taking their “slim girl-bodies” into her arms (see Meyer-Lee, 59). In “The Mean Words of Jesus.” Kasdorf edits the scenes to “reverse all their consequences.” She envisions her mother not returning to care for her father and his house after her mother dies; instead, her mother utters the words of Jesus to free her from family obligations. “The Interesting thing” is also a re-working of a negative situation in its very existence as a poem. In it, the speaker reports that she would “tell no one” after her encounters with her sexually aggressive neighbor. Yet the poem itself does the telling, breaking the speaker’s silence on the subject and changing some aspect of the situation as it is written and published.

[14] See Genesis 4:1-16.

[15] Perhaps Kasdorf would have still written if she had never moved to New York, but I doubt her perspective would have been as interesting, just as the Bible would not be nearly as interesting if the setting never strayed from Eden.

[16] John J. Fisher, “Speed the Plow: Julia Kasdorf’s Sleeping Preacher,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 72.4 (1998): 649-666.

[17] Ibid., 659.

[18] I do not see much redemption in any of the poems of Sleeping Preacher; they seem more concerned with telling a situation like it is, not necessarily using it find one’s redemption. In her essay “Writing Like a Mennonite,” Kasdorf says, “Although I have succumbed to both temptations, I now write not for revenge…nor for redemption—following a Christian paradigm that is often to swift to be true” (Body, 188).

[19] Kasdorf, Body, 127.

[20] Gundy, 123.

[21] Ibid., 124.

[22] David Wright, “The Beloved, Ambivalent Community: Mennonite Poets and the Postmodern Church,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 75.4 (2003), 550.

[23] Kasdorf, Body, 19-20.

[24] Fisher sees “Morning Glories” as an appropriate close to the book, both the poem and the collection as a whole showing that “The poet’s labor, like Bertha’s, will be rewarded ultimately in heaven” (665). Just as I did not see much that I would call redemption in the weariness and longing of “That Story,” I do not necessarily see heavenly reward in this poem. I do see renewal, perhaps, or at least the possibility of renewal. Morning glories shrivel up and are reopened into flower on each new day. As mentioned before, I suggest that Kasdorf does not find any sort of ultimate redemption through her poetry. But, by the time we arrive “Morning Glories,” we see that she can find (daily?) renewal in her simultaneous embrace of her female ancestor and the new life situation she has chosen.

About the Author

Anita Hooley Yoder

Anita Hooley Yoder works as a campus minister at a small Catholic college near Cleveland, Ohio. She has written in many genres, including Sunday school curriculum and a book on the history of Mennonite women's organizations (Circles of Sisterhood), and is currently working on a "poetry devotional." She is a fan of good books, good food, and bad Cleveland sports teams.