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2017, vol. 71   Special Issue: Why 500 Years?


by Raylene Hinz-Penner

Raylene Hinz-Penner taught English at Bethel College for nearly two decades; she spent the last decade of her career at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas teaching contemporary American literature, poetry, and creative writing. Since retirement she has enjoyed international travel and writing projects. She is an active member of Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka.

When my grandmother died in her 90s while I was an English professor at Bethel College, my colleague Anna Kreider Juhnke, while helping me make arrangements to cover my classes so I might attend the memorial service in Oklahoma, said, “You know that the last gift a grandmother gives you is to call the family home together to remember who they are.” I have often recalled Anna’s comment over the years. Typically at such a memorial service, the family comes to realize there are more “family” members than they realized, when those who claim their grandmother come to her service to share what she has meant to them, how she has influenced their lives, or why they loved her.

A celebration of who they are, not were. I do not propose a memorial service for Menno, our namesake, as we think about the 500-year celebration of Anabaptist Mennonites, though I believe his story should be retold, especially for those who do not know it. We should seek to find how Menno discovered the Jesus Way we inheritors of the tradition continue to work out. All who claim Menno’s name should freely come forth with their stories, perhaps most of all to call from within us a new reformation. We should seek out most of all the Menno stories forgotten, unwelcomed, or yet unknown. Let us take a decade to diligently search for the new stories so we might enlarge the tent and recognize ourselves in the family.

Cheyenne Peace Chief Lawrence Hart, a Mennonite pastor, taught me that knowing your name is a part of knowing who you are. In the Cheyenne tradition, your name is whispered to your parents by your grandmother, and your Indian name requires you to carry on that name with honor because of the person you represent. Lawrence himself always held sacred his two identities, Cheyenne and Mennonite, and brought the two together, especially around intersections of peacemaking and reconciliation. When I heard him compare the martyrdom of Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle, who drowned in the Washita River during the 1868 Seventh Cavalry massacre in Oklahoma, to the story of Felix Manz, early Anabaptist martyr who was drowned in the Limmat River in Zurich, I realized how stories begat stories, how theology is deepened and known in our emotional bones when the Jesus Way is mirrored for us in unlike traditions. New stories invoke and rewrite the old ones. Chief Hart was a part of the delegation that returned to the Limmat in Zurich for reconciliation ceremonies between Reformed Zwinglians and the global Anabaptist church after 500 years. There, Chief Hart told his own story of reconciliation with those who killed his ancestors along the Washita. Any re-membering will need stories of reconciliation and stories of regeneration.

As I write this response to Ben’s essay, I am in retreat at the monastery at St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas, where I take my meals with the Benedictine sisters and their guests. Today they are hosting a colloquium on “generativity,” which I take to mean, in their context, how the sisters’ work might procreate, originate, renew itself. I recognize a concept that U.S. Mennonites need on our agenda. I listened to the speakers and responders at the monastery reviewing the morning presentations, which told the hard stories of the pains of historical divisions. They believe that stories truthfully told could lead to regeneration.

Soon after its opening, I went to visit the National Museum of the American Indian (here referencing the many nations in North and South America, not “national” as a reference to the nation of the United States) in Washington, D.C. The amazing architecture of this structure on the Washington Mall nearly overwhelmed me in its sacred and emblematic forms: the ways architecture and setting embrace native values in references to meridians; the museum’s positioning on the Potomac; earth-reflecting colors and materials surrounded by growing vegetation; the use of water; the earliest indigenous basket culture that holds an entering visitor; and so much more. The NMAI does not, however, celebrate the battles with colonizers fought on U.S. soil nor the warrior heroes so many have come to think of as at the heart of the Native American story in the United States. Colonizing is a very small blip on this panoramic and deep view of the history of many peoples. Instead, the museum is organized around the concept of “survivance,” as conceptualized by the Anishinaabe writer Gerald Vizenor. “Survivance” is different from “survival,” the latter term so often the vehicle for describing the experiences of victims. Vizenor’s concept is about resilience, life-ways that keep a people alive, thriving into a future. “Survivance” is seen as dynamic and creative, and also enduring. The museum features the ever-changing exhibits of the many peoples of the Americas and how their present-day societies live, and explores their life-ways as practiced today and upon which they build a future, especially in relationship with Mother Earth.

Just as I arrived at the NMAI, I encountered a grandfather who had brought his teenage grandson (I supposed) to see the museum. The two were huddled in the lower-level basket- shaped earth-womb preparing to take their leave. “I am so sorry,” the grandfather lamented to the grandson. “This is not a history museum. Had I known that, I would never have brought you.” The grandson could not hide his disappointment. “I thought I would get to see Geronimo’s gun . . .” (or some such artifact sacred to him from his stereotypes of Plains battles). I watched them go.

I would be ever so pleased if those seeking the tired old stereotypes of Anabaptist martyrdom in Mennonite history, its divisions and identity feuds, were equally disappointed with our decade of remembrance. How “generative” it might be for those who experience our re-membrances to feel instead a keen sense of our “survivance,” including the present and ongoing Menno family. We need a special kind of “re-membering” for this celebration, the kind of re-membering done by the mythic Isis for Osiris, bringing together the scattered, even unknown members into a new family.

U.S. Mennonites today lament the decline in our denomination, especially in the numbers of youth and younger members. A decade of re-membering would give us a chance to look again at the Jesus principles Menno built on that attract our various family and prospective family members. We should look for youth movements that provide new directions into the future, new forms of faithfulness. Ben’s envisioning a “Renewal Decade” as embracing the Menno family in all its “growing, evolving, and polyvalent [forms] being reinvented in different places around the world” is inviting.

And as we go forward, let us be especially careful not to privilege place. One of the ways the NMAI made sacred the space (and place) on the Washington Mall in a nation where genocide was committed upon indigenous peoples was to create a transcendent space, anchored to no place but rather floating among the stories of present-day people’s life-ways, wherever they are to be found in the two Americas. Rather than a traditional celebration of the 500-year-old stereotypes that surround Menno, our namesake, we should seek out, using something like Vizenor’s “survivance,” our global family members around which to found the new Reformation. That could be a decade well-spent.