Mennonite in a little black dress: Rhoda Janzen
Posted by Frank Burns
My 3 months in Belize in 2008 introduced me to the Mennonites (click here), an old low German-speaking Christian community that migrated from the Netherlands over 400 years ago. This tightly knit conservative group spent many years in the Ukraine before migrating to Canada, and then south through the US to Central and South America. Wherever they settled, they clung assiduously to their pacifism, to their traditional way of life and to their industrious work ethic.
Rhoda Janzen left her Californian Mennonite community to pursue her studies at University, a radical course not just for a Mennonite, but especially for a girl. She turned her back on her upbringing, marrying an atheist, going through a messy divorce after 15 years together, suffering an almost life-threatening illness, followed by a car accident caused by a drunken youth. These crises led to her taking a sabbatical break from her teaching, and returning to her family and the Mennonite environment that she had forsaken as a teenager. My expectation of this memoir was to immerse myself in a lengthy tirade about the injustices and hardships of a Mennonite upbringing, but it was quite the reverse. Janzen liberally held up the Mennonite traditions for close scrutiny, and even assessed them with a wry self-mocking humour, but we discover that her relationship with her mother was a key factor and was very influential in the return of the ‘prodigal daughter’ to the community.
What really surprised me was that her Mennonite upbringing (contrary to expectation) actually provided her with many of the ethical and social tools to get through her crises and, though there was no real sign of her re-conversion, there were clear hints of the author finally coming to terms with her past and appreciating many of the values that equipped her for life.