Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home
By Rhoda Janzen
(Henry Holt and Company, 2009)
Which is better: to battle against religious stereotypes, or to have a faith completely unknown to others? In my case, my family’s religious persuasion—the Church of God, the congregational Christian church based in Anderson, Indiana—is often mistaken for something else, if not entirely misunderstood. I may not be the best person to explain nondenominational holiness theology, but I can tell funny anecdotes about a camp meeting that inundates my hometown for five days every July.
In her memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen takes a similar approach to explaining her oft-misunderstood roots in the Mennonite faith. Slipping descriptions of borscht into her tales of revisiting her childhood community after being left by her husband, Janzen tells the story of rediscovering her past while reclaiming much of what she gave up by leaving it all behind for ungodly academic pursuits.
Janzen’s writing chronicles her time on sabbatical, which led her back to California Mennonite country by way of her broken marriage. What had originally been scheduled as a much-needed reprieve from her professorship became an escape from an empty, unaffordable house, vacated by her husband for a man named Bob that he met on Gay.com. Involved in a car accident weeks after her husband’s departure, Janzen surely could have languished in her overpriced lake house. Instead, she took a much-needed trip home. Peppering her recovery at home with stories from childhood, Janzen offers a witty account of the ways Mennonite faith has affected her life, whether up close and personal or far removed from her everyday experience.
Überdorks of the Universe
While reading a book backwards is not usually recommended, a quick peek into Janzen’s appendix may be necessary for those unfamiliar with Mennonite culture – or anyone seeking a humorous take on religious practices without committing to the full memoir. In an attempt to not gloss over Mennonite history, the back of the book includes “The Mennonite History Primer.” In it, Janzen explains that while many confuse Mennonites and the Amish, the two groups have been separate for several hundred years. In 1693, by their liberal Mennonite counterparts, the Amish broke away. Indeed, because Mennonites are pacifists, anti-death penalty, and live simple eco-friendly lives, there is no collective political stance. A Mennonite vote may be as individual as a person’s faith, but every Mennonite man (and perhaps obviously, every Mennonite woman) gets a free pass on military service.
As Janzen explains, Mennonite history is complicated by the fact that for centuries, many lived in Ukraine. Feeling a bit righteously selected to witness to the Russians and Jews, the Mennonites had an advantageous social standing to boot. Janzen illustrates her point with photos of wagons taken from a Mennonite pictorial history. Under the photos, the captions are some variant on the same theme: “A Mennonite covered wagon, unfamiliar among the Russians.” Only later, after mass migration to the US, did Mennonites become the social underdog. “In a shocking historical reversal,” Janzen writes, “the very Mennonites who were once the cool kids on the block became not fifty years later the überdorks of the universe, just in time for my childhood.”
Despite the unusual and trying circumstances during which Janzen penned much of this book, her writing is screamingly funny. Maybe it’s my own affinity for anyone who grew up in a slightly unknown faith that focuses on missions work. On numerous occasions, I laughed out loud at her comical descriptions of Vacation Bible School, liturgical dance, prayers for “traveling mercies,” and toilet neologisms. Janzen’s mother, for example, refers to defecating as a “Big Job.” My mother, unusually embarrassed about passing gas, used to demand that I refer to farting as “fluffing.”
No Harm in Salvation
When analyzed from a feminist perspective, Janzen’s confessions of her inability to leave an abusive man seem frustratingly common. Though a nonbeliever in adulthood, Janzen’s Christian upbringing is mentioned more than once in reference to a woman’s strength—or lack thereof. “You show me a Mennonite woman, and I’ll show you a woman who sucks at asserting herself in her personal life,” Janzen’s younger sister Hannah announces along the way. Janzen explains that though she long ago moved away from the anti-feminist Mennonite positions on issues like homosexuality and abortion (many Mennonites are against both), she has internalized and retained parts of her obedient childhood, which manifest in various ways including but not limited to staying in a codependent relationship. One begins to wonder when individual women’s rights are sacrificed for unity in the name of the Lord. But then, reformed Mennonites are certainly not the only people, believers or otherwise, to have come to these conclusions.
Yet despite gently making jokes about her family’s faith, Janzen’s personal takeaway messages are strikingly compassionate. As someone who has long battled my own uncomfortable ties to the organized religion that alienates me from my family, Janzen’s response to her family’s religious conviction strikes me as measured and kind. Instead of wholly rejecting biblical devotion, she questions whether practicing virtue (the type of celibate morality performed by nuns, for example) has ever truly hurt anyone. Perhaps it should be obvious: she finds no evidence of harm through private, personal salvation.
Growing up in conservative Middle America, I always looked to religious hierarchy to calm the anxiety of praying in public, holding hands around the table at Applebee’s. If a group of young people in matching long skirts walked in, I felt superior that my creator did not frown on my family’s blue jeans. Now that I’m older, I actually feel a kinship with folks who think dancing is sinful. It isn’t that I’ve come back around to loving the Lord. It’s that I’ve heard (or in this case, read) enough stories of compassionate understanding from believers and atheists alike to know that my way isn’t better than anyone else’s.
Simply put, blessing is better than impressing. Janzen’s memoir serves as a reminder that we all share common ground. That our respective childhoods share hilarious similarities is just icing on the cake—or rather, Schmauntfatt cream gravy on the Kielke homemade noodles.