By Sarah Lockwood | Graphic by Samantha McDonald

They share our roadways and we see them in the store. But apart from the horse and buggy, how much do we actually know about Mennonite culture and beliefs?

When venturing into neighboring towns, horse and buggies can be easily sighted and women in bonnets are not a surprising sight at Walmart. However, beyond the occasional sighting, most students know little about the Mennonite community.

“I don’t know much,” said junior Bobby Merther. “Every now and then I see them shopping.”Print

Sophomore Lauren Clark said she once saw a lot of horse and buggies on her way to Reddish Knob. The people Merther and Clark described are Mennonite; however, bonnet-wearing, horse-and-buggy-riding Mennonites are only one faction of the community.

“Basically Mennonites are part of mainstream Christianity in North America, except that we are one of the historic peace churches,” said Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) representative Luke Schrock-Hurst. Schrock-Hurst co-pastors Immanuel Mennonite Church with his wife and is the also Virginia Mennonite Conference representative for Mennonite Church USA.

The central Mennonite beliefs include simplicity in life. As technology develops, communities struggle with how much modernity to accept, often creating divisions. Old Order Mennonites, or the plain-clothes people “are the result of church splits away from Virginia Mennonite Conference” according to Schrock-Hurst.

“The main thing is the rejection of the automobile,” said Schrock-Hurst, who wears modern clothes and drives a car to work. “So that’s why you see horses and buggies.”

Since the car debate, Mennonites have wrestled with decisions on the television, cameras, electricity from the grid and cell phones, which, instead of creating two easily divided groups of simple and modern, shape a wide spectrum with many different levels.

But the Old Orders… it’s not that they’re against technology. They just know that technology lends itself so much to lack of parental control and lack of communitarian values.
Luke Schrock-Hurst, Mennonite Central Committee representative

For example, Martha Miles* and her husband live without cars, televisions and cellphones but use electricity to power their home and farm.

“We are normal people,” Miles stressed, as her husband laughed and agreed. She explained that sometimes there is a misconception that Mennonites think of themselves as better than others because of their lifestyle choices. She disagrees, saying they are just like everybody else.

Clark couldn’t imagine living simply.

“I think it’s cool,” she said. “If that’s what they believe, more power to them. But I wouldn’t be able to be without my phone for a day.”

“Naturally, young people try the seams,” Miles said of the restrictions the churches place on their congregations, but she always felt that living simply was right for her. Her two sons felt the same way. When the boys were young, she brought them to the mall as a treat, but her sons were unhappy and overwhelmed.

“The boys couldn’t process everything. They’re farm boys through and through,” she said, adding that her sons still don’t enjoy going into town.

The Mileses live on their dairy and poultry farm in Dayton in a house they remodeled to fit their traditions. This remodel included refinishing the garage and adding many windows for natural light to ensure minimal electricity use. Martha loves having her church and a mountainous view right outside her window.

Facts on Eastern Mennonite University

  • Total Enrollment: 1,500
  • Institution of Mennonite Church USA, meaning modern, not Old Order
  • Only about 50 percent Mennonite population
  • Nearly 40 non-Mennonite religious groups represented
  • Offer a seminary school option
  • Emphasis on global context and cultural studies

When the family is not busy with farm work, they find other ways to entertain themselves. Miles told of sitting around the kitchen table with their sons (before they moved out) and singing.

“We had all four parts and we would sing for hours in the evenings,” Miles said. “Good memories.”

Miles also grows and sells lima beans, bakes, collects vintage magazines, quilts and sews her dresses as well as gifts for her granddaughters.

Like all Old Order Mennonite children, Miles’ granddaughters will be educated for eight years at a school they can walk to. Usually, children stay in town, helping their family with agriculture and getting help from older generations to start their own farms. This financial aid is more necessary now than in previous generations because of inflated land prices. Some children are up for this challenge while others may split from the Old Order community.

“Some of the young will decide, ‘Well it’s not really the automobile that’s bad, it’s how it’s used,’ ” Shrock-Hurst said. “But the Old Orders … it’s not that they’re against technology. They just know that technology lends itself so much to lack of parental control and lack of communitarian values.”

These splits, either of congregations or individuals, create the lesser-known Mennonite groups: the people who cannot be distinguished because of their modes of transportation or apparel.

Eastern Mennonite University lists 32 area Mennonite churches on their website. Many of these are modern, especially The Early Church, a congregation hosted out of Our Community Place and geared toward the younger crowd.

According to Lucas Schrock-Hurst, Luke’s son and a senior at EMU, The Early Church has an “obvious social justice focus.” Lucas started attending this particular church his senior year of high school when he saw the impact it had on his older sister.

According to Lucas, while many in Harrisonburg are ethnically Mennonite as exemplified by his last name, this is one difference at The Early Church.

“It’s interesting because there are less ethnically Mennonite people, like maybe only 40 percent,” Lucas said, adding that there is a wider diversity of theologies among the churchgoers, challenging them to learn to live together.

No matter where they fall on the spectrum, most Mennonites have some things in common. Lucas pointed out the emphasis on community as well as a musical inclination.

“We all sing hymns,” he said. “Some of us better than others.”

Sometimes called a “Mennonite Mecca,” Harrisonburg certainly hosts a strong concentration of the faith. However, many still picture the bonnets and buggies.

“Sometimes that’s the only impression people have of Mennonites,” Lucas said. “But really it’s not so much misconceptions as just ignorance. You shouldn’t expect them to know. I’ll bet there are a lot of … groups out there that I don’t know about.”

*This name has been changed by request. Although very hospitable, Old Order Mennonites are traditionally wary of the media and this subject wished to remain anonymous.