Response to MJS on Coverings and Conservative Mennonites

A few days ago, a woman named MJS replied to a comment by Brian on a post by Laura in which he said, “I’m going to go out on a limb and actually advocate a return of head coverings for women and plain coats for men.” Although he went on to suggest he was mostly joking, MJS says, “let me assure you that being stuck in a conservative setting & being treated like an archaic museum piece everywhere you go is NOT a picnic–it feels more like a prison.” MJS goes on to describe the negative reaction of family and friends at the thought of her not wearing a covering. To those of us who grew up in more liberal communiites, she says “Consider yourselves fortunate that you don’t have to deal with the huge cultural divide between conservative Mennonites & others. It stares me in the face every day.”

MJS’s comments for me were a stark reminder how distant I am from this experience. When I write a bio or faith story, I often mention, with a strange sense of Menno pride, that I grew up in a traditional Lancaster conference Mennonite church where the elderly men and women sat separately on opposite sides of the congregation and wore plain suits, cape dresses and coverings. Of course, I left this church when I was 13 and so I never experienced, or was even aware of, the social pressures that MJS describes. Yesterday I asked my mother about her decision not to wear a covering. She said that as a teenager she chose not to wear it and most of the other women in the congregation gradually made the same decision. However, when she wanted to teach at a local Mennonite school in her early twenties, she was forced to again begin wearing a covering, a reminder that Mennonite things we don’t say aren’t anything new.

After leaving Lancaster I arrived in Goshen, Indiana, another Mennonite magnet, but a very different kind of Mennonite than the kind I grew up with. Within three years I was going off to peace vigil in Georgia and reading books like Politics of Jesus and Engaging the Powers. Twice a year my family would go back to Pennsylvania for family gatherings and so I thought of myself as in touch with traditional Mennonites. Yet the community MJS describes lay just down State Road 119 from Goshen and yet in the 11 years I lived there I never interacted at all with our more conservative cousins. Instead I went to conferences on Mennonite Literature where writers were honored for books they’d written that exposed the dark side of the closed Mennonite communities they grew up in. But most of these writers were 20 or 30 years away from their troubled Mennonite upbringings and now enjoyed tenured professorships teaching creative writing in a far away university. What about people who are still there and “have to face all kinds of rejection, condemnation, & a complete upheaval of their life & possibly even friendships if they leave”? Not everyone is a poet who can turn childhood repression into an award-winning poetry book or novel. What do we Young Anabaptist Radicals have to say to them?

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