Mennonite Heritage Village

The Passage of Suffering – Part I

Village News (August 22, 2019)
By Andrea Dyck

Over the last years, I’ve had the occasion to consider pain. What happens to a person, what happens to a life, when a hardship hits and pain doesn’t end? When we consider these kinds of questions about suffering in the perspective of traditionalist Mennonites, we first see that individuals said very little about it in their own lives. As reflected in the writings they left behind, they rarely focused on questions of ‘why’ that are so familiar to us in our modern context.

When Mennonites settling in Mexico wrote letters back to their family and friends in Canada in the newspaper Die Steinbach Post, for example, they meticulously noted the disasters and various misfortunes impacting life in their community. Crop failures, storms, violence, thefts, and deaths appeared regularly in their published letters. A 1954 letter written to the newspaper by Peter H. Bartsch of Grüntal, Durango, Mexico tells of a shooting death that took place in the village when a loaded gun accidentally went off. Bartsch ends his account of the event by simply stating: “Let this be another warning: the person who today is fresh and healthy and robust can be sick tomorrow, yes, even dead.” Letter writers often passed along this kind tragic information in a way that is to us today almost astonishingly matter-of-fact.

It’s not that letter writers lacked empathy, as we can see in another example, this one from a letter written to the Post in 1950. Peter Neudorf, the letter writer, recounts the scare of seeing a trespasser on his property in the dead of night and then finding out in the morning that the trespasser was a Mennonite from a neighbouring village with a mental impairment or who suffered from mental illness. The writer ends his account of the event not with a cautionary warning, but with a call for empathy: “Here, dear reader, let us be still for a moment to consider how much worth it is to have a healthy family and to remember those parents who must carry a cross like this one.” The writer doesn’t offer anything further on the event, doesn’t wonder why some people must carry these burdens while others do not, but instead encourages the reader to consider and remember those around them who suffer. This lack of questioning might be foreign to us today, where we easily slip into questions of why: ‘why me?’, ‘why now?’, ‘why this?’ But the writings of traditionalist Mennonites from the past suggest suffering is a fact of life and that dealing with it doesn’t require our commentary or even our understanding. It just is.

Perhaps the biggest thing that we see when we look at how traditionalist Mennonites dealt with suffering is how they face it as a group. As the last writer implies, surviving hardship is a communal activity as neighbours consider and remember the burdens of others. This emphasis on community built into the very architecture of some of the museum’s heritage buildings. For example, the architecture of the Old Colony Worship House, built in 1881, is constructed around the premise that community matters in times of individual hardship. The sturdy columns and hefty beams that are so obtrusive in this historical building were put in place to support the weight of an attic space that would be filled with grain. The grain was contributed by individual households to be used by the community in times of crisis; for example, to alleviate a family’s poverty or to provide food and seed for a family whose own housebarn had burned down in a fire. Traditionalist Mennonite architecture tells us that when hope in an individual’s life or in the life of a household snuffed out and hardship took over, the community stepped in.

To be continued on August 29…


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