Mennonite Heritage Village

The Passage of Suffering – Part II

Village News (August 29, 2019)
By Andrea Dyck

This week’s column is a continuation of last week’s, where we started to look at the writings from people from the past to see how they dealt with suffering and the role of community in the life of the individual when hardship hit.

Looking at the early settlement period is not to nostalgically suggest the past was perfect. Living in a tightly woven Mennonite community was difficult and it could have negative consequences on individuals. And in fact, Mennonite villages on the East Reserve (surrounding Steinbach) and West Reserve (in the area around Winkler and Altona) in Manitoba, which were based on the communal street village system, broke apart quite soon after settlement so that most of them didn’t last beyond the turn of the twentieth century. As they experienced life in Canada, Mennonites left their communities and moved out of the villages, onto their own quarter sections, assimilating to the individualism of the dominant society.

But elsewhere, in colonies established by traditionalist Mennonites throughout Latin America for example, the physical set-up of the street village remains intact even today. In these villages, Mennonite institutions like the “Brandordnung,” a traditional system of fire insurance relied on in Mennonite villages through the centuries in Poland, Russia, and the early settlement period in North America, still operates today. Royden Loewen’s oral history of Old Colony Mennonites in Latin America, Horse-and-Buggy Genius, explains how this system works to help ensure the survival of individual households and, through them, the entire village. Explaining one case of a house fire, an Old Colonist Brandältester (colony fire commissioner) from Bolivia notes: “A house burned down, [and] we ‘high-speed’ rebuilt this house. The people in the colony helped.” Within “a week,” Loewen states, “a new house was standing in place of the old structure, built from fire insurance money and voluntary labour readily given.” (Loewen, Horse-and-Bugge Genuis, 109)

For those of us who ourselves do not come from traditionalist, community-oriented backgrounds, and for all of us living in our modern context, considering traditionalist Mennonite perspectives on questions like pain and suffering challenges our commonly accepted notions of faith and community and how the two often exist at arm’s length from each other. It is not my place to suggest how we should deal with pain or consider life’s suffering but by looking at history and seeing

how traditionalist Mennonite groups have written about hardship and how they constructed their lives and even their buildings around this concept of community, we see a counterpoint to our own individualized culture and social values. It is very often difficult to see and understand the merits that an alternative point of view might hold for us. For us in our western culture today, who most often place individual freedom above the needs of the community, it can be difficult to understand a people who choose to put the value of community above that of the individual, who live out their faith as part of a group. By looking at the writing people from the past have left behind and by examining the historical architecture around the Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) though, we begin to understand in a more nuanced way who we are as people today, where we place ourselves in the world, and what shapes our faith and communal lives.

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