The Experience of Mennonites in America

Mennonites arrived in America nearly 100 years before the 13 colonies united into states. Their reverence for human life disallowing their participation in warfare rankled the founding fathers. Their insistence on living in close community with each other irritated their neighbors. Maintaining the German culture and language of their motherland long after their immigrant neighbors had given theirs up caused suspicion during the World Wars. Mennonites have always remained somewhat aloof of the cultural, social and political practices of the countries they’ve inhabited.

While many Mennonites insist on living as outliers in society, they still take their citizenship seriously. They obey rather fastidiously the laws of the land. They build strong communities and stable family and social infrastructures. They express compassion for the dispossessed, giving significant time and resources to putting the property and lives of those affected by natural disasters back together. They have founded institutions to alleviate poverty, educate the masses, bring medical care to those without, train poor aspiring entrepreneurs in sound business practices, and in a myriad of ways offered assistance to those in need. Their agrarian roots give some a particular interest in promoting environmental well-being.

Objection to violent solutions to personal as well as geopolitical differences has been extended by a minority of Mennonites to refusal to pay taxes that go to support military operations. Always, Mennonites have assumed that certain jobs in the nation were simply off limits to them. Positions within political structures have often been seen as requiring too many compromises to their values. While some still refuse to vote in political elections, in recent years this prohibition has begun to break down as they have become influenced by the cultural wars being waged in American society. They live with the assumption that they will never be part of the mainstream, and they are OK with that. There is a realization that in a democracy that offers them space to express their own religious sentiments, there must also be space for others, whether religious or not, to express themselves.

How do these parts of the story - resisting change and remaining aloof from society while at the same time expressing compassion and spending considerable energy to promote the welfare of those on the margins - fit together here in the United States?

 

On Being Mennonite

From the beginning, they incurred both the love and the disdain of their fellow citizens. Love, because of their uncanny ability to coax abundant crops from the land, their reputation for hard work and their honesty. Disdain because of their reluctance to acculturate and their refusal to take up arms to defend the republic.

While many today have more fully embraced American culture than in the past, there remains a growing segment of the Mennonite population that refuses full acculturation. While using English in their interaction with the public, they retain a dialect of the German language in their homes and when interacting with each other. They continue to wear a costume approved by their community. Many refuse to vote, own television, or participate in most forms of popular culture.

About the documentary

America prides itself on being a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. It is part of American’s national identity. But there exists from before the founding of the nation a people refusing to occupy their space in the pot. Mennonites have largely insisted on maintaining the culture and language they brought with them. That alone does not necessarily set them apart. Other groups, too, maintain their cultural underpinnings for generations. But for Mennonites, the estrangement from American culture goes deeper.

In the opening years of the 21st century, the estrangement is getting stronger, not weaker as one would expect. This documentary will explore what attitudes and practices Mennonites brought with them to America that causes them to reject significant portions of America’s cultural values. It will examine what contributions their presence has made to American life and culture. Plus it will probe how, in spite of Mennonite resistance, American culture is reshaping what it means to be Mennonite in America.

The Producer

Burton Buller, a native of Nebraska, now living in Virginia, began working with film in an international non-profit agency. His subsequent work has included being an Underwriting Officer at Nebraska Public Television, CEO of Family Life Network in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Director of Third Way Media, Harrisonburg, Virginia and now managing partner of Buller Films LLC. He formerly chaired the Electronic Programming Committee of the National Council of Churches and sat on the board of the National Interfaith Cable Coalition (the founder and operator of VISION Television, now Hallmark Channel). While owning photography, film, video and printing businesses, he served on the boards of a number of non-profit agencies. His films have won numerous awards, including the Cine Golden Eagle, and have been broadcast on CBS:60 Minutes, by ABC and NBC affiliates, TLC, Discovery and Hallmark Channel. He has hosted several radio programs and presented workshops on Parenting in a Media Age. One of his recent highlights was serving as a juror at the Montreal International Film Festival.

Consultants

Those serving as consultants for this documentary come from a variety of disciplines. Historians and sociologists join theologians and authors to help direct the research and scripting process.

Partners

The Anabaptist Center for Religion and Society (ACRS) has partnered with Buller Films LLC to provide a means whereby those wishing to make a tax deductible contribution to this project may do so. This group also provides academic expertise to the producer and the crew on the subjects of both Anabaptist Mennonite faith and practice, and on the role of religion in society. ACRS exists as part of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The documentary is being funded by interested and committed businesses, foundations, families and individuals. A list of contributors follows.

Endorsements

The Adirondack Mennonite Heritage Association and Historical Society
The Mahatma Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence at James Madison University
Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society

 

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