Storytelling school

A Mennonite of Color’s Travel Memoirs Reject Rigid Storytelling

(RNS) — In the late 1800s, a group of German-speaking Mennonites traveled from southern Russia to Central Asia following the end-times prophecies of a charismatic preacher. But if the story of the perilous journey of these Mennonites in Uzbekistan is captivating, for Sofia Samatar, the real story begins after the end of the world does not come.

In a desert surrounded by Muslim strangers, the Mennonites built a village and chose to say.

“I was very interested in the story of these people who apparently lived amicably with their Muslim neighbors for quite a long time,” Samatar told Religion News Service in a recent phone interview.

A Mennonite of color with Mennonites on one side of the family and Somali Muslims on the other, Samatar, a novelist and professor of Arabic and African literature at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., was fascinated by this example early Muslim-Mennonite interaction. . Drawing on seven years of research, writing, and a journey to and from Uzbekistan, Samatar’s “The White Mosque” is a complex, textured memoir that weaves the author’s personal story with the stories of the German Mennonites from Ak Metchet, the village they built.

Although not a descendant of these Mennonites, Samatar says she inherited the same stories that shaped this community born of apocalyptic predictions – the stories from the Bible and the Martyrs Mirror, the Anabaptist compendium of martyrdom stories.

“Sharing a reservoir of images, sharing the same references to stories and histories, singing the same hymns, those things for me are much richer in the way they shape a person,” Samatar told RNS. “These forms of belonging that have nothing to do with DNA are part of what I was interested in exploring. In this way, I share a lot with these Mennonites.

Samatar spoke to RNS about growing up as a Mennonite of color, the lessons we can learn from Ak Metchet’s Mennonites, and the complexity and breadth that comes with Mennonite identity. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why call the book “The White Mosque”?

It is the direct translation of Ak Metchet, the name of the Mennonite village. A story of how it got its name says the Mennonites had a church in the middle of the town square, a whitewashed building. The story I heard was that to the local Muslim population this building was known as the White Mosque. The idea is that it was a church that was considered a mosque.

You call yourself a lay Mennonite. What does that mean?

The term Mennonite is both a denominational term and an ethnic term. So we talk about ethnic Mennonites, the same way people might talk about being Jewish. You could be a practicing Jew or a non-practicing ethnic Jew. If you spend time with Mennonites, you’ll recognize that everyone has the same name, and there’s almost a family or clan feel to a lot of Mennonite circles in the United States. But it’s not something on which there is 100% agreement among Mennonites. . Mennonites in the United States more quickly consider being a Mennonite to be a matter of faith. In Canada, however, Mennonites are considered an ethnic minority.

What happened to the Mennonites of Ak Metchet after the end of the world did not come?

What interested me was to look at this group of people as a model for what you do after everything has failed. They were constructing additional buildings for the refugees they expected to flock to them at the end of time. They did not foresee the future. They weren’t looking for farmland, they were happy to do carpentry and make socks and butter to sell in the market. But after everything failed, they stayed there and reinvented themselves as a community. It was very interesting to me that they were able to overcome this massive and shocking disappointment and move on. And I have not found any instances where they were harassed or made to feel unwelcome in any way, until 1935 when they were deported by the new Bolshevik government. But that had nothing to do with Islam. The new regime was against all religions.

What is the missionary effect and how have you witnessed it in your own life?

The missionary effect is my term for a particular strain of the mainstream Mennonite culture in North America that I grew up with. We like to be of service, which sounds very good. But embedded in this idea of ​​serving others is the idea of ​​having something to offer, of having something that others don’t have, so in a way of being superior to others. It’s something I certainly grew up with in my household. My mother met my father who worked for a Mennonite missionary organization in Somalia as an English teacher. I grew up hearing how lucky my father was that the Mennonites found him and gave him a good life. It’s insulting and racist, to be frank. So this ethos or cultural aura is something that is very familiar to me. And something that I point out in the book is that no one said how lucky my mother was to work in Somalia, even though it was her experience there that gave her a career in the industry. teaching English as a second language.

What is the Mennonite Wall and how does the missionary effect contribute to it?

In 2016, about six months before my trip to Uzbekistan to do research for this book, I returned to my alma mater, Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, for the first time in 20 years. There was a public racial climate forum at Goshen College. It was quite saddening that the kind of conversations students of color had were the same as what my friends and I had experienced as students of color 20 years prior. They had the same conversations about being left out, being seen as an extra or an intruder, someone who didn’t really matter. The students of color talked about what they called the Mennonite wall, this exclusive white Mennonite group identity that they couldn’t cross.

I see a connection between what these students call the Mennonite wall and this missionary effect. These students actually come from where most Mennonites are. Our fastest growing church is in Ethiopia. Only a small percentage of the world’s Mennonites live in North America, and that includes Black and Latino Mennonite communities. It is actually a small number of Mennonites around the world who are responsible for the history of who Mennonites are. Part of the control of this story is to be the ones who have something to offer, the storytellers and the creators. While most Mennonites around the world, those outside of this group are portrayed as receiving Mennonites, not Mennonite stories.

Can you tell us about one of the people whose life unexpectedly intersects with the Ak Metchet community?

Irene Worth was the granddaughter of one of the Ak Metchet Mennonites. His grandfather died in Central Asia. His grandmother, along with his father, who was then a small boy, moved to Nebraska. She was then born there as Harriet Elizabeth Abrams. When she grew up, she took the stage name Irene Worth and became a well-known actress on stage and screen.

She worked mainly in England. She did Shakespeare, played Desdemona. She was called the actress of the intellectuals because she was in plays by Samuel Beckett and TS Eliot, those influential avant-garde writers. She was phenomenally gifted and almost silent about her past. There are no interviews in which she said her family was Mennonite. We don’t know what she knew of the story.

Following these threads was a deliberate strategy of being open to the many different ways in which people’s stories are intertwined. It’s a way of working against a rigid narrative, where we always interact with people in the same way. The world is so much bigger than a narrow interpretation of Mennonite identity.


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Has your experience writing these memoirs influenced your spiritual beliefs or practices?

Not an effect on beliefs or practices, but it certainly enlightened me about the kind of sense of camaraderie that can exist between people of different faiths. It’s something that me and the rest of my group saw when we went to Uzbekistan. The people there remember the Mennonites. There is a Mennonite Museum in the town of Kiva, a project that people have been working on for years. They have photographs, sewing machines, lamps that belonged to the Mennonites that they have kept. They remember these people as good neighbors and as people who were torn from the homes they had built because of their beliefs. There is a sense of connection, a sense of sympathy between these groups, recognizing that this was also a faith community, and we support faith communities no matter who they are.

How strong do you think the Mennonite church is today?

We cannot determine whether we are a religious group or an ethnic group. We cannot come to a consensus. And that sounds like a problem, these different definitions of what Mennonite means. But I do think that having to take into account these different forms of belonging is a strength. You have to come to grips with the fact that there are different ways people relate – ethnicity, beliefs, histories, cultural practices – and all of these different types of relationships can overlap. This is what happens among the Mennonites. You have overlapping ways of belonging, and while we have a lot of work to do to figure that out, I ultimately think that’s a strength.


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