"The Mennonite Game"

"Hi, how are ya?"

Many times introductions between people of Mennonite heritage have a fairly predictable quality to them. Upon being introduced, you may or may not mention that you are of Mennonite background. If you do, however, the next question inevitably seems to be - "what was your last name again?" When you answer, (in my case, "Suderman") the person then says something like, "Let me see, do I know any (Suderman)s... Who did you say your parents were?" This then leads to a discussion of relatives and acquaintances, and the uncanny realization that yes, somewhere in your ancestry, you are related to each other.

This unofficial pastime is often referred to as "playing the Mennonite Game." Due to the long-standing tradition of being fairly isolated from society and marrying from within the Mennonite church, the vast majority of ethnic Mennonites within a particular group are related in some way, shape or form.

What's in a name, anyway?

Last names are perhaps the most distinctive and long-lasting aspects of Mennonite ethnic identity. Long after people lose their German dialects, traditional foods, musical tradition, and even religious inclinations and church membership, their names will continue to identify them as being connected to this Mennonite heritage. Swiss Mennonite names include: Eby, Snider, and Erb, among others, while Russian Mennonites include names such as Friesen, Dyck, and Neufeldt.

Witmer Family Reunion, June 23, 1915 (28 Kb): Mennonite Historical Archives of Ontario (CGC 1997 - 1.2)
Witmer Family Reunion:  June 23, 1915

These names can, however, be a source of tension for both "ethnic" and "non-ethnic" Mennonites. Inadvertent comments such as "That's not a Mennonite name, is it?" have cut very deeply on more than one occasion. Some people have not felt part of the "group" because their last name is McDonald, Gutierrez, or Hong. This issue continues to be of concern. Recently, for example, some churches of Mennonite background have purposely removed the word "Mennonite" from their name, in a conscious effort to be more inviting. They want to reaffirm that the decision to become part of their church is a choice open to everyone.

Who is a Mennonite?

Some would  disagree with the use of the term "ethnic Mennonite" at all, saying that "Mennonites" are those who have decided to join a Mennonite church and have been baptized. Others would claim to be "Mennonite" since they were brought up in a family of Mennonite heritage, despite having neither joined a church or taken part in religious services. Still other groups are content to stay pretty much to themselves, and do not deal extensively with newcomers as a result. Once again, there is a broad spectrum of both attitude and practice among "Mennonites" and in Mennonite churches.

I invite you to browse The Church Today and The World Church sections, which begin to acknowledge the ethnic diversity, important contributions, and different perspectives people of non-European cultures and backgrounds have brought to the Mennonite church.

Created 1998 by Derek Suderman