I first realized that I was different from the rest of my family when I was four years old. It was a hot summer’s day and I was running water to fill the bathtub. Not for myself though. Oh no, I was filling it up because it would serve as my baptistery. That hot day around 2pm in the afternoon, I fully immersed my favourite white teddy bear, Banilla, into the lukewarm water. A hymn of response and reception was to follow.
I don’t really remember much other than that. I don’t think my parents were mortified, perhaps just a little more than surprized. Their daughter, after all, who had never even seen or heard about a full immersion baptism had just managed to dunk a poor unsuspecting teddy bear under the waters. I don’t think there was really any catechism class before or after, but the teddy was ready. Or so I thought. My teddy bear was “32 teddy bear years old” when she made this step of faith in her life. She was far away from her mom and dad (hey, I didn’t have any other white teddy bears at the time), but she made this decision completely on her own.
That was the first time that I noticed that I was not like the other kids in my Missouri Synod Lutheran pre-school Sunday school class. The second time occurred a few months later when we went around the circle during our class time and talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I knew I wanted to be a pastor. It’s something that I have always wanted to do, so I made mention of this. That didn’t go over well, for my pastor’s daughter was the Sunday school teacher and she let me know that girls couldn’t be pastors. I could, however, teach Sunday school someday or maybe even be a missionary. The problem is that people can never tell me that I won’t be able to accomplish something because I have always been very driven. It was that very day that I decided to set out to follow God’s calling on my life regardless of what anyone else thought about the matter. From that day forward I knew that come hell or high waters, a pastorate would one day claim my name. 14 years later I darkened the doors of my Bible college and 17 years later I found myself sitting in a seminary classroom discussing Karl Barth and Anselm.
But all of this came with time and I have gotten ahead of myself. The truth is that I always knew I could never be a liturgical Christian. The truth is, that from an early age I was already an Anabaptist to my core even though I had no idea what the word “Anabaptist” meant. At 8, I decided to leave the Lutheran church to pursue my calling as a pastor. My first stop was the local Baptist church who had a female pastor (yes, I know, it is somewhat hard to believe). At 12 I left the church, almost entirely. I had had enough of what I considered to be hypocritical and hurtful Christians who said one thing and lived another. It was the summer that I quit going to church that I discovered pacifism. For it was during that summer that I started wrestling with why Christians go to war when they say they are for peace, why Christians hurt others even though Jesus said to love our enemies, and why Christians still sang the National Anthem even though it has militaristic overtones (yes, the Canadian national anthem is more defensive than offensive, but still). It was also that summer that I met the Mennonites for the first time.
If you would have asked me at 12 who the Mennonites were I probably would have described them as men who wore black suits and brimmed hats and women who wore plain dresses and bonnets, who drove a horse and buggy, and didn’t go to school past the eighth grade. That was just about all I knew about this strange breed. Today I am still not surprised by the amount of people who have these types of conceptions about what makes a Mennonite… they usually are taken quite off guard when I affiliate myself as a member of a Mennonite church who is studying to be a Mennonite pastor at an Anabaptist seminary saying all of this with a straight face and while wearing a t-shirt and ripped jeans.
It didn’t take me long, though, to realize that this “strange breed” were truly my kinsfolk – the people I felt an affinity with and longed to be with and like. It also didn’t take me long to realize that Mennonites really were “normal” people. Sure, quite a few of them were farmers, but there were also plenty of business people, lawyers, teachers, and doctors. Sure, some of them drove tractors while on their fields, but they also drove sports cars and motorcycles. I wanted to be like these people because of their deep respect for social justice. I was drawn into their ideals of loving everyone and trying to make the world a better place. I wanted to learn how to be a peacemaker through attending church with them.
For the next 8 years of my life I remained a Mennonite by my own choosing regardless of what my parent’s thought. My “coming out” was relatively easy. While my parents did not necessarily agree with all of my fine points of theology and with my stance against militarism, guns, and the death penalty, they also were not against it. They thought if it worked for me then I should go for it. My parents and friends might have found the Mennonites a bit naïve at times, but they always supported me in my journey of becoming a Mennonite leader.
When you are not an ethnic Mennonite, there are things that you need to learn as you go along. Rather than being “born into” the clan, you have to make a conscious effort to get to know others and to have them get to know you. You have to become committed to them and they have to become like your family. Nowadays, I am so ingrained with the Mennonite church that I rarely think about not being an ethnic Mennonite. In fact, I often have to catch myself when I start describing my Ukrainian and Russian Oma and Opa (who don’t exist, by the way).
In 1995, I was 4 years old and I baptized my first teddy bear, Banilla. I was not ordained, but I believe I already had the seeds of Anabaptist rooted and growing inside of me. 18 years later I am proud to call myself a MennoNerd and proud to publicly come out as an Anabaptist.