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It's Raining Mennonites

06/02/2014 10:42 am ET | Updated Aug 02, 2014
Victor Korchenko via Getty Images

Question: How does a Good Girl with 17 years of Christian-school honor roll turn into a pot-smoking, "fuck"-dropping, godless queer feminist?

Answer: Live with Mennonites for a year.

I moved to Seattle in September 2006, eager to start my year of Mennonite Voluntary Service, or MVS. Age 22, with a freshly inked psych degree from the Northeast's only nondenominational Christian college, I thought that embracing a sect known for its simple living, pacifism and social justice made me "edgy" in a sea of Bush-loving conservos.

I lived with seven housemates in a barnlike three-story on hip, gay Capitol Hill. We'd all written a Statement of Faith and explanation of why we were doing MVS instead of volunteering for AmeriCorps or getting a Normal Paying Job. (My decision was partly based on Seattle's proximity to Portland, where my mom was fighting colon cancer.) Mennonite was the dominant flavor, but there was also a Catholic, a Colorado tarot-card reader, and another random evangelical like myself, so we got a crash course in Mennonite-ism, or whatever you call it (one thing I didn't learn).

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The first thing to know about Mennonites is to stop fucking confusing them with the Amish. Sure, in rural Pennsylvania or Kansas they may look indistinguishable: long hair, long skirts, long faces. But unlike the Amish, who "shun fancy things like electricity," as Weird Al put it, most of the Mennos I've met are open-minded neo-hippie types. (The Amish split off from Mennonites in the late 15th century, unwilling to part with their buggies and bonnets.) Mostly, being a Mennonite seems to be a cultural thing, kinda like nonreligious Jews.

Quick history lesson: You know when Martin Luther, John Calvin and their buds were like "Catholicism suxxx" in the early 1500s, a.k.a. the Protestant Reformation? Menno Simons (yes, Mennos are named after a guy called "Menno") agreed. He became an Anabaptist priest, and by the mid-1500s, Mennonites were A Thing. That was in Holland, but most Mennos trace their heritage back to Germany or Russia. These areas haven't always been bastions of religious tolerance, so a lot of Mennonites came to the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries since persecution was no fun.

Today, there are some 1.7 million Mennonites worldwide. In the U.S., they're mostly in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas and Ohio. And then there was my grab bag of randos in Seattle.

At first I felt like an interloper  --  my mom's diagnosis had turned my grip on Christianity from solid to sweaty, and I'd never actually met a Mennonite  --  but I soon picked up some tricks. To fit in with Mennonites, you have to name-drop friends and relatives with the most common Menno last names (Claussen, Friesen and Yoder) at a furious clip. This predictable, annoying ritual is often called "The Mennonite Game," or "Mennobating" (really). They also have their own cuisine, including doorknob-shaped rolls called zwieback, and three Mennonite cookbooks they swear by. There's even a dating site exclusively for Mennonites, MennoMeet.com. (I couldn't join in good conscience, so I had to settle for dating Mennonite pastors' sons.)

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Despite our denominational differences, my seven housemates and I bonded pretty quickly  --  mostly because we were pretty poor, each pocketing a hefty $50 a month for our volunteer work. (We'd all received an "I Am Poor" letter on Mennonite Central Committee letterhead to accompany our pitiful requests for discounts at area stores.) After one of my first meals at the MVS house, I emailed my mom in horror, "Tonight for dinner we had bread, Jello and a white sauce with eggs and ham in it that you were supposed to pour over the bread and eat."

But mostly having no money was fun. Four of us girls got our hands on a VHS of Darrin's Dance Grooves and taught ourselves the routines to N'Sync's "Bye, Bye, Bye." One drunken night we played Truth or Dare Jenga. The baby of the house, 20-year-old blond Micah, pulled out a block that required him to drop trou (leading to about 60 slurred realizations of "I have no pants!") Another night, the eight of us once sat around after dinner playing "Find Things in the Living Room That Aren't Tacky." It was a far cry from the bonnets and quilting bees I'd imagined when I first considered MVS, but it was a warm, steady backdrop to my volunteer gig at a dysfunctional environmental nonprofit.

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Then, right after we all got back from Christmas, I got the call I'd been dreading. My mom had only a couple of weeks to live. The night before, one of the Mennos and I had playfully stuffed the creepy inflatable Santa up the chimney: business as usual. Now I was crumpled in a corner of the handicapped stall at work, fetal and wracked with ugly sobs. I booked a train ticket home and got there three days before she died.

I'd never witnessed someone dying before. It was an ugly, terrifying experience. She coughed up black bile reminiscent of something on The X-Files, and in her last moment, cried out with an unmistakable, sharp wince of fear. What was there to be afraid of if heaven were real, as my mom so steadfastly believed? Despite the horrors of cancer  --  slowly dripping IVs and awful Hospital Smell adding insult to physical injury  --  her faith had become even more important to her during her illness. So I felt like I couldn't share with her before she died that my own faith had started to unravel. It felt cruel: The one person I needed spiritual advice from most, because of my mom's death, was my mother.

My dad snapped a polaroid of me and my best friend right before my Mom's funeral (or rather, "memorial service," the apparently more hopeful Christian term). I'm wearing an ill-fitting white tank top under a ratty black cardigan with a glassy smile that doesn't meet my eyes. That sums up the weeks after my mom's death: a blur like a bad blackout. I wrote her obituary and fielded phone calls from crying relatives and strangers in a dense haze.

All the while, my belief in a good God, Jesus and All That weakened like wet toilet paper. That process had started with my mom's diagnosis my junior year of college, but now faith was downright impossible. Yet I felt conflicted, an ungrateful Bad Seed. Shouldn't I have been thankful for the Christian upbringing my parents gave me, especially since neither of them grew up religious? They found God in their early 20s, right when I lost him. (My virginity, unforch, would take another few years.) Even the decision to do MVS was a parent-pleasing move, as I'd heard about it from one of my mom's colleagues at the Christian college where she taught. Without her, I was frighteningly untethered, spiritually and emotionally.

And yet I was reluctant to lean on my new housemates. Our friendships had been pretty superficial so far, based on bitching about our volunteer jobs and holding each other's hair to puke in the flowerbeds. A bad day was missing the bus or getting soaked in the rain, not an existential crisis. I was worried our friendships couldn't bear the strain of something serious.

But after my mom passed, my housemates flooded me with concerned emails and a care package with snacks and a mix CD (one of the songs was from Darrin's Dance Grooves, of course). And all seven came to my mom's funeral, even though it was a four-hour drive from Seattle. "Your mom seemed like an amazing lady," one of them emailed me after. "It was neat to get a glimpse of what she was like and how much you are like her." Another wrote, "I know I don't know too much about your mom but I know that she had to have been an amazing woman after getting to know you."

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I came back to Seattle three weeks later, and my sister flew back east to finish her junior year of college. Initially so touched by support from my housemates and coworkers, I was surprised to discover it had a half-life  --  people's initial burst of sympathy wore off and I was stuck with a gaping wound I suddenly wasn't supposed to mention. I felt increasingly alone, scrounging for solace on LiveJournal or from faraway college friends. Mostly I spent a lot of time in my room, listening to "Winter Sun" by Rah Rah until the sadness quieted. ("Throw away your Bible and perfect that smile," the lyrics said, and I obeyed.)

That summer, I planned my dad's 50th birthday party in aching solitude, and on the Fourth of July, I found myself slumped on the tiny deck outside my bedroom at the MVS house. Smoking a cigarette in belated teen-angst style, I was nose-deep in despair and self-pity. I heard my housemates laughing up on the roof, perched to catch the Seattle fireworks, and resented them. Their freshly post-collegiate naiveté was still intact, I realized enviously; mine was gone eight months into the real world. Then I heard, "Where's Holly? HOLLY!!!" Their gusto made it hard to suppress a smile; although we were all stuck with each other for the year, I still craved their approval. I dragged myself up to join them and accepted their cautious attempts to hug me without falling off the roof. For the moment, even without God and my mom, life was almost okay.

This post was originally featured on Medium.

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