You know how it can be when you’re reading sometimes. You’re following the text but, on a parallel track, you’re glimpsing related stories of your own.
Immigrants in Prairie Cities (see previous post) provoked recollections of my experience with “city,” this in particular reference to Mennonites, and I’m going to try to work out — for myself — what I was seeing. If you’re interested, please come along!
Most of us, I think, live rather easily in cities. It’s perhaps also fair to say that regardless of our geographic location, contemporary technology allows us to inhabit a world that’s not only global but essentially urban. Not so long ago, however, the notions of country and city were much more separate and distinct. Mennonites in their beginnings in 16th century Europe weren’t necessarily land-based, but history certainly took, or confirmed, them in that direction, and eventually, they became identified largely as an agrarian people.
Fast forward to Canada, first third or half of the last century. Mennonites in Canada settled into farming for the most part, as they were supposed to, as they were generally inclined. Both sets of my grandparents did the same when they arrived in the 1920s — my mother’s parents settling on a farm near Winkler in southern Manitoba and my father’s parents landing, after a sucession of farms in the three prairie provinces, in Gem, Alta.
My own parents, individually and together, aspired to Christian ministry, hopefully as missionaries, and thus chose the professions of minister and teacher. Their aspirations and their professions removed them from the farm. Our family ended up, not in Africa as Mom and Dad had hoped but in a small town in Alberta, where Dad was pastor and teacher. Although it was scarcely bigger than a village, we children felt quite “town-ish,” however, and, already loosed from rurality by our parents’ choices, we were pitched toward the city by expectations that of course we too would go on to further education after high school (even if church/missionary service seemed the highest goal at the end of such studies).
Indeed, I loved our little village of Linden and a more beautiful place to live I couldn’t imagine, but stay? That simply wasn’t likely. Nor was there any fear or ambivalence associated with the city.
So, here’s the thing. We lived in a largely Holdeman Mennonite community, and we — being Mennonite Brethren (MB) — were the smaller group there. The minority. The sense of being the “other,” the “alternative,” may have contributed to the intense sense of identification I felt with MBs as a child/youth. Or it may simply have been my temperament. At any rate, identify I did, and in that identification, in that world, I knew the centers of power: Hillsboro, for instance, a small town in Kansas, but the headquarters of the “mission board.” In our own province, there was Coaldale, a rural/town community with a huge MB church, its leaders prominent. Dominant. In B.C., there was Yarrow. In Manitoba, Winkler.
And, of course, Winnipeg. One of the most interesting phenomena in North American Mennonite history is the fact that a city — the city of Winnipeg — developed as a major hub for Mennonites. At one time there were more Mennonites in Winnipeg than in any city of the world. (I’m not sure if this is still true.) Not only were there large and powerful churches in Winnipeg, but this city was, for the MB tribe, home of our national Bible college (MBBC), our publishing house, our periodical, our conference offices. Its Canadian heart, institutionally speaking — at that time, I mean — was in Winnipeg. My parents hadn’t really come from Winkler or Gem, it seemed to me, but– because they had studied and lived at MBBC, and were so committed to the denomination — from Winnipeg.
Winnipeg also had a place in my sense of being Canadian, and of being a prairie girl. It was blessed with a dynamic history, a sense of pull into the past that the younger cities of Calgary and Edmonton didn’t have for me. Some vital piece of me connected easily to that city which had sprung up at the convergence of the Assiniboine and Red, across the far plains, east of our beautiful little village in the foothills of Alberta. (Although it was flatter by far than what we knew, my mother would burst into song upon crossing the border into Manitoba, upon our periodic visits to our grandparents there, “Manitoba, here we rise to greet thee! Manitoba, our home!…” and it seemed as if Manitoba was actually rising to greet us.)
I yearned toward the center of my church and Canadian identities. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I perceived it when I finally came to reside in Winnipeg as a young woman. (I’d been asked to take a Christian service assignment as assistant editor at our denominational paper, the MB Herald.) I felt I’d come home, and home completely: into some tangible beginning of my aspirations to write, into this place of dynamic prairie/Canadian identity, into the heart of my Mennonite denomination.
And into the heart of being urban. By then I’d lived a year each in Calgary and Toronto and the kind of life I imagined further (this well beyond the great mid-century migration) was, of course, not farm or town, as I had sensed earlier, but city.
To have yearned for a place that brought all these things together makes sense to me, looking back, even though many of the yearnings that propel us from childhood into adult life seem, in retrospect, irrational, highly idealized, or not quite good enough for the decisions we make. And so were mine.
I discovered that this heart of my Mennonite world could be clannish and hard to get inside of. In some respects, it felt curiously provincial. It was still caught up in issues of identity via separation and tradition connected to the German language. Here I’d moved into the future by becoming a city dweller, but in other respects, I found myself in the past.
In Linden, where the migration pattern was different than in other centres like Gem and Coaldale (and again, I could only compare this later), the church had transitioned early from the German. My parents switched completely from using German, to only English. I vaguely remember some German associated with the elderly folks of the church but my siblings and I grew up English — in church, school, home.
Whatever makes one happy to arrive in a place may, of course, in spite of its flimsiness, eventually translate into sounder reasons to stay. I met my husband in Winnipeg and we’ve lived much of our lives together here, except for some years in Saskatoon and some in Paraguay, and I still feel at home with its history, and have come to feel at home with its Mennonites.
Well, I’ve gone on and on, working some of this out in my head. Thanks to authors Loewen and Friesen, though they might not recognize what in their book launched it. I’d long realized the Mennonite institutional strength/power that drew me to Winnipeg, but became more conscious through their book of the role that my yearning for city played. I wasn’t, after all, hankering for those other centers of Mennonite power, such as Coaldale, Hillsboro, or Yarrow!
And if you’re still here, dear reader (as writers used to say), here’s some questions in closing. What are your experiences of coming “into” the city, or of having, perhaps, been “in” the city always? If contemporary culture — at least where computer technology is the reigning monarch — is essentially urban, do you suppose my children’s children will someday be tracing their quest to get out of it and find “rural”? I wonder what that will look like, whether there’s any hope of it being geographical, and how it might be overlaid with theological identity.