Since we last left you in Belize City, dear readers, we passed several days bopping between more of the varied groups in Belize that share the Anabaptist tradition and the Mennonite name.
We first visited Shipyard, where Old Colony Low German-speaking Mennonites travel by horse and buggy and keep to tradition. These type of Old Colony Mennonites are the same that we visited with Gerhart Braun in El Palmar, Bolivia. Their ancestors moved down from Canada to Chihuahua, Mexico, where they stayed about 10 years before moving to Belize in 1958. Even though English is the official language of Belize, Shipyarders’ second language is generally Spanish, which they kept from Mexico and continue to learn and use with Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrant communities who live and work with them in Belize. Schools teach and churches preach in High German, pronounced with a Low German accent. The community lives by strict codes of behavior, including steel wheels on tractors, no cars or bicycles, and only off-grid electricity. Women wear conservative dresses and head coverings; the men wear suspenders and wide-brimmed hats. They pray before and after meals with their large families (birth control is not permitted). We met our host, veterinarian Pedro Harms outside the Bel Feed Mill, and chatted in English and Spanish with a few of the workers, who often work part-time at the chicken slaughterhouse nearby. From the way they invited us to come along and see their daily farm work we could tell that these Mennonites work hard. We accepted Pedro’s invitation for a buggy ride to the town store. The full suspension and slow pace of the horse was a relaxing contrast to our bumpy bike ride in. When we came to his house, his kids stopped and stared when we showed up, and for the first time since the beginning of the trip we battled a language barrier; when English and Spanish didn’t work, Michael tried snippets of High German that he thought he knew, but these Low German speaking youngsters didn’t blink an eye. The kids later softened up and showed us how to skid on their play scooters and tractors. That evening we retired to Pedro’s long, one-story home and sat talking into the evening under the wrap-around porch with his brother Jacob. Unsuspected by us, Pedro is well-traveled through many Latin American countries and the US for veterinary courses and conventions, although he always loves returning to the slower-paced life in Shipyard.
The following day at the Shipyard colony limits we were stopped by a friendly truck driver sporting a beard and sunglasses who asked if we wanted some ice cold coconut water. We took a short stop at Pete Penner’s home and soon found out that he and his family left Shipyard to join the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Church (EMMC). Pete and his wife Sarah found Shipyard’s rules to be unnecessary in following a God of unconditional grace. We had a chance to have lunch with them the next day, this time joined by EMMC members Raymond and Fritz Klassen and church pastor Keith Redekop. Keith was sent by the Mennonites of Seminole, Texas to be a mission pastor of this EMMC church; he attempts to offer an evangelical worship and a clearer understanding of personal salvation to participants of the Shipyard colony.
Our destination that day was Blue Creek Colony, a markedly progressive group of Mennonites living close to the Mexican border. Like Shipyard, this colony was established by Old Colony folk from Chihuahua in 1958. However, from the onset, Blue Creek was more keen to shed old church rules to adapt with the times. One of these “rebels” was our kind host, David Dyck, who was denied baptism after reaffirming his ownership of a rubber-wheeled tractor. He literally walked out of the church that Sunday, followed by several others. After several of these splits and an EMMC mission, over half of the Old Colony conservative Mennonites left Blue Creek for Bolivia to preserve their way of life. Our day in Blue Creek felt like a tour into the colony’s past with visits to a hydroelectric plant David and his brother built from scratch, coffee time at the hardware store with colony founders and friends of David, and finishing the day with an hour long documentary of Blue Creek’s history to which David gave anecdotal narrative. He and his wife were a gentle old couple that felt like grandparents to us, and comfort foods of cabbage borscht, tapioca pudding, and strawberry jam made us feel right at home.
Next we headed to San Antonio near Orange Walk Town in order to visit Tim and Rhoda Miller. They belonged to Pilgrim Mennonite Conference of Missouri and came to Belize as long term missionaries. We found ourselves jumping easily into the familial atmosphere; they were hosting veterans who also opened their homes to other young people and mission workers from the US and Belize.
Two days later, our Menno-hoppin’ continued as we entered the Salamanca Old Colony of Mexico. We heard about this group through Fritz Klassen, who had family there. He jokingly gave us a couple of key phrases in Low German to use when we were to present ourselves. The phrases involved Mennonite ethic foods and a witty Fritz säd dass weir konn hier schlopen (Fritz said we can sleep here). Salamanca has only existed for 10 years. The Mennonites bought cheap jungle land and cleared it quickly. Heinrich Schmitt, our host, told us that older colonies like Shipyard developed more of a rebellious spirit, but the younger colonies had tighter control. We saw this ingrained pioneer spirit among some of the young men we talked to in the colony, who were interested in pursuing land in Nicaragua, where laws permit more land clearing. This particular group’s history shows the surprisingly mobile nature of such a traditional group: from Russia to Canada, on to Chihuahua, Mexico, then to Shipyard to Little Belize and finally Salamanca. Their last three moves came in the last half century. Each move is no small feat for these colonists, who always look for huge plots of uncleared land to create new communities. Since all the land is under one colony title (different from the Amish), each move is a community decision and requires a sacrifice of hard work and meager profits for the first who go. Their schools teach from old Gothic-script German church texts and the Bible, but from this simple education can grow a remarkable capacity for resourcefulness and experiential ingenuity. After seeing the prices for new sprayers, the Schmitts decided to build one from old combine parts and steel wheels. We questioned Henrich, an elected leader in Salamanca about the some of their rules. Technology, even air conditioning, is always considered for what good and bad it can bring. Behind many of the rules is a fear of losing young people to vice. Rubber tires and cars would allow their youth to go to town and get mixed up in alcohol or other potentially harmful desires. After baptism into the church, which is required for marriage, leaving is not permitted. The community practices the ban, or a refusal to talk or do business, with those who are excommunicated.
We went to Reinlander church at the Salamanca colony. The 7 AM Sunday service is just for adults and younger people considering baptism. The simple, open building is filled with women on the left and men on the right under white hats hanging neatly from overhead racks. In front on a raised pew sit the leaders of the community: men in black shirts, including the vorsänger, songleader. The vocal music (instruments are not allowed) was unlike anything we had ever experienced. The community uses eighty-five melodies matched with more than two hundred texts in High German from the black-bound, eighteenth-century Prussian Gesangbuch written in Gothic script without notes. Melodies are stretched out and sung in unison in a chant-like, nasal style that they say has been passed down for centuries. Like Amish singing, the vorsängerleads every verse without pause. The preacher, dressed in a tall black tailcoat and shiny black boots, delivered a sermon in High German for a full one and a half hours. Twice during the sermon everyone whipped around on their benches and buried their heads in the crooks of their arms in a confessional pose. Missing the cues, we were left clumsily turning around and catching a few smiles from the normally solemn group. Disturbancees in the still ambience included horse whinnies from the lot of polished black buggies outside, breezes knocking hats off their hooks, and throats clearing at selected times. At the end of the three-hour service, everyone cleared out quickly, leading to a minor traffic jam on the dirt roads. Though it felt a bit stiff at first, by the Sunday afternoon lunch of homemade tortilla chips and ceviche de pollo things had warmed up between us and our hosts.
After seeing so many expressions of the Christian faith on this trip, we wanted to give ourselves to individually reflect on what we’ve seen and how our own faith is changing.
One thing that strikes me about the many Mennonite colonies and groups in Belize is their commitment to unity and living in close proximity. This life allows to have a strong sense of integration with church and work. When your coworker is the same with whom you take communion, it inspires a great responsibility to express faith in everything, to put ones hands towards justice, to live in a cooperative way that glorifies God and accomplishes magnitudes of good. The Mennonites are a measurable economic presence in Belize (and Paraguay). They are producing and growing, offering self-sustaining missions and social services and creating a good name for themselves. I can’t help but think that part of building the Kingdom is creating systems that produce measurable good. To me, living in close proximity and working with fellow church members keeps not only keeps one accountable to measure the fruits your life bears, but also to concert efforts to a large scale.
Once I cross back into the empire and settle into my “normal life”, I will want to start life projects but will probably become keenly aware of how small I am and how the red tape surrounds me. What would a close-proximity, income-generating church community look like in an urban or suburban setting within the empire? I have seen the Belizean Mennonite’s steadfast commitment to producing measurable good during a multitude of challenges and social changes, and it makes me think that with a little creativity, physical proximity, and financial concerting we could do something great, too.
Ringing in my ears throughout this trip is a psalm that John D Roth brought up in the Anabaptist-Mennonite History course with which we began this trip so many months ago in Paraguay. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” goes Psalm 24.1, a verse that he thought speaks to the Mennonite experience. Knowing that all in this world is the Lord’s gives a liberty to create new Christian community and refuse to follow worldly authority above God’s present and forthcoming Kingdom. Seeing all these expressions of being Mennonite in Belize, I have to agree that Mennonites are attempting just that.
If nothing else, these Mennonites are doing something different. The Russian Mennonite colonies are thinking cooperatively about how to model an integrated, Christ-based community; the Millers in Orange Walk and Stutzmans in Toledo District are thinking about how to transform communities with long-term, invitational mission. I see a little bit of this stubborn spirit to be different whenever cars blow past the buggies of Shipyard–or past our slow, loaded bicycles.
But the question for me has become, In what way will I be different to follow Christ? I won’t be strapping on suspenders and buying a wide-brimmed hat. Old Colony Mennonites even told me I don’t have to do that to be a Christian because I didn’t grow up in their community, which I thought very postmodern of them to say. But if all that fills the earth is the Lord’s, I must be able to see a bit of how God’s Reign is being fulfilled in all these varied people we meet, and perhaps more of what God wants me to do. I’m sure learning the power of owning land and businesses cooperatively from Mennonites in Spanish Lookout–and refusing to defend those things with arms. And though I don’t agree with the patriarchy and excommunication of the Old Colony folks, I can learn lessons from them in questioning the inherent “goodness” of technology and deliberately forming the community that in turn shapes me. Those that break away from the colonies show me the power of not shying away from personal callings when community becomes too stifling. Some of those former Mennonites we have met had dedicated their lives to mission through a very strong personal faith. From them all, I’ve seen the power of living simply, committing to community, and being expressive about how Christ can transform lives. I hope to live out these lessons after this trip.
On the very same Sunday we went to the tradition-steeped Salamanca Old Colony service, we worshiped that night down the road with a Presbyterian congregation who let us sleep nearby. They were genuine and joyful in singing, “Bienvenido seas en la casa del Señor,” welcome may you be in the house of the Lord. All of us were moved. This whole earth is the Lord’s, and every one of us–every tradition, every way of living–brings something to bless Creation. For that I praise the Lord.
One question that we have occasionally posed to our hosts has been, “How do you pass your faith onto your children?” After traveling through Belize, it was especially interesting to see how different Mennonite groups pass their faith onto their children. In particular, I was struck by the strong intentions of the Miller family living in San Antinio. After a huge family breakfast of scrambled eggs, puréed black beans and the like, Tim Miller commenced a 15 minute devotional reading of Genesis before everyone went their separate ways. I was struck by the engagement of Tim and Rhoda’s kids who piped up with questions every few verses and listened intently to Tim’s commentary. I also appreciated the family’s dedication to the Word; despite having a group of guest cyclists we were all included in something the family does on a regular basis and felt included amongst fellow believers of God.
But environments along this trip have not always proven to be faith enriching. Something that I have struggled with throughout this trip (especially towards the beginning) is personal faith growth in a third, second language. Attending Spanish cultos in which I often understand less than 50 percent turns into an analysis of customs and worship styles rather than Biblical learning and feeling close to God. Traveling to a new church every Sunday makes me miss the personal relationships and community of a permanent church.
This trip lends itself to spiritual pros and cons. Church hopping for nine months allows me to see different expressions of faith in the global church, but lacks koinonia. Seeing the devoutness of Christians like the Millers is one of many examples that I hope to remember in the subsequent years back in the United States.