In Village among Nations: ‘Canadian’ Mennonites in a Transnational World, author Royden Loewen describes a group of people at home in many nations across the Americas, but not rooted in any of them. My chance encounter on a recent visit to the Low German Mennonite colony of La Honda in the North-Central Mexican state of Zacatecas demonstrated this powerfully. Mrs. B moved to Paraguay as a young child, then to Belize as a recently remarried young widow. Circumstances brought her back to Paraguay, where the death of her second husband occasioned a fourteen year sojourn in Canada. Now she was settled in a very modest but comfortable home with her third husband in La Honda in Mexico. She has children and step-children in numerous countries in North and South America. Though she has Canadian citizenship, she is now putting down roots in Mexico, which is her fourth country of residence.
Her experience is a snapshot of what Loewen calls the transnational identity of these by now some 300,000 so-called Low German Mennonites or Kanadier, who left Canada in the 1920s to settle in Mexico and Paraguay, and from there moved to Bolivia, Belize and Argentina, and back (and forth) to Canada. The book follows this story roughly chronologically, and uses source materials like academic studies, primary sources such as some twenty years of the Mennonitische Post, and interviews conducted over a number of years. Through many and varied examples across all elements of the Low German Mennonite spectrum, Loewen demonstrates the ‘village’ mentality of the people, characterized by loyalty to values unrelated and often foreign to their country of residence, and a language, Low German, that remains the unifying link, despite utilitarian accommodations to the languages of their country of residence. Always the story is told in the lives of real people, revealed through their letters and journals, and coaxed into view by careful and patient interviews.
The Low German speaking or Kanadier Mennonites have been viewed in many ways by mainstream Mennonite culture, and by the wider world. They are occasionally viewed as stirring examples of people able to wrest a living from inhospitable places by dint of hard work and the capacity to collaborate and cooperate. They are sometimes viewed as people locked in the darkness of ignorance and conservatism whose lives must be illuminated by education and progress and evangelical Christianity. They are also viewed as objects of curiosity—a fascinating cultural anomaly and historical throwback. The lens offered by Loewen in this study offers us a vehicle to understand and appreciate them without needing to change or ‘fix’ them.
The premise of this book is engaging, and its conclusions are borne out time and time again in conversations and interactions with Low German Mennonites from Canada, and from Mexico and Bolivia. In many ways, these people are living out in radical terms our call as Christians to embrace an alternative allegiance—an allegiance to Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God rather than any temporal national allegiance. In significant ways, these transnational Low German Mennonites demonstrate what an article in the Canadian Mennonite called ‘discipleship as citizenship’ (December 16, 2013), ‘… God’s kingdom…manifest in service rather than dominion, vulnerability rather than coercion, love rather than fear’. The transnational people described in this book have demonstrated this powerfully in a variety of countries over the generations since the 1920’s. The call to live faithfully according to their interpretation of God’s standards is much more significant to them than the demands that any country of residence may try to impose on them. They are willing to go to extraordinary lengths, and suffer significant hardship and deprivation in order to faithfully live out this alternative allegiance.
But there is also a shadow side to this view of faith and the world, and, if there is a deficit in Loewen’s book, it may well be the fact that this shadow side is not explored in sufficient detail. The perception that people are living above, or at least parallel, to the laws of any given country removes some of the checks and balances that more active and engaged ‘citizenship’ brings with it. Seeing nations only as resources of land and opportunity where one can live under specially negotiated rights and ‘Privilegien’ results in an inadequate understanding of the compensatory responsibilities. The negative effects of these perceptions on the lives of ordinary transnational Low German Mennonites are painfully obvious in many communities. This is not to say that these negative effects are visible everywhere, or that they are the dominant feature of this group of people. But they do need to be named and confronted as another manifestation of a ‘transnational’ identity.
In conclusion, I am grateful for this book, and for the opportunity to view the history of a people I have known peripherally all my life through this lens. As a Low German Mennonite who has not shared their experience of living transnationally in a ‘village among nations’, I am challenged by their example. My understanding of these people has grown, and I am grateful for that. Thanks, Royden, for telling ‘the remarkable story of a Canadian-descendant people who moved among the nations of the Americas to contest and implicitly critique a nation-centric world’.