Tag Archives: Mennonite

Invisible Covering

This post is the first in a series of posts by guest bloggers, each reflecting on what it means to be a Mennonite woman.

Laura Lehman Amstutz

Guest post from…Laura Lehman Amstutz works for Eastern Mennonite Seminary, gardens, cooks and snuggles with her cat. She also leads The Table Mennonite Church, runs half marathons, and supports her husband Brandon in owning and running Downtown Fine Furniture. No wonder she longs for simplicity!

My mom told me that in high school they used to put their coverings in their garter belts so they’d be handy for chapel. For some reason, the image of a white net covering stuffed in a garter belt underneath a 1960’s skirt symbolizes what it means to be a Mennonite woman.

I’ve never worn a covering. My mom stopped sometime shortly after high school. I’ve never even seen my grandmothers wear coverings. And yet, sometimes I wonder if I’m still fighting the invisible covering.

I vividly remember a conversation with my mother during seminary when we were discussing my upcoming internship year. I began to cry in a restaurant (which is probably why I remember it so well) because there were so many rules about what I “should” and “should not” wear in front of a congregation.  Mostly it was “should not”.

And after finally settling on a series of suits that had appropriately conservative length skirts but were still relatively stylish, I got a searing review from a male classmate about the height of my high heels (which incidentally I only bought because the pulpit in the congregation where I was interning was built for a man who was 6’2”).

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that the first thoughts I have when I think about being a Mennonite woman have to do with clothes. We may be beyond cape dresses and coverings, but sometimes I think it’s not behind us.  Or perhaps it is simply the line I dance between my generation’s emphasis on appearance and the Mennonite cultural emphasis on simplicity which used to equal certain hair and clothing styles for women. So, if I don’t define simplicity this way anymore, how do I define it?

I think as a Mennonite woman I dance on a lot of lines. I dance between the desire to stay home and live modestly and the desire to be a high-powered professional. I dance along the line of when and how to have children. I provide primary financial support so my husband can pursue his dream, and so I dance between feeling powerful and being crushed by the weight of responsibility as the breadwinner (perhaps as most men feel).

Perhaps because of this complicated dance, I long for simplicity. I read cooking blogs, crochet blogs, gardening websites and sewing blogs and sometimes I actually get to cook, crochet, garden and sew. I am glad that I can work with men who respect me and my gifts, but I value settings where there are only women.  Even though I’ve never attended them, I imagine this is what those Mennonite sewing and quilting circles used to be, a feminine sub-culture.

Some of my current Mennonite feminine role models sometimes annoy me.  I’m annoyed at professional Mennonite women who don’t seem to know how to dress fashionably. Please don’t wear socks with sandals or faded, frumpy ankle-length dresses, and please, please, find a good hair dresser.

So here we are back at clothes again.

I don’t know why I keep getting stuck there. A smart friend of mine pointed out that maybe it’s because in the past women’s bodies were the way The Body (as in the church) judged its simplicity. It’s what made us distinctive, and so somewhere in my psyche there is an invisible covering, fighting with my  generation X (or is it Y, I’m never sure) emphasis on image and appearance.

Perhaps the real problem is that I’m still sorting out what simplicity is as a 21st century Mennonite woman. I value the simplicity of staying home, making my own food, and having a garden.  But I also value the feminist movement that allows me to work full-time, support my family, lead a church and wear stylish clothes when I preach. I want it all. And so I dance on lines, with my invisible covering shoved in my garter belt, ready to be retrieved when necessary.

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Mennonite in a (not-so-little) black (maternity) dress

About three years ago, the book Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, by Rhoda Janzen made a surprising rise up the non-fiction book charts (all the way to #1). My guess is that part of this book’s popularity was due to the fact that, for most mainstream United States citizens, the idea of a Mennonite woman wearing a little black dress feels like something of an oxymoron. It’s not that the book wasn’t well-written: Janzen is funny and has a knack for stringing together honest vignettes that paint a compelling picture of rebuilding a life, and the book was lucky enough to follow on the heels of the über-popular travelogue Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

When this book came out, I found myself equal parts amused and annoyed by it. First, I was amused because, like I said, Janzen is funny. And part of writing a good, humorous memoir (and probably a blog, too, for that matter) is embellishment and hyperbole. And, frankly, there were parts of her story, especially those about the ways cultural traditions become intertwined with church, that totally resonated with my own experience. But I was also annoyed, because every time I encountered someone new who had read this book, they assumed that my Mennonite heritage automatically equaled a certain type of conservatism that could never affirm women in leadership, wasn’t kind to divorcees, and would find it inappropriate or, at the very least, shocking for a woman to be cavorting around in a little black dress.

For some reason, since I found out I was pregnant five months ago, this book has been popping up in my mind’s eye again. As I’ve thought about it why this has been happening, I’m guessing that part of it is knowing that people wouldn’t find the same shock value in a memoir entitled “Mennonite in a Maternity Dress.” A cynical part of me wonders if there isn’t something about this image that makes sense to mainstream Christianity, who, if they know anything about Mennonite women, likely picture us as rural, barefoot and pregnant in a kitchen somewhere (and, frankly, the barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen thing hasn’t been that far off over the past few months: pregnancy cravings have led to many baking sprees). This is probably extreme, but pregnancy definitely has made me think about what it means to be a woman, and as Baby H grows, it becomes more obvious to the world around me that I am preparing for motherhood, too. I’d like to think that any faith tradition I would adhere to, Mennonites included, should have a picture of what it means to be a woman that is broad enough to include little black dresses and maternity dresses, too.

And, ever since last Monday, when I found out that Baby H is a girl, I’ve also been wondering what it means to raise a new little Femonite (although she will definitely have to choose her own labels and names for herself when that time comes). I don’t exactly know what or how I will be able to convey to her adequately my hopes and dreams for her, both as a potential new little Mennonite and as a young woman. In fact, you should pray for this child: she has two parents studying theology, and she might be doomed to overthink the church and its trappings from her very beginnings.

I do know that, even now, when I have my little nightly chat with her (yes, I speak with my belly often), I’m dreaming big dreams for her. Dreams that are bigger perhaps than I can even fathom for myself. Her future seems limitless.

But, someday, somewhere, she will certainly rub up against limits: either her own or those imposed on her by others. And it’s my hope that, when this happens, she will have a faith community to help her sort through these pieces and to love her back to wholeness.

Last week, I went to hear Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors, speak. As she was talking about the ways that she teaches Sunday school to children, she said, “I teach each of these kids that they are loved. That they are chosen. And then we have a snack.” A simple message, but oh so profound. If I can teach these things to my daughter, I would count that as success. And maybe, as a bonus, she’ll even be able to wear a (hopefully-not-too-) little black dress and be a member of a faith community, Mennonite or not, without feeling like a walking contradiction, too.

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When parenting your children, how did you talk about faith? About womanhood? About Mennonites? What advice do you have for us new parents-to-be?

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Why Femonite?

Well, you see, that’s a good question. I could start by pointing out that I seem to have developed an affinity for combined words (take my last name: Heinz + e + Kehr = Heinzekehr). But more than that, when launching a new blog, I wanted a title that would hold together so many of the things that I care about: the Mennonite church, (young) womanhood, feminism and theology. Hence, Femonite.

Why Mennonite?

Partly because at this point in my life, I am not sure that I know how to be a Christian and not a Mennonite. Growing up within this church, I have 27 years of input, spiritual formation,  and experiences that have been rooted in Mennonite congregations, organizations and educational institutions across the United

States. But more than that, I have found myself, again and again, drawn back into Mennonite and Anabaptist theology and communities, because of its continual focus on the narrative and life of Jesus, and not just his death; because of its organic, grassroots structure which, at its best, allows congregations to discern their own calls as local communities; because of the commitment to social justice, peace-building and nonviolence that is woven throughout the church’s history; and because of the hope that I feel when I continue to encounter new individuals and groups who have discovered the Anabaptist story and been drawn into it.

Why Feminist?

But lest you think that all this waxing poetic about love for Mennonites has blinded me, I want to be up front about the fact that I know this church, just like any other, is not perfect. My entrée into the world of church politics began in earnest when I was 22 and beginning my first job with a Mennonite organization. It’s definitely a testament to previous generations of feminists and to the privilege that I experience as a white, heterosexual, middle-class young adult that I did not experience oppression in earnest until I entered the work world. But, to my surprise, my very first work experiences, within church organizations no less, also turned out to be the first place that I encountered sexism or a sense that what I could achieve or how I was heard was dependent on my sex.

This experience led me to a deeper understanding of the ways that other systemic “isms” were at work throughout the church: sometimes in sneaky, crazy-making ways and other times in blatant and overt forms. It led me to want to work to help make visible these systemic injustices and to work against them. And it also led me to a commitment to feminism, and to resolutely affirm the full humanity of women. During grad school, I have continued to be impressed by the ways that feminist scholarship calls us to relationship, and opens up doors of possibility for conversation and change-making. I have known for quite some time now that this is one label that I’m happy to take on.

Why Theology?

The answer to this simple question could be the subject of a whole slew of blog posts on its own, but for the purposes of introduction, I’ll say this: encountering radically open forms of theology was the saving grace that pulled me out of deep spiritual rut. At the end of high school, I said goodbye to one of my best friends whose life ended after a two-year journey with cancer. This event rocked my world, and with the theological tools that I had in hand, I could not make any sense of God’s place in this event. I was angry with the church and with God for what I saw as a failure to adequately address this situation.

But in college, thanks largely in part to several key mentors along the way, I discovered feminist and womanist theology, which raged against ideas that God could ever sanction death, let alone the death of God’s own son, and liberation theologies, which planted God squarely on the side of the suffering. I discovered process theology, which described God’s work in the world as co-creative and not controlling, and showed me a God who wept alongside me and all those who loved my dear friend at the injustice of an 18-year-old’s life ending too soon. And because these discoveries were so freeing to me, I wanted to share them with others, and I wanted to know more.

So, there you have it: the rationale behind this blog and the reason it has come to exist. I hope that this will be a forum that will allow for a new kind of conversation to emerge that grows out of Mennonite, feminist and theological streams, but that inhabits space with many others, too. I’d love to hear your thoughts about feminism, Mennonites and theology, too. Why do these themes matter to you?

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