Meditation on Jealousy and Relief/Community and Individualism

Back in November, I reflected on what some of the women of the Eastern Mennonite High School class of 1959 had to say about mischief in their school days. Talking to these women I had the same two reactions I have anytime I talk with Mennonites from older generations: jealousy and relief.

My interview with the EMHS grads was part of a series of interviews with Mennonite women, talking about daily life in the 1930s-1960s. My interviewees described a world centered on church community. It was a world that sounds like an awful lot of fun (thus, the jealousy).

From a group of women who grew up in Denbigh, Virginia in the “Mennonite colony,” the 1940s and 1950s meant roller skating parties on Colony Road, hot dog roasts, boat rides on the river, swimming, and girls’ slumber parties at home or along the river. The boys usually stopped by, too—to hang around and tease a bit. “I just remembering having fun,” one woman remarked. Another chimed in, “the young folks would have so much fun together.” Their bonds were strong, perhaps because so much of the world was off limits. One woman remembered that they were not allowed to play cards, so they made their own decks.1

Other women also described church as their social world. Ruth H. (b. 1924, Ohio) remembered the difference the new Mennonite Youth Fellowship made in her life. Sermons may have been long, but MYF made church worthwhile.2 Vera K. (b. 1926, Pennsylvania) remembered how much she enjoyed hanging around after church just talking with other young people. Both described singing, in groups or quartets, and Sunday School parties.3

Church was a place to fit in—often in contrast to life at public schools. Ruth H,. recalled being “lonely” at school, in the early 1940s, as one of only a few Mennonites. Going to Goshen College was a “wonderful experience” where she found close friends and mentors and felt she finally belonged.4 Ruth S. (b. 1933, Pennsylvania) echoed this sentiment. She, too, went to public school where she was involved in activities, but only to a point. She remembered making signs for school dances but not going to the dances. On the rare occasion she did go, she hung back and didn’t dance (one time she danced with the football coach: “I survived it okay. It didn’t do me in,” she reported). Ruth S. described feeling torn: she wasn’t comfortable taking part in all of the school activities and yet she didn’t like being left out. For her, too, Goshen College was where she could fully participate.5

You don’t have to be a historian to realize the risks in idealizing the past. The price of a tightly knit community was surveillance and conformity. The women all remembered a less fun cornerstone of community life: revival meetings. While many had positive things to say, most also remembered feeling fear as well. Ruth S.  called revivals “high pressure” and “very emotional.”6 The Denbigh women recalled that preaching often centered on fear of hell, not the love of God. The preachers were “after the hardened sinners but… got me” said one, remembering the fear she felt. Another recalled the anxiety around communion and the experience of taking open communion at a Presbyterian church as and adult. “It was unbelievably freeing,” she said, so moving that she cried. Another faulted their church community for having “no grace” and said that leaders “deprived me of a loving God.”7

Revival meetings were not the only source of anxiety. The same social bonds that could make life fun could make life hard. The EMHS women remembered how even just looking “worldly” could get you marked as a trouble-maker. Looking worldly could involve your dress and deportment choices—or it could be something you had no control over, such as having bright, unruly hair.8 And there was always someone watching, especially if you were a woman. Mary R. (b. 1930, Pennsylvania) remembered how uncomfortable it made her to walk up the steps to the Lancaster Mennonite School library with a male administrator looking on, checking that skirts were long enough.9 The good old days were not that great (thus, relief that those days are gone).

Just as we should be cautious about idealizing the past, we should not forget that community norms are often unstable—and there is joy in the process of contesting culture. The EMHS women chuckled at their exploits: holding hands under the table, away from the eyes of “spies” in the social room, sneaking out for motorcycle rides, banding together to irritate a conservative teacher in subtle ways. There is no fun quite like subversive fun. We don’t acknowledge this nearly enough.

Then again, subversive fun is less fun if you’re caught—and you’re more likely to be caught if you’re someone who is less “in.” Being “in” means knowing how to break rules, or how to read the often unstated exceptions to rules and knowing how to handle yourself if caught. Being “out” means you function with the same rules but without the inside knowledge required to keep you from more serious consequences.

These are hard truths: tight community bonds often mean community surveillance. Having a sense of being “in” often means someone else will have a sense of being “out.” I am relieved to have grown up in a time where I never imagined God as scary, where no one checked my skirt length, and there was no pressure surrounding baptism. I was encouraged to know my own mind and to make choices that were “right for me.” I am relieved the Mennonite world shifted before I was born.

But I am still jealous. When I’m 70, I won’t be gathering for regular breakfasts with the women of my high school class. As a child I stayed in one place but my friends moved regularly as parents climbed career ladders. We were drawn together by similar interests but we didn’t know each other’s families in the same way these women knew each other. We were friends as individuals. We were not a community.

Is there a way to have both room for the individual and a close-knit community? When I think about this on a theoretical level the answer seems like an obvious yes. It’s a matter of prioritizing community and intentionally cultivating it. When I think about this on a practical level it gets stickier.

What does it mean to prioritize or intentionally cultivate community? The world is no longer off limits. You can go to the college that best suits you, as an individual, not necessarily a college you have family or church ties to. It’s expected that you’ll move for a career, leaving the connections of family, friends, and church. You can give as little or as much as you like to a church in terms of time and resources. No one is watching. There is a never-ending list of things you can do with your time, the people you can meet, and the places you can take your talents. We don’t need to invent our own deck of playing cards anymore. We are all free to go to the public school dance.

But there is only so much time in this life and if I go to the dance Saturday night I may be too tired to go to church on Sunday. Or, to make this metaphor more fitting for my life: if I’m facing a deadline at work then I might stay home and work on a Sunday, because that’s what I need this day. It’s more than just church attendance. I look for the friends and communities that suit my individual tastes—sometimes that means church community and often not.

What has been lost? Community life? Sense of place? Stable church-related institutions? Individualism has its place, but it’s not always conducive to walking together. If the church I was raised in doesn’t suit me just right as an individual, I can easily go down the road to another one.

There is probably no easy solution to the conundrum of community and individualism. No easy resolution to my feelings of both jealousy and relief. Perhaps the tension does not need to be resolved, only acknowledged. Is this state of tension at the core of what it is to be a Mennonite in the twenty-first century? We are painfully aware of the ways in which community went wrong in the past and continues to go wrong today. But we also make community a hallmark of our faith.

A couple of months ago I ended up in a Facebook conversation about Austin McCabe Juhnke’s piece “Rethinking 606, the ‘Mennonite national anthem.’” My friends and friends of friends pondered the implications of Juhnke’s argument. We agreed we all wanted community, and rituals that bring us together, but we struggled with how to create community that does not exclude.

I find it difficult to know how to end a meditation like this one. Perhaps that is because you can’t think your way out of the conundrum of community life. We may have to spend more time together to work on it. I don’t necessarily mean more time at church or more time dissecting hidden power dynamics inherent in community building. I mean more time playing together or getting to know each other—perhaps more time engaging in subversive fun together. In the past Mennonites knew each other well but likely had a less developed analysis of the perils of community life. Today we have the theory down, but we don’t know each other as well. Could we put the two together—awareness of the danger and knowing each other well—and see if we end up in a different place?


  1.   Women from the Denbigh community, oral history interview (February 12, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  2. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  3.  Vera Kauffman, oral history interview (February 5, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  4. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  5. Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview (December 2 and December 5, 2013), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  6. Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview (December 2 and December 5, 2013), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  7. Women from the Denbigh community, oral history interview (February 12, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  8. Eastern Mennonite High School, class of 1959, oral history interview (March 14, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  9. Mary Reitz, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 

2 thoughts on “Meditation on Jealousy and Relief/Community and Individualism

  1. Thanks for this piece, Holly. I often find myself looking at old EMC yearbooks and feeling nostalgia for what looks like a simpler time. You remind me that simple does not always mean easy!

    You have also made excellent observations about history and community and how Mennonites navigate both as they move further into the 21st century. It can feel both frightening and fascinating to watch the church let go of its former faith and moral hallmarks and refocus onto new expectations and social mores. We’ve come a long way (to the benefit of many!) but how much further we can go before we lose all semblance of what defines and organizes our shared life together?

    All this to say thanks again for the thought provoking post!

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  2. Thanks, Simone. I think sometimes the easy answer has become the “relief” part– we know we’re supposed to be relieved we aren’t in the bad old days. The jealousy, though, is sometimes less acknowledged. I think it’s okay to be nostalgic for past, imperfect, times. We must go forward with intention, and to do that we have to know what we both want to keep and what we don’t.

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