The Night I was Shunned
Pacifism, Jello Salad, and Leaving the Mennonites
I wrote on Facebook this morning of my time with the Mennonites.
9/11 shook me to my core, as it did hundreds of millions. I wanted, as so many of us did, a sense of how best to respond – and I didn’t like the options on offer from the politicians and the pundits. A conversation with a friend a few days after the attacks led me to start reading Anabaptist theology – and by the time 2001 ended, I had started attending the local Mennonite Church.
Mennonites, like their more restrictive Amish cousins, are one of the historic “peace churches.” Though pacifism means different things to different people, for the Mennonites I met, it was about both a refusal to wage war -- and a refusal to be warlike in one’s personal conduct. To distill a complex set of beliefs down to a catchphrase or two, they believed that ends and means had to be radically congruent.
If you want a peaceful outcome, you must use peaceful means. The ends you get are determined not by how hard you long for that end, but the means you use to get there.
To my newfound friends at Pasadena Mennonite Church, this wasn’t just an abstract idea. Many had gone on peacekeeping witness trips to places like Iraq, Gaza, East Timor, and the Congo. They had provided medical and humanitarian services to people in need, and they had put their white and privileged American bodies “in the way.” Pacifism doesn’t mean (nor share the same root as) passive; I heard stories of Mennonite martyrs who had died for their faith.
I was an odd man out in the church. The congregation was 90% white, and two-thirds were ethnic Mennonites. They shared a handful of Swiss German surnames; many came from the same handful of Midwestern states. They were not as “plain” as the Amish; they drove cars and had jobs in tech and construction and medicine. The cars were always simple; the clothes were always modest. (For the Mennonites, modest dress wasn’t about how much skin you showed – it was about not revealing wealth or giving cause for envy. Displaying affluence was a greater offense than displaying the body itself.)
They were gentle and kind and they didn’t raise their voices. They were just like many of the WASPs I’d been raised by, except the Mennonites didn’t call their ethos “civility” or “good manners,” they called it “peace witness.”
I was enchanted with the lives these folks led. When I came to church, I made sure to show up in flannels and jeans, with a cheap digital watch. (I forgot and wore an elegant one once, a wedding present from wife #3. Folks in the church stared at it, looked away, and then looked again.) I volunteered for everything I could, and eventually, in the summer of 2003, became chair of the church’s Prayer Commission. I was the only non-native Mennonite on the church’s Leadership Team.
I kept a lot quiet about my life when I was with the Mennonites. I had started dating Eira – the future mother of my children – not long after I had joined the church. Eira came to exactly two worship services and one potluck; she was already studying at the Kabbalah Centre and had zero interest in Anabaptist Christianity. (I tried to get her to dress down for the potluck, but the David Yurman necklace still stood out.) When Eira and I moved in together, I didn’t mention it to my friends in church. I knew that for all their social progressivism and radical commitment to the life of the poor, the Mennonites had a conservative pelvic ethic. The only licit sex was in heterosexual marriage.
And then, 18 years ago this month, during my monthly meeting with the pastor to discuss Prayer Commission issues, I let it slip out that Eira and I were living together. Maybe it was an accident; maybe I wanted to be reassured that I was too valuable a member to get in any sort of trouble for not adhering to the rules. The pastor knew I was already thrice divorced; I thought that perhaps he would give me a pass.
There was no pass. Pastor Jim looked at me, first puzzled, and then sad. “Hugo, we need to take this to the entire Leadership Team.” I nodded, and he changed the subject.
Two nights later, at the pastor’s house, the Leadership Team, of which I was a part, gathered for dinner and our monthly meeting. An agenda was written out on a whiteboard; the first item was simply, “Hugo.”
We had bean casserole. We had four types of bread rolls. We had three different kinds of lasagna. We had jello salad.
We had the agenda item.
Pastor Jim asked me if I’d like to speak. A Solo cup of Dr Pepper in my hand, I stood before the dozen members of the team, and explained my living situation. “I’d like to stay on, but I am absolutely willing to resign if it’s necessary. I don’t want to create any difficulty for anyone.”
My voice cracked. After I was finished, there was a long silence. I sat down. Stephanie, the head of the Education Team, asked us all to pray for discernment. The prayers too were silent.
Then Jim spoke, then the others in turn. There was no discussion, no debate, no follow-up questions. Each said how much they loved me; each said that they thought it necessary I resign from leadership.
Each asked my forgiveness for demanding my resignation, as they knew my heart was good.
Two of the women cried. The young married woman with whom I'd carried on an almost entirely innocent flirtation couldn't meet my gaze, but she too said that with great regret, she thought I should resign.
(Several people interrupted the roundtable process to offer me more soda – which they called pop – and to ask me if I needed more cheese. Mennonites have a sacramental relationship with dairy products.)
When everyone had spoken, Jim asked me for a formal statement. I softly pronounced the words of resignation. The secretary wrote them down.
There were other items on the agenda, but my part was done. The team would deal with them after I left. My resignation was effective immediately.
"Hugo, can we fix you a plate for the road?" Sandra, Jim’s wife and co-pastor, had already prepared such a plate, heaped high. She had Saran wrap at the ready.
What a devastatingly clever and kind way to let me know I could not stay.
I stood again, and everyone stood with me. Jim placed his hand on my head, and the team gathered round, touching my arm and my back and my chest.
I closed my eyes. Jim prayed for my protection, and that I might never be separated from the love of Jesus, and that I might find a place to use my gifts for the healing of the world and the glory of God.
He said many pretty things, but they weren't as pretty as the warm hands that touched me. The hands said "sorry," and "be well" and "we love you, even if you're not like us."
I walked to the door. I wondered if I should say something clever, but could only manage "Good night, everyone. Thank you."
Smiles, waves, tears. Jenny, the young married woman with whom I’d had that little flash of heat, rushed up and handed me a second plate of food.
"For Eira, too," she said.
I nodded, my throat too tight to speak, and walked out. I heard the door shut softly behind me.
When I reached my car, I looked back at the house, radiating with light on a cool dark night.
The Leadership Team were hugging each other. They looked out at me, gave one last wave, and drew the curtains shut.
In the language of the church, I had been “disfellowshipped.” It was the sweetest and most tender of shunnings.
I too love Mennonites. Noble souls.