Always an outsider
What happens when a North American of a different subculture joins a “traditional Mennonite” congregation whose immigrant ancestors were already Anabaptist when they first arrived from Germany, Switzerland or Russia? Individual stories are different, but there are striking commonalities.
My Italian-American friend Ron Pierantoni paints a graphic picture of his cross-cultural challenges.
“I love the Mennonite church,” he said. “My parents and I became part of it more than 60 years ago. Mennonites led me to Jesus and discipled me.
“Yet I have always been an outsider. When Mennonites came to my city and began to plant churches, my mother, who was a Bible student and a deeply spiritual woman, led our family into their church. We followed its rules, some of which seemed strange to us and cultish to our neighbors. But it was a whole-life community of faith, which we embraced fully.
“Eventually I moved into the heart of a traditional Mennonite community. I felt called to serve the church in some servant leadership role. But repeatedly I was passed over. I became aware that people were usually chosen on the basis of the family they belonged to or their last name. I didn’t fit.
“Even back in my home city, the young people from outside the city with ‘Mennonite names’ kept getting the leadership roles. Others from the city who were well qualified to lead were passed over, and many of us left the urban churches for lack of engagement. We didn’t fit.
“But there was so much about the Mennonite church that I loved. I stayed the course, and eventually I was called to be a minister. Because I was unique, I served on many boards and committees. Yet I saw that this took me away from my real call, to pastor and evangelize in my local church. So I got off the boards and committees, and then the congregation I led began to thrive.
“Though my children attended Mennonite schools from little up, they didn’t feel at home. I only learned this after they graduated, and it grieved me. They found their way to other churches.”
Pierantoni remains loyal to the Mennonite church, though he wonders whether we can resist the temptation to ask Satan’s question, “Is that really what God said?” He and his wife find many ways to witness and serve.
Now he’s free once again to serve on boards and committees where his counsel is valued. I am amazed at their wide-ranging, in-depth understanding of the North American Mennonite church, gained over a lifetime.
“Are you an insider now?” I asked.
“Oh no,” he said. “I’m still an outsider. In my lifetime, American Mennonites have traded close-knit community for wealth and education. The church flows more with the wider culture, but it still struggles to reach out and include people like us.
“In some ways I was more at home in the church of 60 years ago than I am now. But maybe we can still learn to gather around Jesus instead of our cultures.”
Richard Showalter lives and travels in Asia, Africa, the U.S. and beyond as a teacher, preacher, writer and servant.
Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.