The curious case of Kitchener-Waterloo

Jun 2, 2017 by

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As I have mentioned before, I live on the outskirts of one of the largest Mennonite enclaves in Canada. I grew up there. I visit regularly as a lot of my family still lives there. And when I head to a Mennonite relief sale for the closest we get to a festival, it is the New Hamburg one that I attend as it serves this particular community.

Growing up, I never really thought there was anything curious about Kitchener-Waterloo. When I was little, KW was, of course, just home and, as home, it was as perfect as home could be. All towns, I thought, should be just like it — with brick houses, strip malls, and an equal number of doughnut shops and Mennonite Churches.

As I grew older, my attitude changed. I still loved the brick houses but the strip malls and doughnut shops started to lose their charm. It began to feel small and dull. I learned to love the feeling of leaving KW every bit as much as I had loved the coming home sensation years earlier.

But it is only recently that I have learned to see the oddities of my home town. Or at least a few of them. Those that, you know, jump to mind when you look at the world through a Mennonite perspective.

Mennodiversity

One of the peculiarities of Kitchener-Waterloo — and the area around it (what I think of as the GMA — the Greater Mennonite Area) that stretches south to Aylmer, north to Hanover and east to Markham — is the sheer number of different types of Mennonites in a relatively small amount of space.

Waterloo Region (broadly speaking) is not the only Mennonite enclave in North America. It isn’t the largest, and it isn’t the oldest. But, as far as I can tell, the greater KW area has the auspicious honour of having the most types of Mennonites per square kilometer. Admittedly, it’s pretty hard to find solid statistics upon which I can base this assertion. Mennonite World Conference is sadly imprecise in its stats and the governmental census doesn’t seem to appreciate the importance of the fine distinctions between us.

As far as I can make out, however, our 30+ breeds of Mennonite in Southern Ontario is pretty exceptional. There are more Mennonites in Pennsylvania, by a long shot. But they’re only divided into 19 different groups. Manitoba has fewer Mennonites but, being clustered together so tightly, they might have more Mennos per square foot of arable land. Yet, at last count, they only split themselves into 13 groups. Which suggests to me that they’re just not trying hard enough.

Ontario Mennonites: we’re the best at schismatizing.

The pretense of harmony

Mennonites from the GMA will often invite non-Mennonites to the New Hamburg relief sale to show them just how the whole pantheon of Mennonites exists in perfect harmony with each other. Outsiders are naturally suspicious of this declaration and so we know that they need physical proof. That’s not the only reason we invite them, of course. We want them to spend their money on quilts and pies and to contribute to our annual quest to break the world record for the longest that people will wait in a line for doughnuts.

But. In addition to taking outsiders’ money and time, we also like to use the sale as a public declaration of our amazing ability to get along with people with whom we don’t really get along. “Look!” we say, gesturing to the Old Order, Old Colony and Conservative Mennonites watching the quilt sale with us. “We’re all just many voices singing one song.”

The uninitiated can be forgiven for failing to notice that despite walking the same fairground, few of us actually interact across confessional lines. Well, at least not more than is needed to buy each other’s food. Most of us know intuitively that warm and fuzzy Menno-festival feeling only comes if we don’t get too close.

There are, of course, exceptions — there are the interlopers who organize the sale, for instance. Mennos in KW have come together across party lines on several occasions. For missions work, mostly (though we disagree on whether evangelism should be part of that). And financial institutions. Sometimes even schools and camps.

See? We all get along. No problems here. Now, get back in the doughnut line.

Hidden in plain sight

According to the Statistics Canada, about 2 percent of the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge Census Metropolitan Area self-identify as Mennonite. This might not seem like a lot but it should be noted that the numbers skew down since large swaths of the Menno population live in rural areas outside of the Census Metropolitan Area.

And 2 percent is nothing to sneeze at. According to the New York Times, the average American has 600 people in their broad social network. And that’s pretty conservative; others claim even higher numbers for the typical reach of acquaintanceships. And that means that most Kitcheneranians and Waterloonies ought to have at least a dozen Mennonites in their web of acquaintances. They literally see us every day.

So I think that they should know us by now. With that kind of exposure, I should be able to engage a random KitWaloo’ser in conversation about the distinctions between the Mennonite Brethren and the Mennonites formerly known as General Conference, safe in the knowledge that they’ll already know that neither have links to the Old Order. I get that they might not appreciate the distinctive provenance of summer sausage vs. farmers’ sausage. That’s okay. Just the basics would be fine.

This is not the case.

I actually think that the englanders of Waterloo County might be a bit less Menno-educated than the englanders in other Menno enclaves. Winnipeg has about the same proportion of Mennonites but my non-random sample of the three non-Mennonites I have ever met from Winnipeg have all been surprisingly well informed on their local Mennonite population. They have it easier, of course, as there are fewer types of Mennonites there and they mostly share the same last names. But still.

In a way, Kitchener-Waterloo reminds me of the sci-fi mystery novel The City and the City, in which two populations occupy the same physical urban space but are resolutely oblivious to each other. I imagine that non-Mennonites have trained themselves to simply not see the Mennonite Thrift Store, Conrad Grebel College and other assertively Mennonite institutions. In return, there must be non-Mennonite institutions that we Mennonites have trained ourselves not to see. I just don’t know what they are, because, well, that’s how it works.

It’s not hard to speculate on the reasons for this peculiarity. On one level, the visible presence of “plain” Mennonites probably distracts from an awareness of the rest of us. It’s also possible that, just as the brain can only absorb so much information at a time, there are also limits to the number of Mennonite subsects that the human brain can comprehend. Unless it has been trained through years of Sunday School and inter-Mennonite youth activities. And so the KW mind just gives up.

But I also think that Kitchener’s unusual history has something to do with it. With our long memories, it’s reasonable that we would be reluctant to expose ourselves too openly to a people who are happy enough to romanticize our role as Conestoga-wagon-driving settlers but who will turn on German-speakers at the first whiff of war. And then change their mind just enough to hold an annual celebration of German culture that is distinctly not Mennonite.

But that’s okay. We already had our own festival. Yup. Two whole scintillating years before Oktoberfest, we were already selling quilts and rhubarb pies just a few short miles down the cowpath in New Hamburg. You’re welcome to come. Be sure to notice how well we all get along. And don’t leave without buying a quilt. Or at least an apple fritter.

Sherri Klassen is a writer living in Toronto, Ont., where she is a member of Toronto United Mennonite Church.

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