From horse and buggy to hanging out with Twitter buddies, Mennonites have travelled far from the stereotypes that exist in society of them as "having lots of children and old-fashioned clothes", being "technology averse", and others.
When it comes to Mennonites, the stereotypes came about from a limited exposure to aspects of small segments of their community. Many have now accepted varying uses of technology as it suits their lifestyle and personal choices, while demonstrating they can still remain faithful to their beliefs.
We saw Dylan Burdette, a Twitter enthusiast, as an active participant in social media. Blaine Reimer uploads comedy videos on YouTube as a way to extend Mennonite beliefs to the wider world. The Mennonite Central Committee reaches out through the Internet to further their humanitarian relief efforts. The MennoMeet online dating site has drawn both Mennonites and non-Mennonites together from around the globe.
These are just a few examples we encountered of this community as they embrace a new phase in their lifestyle. Our exploration of Mennonite identity at the edge of technology made us realize they are well on the way to advancing their online presence, while maintaining their core values.
Using the ‘Net to spread the Word
Evangelism has taken a new form for the Mennonite community. You don’t have to walk, drive or ride on a horse and buggy to hear Christ’s message from the pulpit. Just click, and that’s it.
In recent years, Mennonite churches have embraced the Internet as a tool to communicate with the public. Valley View Mennonite Church in London, Ont. has jumped on the bandwagon.
Kendall Harder, 39, is Valley View’s pastor. He acknowledged his church lagged behind mainstream society in adopting the Internet. "As technologies changed, we changed as well. But not as quickly," he said.
The church website consists of text and pictures, providing general information about the ministry. It includes church sermon notes and an online directory for their library.
They’re advertising a Christmas concert and urging the audience to bring unwrapped toys for underprivileged children in the area. Harder hopes the church website will help someone in need.
Although he sees the benefits of the web, there are boundaries he will not cross. Protecting the ministry’s messages and values are the most important for Harder.
"Our church is about the message … as long as the medium doesn’t get in the way of the message, we’ll use it," he said.
Harder admits he hasn’t seen an increase in membership since he launched the website two years ago. He doesn’t have much of an online audience. Most of the congregation consists of traditional Mennonites who are not eager to use the Internet.
Harder is not convinced the Internet is the most effective form of communicating his faith. He prefers to stick with the traditional way – which he considers the Mennonite way. "When sharing faith … it has to be a face-to-face, back and forth interaction," he said.
Tweeting away tradition?
Twitter’s creating quite the buzz in social media circles today. It’s not uncommon to see users rack up hundreds of updates on the service within a few months.
Take Dylan Burdette – joining the service in April 2008 as user dylanorion, he’s already passed a milestone with over 3,000 updates. His bio reads: "I own a coffee shop with my wife in Logan Square, am a virologist, play folk guitar/banjo, have 2 dogs, 2 cats, live in Humboldt Park.
"And I’m a Mennonite."
Twitter and Mennonite? Yes, you read that right. And Burdette’s not the only one.
"The most surprising thing is the amount of other Mennonites that I met online," he said when called in Chicago. His friends know him as a Twitter "evangelist", as he tries to convince them to join the online community.
Growing up in Ohio, Burdette was the youngest of five siblings. His college-educated parents were an exception in the rural Mennonite community. He didn’t even own a cell phone until he was 21 years old.
"It was just not an option many people chose, "he said. "It was a personal choice, but it wasn’t really entered into lightly."
So how did he make the leap from using a cell phone to regularly tweeting updates?
When Burdette learned of the service, he felt that it was just another way to build community, with the virtual version being as valid as the real thing.
"You can’t discriminate," he said of the two alternatives. "Both those communities are communities, and they’re equally important."
But Burdette still draws the line at certain choices in order to maintain his identity. "I don’t have an Internet connection at my house," he said. "I think that it would distract me from my home life."
Burdette reflected on his experiences growing up in a more traditional setting.
Although he made different choices as he left his hometown, he could still understand how it may be difficult for others. "Certain communities of Mennonites make different choices that other communities might not agree with, or might not understand."
Burdette is also experimenting with other social media, including Facebook as well as uploading some videos to YouTube.
Cornie the Mennonite, YouTube Comedian
Ever heard of Cornie the Mennonite? Or Blaine Reimer? It may seem odd to pair a Mennonite with cutting edge technology, but Reimer’s a living example of this combination.
He’s a 26-year-old comedian using YouTube to keep his culture alive.
Reimer said YouTube allows him to reach an international audience. "In a sense it brings a little pocket of Mennonitism to the whole world," he said in a phone interview from Manitoba.
Reimer performed stand-up comedy before he decided to create his own comic character. "There are different characters like Larry the Cable Guy, and I thought a Mennonite character would be funny."
Cornie, the central character, is a traditional Mennonite youngster. Cornie resembles a particular brand of Mennonites who came from Mexico. These Mennonites are not only more conservative, but have a strong Mennonite accent, said Reimer.
He posted his first video on YouTube a year ago. His highest rated video has received over 20,000 hits. His videos deal with topics like marriage, shopping at Wal-Mart and the evolution of dance.
He hopes to generate laughs by giving Cornie online exposure. "I have fashioned Cornie as a vehicle for comedy."
A comment on one of Cornie’s YouTube videos said: "You have no idea what you are missing. Mennonites are some of the coolest and definitely some of the funniest people on earth … I am proud to say I am a Mennonite."
But not everyone finds Cornie funny. Reimer said many Mennonites feel he is mocking them.
Reimer wants to combat the stereotype of Mennonites having beards and wearing black hats. "Mainstream Mennonites embrace technology to the same level whether it’s cell phones, computers and Internet," he said.
YouTube is not the only social media tool used by Reimer. He hosts comedy videos and sells T-shirts online.
His T-shirts promote a sense of "Mennonitism" – one reads: "My name is Cornie and I am a Mennonite."
He hoped to generate advertising revenue through his website. But Reimer said he hasn’t worked hard enough to accomplish that goal.
In spite of his ventures online, Reimer said he’s not a people person. But YouTube has allowed him to share his humour with the world without stepping outside.
"I put the videos on … to get some laughs from people," he said. "And I’m going to keep on living my quiet little life."
Technology for humanitarian assistance
Over 200 Mennonites were glued to the YouTube video "The Gut of Peace" which challenged military recruitment.
There were no horses and buggies present, and no beards or bonnets. These were modern Mennonites, well versed in technology.
Rick Cober-Bauman, executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee of Ontario, said "many of the more conservative groups would find certain technologies as anti-community," so they have decided not to use them.
However, modern Mennonites living urban lives have found that when used well, "those technologies can help."
MCC Ontario held its annual meeting in November 2008. One of the key concerns at the conference was the sponsorship of Sudanese refugees.
This enterprise is motivated by deeply held religious beliefs. Whether Old Order or modern, Mennonites try to emulate Christ in their daily lives. Welcoming the stranger is one of his dictates. Mennonites identify refugees as the strangers in the Gospel, and view welcoming the stranger as an expression of their Christian faith, said Del Gingrich, manager of the St. Jacob’s Visitor Centre.
The Mennonite Central Committee could not perform its refugee assistance as effectively without the benefit of the Internet. "The Internet augments … how we communicate," said Cober-Bauman.
The Internet widens the Mennonite community’s reach to encompass the whole world. MCC uses the Internet to locate refugees. The websites of the United Nations High
Commissioner of Refugees and Amnesty International describe the conditions of the refugees’ native countries. The government of Canada website directs the MCC to countries from which refugees can be sponsored.
The Internet has significant advantages over other forms of communication, said Peggy Peckett of MCC Ontario. For example, email eliminates language barriers caused by heavy accents. Furthermore, they use email to communicate across time zones. MCC is increasingly using web-based communication to connect to its constituents.
They post both podcasts and videos of foreign missions on their website. These methods of contact give a sense of immediacy, said Cober-Bauman.
MCC is also exploring the use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to contact its youth.
"If we’re gonna get young people involved … they’re gonna pick up a lot of this from web-based information," said Rick Cober-Bauman.
Ann Ariyadasa, Vivien Fellegi, Omman Hussain, Monique Johnson and Aine Moorad are students in the MA Journalism Program at the University of Western Ontario.
Who R U? An Exploration of Identity at the Edge of Tech, is a collaborative feature series created by the students of the 2008 Online Journalism class at the University of Western Ontario, Instructed by Wayne MacPhail. The series looks at how technology is changing our identities and our idea of identity. Each of the nine episodes includes a feature article, a podcast (part of the rabble podcast network) and a video segment on rabbletv. We’ll feature one episode a week, each Thursday here on rabble.ca. Hope you enjoy Who R U? We welcome your feedback, as do the great students who produced the series. Thanks to all of them for sharing their work with the rabble audience.