By Karen Smits It was a cold and crispy, sunny Saturday afternoon in a little German town in the province Nordrhein-Westfalen. The family, whom I had not seen for over five years, warmly welcomed me and asked me to sit with them at one of the first rows of the church. From my memory, they wear cowboy boots, jeans, flip-flops and t-shirts. But today, for this occasion, the Mennonite family is dressed in more fancy clothing. This occasion is special to them, and they traveled from Belize to Germany to witness this event. For the past 20 years they have been waiting for this moment: their son and brother, who is 42 years old, is getting married. This is not just a marriage, it is a Mennonite marriage: a ritual in which their son, the eldest ‘youth’ member of their church, will obtain a new status.
The Mennonite religion is a branch of the Anabaptist movement of the Protestant Reformation in Europe during the first half of the sixteenth century, and originated in Friesland, a province in the Netherlands. Similar offshoots are the Amish, the Brethren and the Hutterites. Their claim for a religious life style in which the state does not interfere, their demand to pacifism and their aim to live in self-controlled communities are well-known traits for the Mennonites. Traditionally, they distance themselves from certain principles such as worldliness, in which they aspire to reject influences from the world outside their communities. Today, the level of worldliness differs per community.
The church is filled with about two hundred people; all sharing the Mennonite religion, and worldliness is reflected in the women’s outfits. The more conservative ladies wear black, and cover their hair with a scarf. Those a little less conservative wear long, flower design dresses. The most progressive attendees wear knee-length dresses, high heels (I even spot a pair of bright red pumps!) and make up. The male outfits are very plain and similar: pants and a shirt.
When the bride enters the church, dressed in white and guided by her father, the attendees stand up and grab their (film) cameras and smartphones to capture this moment. Standing in front of the church, a proud smile appears on the groom’s face: this girl is coming to Belize with him.
Often seen as antagonists by the ruling churches and governments in the countries they lived in, the Mennonites were forced to migrate several times. First, they migrated to Poland and Prussia, then to Russia, from where they moved to Canada. Once in Canada, the Mennonites could still not escape from the country’s legislation, so traditional Mennonite followers decided to move further south into the Americas. Via Mexico, a Mennonite group finally located in Belize. The Belizean government granted them access to a jungle area, and agreed not to interfere with the life style in the communities. Well-known for their agricultural skills, Mennonites nowadays lead the national market for milk, dairy products and poultry. They often visit shops and supermarkets in the cities to sell their products; they export goods, and some Mennonites travel to visit other communities. An old German dialect is spoken among Mennonites and that connects them around the world.
The groom lives in Blue Creek, once a dense jungle and now a prosperous, structured and rich Mennonite village in Belize. Blue Creek is a very progressive community in which cell phones, photo and video equipment, as well as modernized machines for their agricultural work, are highly accepted. When the groom visited his friends in a Mennonite community in Germany, he met his friend’s sister and they fell in love. Through Internet they kept in touch. Today, a year later, they stand in front of friends and family, but mostly in front of God, to promise being a good husband and excellent wife for each other. Although the service is held in German, a language that I do not master, I get the tenor of it. And, just like many other attendees, I have my camera ready for when the rings are exchanged, and, for the kiss. Soon after this fabulous moment everyone is invited to share a lunch meal in the basement of the church.
The groom’s Mennonite church in Blue Creek knows a distinction between ‘youth’, ‘newly-weds’, and ‘marrieds’. Each group organizes its own activities that range from bible study to Sunday afternoon lunches or going for a swim in the lake. All members of the ‘youth’ category are aged between 15 and 25 years old, apart from the groom. For the past twenty years, he has been the oldest in the ‘youth’ category, because only when married one can move a category up.
During the service I realized that for outsiders, a thing like ‘a Mennonite wedding’ might sound like something exotic or bizarre. I do believe the Mennonites are a specific group in society, but today, during this ceremony, I just saw similarities. Yes, what is different is that this couple only knows each other shortly before they got married, and indeed, they have never shared a bed or house together. Yes, for their family standards they are ‘late’ for not marrying around the age of 20. Yes, the traditions of their religion are different. But, all that counts here is love.
In today’s celebrations love is reflected in everything. It’s in the warm welcome. In the best men’s tap on the shoulder of the groom, after the ring-exchange. In the tears of the bride’s mom. In three hours of speeches, songs and sketches, played after lunch. In the facial expression of the bride’s brother, who will miss his buddy now that she’s moving to Belize.
The prayers, the rings, the cake are all similar to weddings as we know them. However, today’s event is also a Mennonite ritual: today will change their lives; from today onwards they belong to the ‘newly-weds’.
Karen Smits is a PhD Candidate at the department of Organization Sciences at VU University. She focuses on collaboration in the Panama Canal Expansion Program. For her master’s degree in Organizational Anthropology she studied Mennonite entrepreneurship and self-employment in Blue Creek, Belize.