Symposium combines mothering and Mennonites in many ways and contexts
by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN – About 110 people – mostly women but including some men – gathered at Bethel College Oct. 26 to explore “what it can look like to mother in a Mennonite context.”
That description came from planner Rachel Epp Buller, assistant professor of art at Bethel and one of three organizers, along with Associate Professor of Communication Arts Christine Crouse-Dick and Ph.D. student Jennifer Chappell Deckert, of the Mothering Mennonite Symposium.
“This was a project a long time in the making,” Epp Buller said in her welcome at the beginning of the day-long event. “Almost two-and-a-half years ago, I started working on a book project with [Canadian historian and writer] Kerry Fast to jointly edit a collection of essays from a variety of disciplines addressing what we saw as a dearth of writing on the topic.
“We originally called the book Mennonite Mothering,” Epp Buller went on. “We conceived it as a scholarly collection, but we found that nearly all the essays also incorporated a personal narrative. Personal reflections and maternal histories weave their way through sociological, anthropological and other perspectives.
“We changed the title, because [the original] made it seem like there was only one way to be a Mennonite mother. The change to Mothering Mennonite meant we hoped those two words could be combined in many ways and contexts.”
The symposium then went about doing just that over the course of six hours of concurrent presentations as well as time given for informal conversations.
“The Mothering Mennonite book is only one set of stories,” said Epp Buller, “with additional perspectives offered today.”
She acknowledged the Marpeck Fund, set up by Robert Kreider and his late brother, Gerald Kreider, to foster interaction between Mennonite college administrators and professors, for its help in “bringing in colleagues from sister Mennonite colleges and speakers from near and far.”
The symposium happened when it did because of the presence at Bethel College of, in Epp Buller’s words, “someone whose books and articles have laid the foundation for so much of this work.
“About half the chapters [in Mothering Mennonite] reference Marlene Epp in some way – in the essays, footnotes or both. While her books don’t focus specifically on Mennonite mothers, her work represents a shift in the field of Mennonite history, from it being more than history of Mennonite men.”
Epp was at Bethel to give the 2013 Menno Simons Lectures, Oct. 27-29. She is professor of history and peace and conflict studies and director of Mennonite studies at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario.
Other symposium contributors from Mennonite colleges, in addition to those from Bethel, were Marissa King and Karen Sheriff LeVan, Hesston College, and Kirsten Beachy and Kimberly Schmidt, Eastern Mennonite University.
Though most contributors were local, they also came from Toronto, Washington, D.C., New York City, Minneapolis, Sioux Falls., S.D., Harrisonburg, Va., and Lancaster, Pa. They ranged in age from 20s to 80s.
Topics covered during the symposium were equally broad: from an exploration of gender roles for Mennonite mission workers among the Cheyenne in the first half of the 20th century, to discussion of raising children while doing Christian service in sub-Saharan Africa and Colombia, to “our grandmothers’ sexuality” (in the form of Jessica Penner’s first novel, Shaken in the Water), to looking at the current generation of women as “the first to raise children on social media.”
One well-attended session was on “Other-mothering,” or “(M)othering.” Five people shared four different perspectives on motherhood, including facilitator Christine Crouse-Dick, who reflected on her experience with infertility and how it became more central as she began Ph.D. studies in “the rhetoric of reproduction discourses.”
Also on the panel: Janet Voth who with her husband, Orvin, chose to pursue careers in chemistry and not to have children – until, now in their 70s, recently celebrating the finalized adoption of two young brothers; Mollie Sultenfuss, an adoptive mother, with her female partner, of a four-year-old; and Peter and Rachel Eash-Scott, married for 14 years, parents for 10, and happily living with Peter as the full-time parent and household manager for nine of those years.
“Everyone’s stories here today are valid mothering stories,” said Rachel Eash-Scott.
One audience member commented about being “made aware of how we have marginalized people within our communities. I have a friend who has suffered two miscarriages, who has expressed how she feels like she has nowhere to go to talk about this. Many of us have been guilty of being insensitive.”
Crouse-Dick added, “I recognized, as I was looking at my own pain: What else is out there, for people living among us, in our congregations?”
Kirsten Beachy, who did a presentation herself on infertility during the symposium, said to Crouse-Dick, “Why are you labeled ‘infertile’ just because you can’t bear a child? You seem like such a fertile, creative, productive person in your imagination and other aspects of your life.”
Several symposium presenters dealt with topics on Mennonites’ front burner, as congregations and a denomination.
Stephanie Krehbiel, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies at the University of Kansas, looked at sexual ethics in light of Mennonite Church USA’s recent decision to revisit the sexual abuse accusations and aftermath, in the 1990s, surrounding theologian John Howard Yoder, then teaching at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary.
She held that up against the actions of the group Pink Menno – supporters of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning individuals – at MC USA’s 2013 convention in Phoenix.
“The way groups like Pink Menno and pro-LGBTQ-inclusion supporters are bringing forward [issues related to homosexuality] is making congregations have conversations about sexuality in ways they wouldn’t otherwise,” Krehbiel said. “The leaders now posing big, important questions about sex, violence and power could benefit by noticing where such conversations about these issues are already taking place and bearing fruit.”
Audrey Roth Kraybill, parent of four young adults and an M.Div. student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, also talked about Pink Menno, from a personal perspective. The mother of a gay son, Roth Kraybill performed “ecclesiastical disobedience” along with other Pink Menno members during one of the Phoenix delegate sessions this past July.
Her own son led her to see other “children who had been exiled to the borderlands by theological gerrymandering. That’s how I began my trek across the borderlands, beyond my tidy view of ‘Mennonite mothering.’”
She also needed “to revisit my images of God... to see God as mother and know Mother God would be as protective of my son as I am.” That helped her find Our Lady of Guadalupe, who is “on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the outsider. She changed me. She has taught me not to be afraid.
“I wear pink,” said Roth Kraybill, “because I believe pink is the color of love, and I think Mother God wears it, too. It suits her. It’s her color.”
Rachel Epp Buller, speaking again at the end of the symposium, said, “This has been an incredibly rich day. It has been really gratifying for me to hear the excited conversations, people making connections, sharing both laughter and tears. I encourage you to continue them in your families and churches, among your friends.”
Though not a formal presenter, Marlene Epp also spoke briefly at the end of the day.
“I want to add my own words of thanks and congratulations to the organizers,” she said. “It’s been a stimulating day. I haven’t been to such an enjoyable symposium for a long time. It’s been a delight.”
Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 Forbes.com analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.