Rhoda Janzen: From Modern to Mennonite

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Shelley LaLonde

Rhoda Janzen, author of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

When Rhoda Janzen went away to college, she was determined to leave her past behind. But unlike the average independence-minded freshman, Janzen was Mennonite — a member of a small, strict Christian denomination with only 110,000 members in the U.S. She went on to earn a Ph.D. from UCLA and become an English professor. But in 2006, at age 43, a personal crisis sent her back to her Mennonite roots in Fresno, Calif. Janzen has written a new book about her unusual journey, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (Henry Holt). TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached Janzen in Holland, Mich., where she is an English professor at Hope College.

The Mennonites are often confused with the Amish, right?
Indeed they are. The Amish used to be a part of the Mennonite Church, but they broke up with us in 1691. [The two faiths] still share many points of belief and also a very simple lifestyle, although the Amish tend to be way more conservative.

What are the basic Mennonite beliefs and practices now?
The Mennonites are a Protestant group. They believe in adult baptism, and they have this long history of political protest of war. They have several hundred years of being conscientious objectors. But I think what a lot of people would say is that they tend to be very conservative in their lifestyle choices.

Does that affect what they wear?
It affected my community when I grew up. Many Mennonites wear old-fashioned hats, aprons and so on. But those tend to be the group called the Old Mennonites. I grew up among the Mennonite Brethren, and they just wore conservative clothes that you wouldn't necessarily stop and stare at on the street. Back then I wasn't allowed to wear jeans. My mom felt that skirts gave more glory to God.

Did you feel a sense of differentness when you were growing up?
I felt so different. I went to public school. I didn't know anything about pop culture or song lyrics or dancing or anything like that. I was embarrassed for how I dressed and was embarrassed that I didn't have that same cultural knowledge. It didn't occur to me that the Mennonites might have something that other people were missing.

At what age did you start thinking, Oh, I have to break out of this?
As soon as I realized that breaking out was an option. I had a little rebel fantasy pretty early on. When I graduated high school and moved on to college, that's when I began making decisions.

What did that feel like? It must have felt like a big break, a big transition.
It did. I think maybe a lot of kids do the lifestyle stuff first, like they'll drink beer. I didn't do that so much as really begin to read outside the stuff I'd been trained on. So I began to read about other religions and read philosophy and literature. When you get immersed in that as a young thinker, it tends to stretch you a little bit.

What circumstances ultimately compelled you to go back to the Mennonite community?
Well, I had a sort of critical year, a crisis year. My husband of 15 years announced one day that he was leaving me for a guy named Bob, whom he had met on Gay.com. Then, six days later, I was in a car accident. I was a mess, really, so I went to the only place I could figure out to go that wouldn't cost much, and that was home to the Mennonites.

So what was it like when you first went back?
I had expected to sleep in, hole up out of self-pity, but my mother was so busy and cheerful that I didn't have time for any of that. The very first morning, when I was still jet-lagged, she stuck her head into my old bedroom and said, "You want to help me make pie-by-the-yard? I picked up a big bag of Granny Smiths!" I found it comforting to snap back into old patterns, with my mom presiding over the kitchen in her safari apron. Trailing one's 70-year-old parents around town is an excellent and under-discussed cure for heartbreak.

What was most surprising to you?
I had remembered the Mennonites of my youth as congenial folks, so it wasn't a surprise that I loved them as an adult. What was a surprise was that I loved what they stood for — I loved the faith itself, and the way they consistently demonstrated what they believed. For instance, when my mom learned that an elderly woman from her church was recuperating from a surgery, it wasn't a question of if she would visit. It was a question of whether to bring homemade zwieback or a tray of platz. It was the genuine human warmth of this community that set me thinking about faith in new ways.

What do you suppose your life would have been like if you had stayed there originally?
There was a Mennonite guy whom everybody sort of expected me to marry. Hi, Gary! He was tall, I was tall. Our parents were friends. We both were interested in theology, maybe even in seminary. This man and I never actually dated, and he ended up moving in a different direction too. But if I had stayed, I would have wanted to marry a man like him — thoughtful, reflective, family-oriented. I would have put embarrassing meatball sandwiches in my kids' lunches. Lord knows I would have saved money on shoes.