Paul Plett, director, I Am a Mennonite, Ode Productions, 2021. 58 minutes.
“What makes a Mennonite a Mennonite?”
With this question, Canadian filmmaker Paul Plett invites us to follow him on an exploration of his own personal story. Through interviews and monologues, this documentary traces Plett’s family heritage while also trying to answer larger questions of what being a Mennonite is all about. His goal is to observe where Mennonites are going spiritually by first answering the questions of where they are and where they have been. Many others have taken on this noble task, but since Plett identifies as a Mennonite himself, he starts with his own background in order to uncover what threads weave him into the larger Mennonite story.
Pulling off his stereotypical straw hat, suspenders, and fake beard, Plett emphasizes that Mennonites come in all shapes, colors, styles, and fashions. Mennonites look as “normal” as he does, or like any person could look. However, it becomes clear through interviews with his family and friends that the definition of “Mennonite” is in the eye of the beholder. For some it is strictly about family bloodline and cultural practices. For others it is about values and principles. And for still others it is about a specific expression of the Christian faith.
To find out more about what being a Mennonite means, Plett traces his family’s footsteps to the former Molotschna Colony in present-day Ukraine. He tries to find remnants of his family’s presence prior to their migration to Canada. The only evidence of their village, however, is old tombstones and the stories that come with them. Plett continues on to Amsterdam in the Netherlands to track down information about a relative who is his family’s oldest known link to the Mennonite movement of the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, he comes up short once again. It is at this point that he starts to switch his focus.
From Amsterdam, Plett travels north to Friesland in the Netherlands to see the town where Menno Simons (the Mennonites’ namesake) got his start in the Anabaptist movement. In conversation with the pastor of the Mennonite church in Simons’s hometown, Plett focuses in on the spiritual heritage of the Mennonite faith. He marvels at how one man made such a large impact for those who were questioning the status quo and seeking spiritual renewal.
At this point in his journey, Plett no longer needs evidence of his family’s ethnic connection to the early Anabaptists. He is a Mennonite because he can identify directly with Menno Simons through the community Simons founded. In his final monologue, Plett concludes that the most significant part of being a Mennonite is belonging to this global community. As he returns home, he expresses his desire for his family to also find their place within it.
There is something special about accompanying a pilgrim on their journey to self-discovery. It inevitably causes us to reflect on our own identity and belonging. In my case, I realized that I could not see myself in Plett’s story. Yes, I too am a Mennonite, but the difference between us is that I have no historical connection to the ethnic and cultural heritage he describes. I am a Mennonite by confession, and although I truly appreciate the cultural values and practices that come from the Swiss/Russian tradition, they have as much to do with being a Mennonite as my Filipino/German/Canadian background does.
Although Plett distinguishes between ethnic, cultural, and religious aspects of Mennonites, he ends up with the same convoluted message with which his interviewees began the documentary—that being a Mennonite can mean all of these things and more. It seems that everyone can pick and choose what defines them as Mennonite, because the most important part is seeing oneself as part of the community. What is most striking is that he makes this conclusion in the very place where Menno Simons first became convicted against such ideas.
If Plett truly wanted to discover where Mennonites have been, he would have focused on what identified this sect of Christians in contrast to those around them. Nowhere in the early Anabaptist confessions do we find any notion that Mennonite identity can be passed down through bloodline or culture. In fact, it was the complete opposite. Mennonites died for the belief that faith in God must be chosen and that the true test of faith is discipleship, not ethnic, cultural, social, or political heritage.
If Plett had truly wanted to discover where Mennonites currently are going spiritually, he would have at some point ended up in dialogue with the faith community of Mennonite World Conference. The more we can avoid holding up one tradition as being “truly Mennonite,” the more we will celebrate the global diversity among us and the cultural differences that make us who we are. Although we owe a lot to our early European siblings, what ultimately draws us together is not their story but our common story of faith in Jesus and our desire to work together in God’s church.
Yes, heritage and history are important. Yes, we can learn a lot from the people who came before us. However, there is a danger in our North American insistence that being Mennonite is rooted in ethnicity and cultural heritage. If this is our belief, then our witness may look more like cultural assimilation than introducing people of all backgrounds to Jesus and the Mennonite lens through which our faith can be lived out.
The issue with this film is not that Plett sought out his familial roots or that his conclusion focused on community, but that in his open definition of community, being Mennonite actually means very little. This might be satisfactory for someone whose heritage prescribed a Mennonite identity, but for anyone who has chosen to join the Mennonite tradition, this conclusion comes up short.
One marker of a successful documentary is whether it answers its own questions. Plett began by asking where Mennonites are heading spiritually. Unfortunately, because of the trajectory of his journey, we never get a clear answer. If we really want to know where Mennonites are heading, we would do well to gather together people of various backgrounds who are choosing this faith tradition and ask them, “What makes you a Mennonite?”
Moses Falco lives in Treaty 1 territory with his family. He pastors at Sterling Mennonite Fellowship in Winnipeg, Manitoba, blogs regularly at MosesFalco.com, and co-hosts a podcast at TheMennoCast.com.