Four Mennonite Sons

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There was, one hundred years ago, a Mennonite family with four sons. They lived near a small rural village on the outskirts of a bustling city, with their three sisters, and two parents. Life was simple. They would get up early, milk the cows, then clean the stalls, before heading in for a hearty breakfast at mom’s dining room table, then out for the fieldwork or to cut firewood. The seasons of planting and harvesting were busy times, but there was always plenty of work year-round. There were community events, almost always involving donated labor, to raise a barn or help some struggling neighbor harvest their crops, but life revolved around the daily chores, tending to the animals, the repetitive cycles of the crops, occasional trips to town and church attendance.

In their spare time, evenings before going to bed or after dinnertime on the slower seasons, these boys would read. They had a keen interested in history and current events. The books gave them a window into the world beyond the horizon, beyond the slow pace of his agricultural lifestyle, where great men made important decisions, tales of war, of how his Anabaptist ancestors had suffered intensely for their faith, stories of missionaries traveling to exotic locations, reports the new technology that promised to change everything, and all of this captivated these young men. Their 8th-grade education and sheltered agrarian lifestyle may have left them in wide-eyed wonderment—like the first time they saw that WW1 surplus Jenny JN-4 biplane flying over the family farm—but this did not make them ignorant or lacking in intelligence.

The eldest son, Joseph, was the spitting image of his father, he had seen the farm grow, had participated in the hard work and toil right from the beginning, this simple lifestyle was as ingrained in his heart as the dirt was ground into his calloused hands. He had his dad’s work ethic, would never complain about physical labor, and he had that wiry strength common to farm boys. It is said that once, as a teenager, one of the town boys seeing this naive Mennonite, tried to pick a fight, even landing a blow, before John gave his antagonist a big bear hug, repeated “I don’t want to fight” and then put the stunned bully down. That bully would go on to be the mill owner, a friend, who would always tell that story, but John would laugh and claim that it was exaggerated, a tall tale. John, who had basically inherited his father’s farm, would continue to implement new techniques, was very successful, a respected member of the local community, married his sweetheart and they faithfully attended the church of his childhood.

The second oldest, the ever-inventive Henry, found a way to improve a farm implement, he started manufacturing in the shop on his dad’s farm, but soon outgrew the shop and purchased some land nearer to the city where he built his first factory. By following his passion for business, employing his hardworking heritage, he became very wealthy and could afford to treat his child to luxuries he could not have even imagined at their age. His life was always full of activities, parties, baby showers, vacations (his wife loved the beach, how could he say no?) and, of course, the daily grind of running an industrial production schedule. His life was dominated by the clock, by the calendar of events, the sports teams, politics, etc. He loved technology and one day brought home a brand new cabinet radio/record player that he had purchased at Sears. But, as busy as they were, and despite leaving his father’s old-fashioned church behind, religion still played an important role in the life of his family and he did his best to instill conservative values, his charitable giving (not for attention) made him a noteworthy character and admired amongst those in need.

Hudson was the third of the sons, said to be named after the famed Protestant missionary to China (although it may have been the automobile of the same name), was the more earnest of the four sons. One day an evangelist came to town, despite attendance being discouraged by the church elders, he (with his brothers) was in the audience. The message tugged at his sensitive heart, he rose to his feet shaking, walked the sawdust trail, and had a “born again” experience. Now, truth be told, he had never really been that rebellious, he had had some terrible guilt about seeing some female peers taking a dip in the pond and spending an extra moment observing, but he had always been thoughtful, considerate, and conscientious sort. But now, freedom from his sin, he was determined to serve. He taught at the newly formed Mennonite high school, eventually became a founding member of Mennonite World Aid, an outreach of the conference created to appease those longing to be missionaries, and even did a stint in post-WW2 Europe. He raised his large family to be Anabaptist (although he saturated them with fundamentalist literature) and was followed everywhere by his adoring perpetually pregnant wife.

Then there was Clyde. Clyde was the black sheep of the family, saw John as naive, not too interested in technology like Henry (other than his camera) and certainly far more cynical than Hudson. He didn’t have much appreciation for the farm life. He soon realized that his church was taught by ignorant rubes who got their “ordination” by seeming sincere enough to nominate and then picking up the right Bible. He at first decide to do the Mennonite missionary thing, but he was more or less there to observe and take pictures, and then headed off to university to satiate his hunger for knowledge. Yet, beneath all of this ‘liberal’ smugness, was a compassionate and caring heart. He would go on to write books, people loving to hear about his experience growing up as a traditional Mennonite (although things had really changed significantly before he was old enough to remember) and he was eventually hired as the pastor of the big conference church. Unlike his forebearers, he used his pulpit to spread about social issues, encouraging diversity, reprimanding the “ethnic church” for not caring enough about minorities, the poor, victims, etc.

All of the sons remained Mennonite. And yet all, besides John, had dramatically changed what it meant to be Mennonite. Even John’s life became more chaotic and cluttered than that of his father’s, some of his sons gave up farming (land was too expensive) and worked at his brother Henry’s factory, others (also smitten by an emotional ‘revival’ preacher” carried out Hudson’s vision, but all remained active in their congregations. Henry’s sons embraced the comforts of modern life, they drove muscle cars, listened to popular music and were a little wild before settling down. Of course, Hudson’s sons, all home-schooled (a necessity on the mission field) were a mixture of sheltered and exposed, they all thought of their father as sort of saintly character and were determined to spread ‘Anabaptism’ to the corners of the world. Then there was Clyde’s only child, an avowed feminist, decrying the patriarchy, privilege, police brutality, and basically indistinguishable from the other trust-fund babies who shared his far-leftist views—to him Jesus was basically a political tool, a means to shame his more practical cousins, and a philosopher superseded by Karl Marx.

Nothing about the new generation was the same as their grandfathers. Horses had been long replaced by tractors, the suburbs had encroached on the farmland inheritance and the influence of the ‘liberal’ cousins was having an impact on Joe’s old Mennonite orthodoxy that had been unquestioned for decades, more and more switched from farming to carpentry or manufacturing as economic realities pressed into their communities. More of Henry and Hudson’s descendants (who still crossed paths as conservative Mennonites) became disenchanted with the status quo, some looking for a more lively worship experience, others being disillusioned by the Protestant influence started to question the foundation of their religious tradition, some were angry about hidden abuses, and there were special conferences held to discuss the “Anabaptist identity” crisis. The trappings of modern life had slowly but surely crept into their lifestyle, smartphones were prevalent, pornography caused anxiety amongst many and the austerity of the past would have been appealing if they had the time to stop and think about it.

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Made In Taiwan

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I started writing this blog while going through security at Taiwan’s Taoyuan International Airport and feeling sad because of what I left behind for a return to the old routine. But I’m also grateful, once again, for the opportunity to travel to the other side of the world to meet someone and make a few friends along the way.

And, speaking of new friends, when I had arrived a couple weeks earlier, the Taiwanese taxi driver—commonly referred to as “my friend” by the Filipinos working there for his habitual use of those words when answering the phone—was there (with my hosts) to fetch me at the airport. And, indeed, he was extremely friendly and only a few years younger than me. He could also carry a conversation in English.

We were both into cars.

We agreed, passing a Tesla, that the electric vehicle was too expensive and impractical.

Taiwan has a wide variety of vehicles. I saw everything from scooters, big rigs and strange small trucks to Audi’s, Beemers, and Bentley’s. Of course, I also saw Ford Focusses, like my own sitting at JFK Discount Parking, and a few other models also found in the United States. Sedans are much more common, pick-up trucks (besides the occasional Ranger) are almost non-existent, and did I say that scooters are everywhere once you get off the highways?

I used all forms of public transportation while there, taking a city bus or employing “my friend” to drive us in and out of Hsinchu City to the malls and restaurants there. We also rode the train to Houli Flower Farm, in Taichung, to take in the flower exhibit and horse ranch there. We took the express train, by accident, on our way to the zoo to Taipei. We thought we could use our “Yoyo” card (or at least that’s how “悠遊卡” sounds when you use the card) and stand on the express, but the conductor politely informed us we needed tickets and found us some seats. However, the more economical and efficient option was to take the direct line bus and we did on our later visit to Taipei.

My time in Taiwan revolved around the life of the Filipino workers there. I stayed in an apartment near the dormitories where they live. The Filipinos are drawn, away from their families and friends back home, by the better pay of electronics factories in Taiwan. It is not easy for them, but oftentimes their families rely on the extra income they earn and thus they make the sacrifice. With these Pinoy expatriates, I dined on the local Filipino and Taiwanese fare, explored the aforementioned touristy sites, and visited a small Filipino church (of a Protestant variety) in Hsinchu—enjoying a Sunday afternoon with “Pastora” after the service.

The food in Taiwan was delicious. One of my favorite dinnertime destinations being the “Shabu-shabu” restaurants—each place at the table had a burner, you would go, salad bar style, to select from an array of meat, seafood and vegetable options, then cook everything together in the boiling pot full of water.

Some pictures…

Oh, and in case you were wondering, McDonald’s still tastes like McDonald’s on the other side of the world. We had some while at the zoo.

Anyhow, here are some pictures of me horsing around at the flower farm…

Taking in the sights around Hsinchu City…

A Buddhist temple…

The smaller of two malls in Hsinchu City…

On top of world in the amazing Taipei 101…

National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Some random observations: A long dress don’t make a woman religious in Taiwan. The country, especially the region where I was, is bristling with industry and the multi-floor factories, scattered amongst the small farm plots, were no doubt churning out many goods destined for the United States. The cities have gardens in backyards rather than graffiti on the walls and crime is relatively low.

My only regret from the trip is the short layover in South Korea and not being able to visit some friends living there, otherwise it was an awesome trip and I look forward to next time!