In the world but not of the world

MCC Ontario's Low German program

Much of MCC Ontario’s work for the Low German population is in giving service providers crucial insight into a seemingly impenetrable community. Who are they? Where do they come from? And how will they fit into our community and society at large? Significantly, these are some of the questions that the Low German-speaking community are asking themselves.

MCC service worker Otto Funk visits with Low German Mennonite colony leaders in Charagua, Bolivia.MCC photo/Lidia Funk

History: On the move

The majority of Low German speaking Mennonites settling in Ontario today are migrating from Latin America where many have lived for several generations. For many families, it may be a return to Canada, where their parents or grandparents had fled to in order to escape religious persecution in Europe during the 19th century.  However, many felt betrayed at Canada’s insistence that their children attend English-speaking public school, despite a signed agreement with the government stating they could educate their children themselves according to their customs.  As a result, many in turn migrated to isolated parts of Latin America where other Low German-speaking “Old Colony” Mennonites had settled.

Many of those families are now returning to Canada to escape chronic poverty or violence – but the decision is rarely easy. Suzi West, one of nine children, wrote about her own family’s decision to return to Canada.

 “Gratefully, I was young and naïve – oblivious to the destitution that loomed over my parents and neighbours. Not all our extended family or church leadership were in support of my parent’s decision to leave the safety of isolation and exclusiveness. We left without their blessing.”

Anna Neufeld, Nellie Neufeld and Anna Ballardt (left to right) prepare lunch for residents at Guia de Paz, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre for Low German Mennonites living on colonies in Bolivia. MCC provided support for the nine colonies and churches that worked together to complete the centre.MCC photo/Nina Linton

Values: In the world but not of the world

The Low German church community is characterized by a deep respect for tradition and an expectation that its members will live in accordance with that tradition. The basis of this respect is a desire to remain separate from and different than society around them. Their primary allegiance is to God, they believe, and not to the political, economic and social systems that govern the countries in which they live.

However, the balance between staying true to their traditions and being self-sustaining in a modern society is a challenge.

In Canada: Current realities

Anne Wall grew up in a Low German community in Mexico and moved to Canada as a young child. “It was a real struggle for me to fit into Canadian culture and also the traditional culture that my parents were raised in and were trying to hold on to,” she recalled. “We really struggled with identity – and I see that in the Low German community today. Who are we? What are we here for? What are we supposed to be doing in Canada?”

Education is a key component of this struggle for identity and sustainability. Parents are looking to put down roots as they raise their young children, find consistent, well-paid work and become part of the larger Low German-speaking community in Southern Ontario; however, though many are highly employable in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, they are often not literate in any language, having grown up with an oral language tradition. This is a foundational challenge in finding meaningful work outside of manual labour.

The children’s school attendance often suffers as a result as they often work menial labour jobs to help support the family.  Suzi remembers working long hours as a child: “We missed two to four months of classes each school year. The remainder of the school year was spent trying to catch up academically and socially.” There is also a long-standing cultural expectation that everyone, including the children, would contribute to support the family.

Suzie West moved to Canada as a young child unaware of the struggles her family would face adapting to life in Canada.MCC photo/Ken Ogasawara

If there is one characteristic that can be universally applied to the Low German community at large, it is that they are hard-working. Years of surviving in harsh and even hostile environments has fostered a powerful work ethic and resilience. They value family, community, and a self-sufficient lifestyle that their people have embraced for generations.

The challenges that the Low German-speaking newcomers in Ontario face today are representative of their long history of migration, transition, yearning for an authentic life rooted in their faith, and the strength they derive from their community. That sense of community and family has held them together as a people for generations and continues to be a source of strength today. At MCC Ontario, we strive to help them keep that community connected while adapting to the realities of an individualistic, secular society.