Separation from Self: The complications of faith and culture

I’ve been wrestling lately with feeling a little lonely and being unable to pinpoint why. I feel at home in LA; I love my community and my church and the many, many friends I’ve made. Why am I lonely if I don’t feel homesick?

And then sometime a couple weeks ago while I was listening to my coworkers talk about some of the distinct cultural and unique things about their families, I had my realization. I realized that I’m pretty displaced from my own culture. And I’m not talking about small town, mid west life. I don’t miss Ohio that much. I love the diversity in LA, and I want to seek out diverse places for the rest of my life. But I do miss my Mennonite community. I tried to find a Mennonite church here, but they are all too far by public transit. The few people I have met who know something about the Mennonite faith and Mennonite Church USA don’t know enough to understand why I’m laughing so hard about the Mennonite Game that I accidentally played with someone the other day, or how much I miss singing 606 in four part harmony. They’ve never heard of Dutch Blitz, much less played hours of the giant version at youth group and church camp. They’ve never been to MCUSA convention. They don’t really know that being Mennonite, especially in the rural East, can be a community and a culture every bit as much as it is a denomination. DOOR is a partnership between the Presbyterian and Mennonite church, leaning VERY heavily on the Presbyterian side here, and I can’t help but feel bad for these Presbyterians missing out on some really powerful Mennonite-isms.

I am a Christian first of all.

But I am a baptized member of the Mennonite church.

I was raised in a Mennonite community.

And when you ask me about what I believe, I can tell you about the Mennonite faith; peace, justice, service, and a life of living as Jesus did. Humbly. Simply. A life of serving others. Community. A focus on mission and solidarity and radical love. Or, in the official words of Mennonite Church USA, “God calls us to be followers of Jesus Christ and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to grow as communities of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.” This is what I believe with my whole heart. It’s the reason I’m here in LA; the reason DOOR even exists.

But I am not only Mennonite by faith. It’s also my culture.

Many people associate a culture and heritage with race, but there are culture pockets everywhere; things people identify with/as because they are from the south, or the midwest, or part of a certain generation. Especially in LA. Don’t confuse the Armenians with the Russians; Koreatown is considerably different from Little Tokyo. And in the same way, I’m not just a Mennonite. I AM Mennonite.

I can trace back my Mennonite roots 6 generations to Switzerland on my dad’s side and almost that many to Russia on my mom’s. My dad’s family is from Zurich, Switzerland and my last name Zuercher quite literally means, “the man from Zurich.” The Zuerchers came through Ellis Island in the late 1800’s and settled in Northeast Ohio. The congregation I grew up in, Sonnenberg Mennonite Church was the first church established in the area. My own great-grandpa was a pastor at Sonnenberg Mennonite, and my uncle is also a Mennonite pastor.

I grew up calling my Grandpa and Grandma Zuercher “Opa and Oma.” My Opa’s first language was Swiss-German, a language he can still speak. My own childhood was peppered with a few Swiss-German words that my dad had grown up hearing as a kid. Swiss-German isn’t a written language and so though I’m butchering the spelling, I remember hearing, “Nay!” (No!) “Vershtay?” (Do you understand?) and “You’re being “gluschtik” (“gluschtik” meaning you’re full, but you continue to eat because there is still food within reach). My Oma was raised Amish to Mennonite in Canada and Pennsylvania Dutch was her first language.

In some very stereotypical Mennonite ways, I’ve learned to sew, quilt and embroider. I only wore dresses and skirts to church until I was a sophomore in high school (mostly by choice) and my aunt still wears a covering to church. There is homemade canned applesauce at our dinner table almost every night. We’ve always had a garden, though infinitely smaller than my grandparent’s. Our pantry is stocked with home-canned peaches, pears, applesauce, tomato sauce, and tomato soup. The freezer is stacked with fresh frozen fruit, corn, and green beans. Our kitchen cupboards are full of reused containers, and folded sheets of tinfoil and zip-lock bags (washed and reused, of course) I even find myself cringing every time I throw away a zip-lock bag here in my house in LA.

My church sells locally made maple syrup as a fundraiser for missions, and we have an annual pancake breakfast. The sausage made every year for the breakfast is my Grandpa Sommerfeld’s recipe. It’s also the best sausage you’ll ever have in your life and the casing is real pig intestine. My church’s carry-in meals are one of the wonders of the modern world. All those crockpots and casseroles. More desserts than main dishes. Even the care packages my church sent me had homemade cookies and local bulk food store snacks (shout out to Shady View pantry for that trail mix).

I used to hate the Mennonite game but now I play it like a pro. “Did you say your last name is Zimmerman? Did you have a relative named Catherine Zuercher? She was a Zimmerman until she married David Zuercher? Oh really? I didn’t know that about her sister! You know, I know I saw that name in the Zuercher genealogy book somewhere. I think we are 5th cousins actually, maybe once removed?”

Thank goodness for the Mennonite Heritage Society in my hometown. It’s computer database lets people trace their relationship to friends and relatives and you better believe I’ll be scanning any prospective boyfriends through that old dinosaur. I’ve heard stories about married couples finding out later that they are a little too closely related. Tight-knit community problems and all.

My church has always sung in 4 part harmony. We cherish our hymns. Zuercher family dinners always, ALWAYS consist of singing the prayer “Great God the Giver” in 3 or 4 part harmony before my Opa follows with a spoken prayer.

I see my quirky Mennonite-isms pop up at weird times here in LA. I wore a long jean skirt to church a couple weeks ago without thinking about it and when I told my cousin, he asked me, “Rowena. You live in LA. Why did you even pack that thing?”

I’ve made trips to the downtown market to buy vegetables to blanch and freeze because my conscience can’t justify paying for store bought frozen vegetables. Even having freedom with my own money, I’m so streamlined to look at off brands, and cents per ounce, and buying in bulk deals. I get a little depressed when I look at the price of cheese. And there isn’t any Emmentaler Swiss to be found. My housemates like to go out for drinks occasionally, and even if I could drink, I would probably still find myself debating the issue of whether or not drinking alcohol is a sin for which I cannot be forgiven. (…I’m only half kidding…) I can pretend the organic hipster culture that farmer’s markets have become in LA can be a little bit rural Mennonite for as long as I need them to be. Just until I feel a little less lonely.

I am Mennonite by culture and denomination; something so intricately stitched together with my faith that I doubt I will ever really be able to separate one from the other. Even in my enthusiasm to wholeheartedly embrace new cultures, languages and ideas this year, feeling separated from the Mennonite faith community makes me feel separated from myself sometimes too. It’s that complicated; an entwined relationship formed generations before I was even born to become a part of it. Attending a Mennonite Church here and having the familiarity of my faith upbringing would have eased some of the separation I felt from the culture in Ohio. Or finding bits of the culture here would have helped to maintain my spiritual health. But it’s a paradox, more complicated than I expected it to be, yet not unconquerable, especially since I am finally able to identify it. 

But being Mennonite is all about service and stepping beyond ourselves, and embracing solidarity. So even when I feel a little lonely, I can always find myself again in the lives of the people I serve and who serve me. I find myself again in the support of my church here and in Ohio, and the people in LA who have welcomed and loved me with a grace and hospitality I’ve never experienced before, even within my home community. I may feel lonely at times, but I am not lonely, or alone.

After almost 8 months, there is still no place in the world I would rather be than here this year. So yes, I look forward to the many rounds of Dutch Blitz I’ll play when I go back to Ohio, but in the meantime, I’m making the most of being a very Mennonite girl in a very big Los Angeles and I’ve come to appreciate the little pockets of culture here in a new way. Maybe if I can’t find my own, I’ll make my own.

Much love to you all! ❤



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