Saturday, November 05, 2016

Mennonites, Minorities, and Conversations at Costco

I call it the “You People” conversation.

It happened again just recently at a secondhand store.  An elderly man stopped me and said, “I know why you people wear those things on your head.  But you don’t need to, you know.  The Bible says the long hair is the covering, and you don’t need a piece of cloth.”

He actually wagged a finger at me. “Study it for yourself!”

Before I could say anything, he turned and left with the elderly woman who had just come briskly by with a shopping cart.  Like me, she wore a long skirt and conservative blouse, with her hair in a bun.  She looked like a Mennonite lady who forgot her head covering.

But of course, she knows she doesn’t need to wear one.  Since she’s studied the Bible for herself.

The You People conversation has also happened many times at book sales and events where I’ve spoken.  “Oooh, I know all about you people because I’ve read all of Beverly Lewis’s books, and Wanda Brunsetter’s too!”

I know they are nice people, and they mean well, but you will notice I show my teeth at such times but my eyes are not really smiling.

Worst by far are the garrulous people who light up when they see me, because they have a tiny drop of experience with Mennonites in their past, maybe ten parts per million, like E Coli in a reservoir, just enough to pollute the whole thing, and then they see me and YES! A Mennonite!  They must connect with me!!  And they are sure I will be so happy to talk with them because they know all about us people!!!

Such as the guy who stopped to talk to me and my daughters at Costco last summer.  He knew all about Us People because he had a friend at the church at Estacada, and he used to go up there on his motorcycle, and you know how we people always wear white shirts and black pants to church? Well, he set this little kid on his motorcycle, just for fun, and the kid’s dad in his white shirt was like, Whoa.  And he knows how we ladies have to stay home and dress real plain and stuff but Oh, man, how we can cook! Oh it is unbelievable.  And he also knows how we can’t go to school past high school, even if we want to, because they won’t let us.

[There’s always that mysterious They in these conversations.  Sometimes it’s the Bishops, but usually just They, a vague authority that forces us to put up our hair and have lots of children, and we are oppressed and helpless before them.]

By this time, the girls and I had tried walking slowly down the aisle. He followed us.  We tried saying we have to go.  He didn’t let us finish the sentence.

We were showing teeth but not smiling. I should no doubt have been more assertive, but I don't do assertive well, being both Mennonite and Minnesotan.

Finally after another volley of information about how we aren’t allowed to get an education, Emily roused her inner Smucker, raised her voice, and interrupted him. “Actually, I’m going to college.  At OSU.”

He was flabbergasted.  “What?  Really?  They let you go to college?!”

The conversation did not improve after this.

Finally we were able to escape.

The You People assumptions are always:
1. You People are all essentially the same. One individual fully represents the whole group.
2. I know a little bit about You People, therefore I know pretty much everything about you.
3. You will welcome me sharing my knowledge.  It will be a happy point of connection between us.
4. You need me to define your culture for you.
5. If you tell me something, you are speaking for your whole culture.

 I am actually going somewhere else with this: This is why I don’t like to engage in conversations with white people about racial issues.

Of course I try to be informed about racial history and current issues.  I assume that both personally and culturally, we always have more to learn, and we need to make the Christlike choices.  I am not minimizing the appalling sins in our nation’s past and present.

What bothers me is that so much of the talking is being done by white people.  Good-hearted white people, I’ll grant, well-meaning and smart and determined to speak up and right wrongs.

Like the Diversity Seminar at OSU a while back that Emily stuck her nose into, just out of curiosity, and yep, every single person there was white.

And then we have this prizewinning situation unfolding practically next door. From the Oregonian: "The law professor who wore blackface at a Halloween party is a distinguished member of the University of Oregon faculty who's taught at the school since 1982 and once served as chair of the law school's diversity committee. . .”

This is why all this bothers me: The talking always sounds like a You People conversation.

Nothing makes the internet whirl like another police shooting of a young black man or a protest on an Indian reservation.

Most of the time, it’s white people defining the problem, doing the explaining, saying what’s been done and what it means and how it feels and how it affects Those People and what we must do now. Talking talking talking.  Earnestly spreading the word, raising awareness, rallying support, fanning guilt, proposing answers.  Talking talking talking while, in my imagination, the black or Native or Hispanic folks are standing by their shopping carts unable to get a word in edgewise and glancing at their watches.

As though Those People need us to speak for them, and they won’t be heard unless we interpret for them.

And I think: Surely the Black experience is as diverse as the Mennonite experience.  An inner-city St. Louis teenager will not have the same view on life and current happenings as the farmer in Georgia or the professor in St. Paul or the housewife in Los Angeles, even if they’re all black.

Would they define the problems the same, or react the same, or propose the same solutions?

Does it annoy the LA housewife to have a white analyst from New York comment earnestly about a shooting in Ferguson?

Are we all assuming that because an incident affects a black person on TV a certain way, it must therefore affect the black lady that works at WinCo in Eugene the same way?

I have my guesses, but I’m not going to say them out loud. Because I DON’T KNOW.

So, you are asking, what should we white people do about the systemic racism, economic disparity, and injustice in our nation?

As I said, I really don't know.  But here are some cautious guesses, based on my religious-minority experiences:
1. Do the right thing as a person. If you have the opportunity to treat people fairly and to right wrongs and to assist and hire, do so.
2. Read minority authors’ work and listen to the non-white people in your life. Do so as though they are individuals, first of all, and not samples or specimens. Be extremely cautious about assuming they represent a whole group.
3. Assume you don’t know much at all about another culture, even if you had an Indian friend in fourth grade.
4. Trying to make every white person feel personally guilty for what happened in Ferguson or Baltimore is no more productive than blaming me, just because I’m Mennonite, for how the deacon in Holmes County treated you back in 1968 when you wanted to hang out with his daughter.
5. If you want to spread the word and raise awareness, then cultivate opportunities for minorities to tell their own stories and define their own struggles and solutions.
6. Ask good questions and listen listen listen.
7. But maybe somewhere besides Costco.

[Comments are closed but you can email me at dorcassmucker@gmail.com]

71 comments:

  1. I'm not actually sure how I came to subscribe to your blog now, but at some point subscribed and have been reading for a while. I say this to say that what little I know of you is from reading some of your blog posts. I'm really put off by this post. I realize that people may be awkward, but it doesn't seem like they have anything but the kindest of intentions and your post makes you appear to feel very superior to them. Am I missing a different interpretation? It is very hard to always infer the right things from the written word only.

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    1. Shelia there are Ukrainians and Russians accused of being Mennonite and it is offensive when you don't control your words in public I fully understand what dorcus is saying cause we have that same experience. I have been both nonmennonite and mennonite, I've seen and been on both sides of we can only get past the outer and find the inner in people then that's what counts. I am thankful for a religion that teaches to be at home so you can tuck your children in bed every night and a home where your true blood mother and father are there to not give up. This world is getting worst , but we need more friendly Mennonites and less judging those who have it good because somewhere they are hurting too.

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  2. David--I had to Google that. And yes, it is that.

    Sheila--You're allowed to take whatever you want from this. As for people having the kindest of intentions and me feeling superior... all I know is I would NEVER go up to a stranger and tell them they don't need to do some religious observance that they practice. I also hope I would never take up half an hour of someone's time at Costco without asking.

    Having said that: many people have come up to me and said hi and asked an honest question because they were curious, and then listened to the answer. I don't mind that at all. I welcome it.

    You can email me at dorcassmucker@gmail.com if you'd like to talk further.

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    1. Mennonites do just that smile but not be honest. I would say you should have took the time and pulled out the bible . and isn't this an open discussion why reply to your email. Dorcus can you explain why the public sees Mennonites as stuck up because some Mennonite females do act stuck up in public? I married into the Mennonite religion and because I dress like a Mennonite I am judged as a well perfect Mennonite or a stuck up Mennonite . its either perfect or stuckup, and that's why I struggle in public cause I'm judged for how I look (mennonite). I am thankful and feel safe spiritually with this religion because I trust them and Mennonites show by the way they live as followers of God through jesus but why is there this smile but no communication in public? with the Mennonites only liberal ones are more open in the public, I know Most Mennonites are judged when they walk in the stores but be open minded cause the public will know if you are shut up inside.

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    2. I tell myself to think of it this way what if that public person was an angel testing me how would God have seen it. I believe God wants us to do more showing the bible then preaching most so called Christians don't study the bible.

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    4. I think your reply told me exactly what I needed to know.

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  3. It didn't come across that way to me but more matter of fact. Have you ever had someone try to explain to you what your life is like? I have tiny examples. I came from a large family of 16 children. (Way before the Duggers!) My parents were well thought of & most of my siblings somewhere in the over-achiever / genius category. More times than I can count I have been told how lucky I am to come from such a perfect family with the loving parents I had. In some ways that's true but in other ways extremely false. But it's also incredibly frustrating for people to assume they know about my life because of what they've heard, how well they know one of my siblings, or because they've been told by their parents that they should be more like the respectful, smart, etc. you-fill-in-the-blank, children in my family.

    Anytime we begin to assume we know what it's like from the inside while forever standing on the outside we need to just stop. As a psychotherapist I was taught over and over, "You are NOT an expert on your client!! They are an expert on themselves and you are there to learn!"

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  4. The above was said in response to Sheila's comment. :)

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    1. I feel as though you didn't truly read my comment. I was struck by something in the tone of this post that seemed different than the impression I had before and I commented that sometimes it is hard to understand the tone meant by the written word. I don't think or assume I know what anyone is like - that's why I asked the question to begin with and stated at the beginning that all I know about her is from reading a few blog posts. In regards to Valerie's somments, I have never known any Mennonites so I have no idea how they are perceived. I've never lived anywhere that there were enough Mennonites to hear any types of stereotypes, so my only sort of impression was of quiet and peace loving people. As I find various blogs I will subscribe and read them for a while because I do enjoy getting to know about different people.

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    2. Comments, not somments. :)

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    3. Sheila--Well, "quiet and peace loving" is actually a stereotype.
      And maybe we are, most of the time.
      Most of the time I'm low-key and nice on my blog. But sometimes I decide to step out of that box and go off about something I feel strongly about.
      Some people understand and others are taken aback at the tone.
      Then I go back to being low-key and nice.
      Mennonites are allowed to feel strongly and to speak forcefully and even to be a bit cynical.

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  5. Thank you Mrs. Smucker!!! Very well written!!! I have had many similar experiences. Like you said, I don't mind at all if someone honestly asks why I do certain things, but when someone assumes that they know all about me without ever even asking my name... It is just horrible! It is very rude and disrespectful and actually discriminatory. It is difficult to know how to respond to such people especially since we as Christians always want to be a good witness. I have begun to learn that being a good witness happens when I just focus on Christ and quit worrying about it, but that is a different topic.
    Thank you so much for writing this!!!

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    1. Pull the true book out for people like that in corinthians 11 it does give a separate covering other than the hair. The way your treated in public does hurt you.

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    2. Yes... honest curiosity isn't a problem.

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  6. My wife came home from the store yesterday and related a story about a black man who came up to her and asked her about her head-covering. Now we live in an area with tons of Amish and Mennonites so a woman covering her head is not unusual at all but she seemed approachable and they talked for a bit. My wife mentioned that she had started covering when we lived near Detroit and learned to use the same long covering Muslim women did and how to tie her her up into them and the guy exclaimed that explains it, she must be from the city because she wasn't afraid of a black guy. It was kind of funny but it was kind of not funny at the same time.

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    1. Women who chose to follow Mennonite traditions and are not raised in it have a great gift to speak with the public but it is a blessing to have an (always Mennonite) open up and be honest.

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    2. Arthur--Thanks for sharing that and yes, it was funny and very sad.

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  7. Love this... thank you!! I am impressed, a Mennonite mother who is able to think and write about vital, current issues of the day. So many stereotypes you have shattered... don't be surprised if your people find that uncomfortable. It's OK, they need a little mental exercise. Keep thinking, keep writing! BTW I too am a Mennonite mother who thinks... maybe someday I will follow your example and be brave enough to write. :-)

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  8. My Pakistani wife experienced various phenomena across her time among Americana as well as Mennonites and Amish. ...including the "Isn't it amazing that now she doesn't have to burn her hands and smoke her eyes while cooking over a wood fire" idea. Then she also met those who were interested in her, and she seemed to know who they were or weren't.

    Learn to KNOW "them" and the "you people" tends to recede into a certain irrelevance. Thanks for writing.

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  10. Excellent, Dorcas! Thank you for bringing clarity to how we should respond/relate to minorities.

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    1. Thanks, Asher. And just to be clear, the how-to was only my best guesses.

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  12. Circus I am with you we need to be seen more as a Christian and not Mennonite but the only way is to open up and show the bible

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    1. I can't stand auto-correct I said dorcus and not circus lol

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    2. Don't worry, I've been called worse.

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  13. This is the very first time, I’ve disagreed with your column. I fly to Virginia tomorrow, and since i stayed up pretty late cleaning my kitchen, and washing clothes, I will still pray, Jesus if someone needs to talk have them sit beside me, and give me the words you want me to say. Otherwise help me sleep.
    I think its your smile that tells strangers hey talk to me I’m listening. We don’t have to be in Africa to win souls and when they come up to you and ask questions about your faith, I always feel its a GOD appointment!!

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    1. Hello??!!! Did you even read the same article I did? She's not complaining about small talk or answering questions. She's saying treat people like people and don't go assuming you know everything they are feeling or experiencing.

      Excellent article Dorcas!! Thanks for sharing.

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    2. I probably didn't make this clear. I've been approached many many times by gracious people with questions and I always hope my face looks welcoming. It's the (few) who already know everything who I find difficult.

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    3. The issue is not people who need something God wants you to offer. It's people who think you need what they have to offer, and they are not interested in reality, just in making their own point.

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  14. I guess you would say my family are transplants into the Mennonite Church. Our stroll through the Beachy church ended with a "you people"....as in the minister sitting us down telling us they had a nice little church before "you people" came. That was over 25 years ago and it still kind of smarts to think of it.

    Appreciate your words. It was the "you people" phrase that triggered a melancholy moment for me.

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    1. Sorry to stir up this memory for you. And I'm just so sorry it happened to you, back then.

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  15. Yes, this seems a bit harsh.
    It'll make me think twice about making small talk, I'm afraid. And do you have an age limit for frustrating questions from small children?

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    1. I don't see why you would think this is harsh. She's not saying there shouldn't be small talk, or questions. She's saying don't assume you know what others are feeling or what they have experienced. It's just good common sense.

      I thought this was an excellent article. You may want to read it again to see what she is actually saying.

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    2. I am always open to honest questions and have been approached courteously probably hundreds of times. I don't mind that at all. It's when people want to tell me what I do and believe that I get exasperated.

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    3. Yes I get treated the same way. So I'll ask again why does the public think that Mennonites are not nice or stuck up or is this considered small talk if it is then there's no relating here cause I'm from a different background. Maybe I should start a blog about how to relate to Mennonites and the public and see if there an answer or advice.

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    4. Yes I get treated the same way. So I'll ask again why does the public think that Mennonites are not nice or stuck up or is this considered small talk if it is then there's no relating here cause I'm from a different background. Maybe I should start a blog about how to relate to Mennonites and the public and see if there an answer or advice.

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    5. Yes I get treated the same way. So I'll ask again why does the public think that Mennonites are not nice or stuck up or is this considered small talk if it is then there's no relating here cause I'm from a different background. Maybe I should start a blog about how to relate to Mennonites and the public and see if there an answer or advice.

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    6. Valerie--It's fine to bring it up here. The answer is: I don't know why Mennonites have that reputation. I mean, I know they do--I've heard it around here. One gas station attendant told me he had a question about Mennonites and he asked me because I was the only one who looked happy. That is really awful, but what can I do besides make sure I am warm and welcoming in my heart so it shows on my face? Sorry I can't give you a better answer.

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    7. i think it is because of those who are unfriendly. In our area, i have experienced this repeatedly from a fellowship that tends to think of themselves as the only ones. One of them even said in reference to Christians not like them that they prefer not to associate with the unredeemed. They have turned away from me and walked away and ignored me in public. It is not all of them, but enough of them to be a sour representation.

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  16. I loved this. I was raised Mennonite, and even though I do not still experience this, except when someone finds out that I used to be....then all of the "knowledge" that they impart about Mennonites is laughable. On a more serious note, your comments about race relations really made me stop and think. Some real wisdom there!

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  17. Dorcas, the dangers of doing showed up on this blog post I would say. But I'm glad it doesn't stop you. You handle the "you people" conversations better than I do. It's tough to be judged by others who don't know you and yet think they do. Even though we share the beliefs of the groups we belong to, we are individuals not robots or clones. And I like to read your blog to satisfy some of my curiosity about you as an individual Mennonite. I don't know any Mennonites personally, but I respect and enjoy a lot of what you say. Thanks for sharing and daring to do.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words and courteous curiosity. I'm a bit shell-shocked at the moment, though, and thinking that's enough "doing" for maybe a year.

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  19. I actually read this a few hours after you posted it. Didn't have a comment right away, but after I thought about it a bit, I came up with one. Yay...right? :)

    Anyway...my thought is that I'm not sure I would connect the two issues--the "You People" conversation and the white interpretation of life as experienced by people of color. I think the "You People" conversation is a manifestation of the complete demise of courtesy and decorum in this country. Our media, and certainly the internet, have turned us into a "Say Anything" culture. If you think it--good, bad, positive, uplifting, bullying or just stupid--go ahead and let it come out of your mouth. I, too, am shocked by what people think is appropriate to say to strangers these days. Maybe one has to be "of a certain age" to get this...I don't know. But people are just much more opinionated--and rude about it--than they used to be. Sometimes I blame it on us Boomers...we were determined to do away with our parents' social conventions. Now that we've accomplished it, we can't believe what goes on without them.

    But as far as white people "defining the problem" of systemic racism, and attempting to do all the talking...I'm not sure I quite agree with your assessment. Yes, I am white, and yes, I live in the lily-white exurbs of Portland, Oregon, so I get the chance to personally interact with black people approximately never. But I do publicly express my outrage at things like Ferguson, and Trayvon Martin, and Baltimore, because I don't feel comfortable being silent in the face of naked injustice. And, you know, I don't think people of color who are sincerely concerned with moving our society to a place where black lives really DO matter, are all that uncomfortable with assistance coming from ANY quarter. If they had been able to effect change by themselves, don't you think it would have happened by now? I am of the opinion that the minorities NEED the outrage and cooperation of members of the offending majority, or no change will ever happen. At least, not peacefully. I would never presume that I understand the experience of a black or Hispanic or gay or Muslim American. But I do believe that we need to work together for change, and be a little less thin-skinned about where help comes from. Why not let it be one gigantic teachable moment?

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    1. Lisa--Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am also of a certain age and agree that you might be onto something there. Mennonite manners are still back in about 1935, so...yeah.
      And I agree that the "offending majority" needs to do something about injustice. The problem with speaking up from Oregon is that we are so far removed and it feels like all our information is filtered well before it gets here. AND--so often there's only a single narrative that's being repeated. I think surely SURELY there are many sides to this, many perspectives, many nuances. Or, way too often, there are two extreme polar opposite voices shouting. I too was outraged about Trayvon Martin, and freaked out about my black son wearing a hoodie, but I had this constant little worry in the back of my head: What if I don't know the whole story? What if I'm just repeating what someone wants me to say? What if there's a whole other angle no one has told us? Maybe that's overthinking it, but really we need to be hearing from a lot of minority voices, even if they don't fit the narrative we're used to. Which is not to disagree with what you said, and thanks again for thinking and commenting.

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    2. It's true that any information we get about anything these days, if we get it from any media and not from our own eyeballs, is likely to be spun, tainted, twisted, filtered...or outright lies. There is no such thing as factual reporting these days. Everything is at the very least editorialized, presented from someone's point of view. And the entities who own the media outlets have an agenda all their own...so anything sent out on "their" airwaves is presented in a way to advance that agenda. The best I can do is distill the coverage down to what actual facts I can glean when I sift through the garbage. Did the police (or some other "authority") kill this person? Did this person point a weapon at the police? Did this person even have a weapon on him? If the answer to the first question is "yes," and to the second two is "no," I think we have enough information to be outraged.

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    3. Yes, I agree. Maybe Trayvon wasn't a good example here because that situation was more straightforward. But still. We (I) need to hear more first hand.

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  20. WOW, just wow... =(

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  21. A hearty Amen! It took me spending time in a third world country trying every day to establish relationships thru a language barrier that makes me have a heart tward the African-American race, putting forth all the effort to KNOW them as individuals and listening for what I can learn from them... They are special, unique individuals just as any whites. I love many things about their culture, and we do well as Christians especially to not lump them all in one category just from a few individuals from their culture making wrong choices. So do white people, all ..the.. time! (if that makes sense)

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  22. I read your blog faithfully and I have all of your books and love them all. I really enjoy your down to earth writing style and have often envied it. This one and all the comments caused me to say "wow". Some people really do like to pick apart another persons honest practical point of view. To me you were simply saying that we should listen to each person as an individual and not lump them into a group. As a new young widow I so much appreciate when people ask me for my opinion and don't assume I would like to do so and so because their aunt who is a widow wanted to be treated a certain way so that means I must want that same treatment. Simply put....it doesn't matter if you are Mennonite or Baptist, black or white, single or married, each person has an opinion and it is kind and thoughtful to ask them instead of assuming you know.I have a much greater respect for people that are brave enough to openly talk and discuss then I have for those that have a hearty helpful spirit but never bother to ask what my preference is on an issue and go ahead assuming they know my feelings and desires. I know it is a different twist to your subject but still the same.....stop assuming you know everything, each person has an opinion. You wrote it well Dorcas, keep on!

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    1. Thank you, and you are correct that I was trying to say "that we should listen to each person as an individual and not lump them into a group."
      Which goes to show that you were listening. :-)

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    2. I'm going to ask a question about my self I married into the mennonite religion so people always think I'm one of the "you people" so how am I to take it cause it really upsets me. What advice is there for me in that area because it is harder for me since I wasn't raised in the religion and people think I was and am.

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    3. I think this shows how frustrating it is when people look at us and assume things about you. Well, you are who you are, and that's between you and the Lord. They are who they choose to be, and it isn't yours to fix. Be strong.

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    4. I am not originally from 'the People' so when I get asked questions I sometimes get frustrated too, Valerie. Before I started dressing with a head covering and traditional dress no one would have approached me to tell me what I believe is necessary. It does seem that sometimes being part of 'the people' gives the bystander the right to forget their manners and ask questions that are simply just curious or nosy. I have no problem answering sincere questions but when I feel that they are just the cat toying with me, the mouse, I am out of there!!

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  23. Relax. It's just me.

    As always, I'm proud to know you: a good woman with good things to say. Thank you for saying them.

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    1. Your words are lotion on the chapped skin of my soul.

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  24. Dorcus I know this is your blog is this open for small talk or just about what you go through cause I like sharing what I go through too and I have faced the similar problems you do in town. The religion and culture and public is all connected or am I just taking this further then you want to go😀

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  25. Dorcus I know this is your blog is this open for small talk or just about what you go through cause I like sharing what I go through too and I have faced the similar problems you do in town. The religion and culture and public is all connected or am I just taking this further then you want to go😀

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  26. Dorcus I know this is your blog is this open for small talk or just about what you go through cause I like sharing what I go through too and I have faced the similar problems you do in town. The religion and culture and public is all connected or am I just taking this further then you want to go😀

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    1. Hi again Valerie--If you're a "new" Mennonite, then I can imagine a lot of things are very hard to get used to. Very definitely YES the religion and culture are all connected, and the "face" we put on in public is also connected. All I can say is be yourself as much as you can. For myself and the "problems in town" I want to be welcoming to questions but also be more assertive with people who just endlessly talk to me. I am not good at being assertive. All the best to you.

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  27. I went to one of your book events at the Lane County Fairgrounds. I had read your blog and books for years and considered myself a fan. Apparently I wasn't righteous enough or maybe you thought I was a heathen, but you turned around and talked poorly about me online after that...just for having a conversation with you at a book signing. Never again.

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    1. Don't worry, I loved talking with you.

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  28. Wear a hat...your world will change!
    ML

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  29. I walk down the street and people, for some reason, feel like they can ask me, or inform me of, anything. I was at the computer store getting my laptop checked out and a lady went on and on about how she loved Amish country and all the things she knew about us. Then she noticed I was getting a computer repaired???!!! That took some 'splaining! This led to more questions. I was trying to ease out of the conversation and the store. When she asked if I was allowed to use birth control I took that as my cue to move on.

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