The former Nebraska Conference or Bruderthaler Mennonites suffer from a variety of cultural handicaps. Our historic language is unwritten, we have no universities of our own to preserve and develop our culture, and our common “homeland” no longer exists. Perhaps critics such as Epp and Redekopp are a bit too quick to judge us for failing to maintain such an oppressed identity. Through our own fault, we have also managed to alienate ourselves from many of our co-religionists and fellow Anabaptists. Social and economic competition between our congregations and those of the Mennonite Brethren (MB) and General Conference were historically exacerbated to the point that while fellowship was able to continue, in many instances, a unity of communion was out of the question. For many of us, the decision to remove the Mennonite affiliation from our conference was painful but not nearly as destructive to our cultural self-understanding as our withdrawal from the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).
In my case, I have continued my grandfather’s close cultural affiliation with the Canadian Mennonite culture (a constant source of amusement to my non-Mennonite Canadian friends given my US citizenship). While this includes a common cause relationship to Anabaptist institutions in the United States, my lack of membership in a traditional Mennonite Church, and failure to attend a traditional Mennonite College have led me more and more into a cultural understanding of who I am rather than a religious conviction. This is coupled with a need to explain my pacifist and communitarian principles philosophically and politically rather than as mandates of a church.
Understanding that the Bruderthaler tradition is more or less dying out as a religion and feeling the need to preserve what is left of my understanding of the Bruderthaler’s historical experience and greater world view, I have begun shopping around for a university program in which to participate. This sounds easier than it has proven to be. First off, the secular state colleges in the USA tend to treat the Mennonites as a religion, not as a distinct culture, meaning that they not only do not have programs for such studies, but would discourage them. Nor are the traditional Mennonite schools of much use. Though I do not pretend to understand the politics of conversations I did not witness, Epp and Redekop, the closest we have come to producing “academics”, seemingly burnt their bridges with the both the conference leadership and its social stakeholders. Furthermore, despite early cooperation with the old Bruderthaler movements, Western schools such as Fresno, Tabor and Bethel, and the Eastern-oriented United States schools such as Goshen and Eastern are increasingly identified with Mennonite orthodoxies that have increasingly diverted from the active Bruderthaler tradition. Schools such as Grace University in Omaha, Nebraska, and Briercrest Bible College in Caronport, Saskatchewan (and possible Prairie Bible in Albera), are relatively close theologically to the faith of the EMB, but lack the academic resources to maintain students in a tradition that does not directly support them as institutions. In fact, Redekop could easily have named his analysis of EMB culture as “Neither-Nor” indicating that just as our failure to maintain a traditional Mennonite perspective has alienated us from the traditional Mennonite schools, our residual Mennonite identity and belief system seemingly makes us a bit suspect to American Evangelical stalwarts such as Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis. The question is then where is a traditionally oriented former Bruderthaler to turn?
Having been encouraged by circumstance to define my spiritual and cultural heritage in secular, cultural terms rather than as a religious affiliation, it is to the state or provincial schools to which I would of necessity have to turn. To the best of my research, this leaves two respected possibilities -- the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, which shelters a great many academics and students of former Mennonite affiliation from the city and the former Mennonite reserves of Southern Manitoba in its secular programs, and North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota, which does not recognize Mennonite studies per se but has dedicated a number of resources to the preservation and analysis of the greater Russlander culture.
Those of Canadian Mennonite background will at least recognize that term as the title of Sandra Birdsell’s acclaimed novel about the Russian Mennonite experience in Ukraine. In the United States, however, the term Russlander refers not to the Dutch Mennonites and Hutterites from Russia, but rather to the true Russian-Germans of Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic affiliation. These non-Mennonite Russlander have even appropriated the name Schmekfest for a non-Mennonite food festival (the Lustre-Volt Mennonites have used this term to describe their own folk fest for decades). So the problem is that Fargo recognizes the Mennonite culture but more or less merely as a footnote to the very different non-Anabaptist Russlander tradition.
The question then becomes -- if one has access to both programs -- to which one should one apply?
Ideally, I feel that it would be best to attend a program at the University of Manitoba in as much as one would have greater access to language resources and the opportunity to strengthen one’s understanding and knowledge of the greater Mennonite Russlander cultural experience. Yet, at the end of the day, one could easily find that lacking a sponsor body, one is still focusing solely on the General Conference and the Mennonite Brethren, replacing Bruderthaler beliefs and traditions with those of competing Mennonite denominations.
If one is going to be excluded, then why not study the remnants of the Bruderthaler as a distinct voice amongst the even larger Russlander tradition. Understanding the past frictions between Mennonite bodies, and that the cause of much misunderstanding has been the greater historical openness of the Bruderthaler to the greater North American “English” culture, it might be useful to understand how those early Bruderthaler were influenced by their relations with other non-Slavic colonists in Russia and how the Russlander as a whole interacted with both the Tsar and the greater society of Ukrainians. I would guess that the impulse to look outwards socially rather than inwards is probably culturally related to distinct family units that would eventually join together when freed through immigration to do so. This early Bruderthaler tendency might be more easily identified by stepping back out of the Anabaptist, non-Bruderthaler, world entirely. It might also give one the chance to determine the extent to which cultural bias rather than religious disagreement led to a growing disenchantment of the Bruderthaler with their co-religionists.
If this essay is a bit hard to follow -- that is good. Questions of identity are seldom clear and opportunities tend to lie not in the clearly understood but in that which requires further clarification. But, for myself, I do need to determine a plan of action and the best availability of resources that will allow the last generation of Bruderthaler to record and maintain their unique perspective and experience without being drowned out by the similarity of affiliated but not the same experiences of similar people. When two too similar streams flow together, it is difficult to identify the current of one against the other. But if two differently colored waters combine into one channel, it is often easier to identify and study the currents of each individually and their combined effect as a whole.