Sept. 15, 2022
Culver Military Academy cadet A.J. Black ’24 likes to learn about other people’s cultures, so he was curious about the Amish and Mennonite vendors he saw this summer during his trips to the Culver farmer’s market.
Black, a diversity sergeant in Band, thought he’d like to invite a member of one of those religions to speak at Culver Academies. He was a bit apprehensive about the response he’d receive.
He found a willing speaker on his first try when he met Darlene Frey and her family working at the farmer’s market. She was busy, but she gave Black her phone number. Through his questions, a new picture emerged. He learned she was a member of a Mennonite community, a religious order formed after the Protestant Reformation, who lived in the Rochester area.
She agreed to speak with Culver Academies students and brought along three of her children, 8-year-old Curtis, 5-year-old Tyler, 2-year-old Diana, and her 15-year-old sister Lisa.
Students had a lot of questions during the 45-minute informal session about how Mennonites live. The first question Frey was asked is what role religion plays in her life.
“I guess we really don’t even call it religion so much ourselves as what we believe. We believe Jesus came to this Earth for all men and he died for us. We try to live how he taught in the Bible,” she said.
She explained to the students that Mennonites originated in Switzerland and Germany and arrived in America shortly after the Pilgrims.
“We’ve been in America for a long time,” she said.
Despite that, because of depictions in popular culture, misconceptions abound about Mennonite communities. Indiana has one of the nation’s largest Mennonite populations. Indiana also has a large Amish community.
People often confuse Mennonites with Amish. She said there are similarities, but also vast differences. She said the biggest difference probably is that Mennonites have electricity and landline telephones in their homes and Amish do not.
Mennonites live different than a lot of Americans. Frey said Mennonite children aren’t taught English when they’re toddlers. Mennonites speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of German, at home and it also is used at church. They learn English later at school.
Mennonites also use modern tractors, but they equip those tractors with custom-made steel wheels instead of rubber tires. She explained that steel wheels damage roads, so Mennonites know they can’t travel far on roads.
“The reason is so we don’t use our tractors as our cars,” she said. “We want to live the slower lifestyle and that’s one way we restrict it.”
Mennonites don’t own cars, she said, but do travel in cars. Frey said her husband is in construction and hires a driver who lives in the community every day to get to work. Mennonites also do not fly on airplanes, but they do use trains.
“We can travel. The reason why we don’t fly is we want to be a home-based family. We want to put an emphasis on family and staying home,” she said. “We do it to protect our family. We want that closeness of a church family, of just our immediate families at home with friends. We believe by putting restrictions on technologies and transportation, we can put more emphasis on those things.”
Several of the questions from students focused on Mennonites use of technology.
“We don’t have a lot. But we do need to keep up to some extent for our businesses. We have people, like our drivers that we hire, they will go online if we need something and do things like that. As a whole, I would say we don’t use a lot of technology. But we can’t get away from it.”
One student told Frey how Culver Academies was placing limits on when students can use smartphones. The student asked what benefit she could see by students being less distracted by smartphones.
“I would say it’s a good thing. Obviously, we don’t have social media and all that. But you kind of forget how to communicate face to face, or just talk. You can see that a lot. That’s where we put a lot of emphasis,” she said.
She laughed when a student asked her what aspect of the Mennonite way of living she most appreciates.
“That’s a really good question. You’re really getting me to think today,” she said.
She then responded that while many people often overlook it, she is most grateful for how Mennonite support each other
“We’re there for each other. We do it so much we barely think about it,” she said. “We have people around us that are just there to lift us up and help us move on.”
She also said she has friends who are not Mennonite.
Black said he invited Frey because he wants the Culver community to learn about their neighbors and the world.
“It is acceptable to have assumptions about certain people or ideas, but you have to be willing to accept that those ideas will be challenged based on evidence or firsthand experience,” he said.
Frey said she appreciated the opportunity to tell students about her community.
“We have to do our part as well to extend our support to others. Obviously, there are people who hate us just because of who we are. They just don’t like us,” she said. “So we really appreciate when people, like you, are understanding of our communities and supportive, too. Because we’re just people.”