UNSPOTTED FROM THE WORLD
Mennonites don't worry about how late their daughters stay out on dates - because their daughters don't date. Mennonites don't worry about what their children watch on television, because they don't own television sets. They don't worry about the latest fashions, because their style of dress doesn't change.
"When I think of the faith that we embrace, I think of simplicity," said Ron Jantz, minister of the congregation at Egypt. "We don't encumber ourselves with a lot of things."
The quest for the simplicity that nurtures a "meek and mild spirit" is evident in the neat, orderly farms and houses of these Northeast Mississippi Mennonites, who settled in the area in the 1970s. They came primarily from Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California.
Most farm or work in building trades, and all attempt to lead quiet lives of radical obedience to the New Testament, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Mennonites are especially noted for their pacifism, plain ways and swiftness to go to the aid of those who need help, whether Mennonite or not.
Men wear beards, never ties (which are considered impractical ornamentation), and practical clothing. "Our boys wear Levi's because of the way they fit," said Gloria Buller, mother of three sons. "It's not because of the brand."
Women wear home-sewn dresses, no jewelry, and black head coverings. "Their adorning is not the outward adorning of wearing gold and putting on apparel, but of the heart," explained Jantz, paraphrasing Scripture.
Why beards? "This is the way God made men," says Steve Koehn, a dirt contractor like his minister. "And Jesus had a beard."
After baptism (which for Mennonites normally happens at age 12 or 13) girls wear the head covering. "One verse says holy women should cover their heads when they pray," said Bonnie Koehn, Steve's wife. "And another says we should pray without ceasing. So, this way the sisters can always be ready to pray."
As reflected in their attitude toward beards and head coverings, Mennonites try to obey Scripture as closely as possible. For this reason they have no photographs of themselves in their homes. They do not feel right posing for photographs.
"Man is made in the image of God," said Koehn, "and we are not to make graven images of God." It's as simple as that.
Striving to remain faithful to Scripture has also led Mennonites to refuse to take oaths or bear arms. They feel they are obeying Jesus' command to allow one's yes be yes and no be no. In the same manner, Mennonite men, as conscientious objectors to war, serve in non-combative roles. Scripture says one should not kill. It's as simple as that.
There is no mistaking their meek and gentle nature. "We make mistakes, too," Jantz, the minister, said in regard to their way of life. "We come short of how God would have us to live but we have an Advocate with the Father."
The effort to live pure lives dedicated to loving and serving God has led Mennonites to wariness in regard to the outside world. They do not own television sets.
"We just feel it's not wholesome," said Jantz. "And the radio has love songs about this man running off with that woman. We just don't think we want to fill our minds with all that. And it would take away a lot from family life. Mom and Dad would just be watching TV instead of talking with their children in the evening."
Needless to say, they don't attend movies, either, and are very careful about what they and their children read. "We like pioneer stories," said Marie Jantz.
"But we don't want them to read about shootouts," added her husband.
Most of the families in the Egypt congregation subscribe to the Daily Journal. Some also take news magazines and Reader's Digest.
The concept of separation as well as a history of persecution has convinced Mennonites that they should not get involved in government. Consequently, they do not vote. "We do pay taxes," Jantz said firmly. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.' But we don't feel we ought to get involved in the rest."
Right hand of fellowship'
The lives of the Mennonites are centered on the 150-member church and the fellowship it offers. "This is what is so precious to us," said Jantz last Sunday morning after the service, slowly moving his hand to indicate the clusters of men and woman talking together. "It's the fellowship."
Eating in one another's homes and practicing hospitality are biblical principles for them. Newly married couples are encouraged not to be so caught up in themselves that they neglect to invite others over for supper.
The emphasis on fellowship (particularly table fellowship) undergirds the rigors of their practice of shunning. "We look at shunning as an act of love," said Jantz. "We feel when they have fallen from grace, it is to remind them the state they're in."
One who is being shunned must eat at a separate table from the rest, is denied the right hand of fellowship, and the holy kiss. They are still welcomed at church. "It hurts us more than it hurts them," said Jantz. "We do not treat them as an enemy but as a brother."
Verle Buller, one of the two lifetime deacons of the congregation, experienced shunning himself as a young man. "I was excommunicated when I was 17," he said. "I just wanted to go up town and see what all that was about." He was received back into the fellowship six years later. "I just came to realize what was out there wasn't all that attractive," he said, "compared to what was in here."
Train up a child'
In order to help maintain separation from the world, the Egypt congregation operates its own school. The attractive brick building stands right beside the church. The classrooms for the 45 students are bright and cheery. The children complete their schooling at the end of the eighth grade.
"We're teaching the basics, trying to equip our children with certain tools - math and geography and writing and reading," said Buller. "But when you're through with school, you don't quit learning. We're trying to equip our children how to learn and how to work."
The school receives no outside funding. Church members underwrite the entire cost. Although the children play baseball and other sports at recess, there are no organized athletics nor other extracurricular activities.
All grades take the Macmillan-McGraw Hill Achievement Tests each year. "They show up well when compared with the state averages," said Todd Becker, seventh-eighth grade teacher and principal. Actually, most of the students score above the national average.
Occasionally young people feel a need later on, usually for employment reasons, to secure a graduate equivalency diploma. None of the young Mennonites has ever failed the exam.
Love one another'
Family life is the Mennonite way.
"We eat all of our meals together," Gloria Buller said of her family. "In the morning after Verle comes back from checking on the (fish) ponds, we all sit down and he reads Scripture and says prayer. Then we all have breakfast.
"We have lunch together and supper every day. Of course, today they (Verle and sons Kale and Darin) were harvesting corn, so I took sandwiches to them out in the field. And, every third Friday evening the boys eat supper with the youth at the church."
The youth (all of whom have finished their education are full-time employed, usually sons working for their fathers or other members of the congregation and girls working in the house with their mothers) gather regularly for special activities. "We play volleyball," said Kale Buller, 20, "and help with older people's yards. We also do a lot of singing."
Love and marriage
Mennonite young people do not practice "courtship." There is no dating. A young woman is never alone with a young man until she is married. "The first time we held hands was when we said our vows," said Angie Buller, a recent bride.
The teen-age years are seen as a time of preparing for marriage. Young men learn to earn a living, typically in farming or building trades, and young women learn to cook, sew and keep an attractive, orderly household.
Usually, at about 19 to 21 for men and 18 or older for women, Mennonites marry. How is this managed without courtship? At some point, a young man feels an impression that a certain young woman is the one he ought to marry. He informs his parents, and then either he or his father will talk with Jantz, the minister. Jantz, in turn, will talk to the girl's parents, who will talk to her. If she agrees, the couple is engaged and plans are made for the wedding.
How does a young man know which one? "You just know," said John Buller. Buller, 23, and his wife Angie, 18, married three months ago. More than 500 people attended the wedding, many guests traveling from distant states.
"Our brides don't wear a fancy dress," said Gloria Buller, John's mother, "but it's of a more expensive material. A lot of times it's blue or mint green."
"My dress had long sleeves and more buttons than a regular dress," said Angie Buller, Gloria's new daughter-in-law, with a shy smile. "And there was a flower bouquet on the bride's table."
The groom wore a white shirt (without a tie) and a black suit.
Divorce among the Mennonites ranges from very rare to non-existent.
Relating to others
State Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville has dealt with several members of the Mennonite community through his funeral business. "They have such a wonderful view of life," he said. "And their word is their bond. All you need is a handshake. There's no sense signing anything."
Amy Jacobs and her husband, Donald, operate Jacobs' Garage in Okolona. "Donald Ray will drop whatever he's doing to run get a combine going if they call," she said. "They pay their bills, and you can depend on what they tell you."
In regard to others, Mennonites feel a strong calling to help, especially in times of disaster. When the ice storm stuck in 1994, the congregation's Christian Disaster Relief team sped to Tupelo in pickups with chain saws and went to work clearing fallen trees from residents' houses and yards.
Simplicity in worship
The decor of the church interior is marked with an elegant simplicity. The walls are off-white, the carpet a quiet green, and the pews upholstered with dull gold cushions. The men and boys all sit on the right side and the women and girls on the left. A reverent quiet prevails.
There are no musical instruments. The hymns they sing are old, and their voices blend beautifully and harmoniously, testifying to their great love of singing.
The sermon of the minister is not bombastic. As he preaches "close," warning his flock of the wiles of the devil, it is evident that he is preaching to himself as well. A sober humility is the tone of the message.
The minister is unpaid. "We feel that salvation is a free gift," said the minister, Ron Jantz, "and we want to give it free. Besides, money can influence a preacher."
They love having visitors attend their services. They mean what their sign on the highway says: "Everyone Welcome."
Give every man an answer'
During Sunday School last Sunday morning, the men's class didn't discuss any externals of Christian dress or practices. The lesson concerned Jesus' healing of the Gadarene demonic. "How do we cast the evil out of our own hearts?" someone asked.
Focus on the inner spirit is at the heart of Mennonite theology. "We believe in the basics of salvation," said Verle Buller, "the knowledge of being lost, the need to be saved, repentance of sin, and faith in Jesus."
"We believe you are saved by grace," said Jantz, "but we also believe faith without works is dead.
"The tenor of our church is that people would be saved, that we would reach out to them," said Buller. "That's the bottom line when I think about this church."