I think you went to college with my son. Aren’t you the girl that just got married to my good friend’s nephew? If I’m not mistaken you played volleyball with my cousin’s daughter. Isn’t your aunt the principal at the high school where my son is a teacher?
That’s a quick excerpt from a conversation I had last week when I went to a Winnipeg school to meet the university education students I am supervising there. As I chatted on the front steps with one of my students a female staff member came out the door. We introduced ourselves and within a minute found we had four or five connections with each other. My student teacher stood there with this quizzical look on her face. You could tell she was thinking, “You two women have never met each other before and in sixty seconds you’ve found all these connections?”
I tried to explain. “As soon as we introduced ourselves we knew from one another’s last names we were both Mennonite and so we started trying to find people we might both know. It’s called playing The Mennonite Game”
The Mennonite Game must seem strange to those who aren’t part of the Mennonite milieu. It is much like the popular six degrees of separation theory. This is the idea that everyone is on average six personal connections away from any other person on earth either by acquaintance or kinship or some common experience. In the past Mennonites have tended to live in fairly isolated communities and have often married within their own cultural circle. Many have studied at Mennonite private institutions of higher learning, gone to a Mennonite summer camp or done service with a Mennonite charitable organization. These commonalities mean people with Mennonite names usually have plenty of easy to find connections with one another.
Traveling and living abroad for six years my husband Dave and I discovered even when we met Mennonites in places as far flung as Australia and Hong Kong we were still able to play The Mennonite Game and make connections.
Bruno Dyck in his paper Exploring Congregational Clans: Playing the Mennonite Game in Winnipeg explains it well.
The goal of this game is to see how quickly two Mennonites, meeting each other for the first time can get to know each other’s family ancestry and establish how many of each other’s relatives they know. While some participants may play this game reluctantly due to peer pressure, others seem to play for the sheer fun and challenge of it. In any case participants likely believe that knowing something of another person’s familial ancestry helps to understand that person better.
A You Tube singer named BLT has made a recording of a song called The Mennonite Game. The chorus goes like this……..
Isn’t your brother Cornie related to my brother-in-law Abe
And doesn’t your sister Stella have a nephew by the name of Toews
Come on everybody play the Mennonite Game, you’ll like it you will see
Just open up your mind and if you try real hard, you’ll discover you’re related to me.
The Mennonite Game is becoming harder to play since the majority of North American Mennonites now live in a variety of neighborhoods in urban multi-cultural settings. Most Mennonites are attending public high schools and universities, and many Mennonite young adults are marrying non-Mennonites and gaining last names that aren’t instantly recognizable as Mennonite. The Mennonite church is expanding at the greatest rate in African countries so there are thousands of new Mennonites who don’t have traditional Mennonite names. It may be that in a generation or two it will be almost impossible to play The Mennonite Game. Depending on your point of view that might not be such a bad thing.
This post has been updated here.