Last Friday I saw the play Yellow Bellies put on by the Theatre of the Beat drama troupe. It told the story of Mennonite conscientious objectors during World War II. One scene made a personal connection for me. Rudy the young man in the play has received a notice telling him he must appear before a judge to defend his request for conscientious objector status so he can do alternative service rather than join the military.
Rudy appears before the judge.
There is a scene in the play where he appears before a judge who has a reputation for being pretty hard on conscientious objectors and he asks Rudy some tough questions.
Dad as a young man
This reminded me of a story my father-in-law Cornelius Driedger told me. He received a similar letter in the summer of 1942 just after he had announced his engagement to my mother-in-law Anne. Dad took his letter to his uncle and the pastor of his church N.N. Driedger who said he would help Dad fill out his application for conscientious objector status and he would go to court with him. Since Dad was a baptized member of the Mennonite Church he didn’t think he should face too much opposition.
Dad’s family in 1924 when the immigrated.
Dad had come to Canada from Ukraine with his family in 1924 and while an earlier migration of Mennonites in the 1800s had been promised automatic exemption from military service the later group of which Dad was a part had to have their cases heard before a judge. Dad’s court case went well and he received conscientious objector status .
Mom and Dad on their wedding day
Mom and Dad had only been married for four months when Dad received word he would have to report to Montreal River where conscientious objectors would be put to work for the duration of the war by the Department of Highways helping to finish the construction of a link of the Trans Canada route.
Dad in the centre cutting lumber.
Dad’s job was cutting lumber to clear bushland.
The men in the conscientious objectors camp with Dad in Montreal River
His time in the conscientious objectors’ camp was an experience Dad never forgot. You can read more about it in the link below.
The Theatre of the Beat’s production of Yellow Bellies provided a good reminder of an important part of Canadian Mennonite history. It also brought back personal memories for people in the audience whose family members had played a role in that history.
Autograph Book From A Conscientious Objector’s Camp
Filed under Family, History
Sam and Alex are on a hunger strike at their church. Both teenage girls have attended Dove Mennonite since they were born. One Sunday they remain after the service and ‘occupy’ the sanctuary vowing not to leave or eat again till the congregation’s directors allow members of the LGBTQ community to fully participate in congregational life. That’s the starting point of This Will Lead to Dancing, a drama by the Theatre of the Beat Company. It was presented at Bethel Mennonite Church in Winnipeg for three nights last week. The play shows the audience how families and individuals have been impacted by the church’s refusal to accept members of the LGBTQ community. We hear from Henry, the church janitor, who tells a moving story about his son who died from AIDS. Henry rejected his son when he announced his homosexuality and now is remorseful about that decision. At the time, several decades before, he felt he needed to choose between his own faith and accepting his son.
We discover Sam, one of the play’s main characters is gay. She finally admits this to her church pastor. The pastor’s whole attitude changes once the issue takes on a personal face. This isn’t some stranger asking to be fully welcomed, but an active member of the congregation who has been part of the church family since childhood. The pastor is hopeful the church board will make a decision to be inclusive but they do not. We meet Sam’s parents. Although they love and support their daughter they wish she’d kept her sexuality a secret and not ‘come out’ to the church community. They are wise enough to realize the heartache that will result for their daughter. They know how important her faith is to her, and they realize the church will no longer be able to embrace her fully now that she has shared her secret. A local television station interviews Sam and Alex. Soon the story about their hunger strike goes viral, drawing national attention. The evening I saw the play I came home to a breaking story in the American media about the plans of the Lancaster Conference to withdraw its 175 churches from Mennonite Church USA over the homosexuality question. In March of 2015 the national magazine The Atlantic Monthly ran a cover story called Gay and Mennonite describing how the issue of accepting LGBTQ people is dividing and damaging the Mennonite church.
The play addresses this too, suggesting that divisiveness over the issue may eventually destroy the Mennonite church but from its ashes will emerge a new church whose closed door will transform into a table around which everyone can share communion and serve God together. Perhaps the most humorous and tender moments of the play emerge when Sam, weak from hunger, has a dream where Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonite Church visits her. Menno is bewildered about the homosexuality question. The word homosexuality isn’t even in the Bible. We find out that’s because the word was first used in a 1946 English translation of scripture. Menno also wonders why a church governing body is dictating what people must believe. That isn’t the Anabaptist way.
The play ends with Menno and Sam dancing together. They stumble and trip and hurt each other at first, but eventually they learn how to move together in harmony as they dance and sing the hymn We are People of God’s Peace. It is a beautiful metaphor for the hope that someday people will be able to be honest and open about both their sexuality and their spirituality without having to leave the Mennonite Church.
Letter From the Mother of A Gay Son
Some Mennonites But Not All of Them