Seriously Old School
Imagine large families where everyone works hard, contributes
and there are no surly teenagers. Every meal is made from scratch, the milk,
cream and butter are fresh and all the vegetables are grown by you or your
neighbors. Those vegetables are canned at harvest time (in mason jars), stored
in the basement and brought up to the kitchen (complete with a wood burning
stove) as needed. Sometimes a couple of families get together and slaughter a
cow, divide it up and they “can” that too. Meals are events where everyone eats
together, talks about their day and shares stories and laughter. The family
cart (buggy) is drawn by the horses that also pull the plow and any other heavy
thing that needs pulling like the trees used to make the lumber for your house.
If a neighbor is in need the people come together and meet the need, maybe help
build a house or assist with the crops. Most births happen at home with the
help of a midwife from the community. Of course there is no television or video
games and the home is well lit by bright kerosene lanterns in the brief period
between darkness and bed time. There is no alcoholism, drug addiction or divorce
and most everyone is prosperous. Where and when is this place? Is Andy Griffith the sheriff?
I live next to a community of Mennonites in Upper Barton Creek here in Belize and what I’ve described is an accurate picture of their life. We have a close relationship with the two families that live nearest to us and we know many other families in their community of about 250. I have spent a considerable amount of time with them in many different circumstances and they are intelligent, open, friendly and quick to laugh. They have helped me get my truck unstuck (more than once), build a cabana, tend to our horses, build 2 outhouses, haul supplies, clear trees after a storm, work in our orchard and more. During the harvest they sell us their excellent produce at wholesale prices and through the years we have bought many things from them including chickens, eggs, cows, whole milk, cream, butter, pies, cakes, muffins, chocolate, honey, fruit, granola, bread, lumber, kerosene, lanterns, umbrellas, knives and more. Like any good neighbor they are always
there if we need to borrow an item or two and like good neighbors they never
ask us to borrow anything (though I have rushed a few to the hospital).
There are several sects of Mennonites here in Belize, they are all Christian and believe the Bible is the word of God. Some are far more conservative than others and their beliefs about the use of technology vary widely. For example there is another community nearby that drive vehicles, use giant John Deer combines and quite a few of them have motorcycles. After seeing a group of motorcycle riding Mennonites my daughter remarked that she didn’t know Mennonites were allowed to be cool. I think they are not allowed to strive for cool, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be cool. What all the sects have in common is that they work hard, do what they do very well and it is generally accepted that when doing business with them you’ll get a superior product at a fair price.
The history of the Mennonites dates back to the time of the church reformation when they split with other reformists primarily on the issue of pacifism. Despite the violent persecution those Christians were subjected to they believed that the scriptures taught they were not to resist or retaliate. This is another character they all share today, they do not resist or retaliate. They will not fight or go to court. Because of this belief they are often
preyed upon & bullied by the scourge of society, it happens right here in
our valley, often.
Unlike some of the Amish in the US there is no situation here where the youth go off into “the world” for a year for a taste of wild living. Young Mennonite people here socialize some evenings at “Youth Sings” at their church. They choose for themselves who they will marry and only do so when they are well established with a home and a working farm and everything it takes to equip both. There is no set age for them to wed and most of them wait longer than I did. If a young man is interested in a young lady he will inform his
parents, they will inform her parents who will inform her. She will relay her interest, or lack of, back through the same process. The courting process is then slow and supervised and weddings are a large affair attended by everyone in the community.
The boys and young men sometimes show up at our place during flooding and ride the swollen and violent creek on inner tubes. I once jumped into a large and dangerous whirlpool created by our flooding creek to help my neighbor wrangle a couple of giant wayward logs. He had previously cut them upstream and had been waiting for a flood to float them down to their hydro powered sawmill. The flood came and the logs were swept down but were trapped in the whirlpool with other debris carried along by the now giant creek. Swirling around in the churning water alongside thousands of pounds of debris it took us the better part of an hour to get ropes on these giants and drag them over to
more reasonable water. We lashed these two 12 foot long monsters together and were about to send them on their way downstream when my wife said, “You guys should ride them down.” It seemed entirely unreasonable given the violent state of the flooded creek but since I am a former Hooyah Navy Deep Sea Diver and he was a strapping 22 year old farm boy (who I once saw kill a large steer with a single blow of a sledgehammer) we grabbed a couple of canoe paddles and rode that contraption until we were thrown from it. After delivering the Huck Finn raft on steroids to the mill we went further upstream to retrieve other logs he had dropped.
Recently I spent 4 or 5 hours in the jungle, at night, with some Mennonite men trying to locate lost hikers. Two young ladies had gone hiking and lost their way, as darkness was setting in I approached my neighbors and asked for three of the younger men to help me try to find them. Some of the young men were at a meeting and a few others were off hunting so we put together a more senior delegation of mostly graying men. About 8 of us set off and were soon joined by 5 of the others who had been hunting and received word
of the search. We split up into two groups, penetrated into the dark jungle and
eventually found the girls about a hundred yards off the trail. They were, of course, relieved to see us and quite surprised to see a dozen Mennonite men in the jungle searching for them. Not only were my neighbors ready and willing to help, but they were able as well. They were all very competent in the jungle.
Last year I asked my neighbor if he would be willing to come and speak to a group of university students we brought in to do some community service work. He is a leader in the community and brought another leader with him. They spoke of their history,
where they were from, how they came to Belize and why they live the way they do. Why they live they way they do, this is not a question I had ever asked before and I was interested to hear him explain it.
These gentlemen told us that they are not caught up with the concerns of the rest of the world. Their lives are focused on what they believe to be important, a relationship with God, raising their families and living in peace. They do not necessarily view technology as evil, it is more of a distraction that takes the focus away from what is important. While a large farm tractor, for example, might enable them to farm more land they are not
interested in the additional pressure of purchasing and maintaining such a device. How much more would a family have to produce to have things which would enable them to produce more? They have what they need. Working the land the way they do is hard work but it is simple and pure. It provides for them nicely and they do it as a family. Parents work side by side with their children in the fields and at home. They raise their children and do not turn them over to others to be raised. There is no pursuit of things. The lifestyle itself is the reward. Working hard, loving your family and worshiping God with your life.
It was a powerful message delivered by impressive men who made sense. Many of the students were visibly touched and some told me afterwards how it had provoked them to
consider their own lives. In a materialistic world of broken homes and an unwinnable rat race the ideals these men discussed seemed reasonable to young university students, as they did to me.
I meet a lot of environmentally conscious young people here at Barton Creek Outpost. People wanting to live “green” and “sustainably” but the 500 or so Mennonites here in my area are the real deal. They are truly old school and it is not a passing fad. I suspect all of them put together generate the carbon footprint of an 8 year old boy in the suburbs of North America. I admire many things about the people in this community and the fact that they are committed to a lifestyle that takes little and gives much is something we can all learn from. I don’t know that I could live that life but I have great respect for those that do and I see things in the way they live their lives that make me want to be a better man.