Human inheritance is both blessing and curse. And in religious inheritance this paradox is acute…. What curses do we need to shed, in the process of growing up? What can we hold to as blessing? –Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith
I am a former teacher; a student of religious history and thought; a descendant of Mennonites whose history stretches back 500 years to the Netherlands and the Protestant Reformation. This Mennonite heritage feels like a precious gift, one I treasure even though it has not been an unmixed blessing. It has required work, the hard work of sorting blessing from curse, spiritual and intellectual wrestling, wrestling that in mid-life led me to the formal study of theology.
In 1977, when my two daughters were both in college, I quit my job teaching high school English and drove down Highway 5 from Seattle to Berkeley, California to begin an MA program at the Graduate Theological Union. My time there was wonderful—a golden time that allowed me to question and reflect, sit quietly and let new meanings grow. I came out of that time with a new understanding of my religious heritage as well as the more worldly reward of two academic degrees: the MA in Philosophical Theology and a Ph.D. in Theology & the Arts.
Since then I have been doing what feels like post-doctoral work in preparation for writing the story of my family: reading Mennonite and other history; interviewing older members of my family; doing genealogical research at the Centers for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Hillsboro, Kansas; Fresno, California; and most recently, Abbotsford, British Columbia.
What you will find here in The Gift of Laughter is the story of the family known to me personally—my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, set into the context of the larger story to which theirs belongs, the story of the Mennonites who arrived in North America by way of what is now Ukraine, a land my ancestors knew as South Russia. My own story, the story about how I became a Mennonite, also belongs to the larger family story, but that is a separate, yet to be written book. It grapples with different issues than those my parents and grandparents wrestled with. I will settle into its telling after the current book is finished.