From Mennonite to Orthodox
Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green · November 8, 2007
Frederica is in the fourth floor apartment of a friend who recently came to Orthodoxy from the Mennonite church and participated in an excursion to the Middle East with a group intent on apologizing to Eastern faiths for the Crusades.
Frederica: I’m up in the third, or maybe it’s fourth floor apartment here in an old building, they’ve got some offices on the first floor and living space upstairs. I think this was probably built in the 1920s or 30s, what do you think?
Katherine: It was actually the old Linthicum family barn.
Frederica: This was the barn?
Katherine: Yeah. Yeah.
Frederica: Oh, for goodness sakes.
Katherine: This was the hayloft, I think, where we’re at right now.
Frederica: That’s nice. It’s a pretty early fall day, the windows are open this afternoon, and I can hear some traffic going by down in the street, and see the trees waving in the breeze. So it’s a pleasant afternoon. And I’m here with the lady who lives in this apartment, Katherine Mowers, who was chrismated and became a member of Holy Cross, I forget, when?
Katherine: Holy Saturday.
Frederica: Just this past Holy Saturday? Boy. Hard to believe. And one of the things that, I mean, every convert has their own interesting story, but what interested me about you particularly was that you previously had been in the Mennonite Church and in the Peace Tradition. And you were looking for a church, you were telling me, that was not American, that didn’t assume that Americanism is a necessary component of the faith, but that would root you in an international, global Christianity. I said that one of the things that I particularly prized was feeling like I was no longer bound only to American history and American Christianity. A moment I realized that was when we were told that we don’t have to keep the Nativity Fast on Thanksgiving, because that’s a local custom. Because Thanksgiving has loomed so large in my American life since childhood, and to think that in terms of Orthodoxy stretching for 2000 years and all around the world, that Thanksgiving would just be this little local thing that we do, that you can take a break from the fast for. So I found it very liberating; I guess some people might find it worrying to be that unanchored from American tradition and custom, but it was liberating for me. And I think for you it had to do with the Peace Tradition. Tell me a little bit about how you, being raised Baptist, then you became interested in the Peace Tradition.
Katherine: I became interested because I felt like there was such a spirit of domination, maybe not intentional, I don’t think intentional, that seemed to be part of the church, and then the real integration with America and America’s rightness and I just thought, ‘Jesus was not from America.’ And in fact everything started in the Middle East, and that kind of got things started in my thinking about this kind of, this domination way of thinking didn’t seem Biblical or Christlike. Although it is, in the Old Testament, and sometimes I’m still not good at really explaining, you know, why there were so many wars.
Frederica: Yes. The Old Testament’s pretty daunting. The thing that I’ve only really realized lately is that the Fathers in the Orthodox tradition read the Old Testament as being about Christ. And we read it like a history book; we think of it as an objective text that either is reliable or not reliable on certain points, or as a moral text. But for them it was like they went over the beach with a metal detector, you know? They went over the Old Testament looking for references to Jesus. And that was the pattern there that they were seeking. So I think they weren’t as troubled with having to explain or understand things that trouble people in the western Biblical study tradition. So, I know what you mean, those can be some difficult passages. And I’m sure you don’t mean that you dislike America, I mean, we’re all happy to be here, it’s a beautiful land, it’s a blessing to be here.
Katherine: Sure, Sure.
Frederica: But it was like it seemed out of balance, that you wanted a better, a global perspective that would be more accurate.
Katherine: And perspective of, I’m not sure if this is the proper term, because the English language is kind of hard, but universe, or God is the God of the whole, the cosmos of - The perspective isn’t this little bitty country in the 20th, 21st century, that’s only existed for 250 years, you know?
Frederica: Yeah. And which unfortunately has the power, I mean, maybe we have military power, but even more influential is the entertainment industry power, which is telling everybody in the world what to desire, and what to look like, and what to wear and what to buy, and in general fostering an emphasis on buying stuff rather than creating stuff or producing stuff. So there’s some complications there. In your experience as a Mennonite, I think my husband told me you had gone to, did you go to Syria, or you went through the Middle East on a peace-making project?
Katherine: That was actually before; actually when I met Mennonites was on that trip. I went to Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon and it was with western Protestants, apologizing to Eastern Christians, so that included Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews, for the Crusades. And it was people who would have been ancestors of those who lived in the Crusader lands. So that was on the anniversary of the very first Crusade.
Frederica: Oh really?
Katherine: Yeah. It was the 900th anniversary of the First Crusade, which was in 1096.
Frederica: How effective was that? Did people receive these apologies, or did they just think you were nuts, or, I don’t expect people would get angry, but it must have been such an odd experience for them.
Katherine: Well, the people in Turkey were very warm and receptive and they were just like, ‘Ohhh,’ and they seemed forgiving. When we got to Syria, we actually met with Orthodox Christians there and that’s where I was, my world was really turned upside down, because suddenly not only was I, my first time exposed to Orthodoxy, but it was also, there were very pointed message to us that said, ‘Why are you ignoring your brothers and sisters here in this country? Yes, it’s nice you’re apologizing, but the Crusades are still happening now.’ And there were several very powerful talks that impacted me. And one on one, just we did a lot of one on one talking with people.
Frederica: Was that really your first experience of Orthodoxy?
Katherine: Yes. Yeah. It was. And then in Lebanon, they were like, ‘That’s nice. And let me tell you! Your government is doing this and that and that!’ And it was very focused at the government level though, not at a -
Katherine: Yeah, yeah. So it wasn’t - And at the time it had only been two years after a pretty significant bombing of a UN hospital, where both Christians and Muslims were buried together because it was so bad. In fact, it was the first time, I think they said, in the history in Lebanon—it was in Cana where Jesus turned water into wine, that this happened. So there was still a lot of freshness from that and I think people were, that was present in their minds.
Frederica: Do you find that Orthodoxy is compatible with your interest in the Peace Tradition? Is this a place where that is welcomed and can expand?
Katherine: [Laughing] I haven’t figured that out yet. I haven’t figured that out yet. I think I’m in a place of wanting to know more about what our Fathers tell us and kind of go from there. I want to know what our Church Fathers say and try to go at it from that perspective rather than my tainted American perspective, I guess.
Frederica: Has Orthodoxy given you a lot of self-doubt that you didn’t have before, ability to question your own assumptions?
Katherine: Oh yes. Oh yes, definitely.
Frederica: What was the main reason? Is there any particular central reason that you decided to become Orthodox?
Katherine: Well, the real reason is, and it may sound very strong, but I felt that I would be on a path of destruction if I didn’t become Orthodox.
Katherine: Yes. I had looked into, still strongly as a protestant, but there were things that, this is the best way to say it, is that even within the Mennonite tradition, for me, that was like the last thing I was sort of hanging around in because I had tried being with different non-denominational churches, and had grown up Baptist of course, and in a lot of Bible churches. But, so anyway, so that’s kind of the reason.
Frederica: You found even a church like the Mennonite Church, that the way your path would go, that it would end up being destructive, and you were looking for something to pull you back, pull you back from the edge with the authority of an ancient community. We’re trying to do some sewing; I brought a blouse that I needed help with. Katherine is going to put some darts in it, and of course we put in a seam and we have to take the seam out again. But thank you so much for doing this work, and for talking with us today.