Thursday: Thirteen of us in a fifteen-passenger rental van left for the Menno colonies at Cuauhtemoc. Three hours later we were through El Paso, through Ciudad Juarez and were getting our permission slips to pass beyond the 30 km. zone in which you are allowed to visit without any more than a cursory border check. We all got our personal slips, but when it came to the van, a woman who obviously had a bone to pick with either Mennonites, Americans, Canadians or all three decided to get picky. Rudy, aka Rudolph, Friesen, had rented the van using his shortened name; his passport showed the latter name, and there was nothing we could do to convince her that Rudy and Rudolph were the same person. She turned us back and, to shorten a long story, we arrived back in Carlsbad late at night and not-a-little frustrated and tired.
Next morning, we decided that true character wouldn't allow us to be beaten by a bureaucrat; we re-rented the van (this time I did it; "George Epp" has few obvious variations) and we headed out again. This time, we hit snow and slush in the Guadalupe Mountains and I drove nervously through that stretch. Then we were slowed by fog between Juarez and Chihuahua, but we arrived at Colony Manitoba and the Mennonite "La Heurta Inn" at 11:15 p.m. The same woman at the border had to approve our passage and this time she came up with a cock and bull story about our van being too heavy, but finally she said that since she hadn't seen the registration the other day, she would let us through, but that we were never to try to cross into Mexico with a vehicle over 7,000 lbs. again.
Cuauhtemoc was an eye-opener for me. North of the city of 125,000 runs a four lane highway called "suicide way", i.e. the most dangerous bit of road in Mexico. This takes you into Mennonite territory. The highway is lined with businesses, factories and large, expensive houses, some of which are purported to be the fruits of a drug trade which is still active in the colonies. Off to either side, roads lead to villages off the beaten track; they bear official numbers like "Campo 36" and have German names, like "Blumenau." Blumenau has about 20 homes and is the site of the only "General Conference" church in the colonies. Its members are mostly people who have left the Old Colony, Swift Current (Kleingemneinde) or the Rhinelander groups.
John and Ruth Janzen, MCC workers at Cuauhtemoc, took us on an educational tour of the Manitoba Colony on Saturday. We visited a cheeze factory and discovered that Mennonite cheeze is a very popular commodity in Mexico. We toured a Mennonite apple processing plant where about 30 Spanish workers sort, box, store and ship tons of Golden Delicious apples every day. We spent time in a rehabilitation centre for alcohol and drug abuse and sat in a classroom where a senior student from the Steinreich Bibelschule (Km. 36) was helping 33 men through an assignment from the book of John. We sang along with these men from Evangelische Lieder. They sang lustily, to our surprise, considering how they got there. The centre is virtually a jail. Doors are kept locked and guarded and the exercise/crafts/recreation area has a 10 foot concrete wall around it. The last man to arrive here was picked up in a bar after a father alerted the Mennonite police, was brought in in handcuffs and is now serving a mandatory three-month "sentence" in rehabilitation. The "re-evangelization" of these men appears to be the main therapy; the rate of recidivism - John said - is far higher than they had hoped at over 50%.
We had a great supper at a home for the aged/ home for the mentally challenged facility in the heart of the Manitoba colony. Here we were able to talk to residents at leisure and discovered that the facilities echoed the Mennonite Nursing Home complex in Rosthern up to the Pineview level. After the elderly reach a point where the untrained staff cannot care for them well, they are sent home or to hospital. A nursing home like those in Canada does not exist in the colonies.
On Sunday morning, we dicided to attend the earliest church service available, and ended up in an Old Colony church at Km. 11. Those of you who have been in Canadian or US Old Colony churches will already know that they are spartan, and strict rules apply: 1) The men enter one door and women another; the minister has his own entrance, 2) women sit on the left and men on the right, 3) there are no bulletins; the program consists of a 5-10 minute hymn led by 6 Vorsaenger who sit behind a low barrier at the front, the minister (Ohm) opens his notebook at a large white pulpit in the middle of the side wall and reads from it for an hour or more, in this case stopping to cry and blow his nose periodically, several times - on some cue I didn't pick up - everyone whirls around and kneels, their heads on the benches, for about 30 seconds, the minister finally sits down, a "hymn" is chanted, people walk out, go straight to their cars without speaking and leave.
Our presence was not acknowledged and no one said a word to any of us. We hear from John and Ruth that that's normal.
The gist of the message - delivered in alternate High and Low German - was apparently that members were in danger of hell fire if God was as sensitive as they were to the liberties in dress and behaviour in the congregation. I found it hard to follow him since he spoke in a low voice without amplification of any kind and I found his pronunciation somewhat strange. Not surprisingly, the concern generally is with remaining pure in a wicked world, and the constant reminder that all around us, we and others are making compromises with the world - sinning grievously, in other words - and there will be a reckoning coming. Forgiveness doesn't appear to be a theme here.
It's quite a picture to see, though. Sitting in the back of the church with about 150 men and boys (children aren't allowed in church until they finish school at age 13 or so), their off-white Sunday stetsons hanging from nails above them, the hard wooden seats and low backs of the pews biting into your thighs and back as the minister drones on and on. Across the aisle, the women all in black with their Krushelmetze look like a convention of subservient reverend mothers in full habit.
It's apparently not correct behaviour for a worshipper to speak anywhere on the church yard except in his car. I found this disconcerting, but in keeping with the fact that the entire worship appears to have been deliberately and completely depersonalized. I found myself wondering what would have happened if the minister had accidentally looked up and made eye contact with someone in the congregation. It was one of the saddest, least worshipful events I have ever attended. The leaving of the congregation (all except a few who stayed for a wedding to follow; the couple had sat through all this in chairs in front of the pulpit) was compared by someone in the group to having a giant vacuum cleaner sucking everyone out the doors. I could understand the need to escape. But, as I said to someone, these worshippers are in this church one hour a week; there may have been a great deal significant that goes on in their daily lives or even in this service that we have no hope of understanding in one short visit.
We left for Carlsbad right after the service, taking a more easterly route that took us through the area of Oasis, Mexico, where a number of new colonies are being established in what looks like a barren desert. We hadn't the time to stop there, unfortunately.