I’ve been in Pennsylvania for a long time now. There was that month-and-a-half in Myerstown, a week in Philadelphia, a month in Lancaster City, and now another week in Philadelphia. This Friday I’ll bip back to Lancaster for the weekend before driving to Kansas.
There’s a large difference, I’ve noticed, between being in the middle of an Anabaptist culture and being on the edge of an Anabaptist culture.
I first noticed this in Florida. I didn’t think living a short distance from Pinecraft would be much different than living in Pinecraft, but it was. I always felt on the outskirts. I’d heard all these stories. “What happens in Pinecraft stays in Pinecraft!”
And then I’d go to a pie-baking contest or whatever, and look around trying to find someone doing something scandalous, but it was just a bunch of ordinary Anabaptists who liked pie.
Pennsylvania has been the same way. It turns out that living in Myerstown isn’t considered living in “Lancaster County,” and Lancaster City honestly isn’t really either. In much the same way that I never saw anything scandalous in Pinecraft, I never was able to see what was so terrible about Lancaster County.
I mean, I’ve heard so many people say they would never live in Lancaster County, and honestly I still don’t feel like I’ve exactly figured out why it has such a negative reputation.
However, I do have some ideas. These are the top three contenders.
Idea #1: The “Uncool Mennonite” Hypothesis
I feel like in a lot of Mennonite circles, embracing your heritage is considered “uncool.” It feels very on-trend right now (among Mennonites) to try to distance yourself from the “Mennonite” label, even if you are essentially still Mennonite.
Lancaster County, as the epicenter of Mennoniteness, is thus “uncool” simply because it’s so Mennonite.
(The irony of course is that in the secular world, being Mennonite is what makes you unique and interesting.)
Idea # 2: The “Unfriendly Mennonites” Hypothesis
This is a critique of Lancaster County that I’ve heard often. Personally, I never felt like anyone here snubbed me or was unfriendly to me. But I think I’ve figured out where this stereotype comes from.
To unpack this, though, I’m going to take a memory-lane trip back to Florida for a bit.
In Florida, I wrote that people were unfriendly to me. I received some backlash for this. First, because I insinuated that everyone was unfriendly, which wasn’t true. Some people were extremely kind.
But the second reason for the backlash was something I’ve heard over and over again: In big Mennonite communities, you don’t just say “hi” to every Mennonite you see in the grocery store. There are just way too many.
And I get that. I really do. I promise I didn’t come to Pennsylvania thinking that every Mennonite would say “hi” to me. But my expectations in Florida were a little different. I thought that since everyone was on vacation, everyone would be strangers to everyone, and thus eager to make friends with the other Mennonites who happened to be on the beach. Clearly, I was wrong.
So after that little lesson, I was fine with not being acknowledged by, say, the random Mennonites who passed in and out of Starbucks as I sat writing.
But I still firmly stand by my statement that the Florida Mennonites were not as friendly as they should have been, and I’m basing this on the two times that I actually went to Pinecraft for an event. First it was a pie baking contest, and second it was a concert in the park. At both events, I sat or stood completely alone, and no one around me talked to me. When I tried to talk to them, they looked extremely uncomfortable.
Two people were friendly to me: A woman who was friends with my mom that I sought out and talked to, and a woman who knew who I was from my mom’s writings and sought me to talk to me. I’m sure that Florida contains more gems like them.
But the truth still stands. If someone is next to you at an event, standing alone, you should be friendly to them. This has nothing to do with the “I literally have no time to talk to every Mennonite in the grocery store” excuse. This isn’t a grocery store, and this isn’t an endless list of people. This is one lonely person.
Now as I said before, I really was not on the cusp of Lancaster County culture, so I can neither accuse nor acquit them of this charge. Personally, I only ever encountered friendliness here. But after hearing that Lancaster County is accused of unfriendliness, and experiencing Florida, I can’t help but wonder if the same thing happens here.
Idea #3: The “Clique-ish Mennonites” Hypothesis
The most unique phenomenon I’ve discovered in Lancaster County is that most people have a “group” that has nothing to do with what church they go to. It’s more about who is exactly like you. Like, if you’re a single school teacher in your upper-20s, you hang out with other single school teachers in their upper-20s.
It’s really fascinating, and I feel like I just barely understand it. However, my hypothesis is that if you have a group disconnected from a particular church, someone is going to feel left out.
If a group is based on a church, that provides natural boundaries. A lady who attends Riverside won’t be offended if she doesn’t get invited to the Brownsville ladies retreat. But if the group is just a group of single Mennonites in their upper 20s, there are still so many single Mennonites in their upper 20s in Lancaster County that you can’t possibly invite them all.
So some people feel left out.
Conversely, some people might have a group but wish they were part of an even cooler group, and, out of envy, dub the cooler group “clique-ish.”
Or maybe the cooler group is “clique-ish.”
This is, of course, just a hypothesis, as I still don’t remotely understand the social hierarchy of Lancaster County. I know that some people are cooler than other people, but I’m just not on the social pulse at all, and have no clue which ones are cool and what makes them cool.
Part of me wishes I could spend another month here, in…I don’t know, like Ephrata or something. Some place that’s much more central to the culture.
But no. It’s time for me to move on, it really is.
But please, if you have opinions on Lancaster County, let me know what you think of my hypotheses.
Note: I now have a Patreon, where you can get bonus blog posts by subscribing for $1 or more a month. My latest post is about the concept of “toxic masculinity.” Later this week I’ll be posting about how I think Mennonites set women up to eventually reject the head covering.