A Peaceful Kingdom

Story Birney Imes | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

Each year in February the youth of the South Haven Mennonite congregation host a barbecue supper fundraiser. The event is held at their school, a neat arrangement of brick buildings near the intersection of Deerbrook and Prairie Point roads, about five miles east of Macon, Miss.
This is rural country, and driving through it on this cool, clear night one passes sleeping fields on which Mennonite farmers will soon begin preparing for crops of corn, soybeans, cotton and catfish.

The school’s community hall vibrates with activity. A flurry of young girls greets guests at the door with raffle tickets. Prizes include an evening of singing, lawn work or window washing. A guest buys four chances for a day of lawn work. Later, after she has heard the singing, she wishes she had chosen differently.

The large room is bright, immaculate and uncluttered. On one side of a kitchen, women arrange platters of food. Teenage boys, who stayed up all night cooking, are hand-pulling barbecue. Little girls with blonde braids play four-square. The women, in long, loose dresses of printed fabric, wear their hair in a modest bun. Men are bearded and most of them wear plaid shirts and blue jeans.

Guests are made to feel welcome right away. Men and women, alike, introduce themselves with a steady gaze and a firm handshake. No one gossips or speaks of Democrats and Republicans. Conversation centers around family, food, mutual friends. To the outsider there is a refreshing innocence about all of it, a timeless quality, an otherworldliness, even.

After a sumptuous meal, grandmothers, mothers, teenagers and husbands take to the stage for a spelling bee. No one seems inhibited or self-conscious about their spelling ability or lack of it, and the contest proceeds with good cheer. If one were given to generalization, he might say Mennonites are exceedingly good spellers, more impressive considering this group only attends school through the eighth grade.

After the spelling bee, voices rise strong and clear as the group begins “Bells of Old Haarlem,” the first of three traditional hymns, each sung in rounds. To the visitor the change is sudden; the gentleness gives way to something both powerful and joyous. Musical instruments are used neither in their church services or homes, though singing permeates Mennonite culture.

These Mennonites, members of the Church of God in Christ, are also known as the Holdemans. They are the largest group of the largest concentration of Mennonites in Mississippi and are among the most conservative of the four or five groups in this part of the state. Holdemans can be identified by the black cap-like head coverings the women wear. Other groups wear white caps, no caps or what looks like a bit of crocheted lace. The women begin wearing the head coverings after their baptism, usually sometime in their teens.

These people do not watch TV, listen to radio or pose for pictures. They use an Internet filter. They do not go to movies or date. They do not vote or fight in wars. They begin their day with prayer and Bible study. They are pacifists, who choose to expend their lives in the service of their fellow man.

Photo of Darlene and Pat Seiler by Whitten Sabbatini

Darlene and Pat Seiler

Mennonites are legendary for their response to natural disasters. When straight-line winds tore through Columbus in 2001, chain saw-wielding churchmen suddenly appeared and began cutting the countless downed trees. These angels with chain saws refused money for their efforts; they did their work and quietly moved on.

South Haven members Pat and Darlene Seiler were on the receiving end of these disaster relief efforts when a tornado early New Year’s Day 2011 peeled the roof off their home and destroyed farm buildings and equipment.

The Seilers have five sons. Pat and one of them farm 1,600 acres near their home east of Macon. He also serves on the national board overseeing his church’s international humanitarian projects in Central America, so it is with some irony the Seilers are the beneficiaries of their church’s largesse.

Pat recalled the tornado story in cinematic detail during a dinner with friends at their rebuilt house recently. He described the freight-train roar of the wind and the feel of glass underfoot as he and Darlene crept down the dark hall from their bedroom to the foot of the stairs. Looking up they saw not the familiar trappings of the second floor of their home, but lightning flashing in the night sky.

By daybreak the Seilers’ church brothers and sisters had removed all the furniture from the house. At 7 a.m. Mennonite farmers with augers and tractors were emptying the Seilers’ two damaged corn storage bins. A couple from their church stripped the beds and took all the wet washables to Columbus for an all-night session in a laundromat.

“We just walked around in a daze and just watched it all,” Darlene says of her neighbors’ relief efforts.

The 2:30 a.m. tornado destroyed two dairy barns on the farm of the Seilers’ non-Mennonite neighbor, Neal Smith. In an blink 170-180 milk cows were rendered homeless.

For Smith the memory is vivid. All seemed lost. And then a delegation of bearded men showed up.

“It was still dark,” Smith remembers. “They shook my hand and said, ‘We’re here to help you. What can we do?’”

By noon the men had made arrangements to move Smith’s cows to dairies across north Mississippi.

The Mennonites cleaned up the debris and in the following weeks rebuilt the two barns with materials Smith furnished.

Today Smith is back in business on Paulette Road with 220 cows.

“I would have never milked cows again, if it hadn’t been for them,” he said.

Photo of Karla and Fred Ensz by Whitten Sabbatini

Karla and Fred Ensz

Karla and Fred Ensz own and run the Busy Bee Nursery in Macon. “Nursery” only begins to describe the Busy Bee. The Enszes have a glorious selection of flowers, most of them propagated in their green houses, but they also offer a broad selection of fabric and sewing notions — most Mennonite women make their own clothes. Also available at the Busy Bee is a carefully curated selection of board games, a pastime popular with Mennonite families.

“It was love at first sight for both of us,” says Karla, explaining how she and Fred came to be a couple. Karla rejects the word “courtship,” something she says Mennonite couples don’t begin until after marriage.

Mennonites are avid travelers, traversing vast distances to attend weddings, funerals or simply to visit each other. During these outings, two young people meet and begin thinking about one another. A seed is planted. Such was the case with Karla, a native of Alberta, Canada, when she, her parents and three siblings, on an extended road trip, landed on Whispering Pines Road in Lowndes County, Miss., at the home of the Ensz family.

The visit lasted two days, but for 16-year-old Karla and 17-year-old Fred, it was the beginning of what would be a life together.
“I just kept it in here,” she said, pointing to her heart. “I think my parents knew something had happened.”

Time passed, four years to be exact. Five times during that period they saw each other; never were they alone together.
Finally Fred popped the question … to his minister. His minister phoned her minister, who phoned her parents, who asked their daughter.
Karla’s “yes” traveled back through the same pipeline that delivered the question.

The engagement lasted 10 weeks. During that time Fred and Karla met once, at a wedding in Kansas. Fred and his family traveled 2,400 miles to Alberta for the wedding. He and Karla now have five children, ages 22 to 10.

A remarkable story? Not in Karla Ensz’s mind. “This is hard for some people to understand, we grew up more than 2,000 miles apart, but we’re the same,” she says. “We all have the same faith, the same spirit.”

Photo of Michelle Classen by Whitten Sabbatini

Michelle Classen

It’s not always easy. At least it hasn’t been for Michelle Classen, who accepted the Mennonite faith when she was 21 and a single mother. Classen’s teenage years in Evansville, Ind., were tumultuous. Her parents divorced when she was 7. She had a child when she was 19. As a teen and then a young mother, she says she felt an emptiness she tried to stave off “with the things of this world: parties, alcohol and fashion.”
None of it, she says, “filled the void in my heart.”

Classen’s mother became a Mennonite and, as such, began entertaining a stream of church visitors, some from Noxubee County.

Classen noticed something she’d never seen before in her mother and these peculiar people who visited.

“I didn’t want to look like them, but there was something they had I wanted,” she recalls.

Eventually Brenda Johnson, one of the Noxubee visitors from the South Haven group, invited Classen to Mississippi.

“There was no way I could do it,” remembers Classen, who was living with her stepfather and existing paycheck-to-paycheck.
Johnson called back and said some of the congregation wanted to pay for her trip down.

Stocked with a supply of No-Doze and Mountain Dew and sporting miniskirt and big hair, Classen and her young child set out for Noxubee. There she discovered her new life.

“When it was time to leave, I cried and cried,” she said. “I didn’t want to go back to reality. It felt so wonderful.”

She returned to Indiana, and within months made arrangements to move.

In Noxubee Classen and her young child lived with an older couple for four years.

She and her husband, Russ, a FedEx driver, have two young children. Classen is a part-time Tupperware representative. Sometimes her non-Mennonite customers quiz her about her faith. They ask her about her church’s connection with the Amish, why she doesn’t watch TV.
The Amish confusion is one every Mennonite lives with. Though both descended from the Anabaptist movement of 16th century Europe, Amish and Mennonites are in no way connected.

About television Classen has a lot to say.

“I love watching TV, but TV is addictive,” she says. “It makes me disoriented; everything (on TV) is so wonderful and beautiful. It steals my time. It waters down moral living.”

A Mennonite now for almost two decades, Classen calls her conversion an “absolute miracle.” With her fellow Holdemans, she professes an immediate bond.

“I can go anywhere in the world, and they are my bother and sister,” she says.

An outsider couldn’t be faulted for thinking Mennonite culture bland and restrictive. What he may fail to realize is how this restraint produces a kind of freedom, a richness undiluted by the background noise of popular culture. By tuning out, these gentle people say they are better able to focus their energies on family, work and what they see as their spiritual mission.

“We are here to serve our fellow man,” says Karla Ensz. “Jesus is living in us and we want them to see Jesus in us.”