6 men in a boat! (New River)
Mennonites in Belize
Quite my favourite picture of my adventure so far - '6 men (Mennonites) in a boat' taken on our river cruise to Lamanai!
On one of my drives to Belize City from Orchid Bay, Steven, my host suggested we stop by to view his furniture in the making. The owner of the business was a carpenter by the name (would you believe) of Jeff Carpenter. A devote Mennonite with a large and delightful family.
Mennonites in Belize come from different ethnic backgrounds and have 4961 members as of 2014, according to my Wikipedia source. The total number including children and young unbaptized adults is around 12,000. There are some 10,000 German speaking Mennonites living in Belize. In addition to this, there are another 2,000 mostly Kriol and Mestizo Belizeans who have converted to Mennonitism. There are groups of Mennonites living in Belize who are quite traditional and conservative (e. g. in Shipyard and Upper and Lower Barton Creek), while others have modernized to various degrees (e. g. in Spanish Lookout and Blue Creek).
As Mennonites accept only adults as members, the total population of the Mennonite congregations in Belize is underestimated by membership counts. The largest denomination was Altkolonier Mennoniten Gemeinde with 2,052 members. Other denominations were Beachy Amish Mennonite Fellowship with 140 members, Caribbean Light and Truth with 137 members (mostly Kriol), Church of God in Christ with 42 members (mostly Kriol), Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference with 388 members, Iglesia Evangélica Menonita de Belice with 400 members (mostly Mestizos), Kleingemeinde zu Blue Creek with 60 members and Kleingemeinde zu Spanish Lookout with 710 members (All figures as of 2006).
History of Belizean Mennonites
The ancestors of the vast majority of Belizean Mennonites settled in the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries, coming from the Vistula delta in West Prussia. In the years after 1873 some 7,000 left the Russian Empire and settled in Manitoba, Canada. The more conservative ones left Canada between 1922 and 1925 and settled in Mexico. In the years after 1958 Mennonites from the Mexican settlements moved to what was then British Honduras. The so-called "Russian Mennonites" speak Plautdietsch in every day life among themselves. There are also some hundred Pennsylvania German speaking Old Order Mennonites who came from the USA and Canada in the late 1960s and settle now in Upper Barton Creek and daughter settlements.
Customs and Traditions
Mennonites on New River, Belize
Mennonites are easily identified by their clothing, except from the ones who have modernized to a large degree or have never been traditional, because they have converted in recent times. The women wear bonnets and long dresses while the men wear denim overalls and hats. The men may wear traditional suspenders and dark trousers. The women wear brightly colored dresses. In many of the Mennonite communities there is a softening of the old tradition. In Barton Creek, the women wear the bonnets and long dresses and use horse drawn buggies for transportation. The fields are all tilled by horse drawn implements.
When it comes to burial, the Mennonites conduct their service mainly in German but some parts in English so that visitors can take part. They use bibles like other Christians do. The caskets are made of plain lumber which is lined with white cloth inside and black cloth outside. There is no buying of expensive caskets when it comes to luxury. A portion of the shoulder remains open during the service. After the rites the whole congregation files orderly to the front of the church to pay their last respect. In Spanish Lookout, members and friends of the deceased addresses the congregation after the obituary has been read. Tombs are not a part of burying. A cross is used for marking the name and spot. Before returning the body to the earth, a few hymns are sung. Members of the community take turns shoveling the earth until the burial is completed. After that the community comes together and feasts on bread, sausages and coffee with the bereaved family.
Weddings usually start with courtship and last for six months to a year. The boy's parents ask the girl's father for permission. After that the parents get together and set wedding dates. The penultimate Saturday evening before the wedding is called "falafness" (Standard German: "Verlöbnis"). On this event, the friend of the bride and the groom shares the bible reading. Weddings are performed on Sundays. It usually consists of two ministers, one to explain the meaning of matrimony and the other to do the blessings. Gifts given are usually tools and household items.
Mennonites from the Noah Hoover group in Barton Creek and daughter settlements are very restrictive concerning the use of motors and electricity. Their clothing is very similar to Old Order Amish and men wear beards like the Amish. Therefore they are often perceived as Amish and called Amish, even though this is not the case. This has caused some confusion.
The Mennonites have made it a point to have their own school, church, and financial institution in their community.
The vast majority, more than 95%, of ethnic Mennonites in Belize speak Plautdietsch in every day life. A small minority of very conservative Mennonites that came from North America mostly in the second half of the 1960s speak Pennsylvania German instead. Both groups use Standard German for reading the Bible, in school and in Church. English and Spanish are used mainly by men for communication outside their communities. Almost all Mennonites from churches who do outreach in Belize, e. g. Beachy Amish Mennonites, speak mainly English. Mennonites from other ethnic backgrounds use their ethno-languages.
The total population of Mennonites, including unbaptized children, stood at 4,959 in 1987. The major colonies were: Shipyard (1,946), Spanish Lookout (1,125) and Little Belize (1,004). Presently in Belize there are different communities of Mennonites, namely Shipyard, Blue Creek, Little Belize, Spanish Lookout, Indian Creek, Upper and Lower Barton Creek, Springfield and Pine Hill. In 1999, the Mennonites (excluding converts from other groups) had a birth rate of 42.53 per 1000, which was well above the national average of 30.71 per 1000.
Smaller outreaches of Conservative Mennonites can be found in numerous communities throughout Belize.
Economic contributions to Belize
Mennonites in Belize contribute to the carpentry, engineering and agricultural industries of Belize. They produce milk, cheese, beans, corn, melons, honey, chicken, and eggs. They have turned sections of tropical jungle into highly productive farmland. They are also skilled in manufacturing household furniture as well as constructing houses.
“ ……… Amish agriculture is characterized by the use of animal power and natural forms of energy, and is almost completely independent from fossil fuels as a form of energy. Success is measured in a number of ways foremost amongst these are the capacity to feed themselves, contribute to national food security, create sustainable livelihoods based on farming for all community members, be independent from government financial support, social, and educational services, though they use health services. Last but not least, their capacity to purchase their own production resources. Amish agriculture is well planned, sustainable, and expanding.
(Even though the report speaks of "Amish", meant are Old Order Mennonites of the Noah Hoover group who live in settlements like Upper Barton Creek, Springfield and Pine Hill)
Mennonite Carpenter, Jeff Carpenter at his desk whilst his Mennonite staff produces exquisite furniture.