Community Mennonite Fellowship: Friendship is the key
August 23, 2011
Low German speaking, Old Colony Mennonites from Mexico are one of the more recent immigrant communities settling in Wellington County.
Their ancestors migrated to Canada from Eastern Europe and Southern Russia in the 1870’s and established themselves in Manitoba. In the 1920’s many Mennonite families left Canada for colonies in Mexico. Their descendants started returning to Canada during the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s, when economic conditions in Mexico worsened. Many had inherited Canadian citizenship from their parents and settled in different regions of Southern Ontario including Mapleton Township. Low-German speaking Mennonites often maintain close ties to Mexico, and frequently entire families will return for work or family obligations on a regular basis.
The Community Mennonite Fellowship Church (CCMFC) is located on the outskirts of Drayton in Mapleton Township. This organization has been a hub for programs supporting the Low-German Mennonite immigrant community for over a decade.
Programs started in 1997 when Public Health nurses Judy Burns and Lily Hiebert Rempel arranged space for a Women’s Group for Low-German speaking immigrants. When Dave Tiessen became Pastor of the congregation in 2006 the programs at CCMF rapidly increased in number.
Currently the church provides space, outreach, and planning support to several local service provider organizations. The Wellington Dufferin Guelph Public Health continues to offer a Women’s Group as part of a broader “Newcomer Program” and has started dental screening clinics at the church. The Wellington Literacy Centre ran a “Men’s Literacy Program” for immigrant men but the initiative was incorporated into the “Adult Education Outreach Program” organized by the Upper Grand District School Board. A final project is the “Wellington County Service Providers Resourcing Days”. These professional development mornings, jointly sponsored by Public Health, Family & Children’s Services, Centre Peel School and the church, focus on educating service providers about the Low German Mennonite community. At the 2010 spring meeting there were over 70 representatives from different organizations in attendance.
Offering immigration-related programs in rural Wellington County is not without challenges. Pastor Tiessen identifies two main concerns. The first is logistical. As the CCMFC becomes involved in an increasing number of initiatives there is the need for an umbrella planning group. This would increase collaboration and ensure programs can continue or expand without overlap or conflict. The second challenge is fostering a better understanding of the Low German immigrants in the community. According to Pastor Tiessen “…all they (the Canadian born population) see is difference, and they see people who want to be separate. And what they don’t see is people who are new to Canada and don’t know how to be anything but separate”. One of his goals is to encourage a more welcoming environment for immigrants among his congregation and the broader population.
To create a “caring and equitable community where everyone thrives”, Pastor Tiessen feels we must recognize the complexity of immigrant experiences. Many Mennonites from Mexico have Canadian Citizenship and are not eligible for settlement programs offered by Citizenship and Immigration Canada despite being newcomers to the county. This is problematic because these immigrants could be a huge asset to their local communities. As Pastor Tiessen puts it, “They are an incredibly ingenious people who given the right circumstances thrive and help their communities to thrive”. Low German Mennonites have a culture of entrepreneurship, many hope to own a business or farm in Canada. They have a communal way of life and tend to share resources. They settle in rural areas and have the skills and knowledge to earn a living outside of the city. In a time of rural depopulation the group has filled employment gaps in farms and small rural industries.
The programs at the CCFMC shows how organizations have come together to support a newcomer community in Wellington County. The CCFMC and their partner organizations provide the support needed to improve the social, cultural and economic integration of the Low German Mennonite immigrants in their new homes in Mapleton Township.