Mennonites of Belize

The Mennonites of Belize




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It may look like a scene from a bygone era, but these young people are part of a community in present-day Central America. They belong to a Christian group known as Mennonites. Ultra-conservative Protestants who eschew the modern world.

Here in the schoolhouse, girls sit on one side, boys on the other. They’re reciting passages from the Bible in Old High German. This morning, the youngest children are learning the alphabet.

School Teacher: “Look at the letter I’m pointing to.”

The older children are reading the New Testament, printed in Fraktur, a traditional German script. They are not taught history, geography or foreign languages. The Bible is their only textbook.

School Teacher: “I teach them to read, sing, pray, recite poetry, write, count. That’s it.”

The children begin their schooling at age 6 and finish when they’re 13. Long enough to learn the basics.

Abram, Grandfather: “But this is how we learn, from when I went to school and when my father and my grandfather went to school. That’s how we always have it.

No universities, not any high school, college or anything. Our studying is practicing by learning and seeing what our father is doing.”

After he finished school, Abram became a blacksmith, like his father. He has 20 children. Three of his 60 grandchildren are pupils in this class. Mennonites believe children are a blessing directly from God.

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Blue-eyed blondes abound. Originating from Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, the Mennonites fled Europe 250 years ago and some eventually settled in Central and South America.

Devout Anabaptists, they strictly adhere to the doctrine of Menno Simons, a 16th century Dutch priest. They lead lives full of rigour and discipline.

There are over two million Mennonites worldwide, but only a fraction are Old Order Mennonites. Virtually self-sufficient, they live in settlements with their own schools, churches and trades.

This isolation shields them from modern-day temptations.

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Now one colony of this secluded community has agreed to be filmed for this documentary. Life in this religious group revolves around the Bible. Everything is predetermined — right down to the color of their clothes.

Margaret, Mennonite Woman: “You just have to wear these kinds of dresses. It’s against our religion if you wear different clothes.”

The rules are very strict. Breaking them can have severe consequences.

Mennonite Man: “If people don’t obey the Church, we must shun them.”

And yet the temptations are many. A few months ago, Franz brought home a forbidden object: a smartphone.

Franz, Progressive Mennonite Man: “I know the reality. Now I do not feel guilty. I see there are so many good things in it!”

Behind the serene facade, some members are rebelling. They’re challenging the community’s most fundamental doctrines.

Wilhelm is one of the shunned.

Wilhelm, Liberal Mennonite Man: “In their mind, a cell phone is made by Satan. Can Satan do anything? Nothing!”

Abram, on the other hand, is averse to change. That’s why he and several other families plan to set up a new colony in an even more remote part of the world — the heart of the Amazon.

Abram, Conservative Mennonite Man: “You have to start anew! That’s starting from zero to grow.”

So, who are the Mennonites? And why do they flee modern civilization? Is it even possible to escape the contemporary world in this day and age?

We take a closer look at one of the 21st century’s most cloistered communities.

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Our journey begins in Central America, on the western edge of the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Situated between Mexico and Guatemala is the country of Belize.

The former British colony has an extremely diverse population. Among its over 400,000 inhabitants are Mestizos, Creoles and Maya.

Most of the Mennonites live further inland. Hidden away in the countryside is Little Belize, an Old Order colony established in the 1970s.

Time seems to have stood still here. Cars are forbidden. Horse-drawn buggies are used to get around.

Mennonites are not used to having contact with outsiders. They’re not hostile, but somewhat perturbed by our presence. They don’t know what to make of our cameras. Some even hide their faces, like this woman.

Journalist: “Is it possible to go there with you and to film there?”

Abram, Mennonite Man: “We don’t allow that because people get frightened. And young ladies, when they get pregnant, they get sick and so on. When they are filmed? Yes, when they are filmed, because they are frightened. They are not used to it. That’s the reason.”

Conservative Mennonites spurn modern technology. But a few are open-minded — like Franz, who’s agreed to talk to us.

Franz: “I am born here, and I am raised here the whole of my life. I have never been somewhere else. It’s my home. Home country. I like it out here, I like the culture and everything. It’s beautiful. I enjoy my life.”

Franz is 36 years old. He lives on this farm, which he built himself. He and his wife Elizabeth have 7 children. Fifteen-year-old twins Anna and Katarina are the eldest. Agatha is 13, and Elizabeth 10. Abraham and Peter are 6 and 8. And Sarah, the youngest, is 4 years old. They’re a typical Mennonite family. Most have 7-12 children.

They live a simple life. A few fields, a chicken coop and a couple of cows are enough to keep the family fed. The girls tend to the livestock.

Daughter: “Don’t pour it all on the same side. Put some here, and some there.”

Franz works from home. He’s a mechanic. In his workshop, he repairs machinery for customers from outside the community. He earns around $500 a month on average.

His daughter Katarina finished school 2 years ago. Since then, she’s been working with her father.

Franz: “We have only girls. That’s why she has to do jobs like this. If we had boys, big boys of that age, then she would have to work inside, and the boys would have to do this job. This is probably a job for boys!

The roles in a Mennonite household are clearly defined. The women take care of the home. They do the cooking, cleaning and laundry. They also sew clothes for the entire family. And that, too, is governed by strict rules.

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When Elizabeth needs more fabric, she goes shopping. There’s no sign or advertisement to indicate that it is a store and the choices here are limited.

Daughter: “This one is too dark for me.”
Elizabeth: “This one’s pretty! Nice for the younger girls.”

The brighter colors are reserved for the younger girls’ dresses; the darker fabrics are for the married women. The men are to wear straw hats, and checked or striped shirts.

Elizabeth: “Half a metre will do.”

Everything is precisely specified.

Shop Keeper: “Do you see any big difference between these two?”

Elizabeth only speaks Low German, a dialect used primarily by Mennonites. Her sister-in-law Margareth, however, also speaks English and she fills us in on some of the customs.

Margaret, Mennonite Woman: “Yes, we have learned it like that since my parents, my grandparents, my great grandparents. We just keep it like that. It’s been like that all the time.”

Journalist: “ You cannot wear what you want?”
Margaret: “No, you just have to wear these kinds of dresses. It’s against the religion if you wear all kinds of different clothes.”
Journalist: “You don’t have any rings or jewellery?”
Margaret: “No, nothing at all. No makeup, nothing.”
Journalist: “No makeup? Makeup is forbidden also?”
Margaret: “Yes, it is forbidden.”
Journalist: “Why?”
Margaret: “I don’t know. All Mennonites just have it like that.”
Journalist: “Do you like it like that or?”
Margaret: “We don’t know anything else! We have to!”

Material for two dresses and a shirt for what amounts to €8. There’s no excessive spending.

Mennonites lead a life so austere it’s almost monastic, void of distractions: no music, no sports, and no television. The closest they come to a moment of leisure is in church every Sunday.

We were asked not to film there.

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A community leader has agreed to meet and talk with us.

William is something like the colony’s mayor. He, too, has 7 children. In order to give us a better understanding of their beliefs, he invites us to his home for dinner.

The only source of light is a single oil lamp. The house has no electricity. The furnishings are sparse. There are no pictures on the walls. Only the bare minimum.

Let us pray.

The girls sit on both sides of the table, while William sits at the head, and his son at the other end.

The meal is eaten in silence.

It’s a practice Mennonites have followed for centuries. Tonight’s dinner consists of beans, a vegetable soup and sausages.

Life as it was lived in the 19th century.

William: “The Bible says that to be accepted into Heaven, we’re not allowed to have any modern things, like TVs, telephones, computers or cars. We are taught to renounce modernity.

When certain people do not want to obey the church, then we must shun them. They can no longer take part in community life. The law is explicit: either you abide by the rules, or you are banished from the community.

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Amish, Mennonite. In the video, the Mennonites live in Switzerland. True or false?

Orthodox Church. At school do Mennonite children learn about computers, art, music, social studies and PE (Physical Education)?

Roman Catholic Church. After finishing school, do they attend college and study engineering, medicine, law and architecture?

Baptist, Evangelical. Is the Mennonite faith new or old? Do they live mostly in big cities?

They work in IT, business, government and offices. Is this right or wrong? What are some common jobs among the Mennonites?

Does everyone think and feels the same way? Are all Mennonites completely conformists, traditional and conservative? Have there been any changes?

Anglican, Episcopalian, Presbyterian. All the Mennonites watch TV, surf the internet, read magazines, newspapers, listen to the radio, stereos and CDs, speak on telephones. Is this correct or incorrect?

Unitarian. Can Mennonites wear blue jeans, sweatshirts, skirts, cosmetics, shorts, suits, gold jewellery? What happens if they break the rules?
Pentecostal. Are there Amish, Mennonites, Old Believers, Lipovans in your community, region or country? Where do they live?

Seven Day Adventist. Describe their lifestyle. Describe their way of life.

Reformed Church.
My friends and I would like to live like the Mennonites. Yes or no?

Maronite. What might happen in the future?

Later Day Saints.
Have these groups “assimilated” into modern society? Should they assimilate?

Moravian Church. Could “normal, modern” people learn something from the Mennonites?

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