By D. Christian Nix
As I closed the laptop on the conference room table, I suddenly became aware of my surroundings. Mazes of machinery and the ambient scream of industry were commonplace, but this table was all wrong.
It was a long, country-style family dining table, but the paint job was too slick – no brush strokes. No one was around, so I took a look underneath…I hit my head when I came back up, exclaiming to myself, "IKEA?" Then I saw the Keurig – it had made my third cup of coffee only a few minutes before.
I quickly developed my first hypothesis about the Mennonites I was examining that day – scrawling on the back of my work notes, I wrote, "Mennonites were once Amish, but their inability to make handcrafted furniture drove them to evolve, adapt technology, and move to more forward thinking environs…like Middle Georgia." Self-amusement is vital for those who travel to these parts routinely….there is so little to laugh about here.
It was the most interesting day I'd had in some time. One of the great perks of my job is getting a behind the scenes look at all manner of industries. I get to see 'how the sausage is made' (well, I haven't actually seen sausage made, but I have seen how hot dogs and chicken nuggets come to be…it's not pretty).
After a while, though, it all starts to become a bit rote. Yet, my visit to a new agribusiness near Montezuma was eye-opening. The business concept was progressive, green and, frankly, stupid simple (the best ideas often are). But, I was most impressed by the Mennonite men and women who operate the company and live in the community.
Based on the owner, let's call him Jakob, they are a smart, well-spoken and humble people. Ingenious enough to create a capital machine, but empathetic enough to use their gains to support their community. It was a stark contrast to the innumerable small town businesses I have visited – where the owner drives a new Benz and the employees, earning non-living wages, just hope they can afford the gas to get to work.
Here I saw a team of equals who treated each other with respect and spoke with an uncommon kindness. This was clearly a community ethos as well.
While "enjoying" a plate of sauerkraut and sausage at Yoder's Dietsch Haus (when in Rome, right?) I was taken aback by the cordiality of the locals. Well beyond pleasantries, they were all amazingly aware of each other's lives – sharing good news and offering words of support. The service was good too – my glass of tea 'runneth over.'
The day before I arrived, a community disaster had occurred. A local farmer's corn silo had collapsed. Luckily no one was hurt, but the farmer's livelihood was at stake. On the way back to the facility, we drove by to take a look. At least a dozen local men with their loaders and tractors were there diligently cleaning up the mess, salvaging the corn, and restoring their neighbor, even while their own farms and businesses demanded their attention.
I imagine they all knew something we jaded, metro, post-Christian modern intellectuals have forgotten (or never knew)…they KNEW their neighbor would do the same for them.
Back at the plant I engaged Jakob in conversation. I complimented him on his business and suggested it would be very profitable. A conflicted look crossed his face – the look of one who is simultaneously both happy and wary. His response was equally conflicted – "I guess that's what we're supposed to do."
There are no self-made people…I think Jakob knew this. He knew he was the product of a family, a community and a vital part of its fabric. This business wasn't his pathway to riches; it was a source of community empowerment. The entire business was locally focused – its success and sustainability would mean the same for local farmers and families.
I don't want to over idealize the Mennonite community. Their social construct is limited – women have strained liberties, formal education is not valued, and their tight-knit community has the potential to create an insider/outsider paradigm. Their theology ranges from uber-conservative to less-uber-conservative. But, there is much we can learn from them – they take Jesus' 'neighbor love' thing seriously, they respect creation in sincere and redemptive ways, and they are peaceable, friendly and honest.
In the poorest county in Georgia, they are rich in many ways.
-Damon Christian Nix is a graduate of Georgia Tech and Mercer's McAfee School of Theology, both in Atlanta.