Meet Oregon’s Original Radicals

Published Friday, Oct. 4, 2007 in The Register-Guard.

Eugene fancies itself a hotbed of radical nonconformists. Wander the Whiteaker neighborhood any summer evening, and you can believe that a First Friday Artwalk has exploded beyond its downtown galleries and come to life all around you. The University of Oregon’s student-run campus radio station features a weekly “how-to” program for aspiring anarchists. Local access cable television shows regularly tout the wonders of hemp for rope and oil and maybe also other, unspoken uses.

So it may surprise you to learn that when a certain group of Oregonian radicals convenes this weekend, it won’t be in Eugene, but 50 miles north at the fairgrounds in Albany. The 24th Annual Oregon Mennonite Festival for World Relief resembles what you might find if the Oregon Country Fair merged with the Lane County Fair. There’s plenty of counterculture to be found, but the aroma is more pie than patchouli.

It’s hard to say whether Mennonites have always been attracted to frontiers, or whether their pacifist beliefs allowed them to be pushed. In either case, Oregon fit that bill in the mid-1800’s. Kansas and Indiana were tamed by then, and it was time to move on. Mennonites came to North Dakota and Oregon.

From the 16th century into the 20th, Mennonites used industry, community and charity to convert unforgiving wilderness into thriving assets. Mennonites have been part of the peace movement, getting back to the land, and questioning authority — since 1525. They’ve been doing all these things among us in Oregon for over a century.

Some Mennonites have moved away from their rural roots, leaving behind the head coverings in church, the wariness about technology, and the distinctive clothing. But they have retained their centuries-old commitments to peacemaking, human rights, and social justice.

Register-Guard readers have become intimately acquainted with the life and times of one Mennonite family, thanks to the monthly “Letter from Harrisburg” by Dorcas Smucker. Others may recall Register-Guard columnist Bob Welch profiling the local effort to assemble school kits for Darfur. That effort resulted in nearly 5,000 school kits for youngsters in the war-torn desert region. Unfortunately, violent confusion and political uncertainty kept those kits in a Pennsylvania warehouse all summer. They are just this month being distributed by Mennonite Central Committee workers.

Readers interested in meeting Mennonites on their own turf (quite literally) are welcome this Saturday from 7:30 until 3:30 for the family-friendly event at the Linn County Fair & Expo Center, off I-5 exit 234 in Albany. Admission is free. Hospitality is abundant.

Start with the food. Anyone who has discovered The Country Bakery on Peoria Road north of Harrisburg can attest that Mennonites do not believe in denying every worldly pleasure. You have to get there early for the best selection every Friday and Saturday. When they run out of food, they close for the day.

This Saturday’s expo will be like that, but a hundredfold. True to their industrious roots, the early still are rewarded — choosing from the widest selection of homemade pies and other baked goods. The morning begins with a traditional pancake-and-sausage breakfast, but food is a strong theme throughout the day.

There are Mennonite and Amish quilts on display and for sale. Auction items this year include a hand-crafted dulcimer, vacation getaways and (for just a dash of irony) a riding lawnmower. All proceeds go to Mennonite Central Committee.

Children will be collecting pennies to support water projects around the world. The Mennonites’ nationwide goal for Penny Power this year is $615,000, showing that big change often starts with small change.

But don’t let the do-goodery distract you. What the Mennonites call their “Fall Festival” is at its core exactly that. The change being celebrated is the change in seasons, the end of the harvest, the surrounding bounty. The activists among us are hoping for change. But change is afoot already. Dusk comes before we’ve finished our work. The morning chill braces.

Change is indeed connected to hope, and it comes around each year. It’s good to be reminded of the seasons, by those who still depend on them.

If a trip to Albany doesn’t fit your schedule this Saturday, maybe a stroll through Eugene’s Farmers Market will.

In a world that changes as rapidly as ours, the true radicals are those who refuse.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is a member of Eugene Mennonite Church. Readers may review and comment on past and future columns at his blog, right here.