Modern motherhood has been surprisingly isolating for me. I deeply hold Mennonite values of social justice and pacifism, as well as feminism, and have yet to live in a community where that is the norm—pacifist parents being by far the hardest lot to find.
I grew up in the prairies of North Newton, Kansas and in the backyard of Bethel College. I leap forward to the present to share a testimony I presented in the summer of 2013 in my new hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota—a direct plea to state lawmakers to reshape public policy around gun use in the public arena. Usually I don’t stand at the state capitol and petition lawmakers—almost all of my social justice and community-building efforts have happened at neighborhood, school, community, extended family, church, corporation, or personal levels—but increasingly I do. Here now is my testimony as introduction to my story:
My name is Anna Dick Gambucci, and I attended most of the ten Minnesota House and Senate public safety committee hearings addressing gun policies this past February, 2013 [in the wake of a massive surge in our gun violence epidemic—the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shootings]. I initiated conversations with many influential people on both sides of the gun legislation debate, and organized a high profile St. Paul community dialogue on gun violence prevention. I’m not a fearful person, nor am I narrow-minded. After uncomfortably sitting in the minority for two days in the upstairs overflow room of the state capitol, witnessing a growing disregard for civility and respect for the democratic process, I started to feel deeply intimidated. Many angry citizens who’d come to protect their gun rights were also carrying loaded weapons [inside the Capitol], and were acting as if they were completely above the law.
… I had to be willing to be a testifier just so that I could be granted admission into the supervised hearing room, and in so doing, I set myself up to be targeted, since I was testifying in opposition to the position of the NRA, [and I’d already been on record in several local papers as calling for greater gun control]. Shortly after my testimony, someone in the room heckled me for leaving early—at 9 o’clock pm. Just after that, I saw another testifier be followed out and harassed—[someone who’s father and four of his father’s company employees had recently been murdered in a local workplace mass shooting]. That friend was pressured to go back in to hear about the value of assault weapons ‘so that he could really learn something.’ I found someone to escort me to my car that night as I did after every public safety hearing. All it would take is one loose cannon following me directly out of the Capitol to my car, armed.
In addition to intimidation and guns at the capitol influencing me in my role as a listener and a testifier, it also influenced my ability to bring my kids to be part of the hearing process and to have my family be heard—to stand in solidarity to say ‘Stop this madness. Stop this escalation of shootings and unreasonable gun access.’ But there was no way that those overflow rooms were safe enough to bring kids. Intimidation and guns in the Capitol played a central role in limiting participation for some—maybe for many—in this supposedly democratic debate.
The final effect of guns at the Capitol I’ll mention today is that I also reluctantly chose not to bring my 7 and 10 year olds to the Capitol Rotunda on President’s day for a rally for Freedom from Gun Violence, because I didn’t know what kind of intimidation to expect. The goal was for families and community to gather in solidarity and peace. Yet few children attended. I had already brought my kids to one risky community meeting. A parent should only be asked to risk so much. A citizen should only be asked to risk so much. Please stop this erosion of our democratic process. Please ban civilian guns inside our state Capitol and its meeting rooms. Thank you.
Breath. Just restating these words brings back the flood of anxiety and isolation, and the months of lost sleep. It brings back memories of my own role as victim that can unconsciously accompany me as a social activist, responding to my Mennonite, feminist conscience . . . addressing important moral issues in my community and society. I don’t want this to look awful. I want to make this look important—important enough for you all to join me, for you to lead or continue to lead your own justice crusades, large and small, or keep stepping on board with others—wherever you are, so that we can have more company, more support, more success, more sustainability, more synergy.
And I can’t quite figure out how to do this this in practical terms . . . how to earn my own decent living offering some of my most important skills, attributes and determination, and still have enough work-life balance to tend to the parenting, marital, community, and spiritual investments that makes life sustainable and good for me and for my family. I have been on a journey of sharing caregiving responsibilities and sharing the income earning responsibilities with my husband. But right now, as I come back from a number of years of unpaid family work and search for an income-earning career, I find this is a complex conundrum. I keep feeling pulled into volunteer activism because the need is so great and because I cannot find meaningful, sustainable employment.
Now that you have a snapshot of where I currently am, I’d like to consider why I came to this place. I’m going to address two primary questions:
Why did I become an activist and why would this be surprising? and
Why has Mennonite motherhood heightened my response to a U.S. culture of inequity and violence?
First, the activist question. I became an activist because I experienced some significant distress as a child, some general ongoing pieces of family insecurity, and just not quite enough emotional support. I became very sensitive to others’ hurts in a way that cannot be taught. So as a child and even now, stories of injustice people experience really get under my skin. I don’t want people to be scared or trampled, no matter what their gender, color, income or sexual orientation.
I became an activist because in those strange, sometimes dangerous, often uncomfortable, ongoing situations in my dad’s care—the wounded, troubled son of a harsh Mennonite pastor. I had to learn to speak Truth to power. I questioned authority. Out loud. And my words were taken seriously, so I kept using them.
I became an activist because I didn’t feel I had much to lose if people criticized or disagreed with me. I ultimately felt that I never fit in anyway—I had grown up much earlier than my friends—so there was never much to lose by rocking the boat. I was always my own person. I felt that profoundly.
I became an activist because I was a successful
golden child in my home and Mennonite community, excelling in numerous forms of music, theater, and dance performance, and academics. I had so many opportunities, teachers, peers, recognition, supportive community, and a mother who cared about my sister and me deeply and invested in us in these powerful ways. This was an invaluable protective factor as I grew up. This elevated my self-esteem, enabled me to give back, and led to become a calculated risk-taker.
I’m an activist because I had countless strong women as role models in my community, church, and life. I knew I had the right to lead. I knew women led well.
I am an activist because my pastors and leaders and Sunday school teachers at Bethel College Mennonite Church profoundly reinforced the importance of speaking Truth to power and of questioning authority. They did this through emphasizing the teachings of the life of Jesus, Anabaptist martyrs, conscientious objectors, civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and—among others—some girl whom I learned about in a middle school Sunday school lesson who spoke compassion and Truth to a dangerous man who had abducted her, enabling her own, safe release. For these lessons I am deeply grateful. I needed to hear just how important and valuable it is to be a thoughtful non-conformist, a thoughtful pacifist, a thoughtful conscientious objector, a thoughtful girl and woman, someone who focuses her life on Jesus’ commitment to justice, equality, compassion, and love. And because of my past pain, these lessons etched themselves deep in my bones. My church leaders not only gave permission, they gave stories of courage to bolster my own courage, and lauded those who, despite opposition, lived out their deepest values and convictions.
I became more of an activist because of inspiration from my previous community/now virtual community I valued and regularly interacted with on Facebook, including inspiring Mennonite feminist and other truth-telling narratives on Facebook, such as Pink Menno, Rachel Halder’s Our Stories
Untold, and Hannah Heinzekehr’s Femonite. I am inspired by leaders’ and friends’ words and actions, and want to live into my values in similar ways. I became more of an activist, also, when I urged our family to move from the suburbs into the city, where gatherings of influence on values we hold happened much more frequently, and much closer to home. And I became a stronger activist when I joined a particular women’s political group in my neighborhood, where I met influential, thinking, caring women, including female elected officials, and engaged with a wide cross-section of the group in social and political activism.
And so why, with all of this background, do I consider it a surprise that I became a social justice activist? Well, because a very small percentage of my generation from that liberal Mennonite church became social activists, from what I know. Because the volume of the
Mennonite political resistance movement faded when the U.S. draft technically ended. Because almost no other mothers with young children in the suburbs of Minnesota whom I knew really engaged in activism or community building—and that had become my community. And it was a surprise to become an activist because from the time I was 20 until about age 31, I did almost no noticeable political or community activism at all.
So why did Mennonite motherhood heightened my response to our U.S. culture of inequity and violence?
First of all, I need you to know that I/we strayed from the Mennonite church for six years. The first six years of parenthood. After some years of frustration and complication with my urban Mennonite church (Faith Mennonite in Minneapolis, where we again, currently attend), my husband and I tried (with varying success) to raise Anabaptist children in a Catholic church—a huge, notoriously liberal, social justice-oriented, urban, Catholic parish, whose meaningful, happy folk music reminded me of the rural,
Camp Mennoscah weeks of my childhood. I even started a children’s choir there—you know, to
Mennonite it up and make it a place where I might see staying longer-term. It didn’t really stick, as the wide-scale abuses of power including sexual abuses, and continued cover-up by Catholic church leadership became intolerable to me, and I began to miss my own traditions and community.
During those years of attending Catholic mass and one summer of Lutheran church closer to home, I always was clear about being Mennonite, both culturally and by choice and conviction. So, I mothered Mennonite . . . perhaps to a greater degree than many Mennonites, because if it didn’t come from me, my kids would never be Mennonite or even resonate with my deeply held Mennonite values. We didn’t baptize the children, for starters, but attended church as often as we could, and I we read pivotal stories about Jesus and the church. I shocked myself by staying home to raise them. I taught them small lessons of kindness and justice and reciprocity daily. I sang with them a ton. During her visits or ours, I asked my mom to make ethnic Mennonite foods and asked for the recipes. We began growing our own summer produce and making our own borsht. I disallowed violent hero/villain toys and play. We prioritized spending time with aging relatives and grandparents. We hung our Bob Regier framed print in a position of honor.
And in other ways, I totally didn’t mother Mennonite. I bought my children scads of expensive developmental toys and beautiful, store-bought clothing (though always on sale!). We took week-long vacations once or twice a year in sunny destinations. My husband and I designed and financed a beautiful, expensive house in the burbs. I regularly contemplated very expensive children’s activities and preschools. I over-parented. Part of it was having tantalizing options I never had growing up in a modest, single-parent household. Part of it was living in an urban/suburban environment, where options abound, instead of a rural one. Part of it is that there now exists such a powerful and different parenting culture and corporate culture that many of us find ourselves ensnared in these larger cultural forces that push against modest values, Mennonite families included.
In 2005, when pregnant with our second child, I embarked on my first significant community activism since high school. I tried to get our brand new neighborhood park and trail funded and built, since I was missing community and not interested in a jumbo Rainbow play structure in our own back yard. It took twelve months of making phone calls to elected folks, preparing for and speaking at every relevant city meeting, and sending neighborhood emails and fliers to convince an anti-spending Parks and Rec commission, a mixed opinion city council, and a shocking number of neighbors who were vested in property owners rights above community rights, to go ahead and build this park. Major community organization and tenacity were required to keep the project alive, and I maintained leadership, even though by the end I’d lost many believers, including the mayor, so a trail was never built. Remarkably, however, a large park playground got built within the year. This process, however, made me question whether I’d chosen our neighborhood wisely. For me as a Mennonite, community mattered. It was worth a fair fight. I’ll share with you now a selection of tiny and larger activist activities that followed.
As our kids grew beyond babyhood, I could see that the values of most of my neighbors were very mainstream while mine were not, especially as my son emerged past toddlerhood and we started to see what today’s boy culture looked like. I started to feel like I was a foreigner in a foreign land, with few people to share a broad set of values. The families in the neighborhood and my nearby in-laws weren’t a whole lot like me in these ideals, and focus on Disney princess and pink for girls and violent superhero and media for boys concerned me. It was hard for me to find other families to do things with, across time. I wrote on birthday party invitations,
Gifts not necessary, but if you choose to bring something simple—please avoid toys or games with weapons or violent themes. I tried to shape culture around us in small ways, and that was one tall order, and I’ve ultimately made plenty of concessions, for sure, because the rigid rules I craved would surely backfire with my son, anyway.
On a political front, I had been shocked and disillusioned when George W. Bush had been re-elected, worsening my fears about becoming a nation increasingly invested in a long war in Iraq, a vastly widening disparity between the rich and the poor, and what I felt to be constant attacks on women’s rights and workers’ rights. So in summer and fall of 2008, I signed up to campaign for Obama and soon-to-be state senator, Al Franken, phone banking and door knocking numerous times. I painted the cursive word, ‘hope’ on our front bay window with the kids’ tempera paints. The kids and I door-knocked on election day, with a many other community volunteers. In shock and relief and joy, we woke our kids at 10:30 p.m. on election night for a tearful family celebration. My contributions made a difference—especially in Al Franken’s election, which required a costly, months-long ballot re-count. While volunteering, I had helped several voters document their complaint about the local election site manager rejecting their son’s military absentee vote for Franken. I felt that the world my children would grow up in needed ethical elected officials to usher back into policy (and eventually culture) more of my Mennonite values of justice, equality, and compassion.
Following this political volunteerism, I began gathering courage to speak up in more ways, both politically and personally, particularly on behalf of my children. I had dialogues with school teachers and school parents who’d been endorsing Katie Perry’s song, California Gurrls, to my daughter, having no idea about the shockingly pornographic nature of this music video and song. I started a Jane Goodall-sponsored environmental service learning club at my kids’ elementary school called
Roots & Shoots and began creating the type of more inclusive, compassionate community that I so deeply craved.
When watering my own suburban grass was simply not enough, we resolved to shift together to where the grass looked greener. We sold our big house and moved into a smaller home in the city (More With Less!). This move came at a significant cost, because housing prices had plummeted since we built, and it wasn’t at all simple to downsize. But if we were going to sharpen and live out our values and find
our people, I felt a move was essential. I began my involvement with a women’s political group in my neighborhood. I campaigned for newfound allies and door knocked numerous times to encourage voters to reject proposed state constitutional amendments banning same sex marriage and imposing voter suppression (implementing Voter ID). Election and amendment results in 2012 were deeply validating. My investment had again made a major difference for the positive, I felt. These weren’t Mennonites I was partnering with, but they cared about justice and compassion, and it felt good to work for this change together. So much of my children’s and everyone’s children’s futures depend on the existence of a system that is primarily fair and not steeped in discrimination and corporate greed.
And then came the heavy work that began with a candle light peace vigil I organized in our neighborhood the December night of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, an event which I reluctantly organized out of deep, deep sorrow and shock and fury and commitment to making change in our U.S. culture which seems addicted to violence and domination and retaliation. The Connecticut massacre happened on the heels of a personal death threat issued against a member of my family, impacting our family’s emotional and physical security at home with the threat of a shooting. Life can be really heavy and can go in scary directions. And life can be full of hope and relief and joy. This part of the story brings me full circle to my testimony on gun violence concerns and my desire and efforts for community mourning, processing, and peace-building.
What ideas might you have to promote more support, more success, more sustainability, and more synergy in taking positive, public and private action on issues that deeply matter to us as Mennonite mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers? How can we step back from the front lines of volunteerism in our churches who rely heavily on mothers to function so that all can carve enough time to prioritize these other values we want to tighten and act upon? How, in practicality, can we create time for meaningful collective activism when women and men are swamped work full-time and/or parenting children at home? What are the key Mennonite values that define us as Mennonites today? Is pacifism one of them? If so, what are our obligations as pacifists inside our church communities and our obligations to our nation and to our world? Is political action necessary? What are the consequences of acting or not acting politically? These and many others are questions I deeply wonder, and on which I’m seeking dialogue.