We shouldn’t be this wealthy,” I thought.I was sitting in Halsey Mennonite Church gymnasium with 450 other Oregon Anabaptists, listening to reports about the astonishingly varied and vast work of Christian Aid Ministries and its new satellite program, CAM-West. Medicines, hygiene kits, food boxes, clothing, wells, blankets—the list seemed endless and included, of course, reports of the large financial donations that make these projects possible. There were a lot of deep pockets in that room. Everyone seemed to be listening intently and—I assumed—evaluating whether this cause was worthy of a financial gift, and if so, how much it should be.
For the most part, Anabaptists in Oregon are financially successful. Many families own their own homes and, often, farms and rental houses besides. Mennonite-owned businesses—most of them related to agriculture—abound and thrive. They are also generous. Fundraisers for Gospel Echoes Northwest or a medical emergency are well-attended and raise many thousands of dollars. According to the prevailing theories of poverty and wealth found in financial articles such as The Atlantic, and in books such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, we should not be doing this wealthy. What is it about Anabaptists that turns the American economic charts upside down?
For one thing, we are primarily rural; rural America is declining in opportunity and struggling to survive. Also, probably less than half of the conservative Anabaptist adults in Oregon have finished high school, and all the experts agree that lack of a high school diploma is a key precursor of poverty. Yet, Mennonites are able to support their families and fund CAM-West, as well as many causes and charities besides. Why has this community turned the economic tables upside down? Here are some likely factors:
1. While not nearly as long-established as Lancaster County or Holmes County, the Willamette Valley Mennonite community is over 100 years old. The first Mennonite settlers bought farmland that is, in many cases, still in the family. Farming expertise and equipment were also handed down from one generation to the next.