Amish and Mennonites in Belize Departing Into the Jungle

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Amish and Mennonites in Belize Departing Into the Jungle

Jungle swing

My story chronicles the plight of Amish and Mennonites in Belize as they depart their communities, starting over in the jungle. This is also the story of how our friends rebuild, grow in faith and shower their wider community with love.

Join us at a community meal. Listen to the fears and hopes of those who are building a new community.

The Cost of Leaving

For nearly two years, we worked alongside Old Colony Mennonite and (historic) Amish families in Belize who escaped religious persecution in varying degrees.  Ironically, more than four centuries previous, it was persecution from other religious authorities that sent these families’ ancestors on a quest for religious and economic freedom.

Each family at the meal today paid dearly for leaving. For some, parents removed full rights as sons and daughters. Lifelong friends parted. Property owners left homes and land. Couples married without relatives in attendance. Children could no longer attend the same schools. Expectant mothers could no longer have assistance from the community midwife. A husband, banished from the community, could no longer share the table with his wife.

Why They Leave

Students of church history are familiar with the issues that divided Protestants and Roman Catholics in the early 1500s. In the same century, the Anabaptists (the common ancestors of the Amish and Mennonites) faced persecution from both Protestants and Catholics. Anabaptists (rebaptizers) administered baptism to adults willing to believe in and follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, a practice commonly known as believers’ baptism. Since 16th century European society, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant dominated, rested on a state church defined by infant baptism, the Anabaptists were exterminated by the thousands.

In this newly-forming community in Belize, each family has different issues that cause them to leave.  For some, as their ancestors, they desire believers’ baptism.  Others can not conscientiously agree that community rules–such as the forbidding of flashlights–will somehow affects their souls.  Some desire involvement with the wider community that shares the same faith in Jesus Christ.

For all of them, it is this faith that is the driving force: faith that encounters God genuinely and personally. They desire baptism, not as entry to a church, or out of obedience to a set of rules, but as a symbol for following Jesus as Lord. They are no longer willing to live shackled to man-made rules. The price for walking that out is high. The family in the photo below lost every material possession, severed family ties and lost employment. From the Old Colony Mennonites in Bolivia,  he moved to Belize to live out his faith.

Host Family

Beginning Again

Everyone here is starting over, building new homes, turning jungle into sustainable farms. This is a raw and vulnerable moment.

After a “chance” encounter with one of these families at a grocery store in Spanish Lookout, Belize, we begin friendship with one of these families. Seeing their need, we help provide livestock to some neighboring Spanish families, protein staples for expectant mothers and children, and medical supplies.

Walking with our friends during this season of life has forever changes us. We learn more from these dear brothers and sisters than any small gift we ever give.

We have walked with others in the past as they left their groups.  Then, as now, our encouragement is to keep what they can from their culture, to not “throw out the baby with the bath water”. We applaud our friends as they continue to show love and respect for their families.  It’s no easy feat; others become bitter over the rejection, the social and financial loss. As our friends wrestle with their new convictions, they keep the best of their culture. It’s a difficult balance.

During our two years living in Belize, these precious few become not only friends but dear family. We are foreigners, but we are at home.

WELCOME!

Join us for a community meal in the jungle.  We journey into the jungle just off the paved roads into Belmopan. We have no seat belts, so hang on tight. Brent gets up enough speed to plow through some of the large, rain-filled trenches on the dirt road through the lush jungle.
We often eat together with our brothers in the jungle. Many of the families living back in this jungle meet together each Sunday for worship and a meal in a simple coconut-frond church house.

Road to the jungle

Church House

Church House

This particular meal is unique. Everyone in the community is invited to this weekday meal. This is not a church service; this is the jungle equivalent of a block party.

One family is a disturbance to the believers. On Sundays, the father plays his battery-operated radio as loud as he can outside the church house. Known for his violent streak, he threatens some with his machete. He keeps his wife from needed medical care and his children from attending school.

In an effort to tangibly live out non-violence, the community invites him and his family to the community meal.  Through the love of this new community, those barriers begin coming down. The children start attending a one-room school house; his wife receives some needed care. He agrees to attend the meal. Everyone is delighted.

 Collage children

Children making their way to the community meal.

As we turn off the paved road out of Belize’s capital, Belmopan,  we are now bumping down the jungle roads. Try not to choke on all of the smoke. In this season, many are burning down the jungle to create farms. It’s sad to watch the lush jungle coming down. Your eyes and lungs burn from the sting of smoke, but it does smell rather campy.

Here’s the church house. The garden plot belongs to Gerhard and Susanna, the hosts of today’s meal. Most everyone has come to help prepare the meal.

Feel free to roll up your sleeves. Below, my little Hadassah (pig tails, top left) joins in the chores and dish washing. This house has running spring water from the little spigot in the wall, a helpful convenience.

work for children

Chicken cleaning

The older girls are cleaning the chicken.

Feeding chickens

Julia is off to feed the chickens? The coconut frond-roofed house behind the chicken fence is not a barn; it’s the new home of a large family.

friends we love

Children playing as the meal is being prepared.

Jungle meal

A hard worker, mother, gentle, quiet and content. Shockingly, I find we are close in age.  Life has taken it its toll on my friend.

Chicken community meal

A community-wide meal preparation–without the help of a fridge.  A few solar panels power limited evening lights. Susanna’s kitchen has propane; everyone else cooks on wood.

Yum! The chicken is sizzling in coconut oil, brown sugar, recado (a Belizean red spice)  salt and pepper. The smell of onions and peppers will soon be wafting through the house. This is a Belizean favorite. You will know why as soon as you taste your first bite. Following prayer, everyone is seated, and the young girls serve the food. There’s enough for everyone.

Conversation hovers around the bush-burning, harvest hopes, and the impending rainy season. It’s going to be a very rainy season. Families hope they have grown and preserved enough for the coming days. Laughter and singing punctuate the concerns.

Two young couples are awaiting the arrival of a new baby. One family is adding a new room to their house. Another has just added an indoor bathroom. It’s not been easy.  Families have dared to leave the only world they’ve known to follow a freedom they have found in Christ. There will be trials ahead. For now, needs have been met.

Next year will be better. The gardens that were plowed this year will likely provide more next year. Heifers have recently delivered calves. There will be plenty of milk and cheese. A small school has been established. The community plans a hydroelectric generator to take advantage of the strong springs. There is hope!

Nearby fires keep most of the blood-thirsty mosquitoes at bay. The fires die down while we finish our last visits. Moonlight washes over the towering palms–the only light to guide us back out of the jungle.

Bealizean Kinkajoo

On the way out, we spot a kinkajoo playing in the trees.

Thanks for joining us. Come again!

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Brent and Stacey-jean Inion
Brent and Stacey-jean Inion
Brent and Stacey-jean Inion, parents of nine (including four children adopted with special needs), 2014 National Geographic Travelers of the Year and the National Geographic Travelers People's Choice Travelers of the Year. They love to laugh, to read and to explore as a family. The secret to their marital bliss is an early morning cup of freshly brewed coffee before the children awake.

10 Comments

  1. Very fascinating! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sharon Mast says:

    So which community was this, Springfield? We took friends there years ago to visit someone they knew who used to live in Paraguay. Recently, a young man visited his grandparents there, and mentioned his uncle who is “crazy”, thanks to someone casting a spell on him. Makes me curious if he’s the one you wrote about! Those folks know what hardship and hard work is!

    • Stacey-jean Inion says:

      We love Springfield. I know the family who used to live in Paraguay and is in Springfield now–wonderful family. She is now the midwife in the community. I worked as a midwife in the new community so she and I spent time together. They DO know hard work, you are right.

      • Barbara says:

        Hi Stacey-Jean: Do you know any Mennonite families who would feel comfortable with being filmed for a documentary television project – to share their lifestyle with others?

        Barbara

  3. The Prethers says:

    Ok so how do you know rules and regulations for each country you go to. Do you have specific sources you check? Also how do you find places to serve?

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  6. Marvin Lamb says:

    I read your article about the Mennonite families leaving hearth and home and moving into jungle to carve a new life because of spiritual conviction. We were befriended by an amish family in ohio many years ago and have come to love and respect them. We have seen the growing pains in families

  7. Marvin Lamb says:

    I read your article about the Amish and Mennonite families parting into the jungle in Belize because of spiritual conviction. I came across your story while doing research on the country of Belize itself. We have friends who are considering a move there. I found your insight and compassion for these brave people most honorable.

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