First thoughts from a first time Mennonite World Conference participant

Many people have gathered here in Harrisburg, PA. Many more, I think, than I have been a part of in worship. Being a part of many people gathering, of many people singing can be a moving experience. We place many bodies in rhythm and so can gain a momentum impossible as individuals. As a description this momentum of course is neither positive nor negative. This is true of rock concerts, football games and political rallies. The theology articulated so far has been unexceptional. This is also not a criticism, it is only to say that the impact of the speakers is not in some exegetical insight or theological innovation. I would say that there has been no theological revelation so far. Rather the movement and momentum reflected in the worship, in the gathering of our bodies and our attention has been to stories that reflect two elements of our faith (and not only two of course).

The stories and worship reflect a faith and a fellowship that can resist destructive powers. This gathering, this rhythm of worship vibrates in the frequency of peace and justice. Our time began with the indigenous of the area of Pennsylvania calling us to worship by calling attention to the Mennonite church’s complicity of dispossessing the people of this land and the need to work for reparation. Cesar Garcia of Colombia (General Secretary of MWC) told a story of his faith calling him, despite physical abuse, to refuse allegiance to his country and military commander because he could not fight for them. He encouraged the church to stay together because if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together.

The next morning I listened to a young third generation Christian woman from Ethiopia share her struggle with doubt. She had faced and wrestled with the question of whether her faith was simply the imposition of the colonizer. In the global south she was not immune to the changing worldviews and effects of postmodernism and the question of where Jesus’s lordship fits. She came committed to the church, but commited also to face her doubts. In a workshop I listened to a group celebrating their accomplishments as the Latin American Anabaptist Women Theologians who themselves were inspired by a similar earlier movement of African Anabaptist Women Theologians. This group began as a dream because at the time there was no place for them in the church at the time. The group works to directly address issues of violence and patriarchy as well nurture solidarity and support for each other.

The stories, songs and prayers reflected a history and a gathering with the resources to resist powers of violence in the name of the God of peace. This element of MWC deeply affirmed my connection and involvement with the Mennonite church.

But after just a day I can also see the conflicts and I experienced discouragement. I was part of informal conversations that made me cringe and shudder over the ongoing concerns I have about church practice and theology. I heard stories of the practice of converting Muslims in Indonesia that were shared with pride. Another from North America seemed to think we needed to be more evangelical, that this would bring the needed ‘persecuted’ if we bravely said the name of Jesus. In these and other conversations I am seeing that ‘mission’ is an expression born of and birthing conflict. This is my generous definition of mission because there is conflict when destructive powers are confronted for peace and justice and so if that is one’s ‘mission’ then yes conflict will follow and I want to support that. But much of the conflict I see seems born out of an abstracted notion of God’s calling and so much more is born out of ego and turf wars inside the church. Mission strikes me as an expression that will require much more attention in the future.

Then there was the conversation about the hundreds of congregations that have left Mennonite Church USA and the many more poised to do so. These churches would rather break fellowship than allow some congregations to affirm the testimony of faith of non-straight folk. Tangled into this conversation is the question of money and how institutions are necessarily at the whim of financial support even if it goes against the beliefs of those in leadership.

And so it goes, and I guess it could hardly have been otherwise (and there is probably someone somewhere writing a post criticizing all the things I find hopeful). I remain committed to the Mennonite Church because it is committed to the call of peace and justice. It understands these expressions as forms of worship. It is only in worship that a gathering of individuals can sense the rhythm, the Spirit, to sustain a movement. So let’s gather again tomorrow.

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