Having second thoughts (and 3rd, 4th, 5th…) about Mennonite World Conference

[For the ‘first thoughts‘ see the below post]

I was hoping to write a few coherent posts regarding my experience at MWC but thoughts and experiences kept piling, swirling, and jostling and so I gave up (for now) trying to apply some sort of interpretation to them. So while something more reflective might come, for now I will post a few experiences. Have look, skim a few, let me know what you think.

I will begin at the end. There was the installing of a new president of MWC and when the outgoing president, Danisa Ndlovu of Zimbabwe, gave his final words he mentioned something to the effect of hoping that we receive the message of the gospel in our heart before it reaches our head as opposed to the other way around. This could easily be taken as throwaway platitude towards authenticity but it struck me because the entire week I had been thinking of the role of affect and emotion in how we come to hold, defend, and express our beliefs. In fact I wanted to orient this entire post within such a context. So you will notice that in many of the sections below I take note of my emotion; things that touched my heart in some way, to put in Ndlovu’s terms. So here are some reflections that I think actually try and take Ndlovu’s admonishment seriously, at least in a first step.

***

Thursday’s theme was walking with God in conflict and reconciliation. The morning’s speaker, Nancy Heisey (USA), took us back to the Qumran community that produced the War Scroll around the time of Jesus. This was a community that attempted to create a pure and separate society which brought them into conflict with its dominant surroundings. The War Scroll set things in stark terms speaking of the children of darkness and the children of light. Our speaker attempted to show that in 1 Thessalonians Paul attempts to shift this sort of conflict to our need not to address the children of darkness but the powers of darkness. I appreciate this reminder. This shift also allows us to think about the structures of darkness (or injustice we might say) of which we participate but cannot fully control or understand. This is good advice. And yet as much as we can come to understand powers and structures it seems that everywhere I turn I encounter people.

***

After Thursday’s session we met in our friendship (small) groups to discuss the theme. We talked about the use of ‘violent language’ in religious expressions. I mentioned that I was not always clear about what violent language was. I shared my discomfort over language about missions to ‘convert Muslims’ and felt such an expression as I understood it was violent. The response to this statement as well as other contributions made it clear that there was some conflict within our small group. We wondered broadly about what sort of ‘space’ can be made for our differences and our conflicts. We also noted that it seems we can be a lot less respectful when the conflict is within the Mennonite church as opposed to potential conflicts with other churches or religions. We thought it might be like the intensity of sibling rivalry. I left wondering about that intensity, just what is it about family that makes it more intense? But it would not take long to be given a stark example of this.

For lunch I planned to meet a friend who I had not seen for some time. As lunch progressed a family came to join us. It was clear this family was very different from us theologically and we all made pleasant small talk and it was fine. After lunch my friend and I talked some more and it came up that my friend’s same-sex partner was from the same small town as the family we spoke with. My friend went on to share how terrible the people in this town were to them. I should also note that this family came from a Mennonite denomination and cultural background that was similar to my own background. Immediately the intensity, the emotion, of the conflict gripped me. Past conflicts and feelings about my town and church background emerged. A defensive and protective posture towards my friend kicked in. I wished I had not been so nice to this family. I felt me body stiffen, become harder. I made further resolve to not be complicit or silent in any words or actions that would further alienate and marginalize LGTBQ folk from the church. I was not and am still not quite sure of what do with all these emotions and reactions but it was clear that indeed there feels to be more at stake, more intensity, when these issues come into play with those close to us.

***

I attended a workshop about postcolonialism in Africa and later one on religious and interfaith gender issues Kenya. In both workshops there was a woman from Kenya named Rebecca Osiro who was the only ordained female leader in the Mennonite church in that country. She shared her story of the church abuse she faced in the process of becoming ordained. She warned against ‘mainline’ notions of cultural integration (what I might also call multiculturalism) because the marginalized voices (women specifically in her context) often get dropped in order to accommodate a focus on ‘commonalities’ (hey, we all don’t respect women, that is something we can agree on!). She is a voice still in conflict within the Mennonite church (though she shares that there has been much healing). This was clear with tensions that emerged in the first workshop as her comments often rubbed the bishop from Zambia the wrong way. But at MWC she was given a prominent place (she is also now vice-President of MWC) compared to her marginal place in her own community. We cannot yet, give such a place for our openly LGTBQ brothers and sisters here in North America. And so invariably there will be a form of conflict necessary ahead to address this injustice.

This experience was important for me because I can no longer give credence to claims that we cannot move towards being more ‘progressive’ or ‘welcoming’ because of how it will affect the churches of the global south. This week I can confirm the work of leaders all across the globe who are ready to make space for expressions of faith that were previously marginalized or excluded, though no doubt there are challenges ahead.

***

Over lunch on Friday a group travelled to the state capitol to give witness against drone strikes. I think this is part of what Nancy (above) was talking about in addressing the powers and not the people. We performed a worship service. There was a call to worship, prayers, music, and messages. As a global gathering we had someone from the Philippines speak about the experience of drone strikes in her country. We had someone from Germany speak about the passive compliance of Germany in providing the US its central command center.

I don’t think much about these things in terms of immediate material effectiveness but I do think of them pastorally and theologically. I take my understanding of worship very seriously and appreciated being part of such a service.

***

On Friday we were given greetings by a representative from the White House and then later reminded of the hundreds who were not considered fit by this same government to come and worship.

***

I tried to connect with the Pink Menno group. I understood that a group would be sitting together in one of the morning services. I saw a few people sitting together and a woman gave me one of their bold pink t-shirts and so I put it on. This was an interesting experience. It has not been since grade school (when I was overweight) that some external aspect of myself has set me apart from the ‘norm’ of my primary surrounding. So while I try to take advantage of opportunities to support ‘progressive’ causes verbally this was the first time I sort of visibly identified. Now, I want to be clear that this was so very minimal so as to not really register in terms of value. And yet, and yet, precisely in this little way there were times when I noticed a change in my heart rate, posture, and way of moving or being. I felt singled out. Take it for what you will.

And there is not utopic harmony or agreement within this group of supporters at this event but I will save that story for another who plans to tell it.

***

We are a small church, globally, it is my hope that this will keep us nimble in being able to move among the most vulnerable and provide support and resistance, to place ourselves in conflict with the powers and structures (and individuals) that oppress. But we must also, as individuals, also be so nimble and aware of the vulnerable people within our body and within our families.

I was reminded as I went to one workshop that Mennonite Central Committee USA has an anti-oppression coordinator but as an institution they cannot hire people in a committed same-sex relationship.

***

“Do we come as if we know all the truth? Does the Gospel know how to listen?” – Rodrigo Pedroza (Mexico)

“Among the lepers are those who break our mental schemes . . . and force us to change our paradigms.” – Marc Pasques (Spain / Australia)

These two young Anabaptists spoke together and they framed their time with a story of a full grown elephant who would not break the chain she was tied to, though she certainly had the strength to. The story goes that the elephant was born tethered. She struggled with all her might when she was young and was never able to break it. She eventually gave up and never tried again even though she continued to grow bigger and stronger.

I wish these young men and the rest of the young Anabaptists who spoke continued vigor as they grow in the strength of their faith.

***

I took one of the bus shuttles to a hotel on Friday. It turned out I was the only one taking the bus at the time and the driver was lighthearted and struck up conversation. He mentioned that he had worked for the Department of Defence. Not thinking much of it I asked what he thought of us Mennonites in relation to his work (in retrospect this was an unfair or unhelpful question though it turns out he seemed to be unaware of our ‘peace position’). He simply said that he viewed me as his brother because he was also a Christian. He said that one day he would have to stand before God and answer to God and so he wanted to treat me as he would treat God. This is not language I am used to or feel particularly comfortable with but I considered it and thought, okay, this was a way of keeping himself accountable that seems to allow him to have a friendly and generous approach to people. We chatted a bit more. I was asking about different buildings in Harrisburg as we drove along and as we got closer to the State Capitol Building I wanted to mention that I had seen it and that it was quite an elaborate building. I said that we went there to address the issue of drone strikes in the Middle East. Not wanting to assume his personal view one way or another I added that this was a difficult situation (I thought that might mediate our potential differences on this matter, create space, as I was thinking about above). There was a period of silence. The next thing he says to me is, ‘You know what surprises me, is how happy the world seems to be with gay marriage. I mean they are so happy about it.’ He continued on in his concerns over this and said that he could not accept this position because, again, of how he felt like he needed to give account before God. He went on for a while and I gave some minimal responses to acknowledge his statements. Now I was the one that did not want to get into it. I never found any fruit in pursuing a conversation that began this way. We were getting close to where he was going to drop me off but a few blocks up he said, “You know if you get out here it is just a few blocks up.” He encouraged me to get out. We exchanged pleasant goodbyes and I got out.

***

It may well be that incremental change is best but we should know that this will NOT come through the process of incrementalism.

***

Look hard enough and you will always find some Mennonites ready to have a good time.

***

I walked a lot this week. Hours and hours, miles and miles. Some of it was from being to cheap to take a cab. A good deal of it was because that is how I like to experience a city and how I process the events of a day; to feel transitions between neighborhoods, read signs on buildings, feel the vibe of how people interact, and just let my thoughts ramble along with me. The theme for this assembly was walking with God. And so I walked. That is about as much as I can say. I need to walk. There is a necessity in it for me. So I feel fortunate that if walking puts me in good form to encounter God then I will count that a blessing.

***

Two women from Zimbabwe who I saw throughout the week at my hotel offered to split a cab as I was hoping to get downtown. I was about to get out expecting to pay for my leg of the fare. When they refused to let me pay they said I could repay them by coming to Zimbabwe and preaching a sermon. So in the end I guess I can say that I leave truly indebted to Mennonite World Conference.

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2 comments on “Having second thoughts (and 3rd, 4th, 5th…) about Mennonite World Conference

  1. cigarsonist says:

    “I wished I had not been so nice to this family.”

    I had to stop reading, so it’s possible I missed a resolution of that. if not, and unless I’m misunderstanding your intentions, I hope that thought troubles you. in what way does a lack of civility in such contexts benefit anyone’s cause or even the cause of humanity?

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