A new Mennonite archetype

August 17, 2011 | Editorial | Volume 15 Issue 16
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

I have never met César García, but I am impressed with his story as told by Meetinghouse freelancer Kathy Heinrichs Wiest on page 4. García is the general secretary-elect of Mennonite World Conference.

He seems to have a special narrative, one which might make him the new Mennonite archetype for the 21st century. He just might have the special leadership gifts and personal charisma to bring the 1.6 million worldwide members out of whatever makes us, at times, religiously provincial, sometimes arrogant and stubborn, sometimes divisive and mean-spirited, but is at other times full of grace, vision and hope.

First, he is from Colombia, a small country in the Global South which was not a part of the Mennonite colonization in South America. There are fewer than 3,000 souls who identify themselves as Anabaptists there, freeing them from some of the provincialism European Mennonite immigrants brought with them to other parts of the continent.

Because of this, García presumably has a fresh set of eyes to envision and help shape what the global church should look like in the next 25 years. More culturally free to move easily among the diverse groups of global Mennonites, he says it well when declaring a calling “to eliminate suspicions,” but rather “show appreciation and respect for differences.”

Second, his personal journey of faith is not conventional in any way, including some teen years of rejecting God and the church. It was out of his disillusionment with existentialism and other philosophies that he found a spiritual home in Anabaptism. This prepares him well for identifying with young people who often find themselves in a stifling environment in their home congregations where tradition and a refusal to change sometimes restricts new forms of spirituality.

Third, he has honed his communication skills by working for six years at a Christian radio station where he interacted with Christian leaders from charismatic, evangelical and mainline denominations. This kind of religious “cosmopolitanism” should give him the language breadth he needs to speak to a wide range of groups and bring them into the big tent of Anabaptism.

With these unique gifts, García comes to the global Mennonite church scene at a time of shifting winds. First off, North American and European Mennonites are not happy that they are no longer in the majority, having to give up this birthright to the Global East and Global South because of their increasingly large numbers.

Africa, in fact, is now the leading continent with nearly 600,000 Mennonites, while North America comes in second at less than 525,000. Asian and Pacific countries now number about 265,000 members. Despite our wealth and power, we Canadians and Americans are not growing churches in numbers commensurate with our historic place of influence in shaping the Mennonite narrative and ethos.

Difficult as it is to face this reality, owning up to it we must. We resist, at our own peril, not only limiting the release of spiritual energy and vision that this shift is bringing, but risking our own survival as a people of God with an enduring set of core beliefs of peace, justice, community and discipleship that we have so earnestly and carefully cultivated over the past 500 years.

This set of beliefs is what is attracting many to our circle in recent years, including a new Anabaptist movement in the United Kingdom and beyond through the influence of theologians and authors like Stuart Murray.

What is emerging will not please all of us, particularly those with well-defined spiritual disciplines rooted in historically well-known places which have deeply held cultural expressions mixed in with our beliefs. Those of us tending to resist the changes will have to lighten up and feel the wind with joy, rather than sorrow. Or to use Nelson Kraybill’s apocalyptic metaphor in his recent Mennonite Church Canada assembly speech: “Discover where the river is flowing.”

García, forming his identity out of spiritual struggle, learning to speak a “global” language and hearing the call to unify a sometimes divided church body, is the archetype of a “new” Mennonite, coming to the kingdom for such a time as this.

And why not? Anabaptism is only one brand, one part of the body of Christ that God continues to shape in our troubled world. Will we get on board?

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I am very pleased to see the last paragraph of the editorial stating that Mennonites are part of a much larger whole. For many this is not an easy thing to grasp and I recall vividly when I was small that the people of other denominations were considered good people but I got the impression they were not considered real "Christians".

It is sad that followers of the early spreading of the gospel elected to find some aspects of the teachings of Jesus to be much more important then others. This selective emphasis creates groups of believers who, after several generations, develop a mentality that it is the only way. In fact we need to follow all aspects of the teachings.

Unfortunately we (humans) are not wise enough to fully understand what Jesus had in mind, and this is further made "human" by the variations of interpretation which evolved in the first 2 centuries after Jesus ascended. Now wide differences of understanding are possible. Unfortunately this possibility means that interpretations will be made that are most comfortable to the one doing the "interpreting".

The more we respect, and consider prayerfully, the values and beliefs of all Christians, the closer we will come to the command - "follow me".

Dick, would you happen to know the primary language in which Anabaptists are writing in Africa? Whether that is 'theological' work or simply accounts and reflections on life in/as church.

I don't know, David, but I'm forwarding the question to Byron Rempel-Burkholder for answering. In his role as the spokesperson for MWC, I'm hoping he has the answer. Stay tuned.

Byron Rempel-Burkholder, spokesperson for Mennonite World Conference, says it might be helpful to have the context of David's question but for now, I think it's safe to say that both French and English are the main ones used in written academic theological discussions, depending on where the discussion is taking place. For the largest Anabaptist groups, French would be it for Congo and Burkina Faso, and English in Ethiopia and other countries in eastern and southern Africa. There may be some activity in Portuguese, too, in Angola and Mozambique. Of course, there are the many vernacular languages (tribal and trade), many of which are written, and in which instructional church materials are published. --Byron

By the way, "spokeperson" is a bit bold. I help with the MWC news service, and my reply should be only quasi-official.

Helpful whatever the status. Thanks.

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