What shapes us?

September 14, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 18
Dan Graber |

A popular Mennonite plaque that has hung in many homes states: “True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant; it clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry; it comforts the sorrowful; it shelters the destitute; it serves those who harm it; it binds up that which is wounded; it becomes all things to all men.”

But the gospel I grew up with is a little more multifaceted. My parents, Glen and June Graber, were with Mennonite Central Committee in China and then Taiwan after World War II. After a while they became part of the General Conference Mission Board, and then around 1965 they joined Christian Children’s Fund.

My parents helped plant and then pastored several Mennonite

churches. They were involved in relief work after typhoons and earthquakes. They developed three orphanages and a school for the blind. They were involved in a variety of other tasks, including working with seminary students, helping lepers, getting corrective surgery for children with cleft palates, and developing a system to support widows and their children in their homes.

I share all this because my parents never separated their evangelism from their social and justice work, or vice versa. They were salaried by different kinds of organizations, but regardless of where they received their support from, they saw their work as a whole.

I remember Mom sharing why she insisted it was important to hold, cuddle and talk to every orphaned baby every day; it was not just because it was important for the children’s development, but because they needed to experience Jesus’ love from the moment they were dropped off at the orphanage gate. I remember Dad constantly preparing sermons and devotionals for congregations and those working in the social organizations. Our dining room was a place where many people came to talk about how to share Jesus’ love verbally and physically. Sometimes justice issues were discussed.

So it was a shock to enter into the Mennonite world in North America and find fierce debates over who were more faithful: the evangelists or the social justice people. Is peace social justice or acceptance of salvation by Jesus Christ? My parents didn’t make a distinction between the two in their work. Relief and social work gave opportunity to present Jesus verbally. Evangelism gave opportunity to help people with their physical and social needs. It was all about encouraging people to find peace in the full sense of shalom.

It was years later that I discovered that the famous version of Menno Simons’ quote has left out over half of the lines. Two of them stand out: “[Evangelical faith] seeks that which is lost,” and, “It teaches, admonishes and reproves with the Word of the Lord.”

I think it’s important for congregations not to forget the rest of Menno’s quote as well as his own behaviour. Let’s not forget that the central feature of the Mennonite church from 1900-60 was missions. I look forward to encouraging congregations to verbally share why we love Jesus, to help people with their various needs, and to explore what shapes us.

Dan Graber is the new area church minister for Mennonite Church Alberta.


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