As I’ve continued to follow the process set in motion by the Future Directions Task Force (FDTF), I’ve come to a different place with my thoughts on this major restructuring of our denominational body, Mennonite Church Canada. It seems clear that, with the exception of Mennonite Church Alberta, the recommendations of the Task Force have been approved to some degree by the area churches, and that the restructuring will most likely go ahead.
So I’ve started to think about what is working well right now in MC Canada, that is, what we should carry forward and build on as we restructure our national church.
When I look at MC Canada right now, Steve Heinrichs’s Indigenous Relations work stands out to me, especially as it’s resonating with many of us “younger” members of the Mennonite church. Two examples you might be familiar with are Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry, a collection of essays and poems about indigenous-settler relationships, God, and creation, and the recent collection of reflections on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, entitled Wrongs to Rights. (Both are available at the CommonWord resource centre.)
Briefly put, I see this work taking a distinctive approach which builds relationships across differences and voices in a Mennonite perspective, but without triumphalism. Let me explain:
It’s interdisciplinary. These collections bring together a wide range of voices: academics/scholars, activists, pastors, community members, artists/poets/writers, etc. Too often, these voices can become segregated or split into different institutions (Mennonite Central Committee and other non-governmental organizations, schools/universities, and churches). But here, all voices add to the richness of the discussion and discernment. In this way, it’s theological, pastoral, and peace-and-justice work all at once. In other words, it’s the work of the whole church.
It fosters mutual dialogue and relationships. Indigenous Relations involves ecumenical/interreligious/intercultural dialogue, but it’s not approached as triumphalist (that is, “we have all the answers”), but rather as part of a mutual relationship. The guiding question then becomes, “What can we learn from one another?” While Mennonites may have something to bring to the table, in light of Mennonite complicity in past and present colonialism, making space for indigenous voices to be heard becomes even more important. This is a way of practicing mutual accountability between settler and indigenous peoples, by recognizing and addressing the power differential our common history has produced. In this way, Mennonites can engage the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations and other calls for social/political/theological de-colonization in our contemporary Canadian context, allowing those understandings of peace, justice, and reconciliation to thoroughly (re)shape how we approach peacemaking as a church.
It’s intentional and doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. Steve is intentionally setting the tone for ongoing indigenous relations in MC Canada, taking initiative instead of simply overseeing what congregations and area churches are already doing. In being more engaged with social/cultural discourse in Canada, this involves taking seriously and wrestling with difficult questions—for instance, surrounding past and present failures and blind spots of the Mennonite church in its relationship with indigenous peoples. In this way, Steve’s work is challenging, as it calls for lament and repentance, but also encourages and equips us to strive for true reconciliation going forward.
In light of these strengths, my question is: How can we apply this kind of approach other areas of MC Canada’s work?
One area I’d like to see expanded is something analogous to Mennonite Church USA’s “Undoing Sexism” initiative (part of their “Peacebuilding” work). This involves the Women in Leadership Project, which promotes women’s leadership in various capacities in the church, theology, and peace and justice work (including Women Doing Theology conferences), and also involves important work around sexual abuse prevention and accountability.
While some similar work is being done more informally or regionally within MC Canada, addressing gender relationships at a national level in a way which grapples with difficult questions surrounding sexual and gendered abuses of power is significant, to say the least.
MC USA also has an “Undoing Racism” initiative (working at intercultural relationships). Similar work could be done regarding Creation Care, Undoing Homophobia, etc.
Finally, I was happy to have the opportunity recently to speak about some of this with a group of younger (under 40) pastors from churches across MC Canada. We “met” several times (via video conference calls) to discuss and respond to the FDTF process as we’ve experienced it. We have together written an open letter and prayer which takes up, in helpful ways, some of what I’ve raised above. (See this open letter as the feature article in the June 6, 2016, issue of Canadian Mennonite.)
It is my hope that these kinds of articulations for fruitful and faithful directions forward will be taken seriously by the wider church in this time of profound change.
(Thanks to my pastor, Jeff Friesen, for his helpful edits. See also my previous reflection, “Future Directions.”)