Witness workers bring forth concerns about ‘Future Directions’

January 27, 2016 | Feature | Volume 20 Issue 3

The following is an abridged version of a letter sent to the Future Directions Task Force and Mennonite Church Canada leaders that was signed by all 24 Witness workers in light of the Task Force’s concluding report (commonword.ca/go/469). The report focusses on two central questions: “What is God’s Spirit calling us to in the 21st century?” and, “What are the best ways (programs, structures, strategies) for the church to thrive and grow?”

Given the importance placed on communal discernment within our Anabaptist tradition, we offer some reflections on the Task Force’s report and proposals. Our reflections and comments arise from our international experience and cross-cultural engagement. These reflections are offered not in defence of the current reality, but as a way of adding our voice to the discernment process regarding the future of our church:

1. Avoiding violence, colonialism at home and abroad

We affirm the Task Force’s desire to avoid structural and systemic forms of violence and colonialism at home and abroad. We are grateful for the determination to be consistent in embodying our desire for, and pursuit of, peace in all that we do, including the way in which we relate with people of other cultures, faiths and contexts.

Indeed, this underscores the work we already do all around the world. It is an approach we have regularly encouraged among our Canadian brothers and sisters in the Canadian context as well, offering lessons we have learned from our cross-cultural experiences.

Unfortunately, throughout the history of the Christian church there have been all-too-common examples of how the church and its mission activity have participated in the colonial legacy. It is important to recognize this history and reality, and we are thankful that the Task Force is concerned in wanting not to participate in such violence as it is at cross-purposes with God’s great reconciling project for the world.

This history and colonial legacy is not true, however, of all forms of “mission” around the world. In our experience and involvement with MC Canada Witness, we have been painstakingly careful and deliberate in how we engage those whom we serve with around the world. Although we have undoubtedly not always lived up to our ideals, recognizing the fact that no matter how good our intentions are, we can and will do both good and harm, we have sought to be deliberate and humble about the way in which we approach other cultures and contexts.

2. Rooted in transformative relationship, partnership

We also affirm the stated desire that our witness/service be rooted in transformative relationship and partnership. Throughout much of Mennonite international involvement, we have been very careful, conscientious and deliberate in the ways we have approached our work precisely because of this history.

3. Task Force proposals questioned

While we affirm the Task Force and its intention to ground its work in relationship and partnership, thereby seeking to avoid paternalism and colonialism, we question whether the proposals offered would, in fact, attain these stated desires.

We find that the report and its proposals do not seem to understand the complexities in putting into practice these desires, and are short-sighted in that its proposals regarding international engagement will perpetuate precisely the practices of colonialism and violence that we do not want to perpetuate, as they contradict the gospel of Jesus Christ and the peace that we are called to embody.

Although the report states its desire to prioritize relationships and partnerships in international ministry, we question how the Task Force thinks such relationships and partnerships can develop out of short-term assignments ranging from a few months to a year in duration. If we truly wish to break from colonial tendencies and habits, we must invest years of learning about the contexts in which we engage, immersing ourselves into the experiences, history and traditions so that we are sensitive to those with whom we are building relationships. It takes time to build the necessary trust for deep and meaningful relationships. It takes time to demonstrate that we are not interested in “doing mission” in the same harmful way that has tainted the whole notion of “mission” to begin with. It takes time to foster mutually transformative relationships that allow us to walk with one another as we together participate in Missio Dei (God’s mission).

Our experience has demonstrated that short-term assignments, although they might be formative for the one who is sent, can be a drain on relationships and partnerships in the host culture. Thus the proposal for shorter terms is terribly short-sighted, in that the desired relationships based on mutual love and respect will not have time to take root, let alone to flourish. At their worst, short-term “assignments” provide fertile terrain for new acts of empire building and colonization when they are not accompanied by a deep understanding of the history and culture of a particular place.

Unfortunately, we already see the tendency towards colonialism in the Future Directions report. Rather than taking the time to listen to, and speak with, the communities around the world with whom we serve, the Task Force unilaterally sets out the future course for how we will relate with our brothers and sisters internationally. Put another way, the Task Force is determining the relationship with others without any form of consultation with them.

The proposal falls victim to the North American preference of short-term involvements and financing trumping our partner preferences of longer-term connections and relationships. Is that not the colonialism that we wanted to avoid?

Another significant concern pertains to the questionable understanding of “church” found in the report, which significantly affects international engagement. Being MC Canada Witness workers provides us with the confidence of knowing that the church—the body that is formed by the Mennonite congregations across Canada—has sent us.

The proposal that congregations, clusters of congregations or “regions” would be the ones to “discern a confirmation of call” and send workers, fractures and splinters our witness. It already has been a challenge for the different Mennonite sending bodies in Canada and the U.S. to act in harmony and inform one another. And yet we have attempted to do so, and we have proudly been bearers of that witness. The proposed change in who sends workers does not provide the witness of unity that is so needed in our Mennonite church, in the Christian church and in the world.

The proposed change in how “church” is understood highlights the potential contrast between individual and communal interests and discernment. This reminds us of an African proverb: “If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, let us go together.” We have a long road ahead of us as we strive for God’s peaceable kingdom. We will need each other as we walk together in this journey. What we see in the Future Directions proposal is a more solitary path.

MC Canada has so beautifully demonstrated how “church” and “mission” are part-and-parcel of the same entity. We are, therefore, deeply concerned by the way the Task Force once again parcels out and distances the church from the expressions that arise from our being the church. It assumes that opportunities for international service can simply be done through other agencies or schools that are connected to the church. What this fails to recognize, however, is the way in which our work—the work of MC Canada Witness—has, in fact, been different and yet complementary to the work and engagement of other agencies and schools.

For example, Bruce Yoder and Nancy Frey in Benin have been integral in providing connections with, and opportunities for, short-term engagements at both the Benin Bible Institute (sabbatical opportunities) and other ministries with which there have been significant relationships. Nathan and Taryn Dirks in Botswana have been an active part in creating opportunities for Service Adventure and other groups. George and Tobia Veith have been integral in facilitating short-term programs in Macau, as well as engagement opportunities between the Chinese Anabaptist Network and Canadian Mennonite churches. Andrew and Karen Suderman in South Africa have actively helped with the Canadian Mennonite University Outtatown experience, as well with Journey International (previously Radical Journey), a one-year discipleship program through Mennonite Mission Network.

We, too, have benefited from other Mennonite agencies as they forged, created and built relationships that have led to our relating with them. For this we are so very grateful! And this is the point: Witness and/or service “exchanges” through different church agencies and schools are valuable just as much as long-term international church engagement. Both are needed. They act as two arms of the same body, two expressions of the same faith.

It is terribly short-sighted to assume that terms of a few months to one year will suffice. It ignores the many ways in which we, as a church, have grown and changed because of our long-term transformative relationships with others around the world and the short-term engagement opportunities that have arisen because of it. And unfortunately we do not see how the Future Directions proposals will not lead to either more insular thinking or, ironically, falling victim to becoming perpetrators of colonialism.

4. Discernment process left out Witness workers, partners

Many of these concerns, we believe, would have been highlighted if the Task Force had chosen to engage with, and hear from, our international partners with whom we serve, as well as MC Canada workers and staff. We could have assisted in the process of discernment.

We recognize that the Task Force requested and received a draft background paper from the MC Canada Witness Council. And yet there is very little—if any—evidence that any of the proposals and cautions made by the Witness Council were considered or taken into account in the Task Force’s final report and proposals.

Thus we are disappointed that neither we nor our international partners were directly consulted by the Task Force. While we acknowledge the potential for conflicts of interest, we believe that our exclusion from the process has resulted in a serious misunderstanding of the ways in which we work and the desires of our partners.

Following this logic, no one directly involved with the Future Directions process could, therefore, continue in his or her same position with MC Canada going forward. We therefore question why a conscious decision was made not to consult Witness workers and international partners in the process of exploring the future direction of our church, especially regarding proposals pertaining to international engagement.

5. Conclusion

To conclude, we humbly suggest and would welcome:

  • Further conversation with the current MC Canada Witness workers as we wrestle with the ways in which we relate to, and engage with, our brothers and sisters around the world given the changing Canadian realities.
  • Further conversation with those with whom we serve around the world, as many of our local partners are as troubled as we are, and are anxious to be part of the conversation and discernment process. Their voice is valuable and it would be worthwhile listening to them as it would help us in our discerning process.
  • Further conversation and discernment with the broader Mennonite family in Canada and beyond, so that we can together decide how we can continue along the journey in seeking to be a people faithful to the ways of God’s kingdom.

See also:

Response from Aldred Neufeldt, chair of the Future Directions Task Force: “Witness workers’ concerns acknowledged.” 
More about Mennonite Church Canada Witness


For discussion

1. What have been your experiences in connecting with the global Anabaptist church? Do short-term mission trips do a good job of connecting the church in Canada with other parts of the world? How is this different from the connections fostered by longer-term Witness workers?

2. Whose interests do short-term mission assignments primarily serve? What about longer-term Witness workers? Do you agree that short-term stints that ignore the preferences of global partners perpetuate a kind of colonialism?

3. Aldred Neufeldt points out that the people of Mennonite Church Canada are “wealthier, more educated and more connected than ever,” yet funding to the national church keeps declining. Given this reality, should MC Canada try to maintain the work it does around the world? How do you explain this erosion of support for national programs?

4. The MC Canada Witness Council quotes the proverb, “If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, let us go together.” Is this good wisdom for the church? How might churches work at improving cooperation?

—By Barb Draper

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