The irony couldn’t have been more self-evident. Here were 7,500 modern-day Anabaptists celebrating the beliefs and convictions that hold them together in 65 countries around the world, following on the heels of a troubled assembly of Mennonite Church USA which appeared to be coming apart at the seams over sexuality.
The unfettered joy and inspirational singing in the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania stood in sharp contrast to the sadness and division in Kansas City that caused many to doubt whether MC USA could sustain its unity and fellowship with the threatened withdrawal of its largest conference body—Lancaster Conference, located, again ironically, in the environs of the Mennonite World Conference assembly.
The part of the MWC world body that had the unique opportunity in North America to lead the way in “Walking with God” (the MWC theme) was instead steeped in an inner struggle, preoccupied with whether they could stay together over one item in the Mennonite Confession of Faith (1995)—that “marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman for life,” ruling out same-sex unions and marginalizing a growing and more vocal LGBTQ community.
The founding “western/white” segment of the world body was now floundering while the non-white majority was rising to the occasion with a level of spiritual energy that inspired those attending and those looking in via the social media and live-streaming of the main events. The joy was not shallow, though, with acknowledgement of pain and persecution in many parts of the globe. Honesty and candour were evident from the outset with the marching in and drumming of native Americans in Pennsylvania and the recounting of native people losing their land to whites.
This confession resonated strongly with the nearly 1,000 Canadians attending, fresh from the Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings in Ottawa. There was the call from a Young Anabaptist, Kevin Ressler, son of an American father and a Tanzanian mother, for the Anabaptist church to “regain its confidence and become boldly prophetic again.” There seemed to be a shared determination to be peacemakers around the world, even though peace making manifests itself differently in different cultures.
A clarion call for unity amid diversity was another dominant theme. Wieteke van der Molen, a Dutch theologian living in a post-Christian setting, defined autonomy as “not about making your own rules, but accepting the other people in your lives.” That’s what makes community, she said, citing the story of Jacob, who though charting his own course, was stopped in his tracks by God to acknowledge those around him who helped to shape him.
The powerful words, the uniting music, the rich fellowship of this particular gathering gave us a model for living our Anabaptist faith in the 21st century. It was best expressed by incoming president of MWC, Nelson Kraybill, who said: “If Jesus could break bread with Judas, who betrayed him, and wash the feet of Peter, who denied him, perhaps we can remain in loving fellowship even when we do not all agree. If Mennonites in North America are reconfiguring ecclesial relationships, it is essential to do that with love and mutual respect, and to continue to find ways to work together.”
And in music by Canadian Bryan Moyer Suderman who coined these lyrics in “You’re Not Alone.” “Look close,” he wrote and sang, “you’ll see this body’s not a pretty sight/ wounds and blemishes and sores/ but with the saints of every place and point in time/ we are the body of our Lord.”
We predict this Mennonite World Conference assembly will go down in history as a milestone on our global faith pilgrimage. It pointed the way at a time of unusual struggle within and without, a time of new resolve to “walk with God” despite a rough path, an occasion for sisters and brothers, no matter what the colour of their skin, their language or their culture, to make common cause in following Jesus.
After working as Canadian Mennonite’s administrative assistant in the early 2000s, Natasha Krahn is returning to cover Lisa Jacky’s maternity leave. Natasha and her husband, Dave Chodos, have two children, Sam and Rachel, and attend Waterloo North Mennonite Church. Rachel Bergen is leaving her role as Young Voices Co-Editor to take part in Mennonite Central Committee’s Serving and Learning Together program. She will be stationed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for a year working for the Interfaith Cooperation Forum as a writer and editor.