At its annual gathering, Mennonite Church Eastern Canada welcomed new congregations, announced a break from status quo spending and heard bold challenges from Fanosie Legesse and Rebecca Riek.
During the evening worship service on Friday, April 28 in the gym at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate, two congregations were welcomed as provisional members of MC Eastern Canada. Église Jésus-Christ Appelle Tous is a congregation made up mostly of newcomers from Swahili speaking countries in East Africa. It launched in August 2020 in Trois-Rivières, Quebec.
Église Bethésda Mennonite de Saint-Hyacinthe also began in 2020 in Saint-Hyacinthe, just east of Montreal. It is pastored by Ayeba Amuri who was a member of the Mennonite church in Africa since 1996. The congregation includes immigrants from Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Cameroon and Chad.
Two other congregations moved from provisional membership to full membership. Shalom Worship and Healing Centre is a congregation of more than 400 people of Eritrean and Ethiopian background. It meets in Kitchener and Guelph.
Hochma is a non-traditional church plant among marginalized people in Montreal. In addition to worship services, Hochma offers “in from the cold” overnight shelter. During the pandemic it grew to become the largest shelter in the east end of Montreal.
The ceremonies of welcome for these congregations included prayers in French, Swahili and Tigrinya.
The evening also included a spirited sermon by MC Eastern Canada intercultural mission minister Fanosie Legesse and a graciously pointed address by Rebecca Riek. Legesse talked about change, which is both “brutally painful” and beautiful. With examples both biblical and from his experience in his native Ethiopia, he said that not even persecution should make us “shrink back” from the change God desires.
Legesse noted there has been considerable change in MC Eastern Canada since he attended his first annual gathering 20 years ago. As an Ethiopian Canadian, he is not as “rare” in that setting as he once was.
Rebecca Riek, a member of First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, was asked to respond. Speaking just after the death of her mother in South Sudan, she challenged Euro-Canadians, drawing contrasts with African ways. She challenged the Euro-Canadian focus on budgeting and planning. She challenged the Euro-Canadian tightness with time. To repeated murmurs of agreement from the numerous people of African descent in the crowd, she said: “In Africa, Sunday is for God, not praying for one hour. Where are you running? We pray for three hours. Why? Because the Holy Spirit takes time.”
“I’m breaking rules here,” she said, presumably referring to the directness of her comments.
Then, quoting Jesus’ command to love our neighbours as ourselves, she noted that many Canadians do not even know their neighbours’ names.
Riek also told the beautiful story of how she ended up in a predominantly white Mennonite church, after asking God to show her which church to be part of.
She encouraged listeners to rely on the Spirit, to move beyond comfort, to follow Jesus’ call to touch and transform lives.
The evening ended with worship led by a group from Shalom Worship and Healing Centre.
On Saturday, attention turned to reports and budgets. In the last fiscal year, MC Eastern Canada brought in just over $2 million, well shy of the budget expectation of $2.3 million. Expenses were over budget as well, leaving an overall shortfall of $362,000. This was well beyond the planned budget deficit of $204,000.
The shortfall was covered by a draw on the Faithful Steward Fund, a bequest fund established years ago to supplement general revenues from congregations.
For the current year, MC Eastern Canada is budgeting a slight increase in revenue over last year’s actual revenue and a $168,000 increase in spending. This will require a draw of $520,000 from the Faithful Steward Fund. That will use up nearly half the $1.06 million in the fund at the end of the last fiscal year.
Leadership said that after a couple years of “status quo” budgets, this year marks an investment in change, a willingness to put some money behind shared dreams. About $80,000 of the new money will go toward initiatives arising from the Courageous Imagination visioning process. This will include: hiring a part-time fundraiser; bumping eco-minister Wendy Janzen from quarter-time to half-time; providing additional funds for Legesse to conduct intercultural workshops for church clusters; hiring consultants to look at youth, young adult and intergenerational ministries; and providing subsides for youth internship opportunities in Toronto, Montreal or with an International Witness partner.
In addition to this $80,000 in new spending, an additional $90,000 will go toward cost of living increases for staff and other staff expenses. Another $15,000 will be allocated for the next annual gathering, and $25,000 will go to “council and committee travel and expenses” which includes consulting fees, some of which are related to a new round of strategic planning.
In a question from the floor, the point was made that allocating new spending from reserve funds is the “easy stuff,” and the “hard part,” that of cutting, lies ahead. Outgoing moderator Arli Klassen acknowledged that, indeed, the “cutting is yet to come.” The “overage” is not sustainable.
The regional church has two main funds that support general ministries: the Faithful Steward Fund and the Legacy Initiatives Fund. The Legacy fund is just over 10 years old. At that time, MC Eastern Canada received a major bequest from the estate of Harold and Enid Schmidt that has allowed them to disperse $8.7 million dollars to various projects and ministries. At the end of last year, about $3.3 million remained in the fund.
An additional, comparable amount of income is expected from this bequest in the next few years. MC Eastern Canada plans to change course, shifting emphasis from “entrepreneurial” disbursal of the money. The intent with the additional income, as stated in the gathering documents, is to invest much of it “in a way that will provide a steady annual income stream to MCEC, along with the annual contributions from congregations and individuals.”
The Faithful Steward Fund contains bequest monies not designated for specific projects. It held just over $1 million at the end of last year.
The close of the gathering also marked the end of Arli Klassen’s time as moderator. Ben Cassels of Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church takes over. Ann Schultz’s term of interim director has been extended until the end of the next annual gathering in April 2024. Her term began in January 2023.