It was Sunday morning on a Mennonite Church Canada Joint Council meeting weekend. We divided up into three groups to visit three different congregations and then we regrouped over a late pizza lunch to hear about the visits.
The first few people began their reports by saying how good it felt to recognize someone in the congregation—a distant family member or someone they went to school with—and how good it felt to be known and welcomed by someone as they visited their assigned congregations.
But then a few others spoke up about their visits. One of the persons called Lee said she knew no one in the congregation she visited, and no one recognized her. The other Ly also said she knew no one in her assigned congregation, and she could tell by looking around that she was the only Asian face in the entire building. Their sense of welcome when they knew no one, and were not welcomed in the same way, was experienced quite differently from those who were recognized by even just one or two people. How do you feel that you belong if no one recognizes you?
Then we went on to talk about the experiences that stood out for each of us in the congregations we worshipped at that Sunday. For many of us, it was the personal sharing that touched us, as part of the sermon or sharing time, or another part of the service. We each took away personal stories, connecting with people about the pain and the joy being experienced in those congregations. We delighted in seeing the Spirit at work.
Do we have to be recognized by someone in order to feel welcomed and that we belong? Is that what it means to be church together, beyond our own congregations? Do we expect to feel that we belong when we visit another MC Canada congregation, even when we don’t know anyone?
I know that sometimes it’s too hard to be welcoming, even within our own congregational communities. As an introvert, I’d rather talk to a few people I know well than to try to make connections with people I don’t know very well. It takes effort and intentionality to make connections. And yet, one of the beautiful things about a church community is that it’s a place where we are known across generations and cultures, and where we belong. Our stories are known by someone. How do we make sure everyone is welcomed and belongs?
MC Canada is not just a network or conference of congregations, but we are church together, as regional churches and a nationwide church. I wish we needed each other more and knew more of each other’s stories, so that we might have a more visceral understanding of belonging together.
César García, Mennonite World Conference’s general secretary, says that, as Anabaptists, we do not have a strong theological understanding about being church together beyond our local congregation, unlike Catholics or Anglicans. For many of us, our commitment at our baptism is to follow Jesus in the context of membership in a local congregation. Does our baptism and membership make it clear that we are members with one other, linked to each other in our regional churches and our nationwide church, and through MWC to all the other Anabaptists?
Being church together beyond our local congregation has to be more than recognizing someone from school or family gatherings. We belong to each other, all of us.
Arli Klassen is a member of First Mennonite Church, Kitchener, Ont.; moderator of MC Eastern Canada; a member of the MC Canada Joint Council; and on staff at MWC. In this column, Arli speaks for none but herself, and even that perspective might shift depending on the day and context.
Read the first Church Here and There column:
Walking in the church