Last year I was asked if I was interested in serving on the planning committee for Mennonite Church Canada’s Native Assembly 2014. Taking a directed reading course on aboriginal theology at the time, I had no idea what Native Assembly was, but I was starting to ask serious questions about the history of Mennonites in Canada and the U.S., and the cultural particularity of their/my theology, so I agreed to take part.
I learned very quickly that there are many indigenous Christians who, all across Canada and the U.S., are Mennonite. I was ashamed of my ignorance.
Mennonites, like any denomination, are a diverse identity group. Indeed, I think my ignorance reflects how quickly many Amer-European Mennonites (North American Mennonites of European descent) forget that we do not constitute the largest demographic of Mennonites/Anabaptists globally speaking. We know this in theory, but we often fail to attend to this in our particular contexts.
Native Assembly 2014 was my first one, and my experience on the planning committee was a journey into a world of diverse Mennonite faith. Our theme for the assembly was “Ears to earth; eyes to God,” based on Job 12:7-10. The theme emerged out of questions at the intersection of place and identity: “Where are we? Who are we?” We recognized that these questions inform each other.
We considered our various identities as settler, immigrant, indigenous, Mennonite, Christian, created by God and so on. We considered these in relation to the ecological destruction happening all across Canada through oil and chemical spills into water, tar sands, fracking, deforestation and more.
The question of place was not simply a geographic question, but a theological one. Asking the questions of place and identity are important because they cause us to reflect on what we really believe about creation, about the Creator, and about our role as disciples who are also part of creation.
Many of the presentations and workshops focussed on cross-cultural learning and how to live more respectfully with the land and all of creation. Most importantly for me personally, however, were the spaces that these presentations and workshops opened up for people to further discuss a variety of issues and to share their stories with one another. It was by listening to others talk about who they are, where they are from, what they are passionate about and what they struggle with, that relationships of deep respect began to form despite some significant differences in worldviews and theologies.
This was not simply a gathering of native and non-native Mennonites in Winnipeg, but a dynamic interplay of complex identities and locations. Or one could also think of the assembly as a gathering of gift giving—offering each other the gifts from our places and thereby also offering each other the gifts of our identities—extending relationship and kinship to each other.
Indeed, many people brought symbols from the places they were coming from to the assembly, and shared their identity with others through stories, worship, tears and laughter. A sense of family was palpable at the closing worship session as we celebrated joys, wept together through struggles, and shared in a communion feast of sweetgrass tea, bannock, fish and blueberries.
I attended Assembly 2014 because I was invited. Granted, the invitation I received as an organizer was more formal, but the invitation is one that is extended to us all, especially to Amer-European Mennonites.
“Come and be with us”: This is the most common phrase I hear spoken by indigenous people in Canada to others, both Christians and traditional peoples. I’m often asked by my fellow Amer-European Mennonites what they can do in light of Canada’s colonial history, ongoing discrimination against indigenous people groups, and their complicity in systems of power that are much greater than any one of us.
At Native Assembly 2014 I learned something that I had heard for years already, but which struck me in a new way: that being with one another is a gift. I think it is important for the church to make more space, to have more time, to hear the stories of one another, and to simply walk alongside one another, to be with one another.
Melanie Kampen, 25, graduated this past spring from Conrad Grebel University College with a master of theological studies degree. She lives in Winnipeg, where she attends Springfield Heights Mennonite Church.
--Posted August 27, 2014
More on Native Assembly 2014:
Ears to earth, eyes to God (main report)