Mennonite World Conference doesn’t happen every day. In fact, it’s held only once every six years, and it rotates among five continents. That means that the event is located in North America only once every thirty years. So our young family with four young children went to great lengths to attend the international assembly several weeks ago in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We joined over 7,000 Mennonites from around the world.
The gathering was sobering. Just weeks earlier, Mennonite Church USA had conducted fractious debates about same-sex marriage in Kansas City. The biennial convention ended with no resolution and frustrated delegates at every point on the theological spectrum. The denomination continues to hemorrhage congregations, and the specter of further division loomed over the gathering in Harrisburg.
There was also an emphasis on persecution. An afternoon workshop chronicled the awful reports of violence committed against Anabaptists globally. The numbers are so high that Mennonite historian John Roth has launched a “Bearing Witness” project that seeks to reopen the canon of Anabaptist martyrdoms that closed in 1685 with the publication of the Martyrs Mirror.
History also offered fodder for sober reflection. In the opening meeting attendees confessed sins of imperialism. Mennonite rarely bore arms in colonial America, but their pioneering drive on the frontier made them structurally complicit in violence toward First Nations peoples. Centuries later the effects are still felt. In an afternoon workshop on efforts to write a global Mennonite history, an Indonesian writer described the difficulties of research. Indonesian Mennonites have no archives of their own—and they harbor ambivalence about history itself. Grateful for the gospel, they nonetheless want to forget many aspects of the past, and they certainly don’t want to rely solely on the archives of the Dutch imperialists. But writers hoped that this historical project might help them to somehow square an Indonesian identity and a Mennonite identity that sometimes seemed at odds with each other.
In a morning address in the cavernous Farm Show Complex, Tigist Tesfaye Gelagle, a youth leader in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, described how walking in the midst of doubt often defines her journey of faith. In college she first learned about the European colonization of Africa. Her professors told the history like this: “When the whites came, they told us to pray by closing our eyes. When we opened our eyes, we had their Bibles and they had our land.” She asked, “Is my faith an imposition of colonizers, or is it the truth?” Her answer: “Jesus is a glimpse of hope that is beyond culture.”
I am glad that my tradition works hard to reckon with crimes of the past and the theological disputes of the present. In order to ensure that opponents see each other as real people, convention planners organized us into small groups. My group—number 343—comprised Mennonites from Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Africa, Brazil, Germany, Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe. Representing different beliefs on sexuality, charismatic practices, and socioeconomic locations, we gathered in a tight circle, discussed the morning talks, and shared our own struggles of doubt over family, church, and God. We prayed for each other, ending with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in our own languages. It was good to meet with those who believe and look differently than myself.
Lest you think that Mennonites are all work and no fun, not every discussion and sermon was heavy. Urban and international representatives especially embodied the joy of the Lord as we sang melodies from Indonesia alongside “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Those not familiar with the demographic trajectory (Ethiopia and Congo each have more Mennonites than the United States; 81% of baptized believers in MWC member churches are African, Asian or Latin American) would have been shocked by the numbers of Mennonites dancing in the aisle. There was palpable joy among a people committed to practicing the peace of Jesus.
I hope to meet many of my new friends at the next gathering in Indonesia six years from now in 2021.