2017 Review: Congo suffering, North American realignment

MC Canada's reinvention, U.S. conference realignments highlight a fast-changing denominational scene

Dec 18, 2017 by and

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While North American Mennonites sped the pace of change in their church structures, Mennonites in the Democratic Republic of Congo dealt with matters of life and death.

Ethnic and political violence drove at least 8,000 Congolese Mennonites from their homes and claimed the lives of 36, church leaders reported in August.

“It’s been hell on Earth for a lot of our people, not only Mennonite people but many peace-loving people in the same area,” said Rod Hollin­ger-Janzen, executive director of Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission.

Tragedy in the DR Congo — including the murder of an American peace worker, Mi­chael J. Sharp — led Mennonite news in 2017, along with the reorganizing of denominations and conferences in North America.

Michael J. Sharp visits with Elizabeth Namavu and children in a camp for displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013. Sharp was murdered in March while on a U.N. mission to investigate atrocities by the national army and militias. — Jana Asenbrennerova/MCC

Michael J. Sharp visits with Elizabeth Namavu and children in a camp for displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013. Sharp was murdered in March while on a U.N. mission to investigate atrocities by the national army and militias. — Jana Asenbrennerova/MCC

Reports surfaced in April of the hardships endured by Mennonites in the DR Congo, the Central African nation where Anabaptist membership exceeds 250,000. Leaders from two Mennonite denominations said violence in the Kasai region had driven members of 38 congregations, or about 5,000 people, into hiding.

Adolphe Komuesa Kalunga, president of the Mennonite Church of Congo, said his people had sustained “major wounds” and reported that many were “hiding in the bush and forests.”

By November, emergency food and supplies from North American and European Mennonites had begun to arrive for hundreds of displaced families.

“There are real dire situations, and many have lost everything they own,” said Fidele Kyanza, who helped coordinate distribution of aid for Mennonite Central Committee.

In July, an AIMM staff person reported atrocities “beyond imagination,” including people hacked to death.

Amid the spiritual and emotional trauma, Mennonite Mission Network reported a bright spot: A Congolese businessman organized a choir tour to encourage the Mennonite churches in Gungu, Kikwit and Mukedi. In addition to music and worship, the gatherings were times of intercession for those grieving, hiding or trying to escape.

Violence in DR Congo touched North Americans personally in March when Michael J. Sharp, 34, a Mennonite working with the United Nations to investigate atrocities by the national army and militias, was murdered.

Sharp, who previously served with MCC in Germany and DR Congo, was remembered as a peacemaker who believed reconciliation is possible when enemies are treated as human beings with respect.

Josue Bulambo, a Congolese staff worker with an MCC partner organization, remembered Sharp as a bridge between the West and Congo who “was witnessing what we were facing” and who “was always reminding us to pray.”

Changes for denominations . . .

In North America, restructuring and realignment were the order of the day as denominations and conferences adapted to changing expectations, declining financial support and theological differences.

Mennonite Church Canada took the most drastic step. At a special assembly in October, delegates approved shifting the denomination’s focus from the national level to its five regions.

Downsizing the national office cost eight staff members their jobs. As the regional churches began to take responsibility for work that used to happen nationally, MC Canada embarked on an experiment in running a denomination from the bottom up.

In Mennonite Church USA, change took the form of realignments at the area-conference level and in a unique discernment process at the biennial national convention in Orlando, Fla.

The convention, which drew 3,200 people, featured a Future Church Summit, a 14-hour brainstorming process to define visions and set priorities. In the end, delegates decided to call the nine-page summary of their work a guide for further discernment rather than a statement of firm direction.

The Executive Board followed up by charting a two-year plan for congregations to carry the work forward. The process will seek to create a new vision and identity document for delegates to test at the 2019 convention.

. . . and conferences

Across MC USA and among its former affiliates, conference realignments continued.

  • Lancaster Conference, with 179 congregations, neared the end of a transition to independence. A 2015 decision to withdraw from MC USA gave congregations two years to choose between Lancaster and the national denomination. Of 17 congregations that took the extra time to decide, nine stayed with Lancas­ter and eight transferred to Atlantic Coast Conference in order to stay with MC USA.
  • Franklin Conference, which left MC USA in 2016, decided to become a district of Lancaster Conference.
  • Eastern District and Franconia conferences voted to move toward a merger in 2019. Pennsylvania-based Franconia expanded its geographic reach by accepting three Indonesian congregations from Southern California.
  • North Central Conference, which withdrew from MC USA in 2015, decided to dissolve, with the expectation that its congregations will join the Mennonite Brethren Central District.
  • Allegheny Conference, which lost about half of its congregations in 2015, and Central District Conference began exploring a relationship. CDC’s reputation for congregational freedom in decision-making drew interest beyond its traditional base in the Upper Midwest. CDC received requests to take in three congregations from North Carolina and Georgia. A Southeast Conference statement that raised the prospect of withdrawing from MC USA prompted the Georgia congregation to look toward CDC.
  • South Central Conference decided to allow congregations to be part of the conference but not the denomination, joining Ohio Conference in offering a conference-only option. Outgoing South Central moderator Gary Wolfer said some felt “the denomination is becoming less central to what’s going on.”

Some of the realignments followed a trend that MC USA denominational minister Terry Shue described as a “movement away from geographic-based conferences to affinity-based ones.”

Weathering the storms

When hurricanes struck Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico in August and September, Mennonites were among those receiving assistance as well as helping their neighbors.

Hurricane Maria made the most severe impact on Mennonites, damaging churches, hospitals and a school in Puerto Rico.

At Academia Menonita Betania in Aibonito, the storm blew the roof off a classroom building, and many rooms were flooded.

Generators kept electricity flowing for weeks while power was out at Sistema de Salud Menonita, the Mennonite hospital system with facilities in several communities.

Mennonite Disaster Service and congregations on the U.S. mainland mobilized assistance.

Several southeast Texas congregations experienced the deluge of Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than 50 inches of rain on Houston. Members of Chin Emmanuel Church were stranded in their houses by floodwaters for days. At water-damaged Prince of Peace Mennonite Church in Corpus Christi, secretary Raquel Almodovar called assistance from MDS and others “an outpouring of love . . . during our darkest of times.”

On the west coast of Florida, as Hurricane Irma raged, Iglesia Menonita Arca de Salvacion (Ark of Salvation Mennonite Church) in Fort Myers proved to be aptly named, providing shelter for 170 people for two days.

A global consultation on mission and prayer organized by the International Community of Mennonite Brethren included 15 baptisms. The event drew delegates from 36 countries to Thailand in response to opportunities to share the gospel in a time when 244 million people around the world are migrants or refugees. — John Ervin/ICOMB

A global consultation on mission and prayer organized by the International Community of Mennonite Brethren included 15 baptisms. The event drew delegates from 36 countries to Thailand in response to opportunities to share the gospel in a time when 244 million people around the world are migrants or refugees. — John Ervin/ICOMB

What’s your name?

A name-change trend emerged in several denominations and organizations.

  • The North American Vietnamese Mennonite Fellowship replaced “Mennonite” with “Evangelical.” The change reflected discomfort with MC Canada’s allowance of diversity on same-sex relationships. The decision was made entirely by Canadian churches at a meeting in Calgary, Alta.
  • Citing a desire to drop a word that sounded outdated and gender-specific, the Canadian Brethren in Christ Church changed its name to Be in Christ Church of Canada.
  • Conservative Mennonite Conference delegates narrowly rejected a name change to Rosedale Network of Churches. Advocates of dropping “conservative” hoped to shed assumptions about politics and attire. The denomination’s Executive Board might bring a new proposal next year.
  • Mennonite World Conference began considering a name change, in response to requests that its name reflect its membership beyond Mennonites. Possibilities include replacing “Mennonite” with “Anabaptist” and “Conference” with “Communion” or “Community.”
Jantine Huisman of the Netherlands, Makadunyiswe Ngulube of Zimbabwe, Larissa Swartz of the United States, Mennonite World Conference staff member Nelson Martinez and Ebenezer Mondez of the Philippines listen during Renewal 2027 in Augsburg, Germany. The gathering was the first in a 10-year series of events organized by MWC marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and Anabaptism and seeking renewal for today. — Harry Unger/MWC

Jantine Huisman of the Netherlands, Makadunyiswe Ngulube of Zimbabwe, Larissa Swartz of the United States, Mennonite World Conference staff member Nelson Martinez and Ebenezer Mondez of the Philippines listen during Renewal 2027 in Augsburg, Germany. The gathering was the first in a 10-year series of events organized by MWC marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and Anabaptism and seeking renewal for today. — Harry Unger/MWC

Other top stories

  • Five colleges and universities welcomed new presidents, and two more announced presidential changes to come in 2018. Four presidents were inaugurated or installed: Joseph A. Manickam at Hesston College, Susan Schultz Huxman at Eastern Mennonite University, Joseph Jones at Fresno Pacific University and Marcus Shantz at Conrad Grebel University College. At Goshen College, Rebecca Stoltzfus began serving Nov. 1, with inauguration set for Feb. 17. Bethel College chose Jonathan C. Gering, who will take office Jan. 29. James M. Harder announced he will retire from Bluffton University June 30.
  • MC USA delegates passed a resolution on Israel-Palestine opposing Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, taking a stand against anti-Semitism and calling for withdrawal of investments from companies that profit from the occupation.
  • Legal wrangling over the management of Hopi Mission School in Kykotsmovi, Ariz., closed a chapter when a Navajo County Superior Court judge ruled MC USA could take possession of the land. But the school’s future remained uncertain. No classes were held in the fall. Federal indictments from 2016 allege almost $1 million in fraudulent activity by former superintendent Thane Epefanio and other staff.
  • The price of auctioned quilts rose to new heights in Indiana and Kan­sas. A quilt commemorating the 50th annual Michiana relief sale in Goshen fetched a record $18,000. At the Kansas sale, a $15,000 quilt topped the chart.
  • Grace University in Omaha, Neb., founded by Mennonites in 1943 and known for decades as a conservative option, especially in the General Conference Mennonite Church, before its Mennonite identity faded, announced it would close in 2018 due to mounting deficits and declining enrollment.
  • The National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kan­sas City, Mo., hosted a conference recognizing conscientious objectors. Mennonites and Hutterites played key roles in the event, which included telling the stories of two Hutterite draftees who suffered and died while in prison for refusing to obey military orders.
  • Members of the Church of the Brethren hailed the release of 82 Nigerian girls held by Boko Haram Islamist militants for three years. The girls, many from Nigerian Church of the Brethren families, were among more than 200 kidnapped in an April 2014 nighttime attack on a school in Chibok. Others had escaped or been rescued, but more than 100 were believed to be still in captivity.
  • The International Community of Mennonite Brethren gathered 240 delegates from 36 countries in Chon Buri, Thailand, to mobilize for mission.
  • The International Mission Association marked its 20th anniversary at a gathering in Mount Joy, Pa. More than 60 Anabaptist-connected leaders from around the world renewed relationships with each other and Lancaster Mennonite Conference.
  • Filadelfia, Paraguay, hosted a conference on “The Racialist Movement and National Socialism Among the Mennonites in Paraguay,” addressing topics of the Nazi era long considered taboo.
  • Eastern Mennonite University celebrated its centennial, including the performance of a commissioned play by Ted Swartz and Ingrid DeSanctis, the release of a history book by Donald B. Kraybill and a worship service attended by a near-capacity crowd in Lehman Auditorium.
  • Mennonite World Conference began a 10-year series of events, Renewal 2027, marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and Anabaptism and looking toward the future. German Mennonites hosted the first gathering in February in Augsburg.

See more photos, notable quotes and notable deaths in the Dec. 18, 2017 issue of Mennonite World Review.


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