All stories

Screen-free relationships

By on Sep 21, 2017 in The World Together | 0 comments

Last week Makai started kindergarten at the same school where Cody is now in his second year. Though we are very happy with the school — and Cody loves it — a complaint arose for me within Makai’s first three days. Makai’s teacher played a television show during the 30-minute recess as students ate their snacks.

Focusing on a screen changes the dynamics of meal time, which I think should be a lively community event where kids are free to chat, share their food and simply interact face-to-face, so I was not OK with this. My kids don’t get to watch TV at all during school days, and video games haven’t made their way into our home at all yet.

We see it every time we go out for dinner: little kids watching shows on smartphones or tablets while their yayas (nannies) feed them. Often older kids and even parents are on phones, too. When we dine out, my kids might climb around in their seats, talk way too loudly or cry over drinks spilled on their coloring sheets, but the chaos is part of family life. We work with these situations rather than attempt to eliminate them by focusing on a screen while we eat.

We have a policy in our home that applies during Peace Church gatherings, too: phones are not allowed at the dinner table. Even if you are new to our table, I enforce it!

Smartphones have become an addictive habit, one that takes us away from personal interactions. Studies show that they are making us less happy and more depressed. Because of this, curbing the use of screen time for some good dinner conversation — and maybe a little chaos! — was a pretty easy decision for us.

Limiting screen time and avoiding its use as a behavior management tool may be countercultural, but when I shared my concerns with Makai’s teacher, she understood. She decided to stop using the screen during recess.

Yesterday, after a screen-free recess break and through a fit of giggles, Makai told me how funny it was when his new friend’s juice box squirted all over her arm and how they laughed together. I’m grateful that this kindergarten bonding moment wasn’t lost to a screen!

Christina Bartel Barkman and her husband, Darnell Barkman, are Mennonite Church Canada Witness Workers providing pastoral leadership to Peace Church Philippines, a new Anabaptist church in Metro Manila. The Barkmans have also been invited by the Integrated Mennonite Churches of the Philippines to serve as mentors and provide resources for the youth programs of Mennonite churches in Luzon. This post originally appeared at MC Canada’s website.

Is our religion about fixing America?

By on Sep 20, 2017 in The World Together | 0 comments

During the 1980s, I worked as a civil legal aid attorney for indigent men and women. Their legal claims concerned debt relief and access to health care, food and housing.

More than any other time in my life, during that decade I contributed to the project of fixing America. I did this by making the rule of law available to people who could not afford to hire legal counsel.

Toward the midpoint of the ’80s, I began to read Stanley Hauerwas, the Methodist scholar from Texas who wrote about Christian ethics via an Anabaptist perspective. I’ve never been quite the same since.

Though I was a member of an Anabaptist congregation, I was startled by what Hauerwas had to say. The Christian life, he said over and over again, is not about fixing America. Nor is it about getting to heaven or maximizing one’s potential as an individual to be a wonderful and creative person. Instead, it’s about embracing a communal experience — the church — incarnating an alternative way of living in the world.

Here are three Hauerwas quotes from that era.

Christians must again understand that their first task is not to make the world better or more just, but to recognize what the world is and why it understands the political task as it does . . . Theologically, the challenge of Christian social ethics in our secular polity is no different than in any time and place—it is always the Christian social task to form a society that is built on truth rather than fear (A Community of Character, University of Notre Dame Press, 1981 at 74).

I am in fact challenging the very idea that Christian social ethics is primarily an attempt to make the world more peaceable or just. Put starkly, the first social ethical task of the church is to be the church—the servant community . . . By being that kind of community, the church helps the world understand what it means to be the world. For the world has no way of knowing it is world without the church pointing to the reality of God’s kingdom (The Peaceable Kingdom, University of Notre Dame Press, 1983 at 99-100).

To recover a sense of how Christian convictions may be true (or false) requires a recovery of the independence of the church from its subservience to liberal culture and its corresponding agencies of the state. For without the distinctive community we call the church, there is no place for the imagination of Christians to flourish (Against the Nations, Winston Press, 1985 at 6-7).

By the end of the ’80s, I was sufficiently persuaded by Hauerwas that I left my legal practice and went to work for the church. I never returned to the practice of law.

Hauerwas became well known during the ’90s. In 2001, Time magazine anointed him “America’s best theologian.” Now, living in Scotland and near the end of his illustrious career, Hauerwas is still writing. His work can be counted as one of the sources of inspiration for the Benedict Option, the strategy of Christian renewal promoted by Rod Dreher.

Yet Hauerwas also is often sharply criticized (see here and here), and his message is out-of-step with current churchly emphases on affirmation, inclusion and the blurring of the line between the church and the world.

In a recent interview, Premier Christianity asked Hauerwas about his most famous quote — “the first task of the church is to make the world the world.” He replied:

“Years ago, at the outbreak of the first Iraq war, I was to give some lectures at the Washington cathedral for the continuing education of Episcopal clergy. I said, ‘I hope if President Bush came over here from the White House and wanted you to share the Eucharist with him, you wouldn’t commune with him.’ They said, ‘What? We’re people of grace!’ And I said, ‘But, how will he know he’s the world? How will he know that bombing human beings made him the world? He won’t know he needs forgiveness.’ That is what I mean by our task to ‘make the world the world’.

“I mean, read the Gospel of John. The light has come into the world to darken the world and help the world see the darkness, because it’s very hard in darkness to see darkness. And so it’s an ongoing discovery for us to define in what ways we are the world. So it’s not like the world is ‘out there’, and we Christians are OK. I mean, the world is in us, and how to discover it means you’re going to need the help of brothers and sisters in Christ.”

In the previous post at this blog, John asked us to consider assumptions of supremacy that are part of our American identity. We’ve been marinated in those assumptions our entire lives; it’s silly to claim we haven’t absorbed them to some degree. Now what do we do?

Obviously, if we believe in a god, this is a place where we would look to him/her for help. Purging ourselves of the imperial assumptions we swim in each day isn’t the sort of thing we can do by ourselves; we need a power greater than ourselves — yes, greater than the empire.

Problem is, many of us have placed our faith in the god of America, the divine being who provides the blessings of freedom, liberty and choice. Listen to Hauerwas from his 2013 essay, “The End of American Protestantism.”

“Americans continue to maintain a stubborn belief in a god, but the god they believe in turns out to be the American god. To know or worship that god does not require that a church exist because that god is known through the providential establishment of a free people. This is a presumption shared by the religious right as well as the religious left in America. Both assume that America is the church.”

If America is our church, then the god of that church is not likely to be of much help in subverting our assumptions of American supremacy. And if we really want to be cleansed of such assumptions, we will need another god and another kind of church. Again, here is Hauerwas in the same essay.

“The (faithful) church does not believe that you should have no story except the story you choose when you had no story. Rather the church believes that we are creatures of a good God who has storied us through engrafting us to the people of Israel through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians do not believe we get to choose our story, but rather we discover that God has called us to participate in a story not of our own making. That is why we are called into the church as well as why we are called, ‘Christian.’ A church so formed cannot help but be a challenge to a social order built on the contrary presumption that I get to make my life up.”

Compared to American religion, this sounds narrow and restrictive, doesn’t it? It’s easy to see why Hauerwas’ account of the Christian life can be perceived to be unattractive.

Yet the task of fixing America — and giving up all those war-producing claims to supremacy — remains. In the end, we have to choose: are we content to remain on the path we’re on, or do we want a god who will save us from ourselves?

Berry Friesen lives in Lancaster, Pa., and is part of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church. Along with John K. Stoner, he co-authored If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible.

New Mexico church calls first openly LGBTQ lead pastor in MC USA

By and on Sep 19, 2017 in Latest Issue, News | 6 comments

Albuquerque (N.M.) Mennonite Church has called an openly LGBTQ person to be their lead pastor, becoming the first congregation to do so in Mennonite Church USA.

Erica Lea


The church of about 150 attenders announced Sept. 18 that it has called Erica Lea to the role. Albuquerque Mennonite became a “welcoming community” in 2007 but did not join the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests until more recently.

In a news release, the congregation stated it welcomes Lea and her “strong call to connect with and serve people affected by current immigration policies and racial, social and economic discrimination — as well as a call to provide a beacon and safe haven for the LGBTQ community.”

“Our congregation has a majority of attenders who did not grow up Mennonite — who, like Erica, have chosen to join our faith community,” Andrew Clouse, a member of the AMC search committee, said in the release. “We look forward to finding more ways of articulating and sharing an Anabaptist faith that can flourish in locally derived expressions of Jesus’s call to discipleship, peacemaking and justice. We think Erica is well-equipped to help us do this.”

Lea has been a missionary and pastor for more than 10 years, primarily serving Baptist congregations in Wyoming, Texas and North Carolina. Currently serving her third year as pastor in residence at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., Lea had previously served as interim pastor of Houston Mennonite Church while Pastor Marty Troyer was on sabbatical.

“She is passionate about strong Anabaptist ministry and brings a heartfelt theological commitment to her adopted faith family,” Troyer said in the press release from Albuquerque. “While she served at Houston, our congregation experienced the best pastoral ministry has to offer: preaching, caring and management.

“Erica is also passionate about Mennonite emphasis on peace witness and radical hospitality. Her ministry is rooted in the belief that all people are welcome, and that community is the deepest expression of God’s desires.”

A Houston native, Lea is a 2014 graduate of Truett Seminary at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, where she was introduced to Mennonites and Anabaptist theology. She was a presenter at MC USA’s Women Doing Theology conferences in 2014 and 2016.

Standing on shoulders

In a telephone interview, Lea said she stands on the shoulders of many other LGBTQ people and allies who came ahead of her.

“There’s a potential historical moment that we want to celebrate, but we also want to encourage other members of the LGBTQ communities that God loves them,” she said. “God loves us and it is quite possible that the spirit might be calling them to these types of roles. That’s what we’re wanting to celebrate.”

Lea and her partner will marry in November. Shortly thereafter they will move to New Mexico, when she will begin serving as Albuquerque Mennonite’s pastor.

With a background in ecofeminist theology, Lea was drawn to the church’s work in environmental justice. She is excited to serve a congregation willing to prioritize loving neighbors through advocacy work while also emphasizing contemplative spirituality.

“I don’t think a lot of congregations have a true balance between social justice and praying with their feet and spiritual formation and quiet prayer time,” she said. “A lot of churches are either really loud or really quiet.”

A younger conference

Ken Gingerich, who attends Albuquerque Mennonite, is moderator of Mountain States Mennonite Conference, which was also the first MC USA conference to license an openly gay pastor. Theda Good was licensed as pastor of nurture and fellowship at First Mennonite Church of Denver in 2014 after joining First Mennonite’s staff in 2012.

At that time, the Mountain States Ministerial Council held four listening meetings across the conference, in addition to consultations within Mountain States and with representatives of other MC USA conferences.
Gingerich said in an interview that Mountain States seeks to honor the integrity of congregations’ discernment processes as much as possible.

“We may be a bit more congregational than some conferences,” he said. “It may also be the context of being in the west and being a younger conference.

“We don’t have the tradition of dealing with a central authority — the community is the authority. . . . But we are also a community of congregations that continues to discern our mission together, and we’ll try to honor the relationships between us. It’s about finding the right balance.”

Lea is part of a wave of six young, millennial lead or co-pastors leading almost a third of Mountain States’ congregations. They didn’t grow up in Mennonite churches, and they attended seminaries like Duke Divinity School and North Park Theological Seminary, yet each deliberately embraced Anabaptism.

Mountain States is providing them with scholarships to Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Church Leadership Center to emphasize Anabaptist formation for pastoral leaders.

Escaping tyranny of the past

By on Sep 19, 2017 in The World Together | 0 comments

Afew days ago I found myself at an event called “The Art Between Us.” It was an eclectic gathering of souls: Women shared hard-learned truths in the form of poems or original music. Others, like me, were just there to listen.

Though I had planned to scribble down poignant sentiments, I was too consumed with the performances. I sat for two and a half hours, enraptured. I saw women blooming as they told their stories.

One woman beautifully articulated her experience of growing up as a child with a stutter. I pictured her: small, with childlike vulnerability, in her physical education class. She was pulled to the side by a teacher who told her she was limited to one question per class period because her stutter delayed the entire class. Frustrated and hurt, she returned home to her mother.

And from that day, she and her mother committed to overcoming her stutter together. She detailed the dismay that came with the process but also the overwhelming gratification when she finally felt heard.

Now, removed from the stress of her stutter, she recognizes that her greatest weakness proved to be her greatest strength. By overcoming the limitation on her ability to speak, she learned to convey her emotions and thoughts powerfully, definitively, succinctly.

I was mesmerized by the transformation she described — and by how it was facilitated through her relationship with her mother. She embodied the beauty of accompaniment: what happens when we feel truly safe with another, when we are truly and deeply listened to. It creates us, makes us unfold and expand.

Recently I read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, who outlines how trauma affects our bodies: how we hold the hurt, the anger, the abuse and neglect within our physical bodies.

Van Der Kolk states: “Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become expert at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside.”

Trauma forces individuals into the primal survival mode: fight or flight. Though they have survived, their escape is thwarted. Closeness triggers a sense of danger. Intimacy requires vulnerability. Even a close embrace requires allowing oneself to experience immobilization without fear.

Yet, Van Der Kolk argues, what individuals dread the most after experiencing trauma — close contact with other people — is exactly what we need to heal: “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”

Connections are not as simple as being together. To truly experience accompaniment, we must be fully heard and seen. Van Der Kolk writes: “For our physiology to calm down, heal and grow, we need a visceral feeling of safety.” When we feel safe, heard and wanted, we begin to tell our stories, make sense of what we have endured and move forward.

I do not want to equate the woman’s story of overcoming her stutter to one of trauma, but I do want to use her story to show the beauty of relationship.

Though it may be difficult, our calling is to pursue healing by compassionately listening and accompanying individuals through their pain.

Closeness, tenderness and listening encourage us to be our fullest selves and relieve ourselves of the tyranny of the past. We are loved into life.

Hanna Heishman is a Mennonite Voluntary Service worker in Washington, D.C., serving as a U.S. policy and advocacy volunteer at Habitat for Humanity International. She blogs at Even the Journey is Home. A longer version of this post appeared at Mennonite Mission Network.

Relief and gratefulness after Hurricane Irma

By and on Sep 18, 2017 in Featured, Latest Issue, News | 1 comment

Unlike the 40-day flood Noah prepared for, members of Iglesia Menonita Arca de Salvacion (Ark of Salvation Mennonite Church) in Fort Myers, Fla., took refuge from Hurricane Irma in their church building for only two days.

Charlene Domingo, whose husband, Marcial Domingo, is the pastor, said 177 people sheltered Sept. 9-10 in the church building, which only had minor roof leaks. They went home the morning of Sept. 11.

“The day we were able to go to our homes, all the brothers and sisters got together and cleaned up the church,” she said. “It was spotless. . . . It was awesome to see the care of everyone.”

Students from Academia Menonita Betania (Bethany Mennonite Academy) in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, collect relief supplies for Hurricane Irma victims in the Virgin Islands and surrounding areas. The school was spared and is operating after losing power for five days. — Alex Gonzales

Students from Academia Menonita Betania (Bethany Mennonite Academy) in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, collect relief supplies for Hurricane Irma victims in the Virgin Islands and surrounding areas. The school was spared and is operating after losing power for five days. — Alex Gonzales

Domingo said she and her husband were working to establish contact with everyone in the congregation, which was difficult as several of the 250 to 300 people were without power.

In a Sept. 18 interview, she said their family was still staying at the church building because they had not yet regained power in their home.

Domingo said some of the members had water come into their homes through the roofs, and that they were in touch with Mennonite Disaster Service.

“We’re just very happy that we’re all alive and that there were no fatalities, and that our houses just have minor damage,” she said. “We’re very grateful to the Lord.”

‘Miraculously’ spared

Southeast Mennonite Conference moderator Michael Zehr of Key West fled Irma to stay with relatives in Destin, located in Florida’s panhandle.

“Today we got word that our neighbors who stayed in Key West are safe,” he said in a Sept. 13 telephone interview. “Not only that; we also got word that our house in Key West, which we spent a whole year renovating, is intact and dry. . . . It’s just stuff, but when you’ve put that much work into it, it feels good.”

Zehr is part of The Gathering Tree, a 4-year-old church plant of 10 to 12 people that meets Monday evenings with an emphasis on connecting with high school students. It meets at his home, which he and his wife, Rebecca, share with another couple.

Zehr said he kept in touch with Homestead (Fla.) Mennonite Church.

“They are in good shape,” he said. “The one downside for them is that in the midst of this, someone decided to break into their church and steal their sound equipment. It’s all insured; it can be replaced.”

He said he and his wife probably wouldn’t return to Key West for another week or more, but he was looking forward to opportunities for spiritual conversation there.

“It’s miraculous what’s happened in Key West,” he said. “Many of our friends we talked to, who were not believers, recognized there’s something special that happened. They’re not sure how to explain the miraculous nature of how Key West was spared. . . . That our property is intact means we can help others do repairs.”

Fallen trees in Sarasota

At Newtown Gospel Chapel in Sarasota, three trees fell on the church building’s roof, one of them piercing the top of the roof while holding back the other two.

“The minute that limb breaks, they’re going to fall on through,” said deacon Alvin Singleton.

He said the congregation of 10 to 12 people would be having joint services with another Southeast congregation, Ashton Community Fellowship in Sarasota, at least once a month.

“All I heard was limbs down and power outages; I haven’t heard about major damages in homes,” Singleton said. “God was good. We were blessed in that respect.”

Also in Sarasota, Patti Bos, administrator of Bayshore Church, part of Evana Network, an evangelical Anabaptist group, was giving thanks that the damage wasn’t as bad as had been feared.

“We’re praising God for sparing so much,” she said.

Bos said in a Sept. 15 telephone interview that about a quarter of the church members were still without power.

“We’re just thankful that people didn’t lose their homes,” she said.

Bos said Bayshore was working with other congregations to send supplies like bottled water to harder-hit areas.

“There is a real sense of community that is everywhere,” she said. “It’s a way to give thanks to the Lord for being a refuge and strength throughout it all.”

School without power

The school board of Academia Menonita Betania (Bethany Mennonite Academy) in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, was worried about the hurricane, since their budget had not included insurance for the building.

School board chair Alex Gonzalez said the school had roof leaks in several classrooms and a damaged fence from a fallen tree, but otherwise no major damage.

“We didn’t have power for five days; no water for three days,” he said. “There was no damage to the building; just one tree that fell right by the power line.”

Gonzales said the school’s power supply was regularly unreliable, so the power loss wasn’t especially remarkable.

“We just give thanks to God that nothing bad happened,” he said.

Classes were suspended Sept. 4 and resumed Sept. 12. A Sept. 8 post on the school’s Facebook page showed relief kits the students had gathered being sent to the Virgin Islands, where Irma had done more damage. Subsequent posts called for additional donations of supplies.

Requests for help

Larry Stoner, MDS Regional Operations Coordinator, said Sept. 18 he was still investigating where work was needed.

MDS will have volunteers doing tree debris removal and associated cleanup in Sarasota, Fort Myers and Sebring, he said. MDS is continuing to receive calls for cleanup help from around the state.

“Volunteers are there and will be there for the next several weeks,” he said. “We will continue to see where we’re most needed.”

Stoner was aware of some areas with flood damage, but the biggest concern for many people was the lack of power in many communities. Residents were being told they should have power by Sept. 22.

“We just heard from so many communities that we were in, ‘We dodged a bullet,’ ” he said.

Potentially disputed land in Colombia attracts Low German Mennonites

By and on Sep 18, 2017 in Latest Issue, News | 0 comments

Despite warnings from Mennonite Central Committee, Low German Mennonites from drought-prone regions of northern Mexico have bought more than 49,000 acres of land in Colombia.

Kennert Giesbrecht, editor of Die Mennonitische Post — a newspaper for Low German Mennonites throughout the Americas — notes the Liviney Colony and another roughly 30,000-acre parcel as two examples of land acquisitions. Another group is considering a 25,000-acre plot. The lands are all in the eastern plains of Colombia, about 125 miles east of Bogotá.

David Fehr, left, and Klaas Wall in the middle of a rice field not too far from Puerto Gaitán, Colombia. — Kennert Giesbrecht/DMP

David Fehr, left, and Klaas Wall in the middle of a rice field not too far from Puerto Gaitán, Colombia. — Kennert Giesbrecht/DMP

Giesbrecht said houses and a school have been built, farm equipment has been bought, electricity has been brought in, and roughly 20 families have moved to Liviney. The crops have been a success, although significant fertilization was required.

The area “undoubtedly looks like the land of milk and honey,” said Bonnie Klassen, Mennonite Central Committee area director for South America and Mexico. Klassen has lived in Colombia for 20 years and said the area is lush.

The quest for fertile new lands is fundamental to the story of Low German Mennonites. Giesbrecht said that, over the last three decades, roughly 100 new colonies have been established in Latin America. A few years ago, colonies in Mexico and Bolivia even sent representatives to Russia, although nothing came of it.

Now, “Colombia fever,” as Giesbrecht calls it, has Mennonites from Bolivia to Alberta talking.

But Klassen has serious concerns, which Giesbrecht has given considerable play in the Post. Klassen said the vast majority of land in Colombia does not have clear legal title, and even where official documents exist, they may not stand up to legal challenges.

Colombia is emerging from five decades of armed conflict in which an estimated 15 million to 20 million acres of land was taken from its rightful owners, according to government numbers. Klassen said that, in many cases, new owners of this land have received documentation of ownership either by coercing officials or by collaborating with unscrupulous ones. The area where Mennonites are buying was an area of considerable displacement.

The Colombian government is working to bring clarity and fairness to land rights, something that began even before the peace accords of last year. According to the country’s Law of Victims and Land Restitution, passed in 2011, if a landowner is found to have unknowingly obtained land that is rightfully someone else’s, that landowner is given replacement land elsewhere. If someone is found to have knowingly obtained land in an untoward fashion, the land is taken away with no compensation.

If Mennonites are found to have acquired land that changed hands unlawfully at some point, they would be given land elsewhere, but that could be scattered parcels for families instead of a single tract for a colony.

The law also means people who knowingly obtained disputed land have reason to sell before their ownership is called into question. Such sellers would presumably welcome the prospect of unsuspecting foreign buyers.

While Klassen has no knowledge of Low German Mennonites purchasing disputed land, and does not suggest ill intent on their part, she feels the risks are too high.

About a year ago, Klassen met with a group of Low German Mennonites involved in acquiring land in Colombia. They had been given certain documents by their lawyers, but not the certificate that can be obtained at no charge from the government that certifies the land purchased is clear of dispute.

The Mennonite newcomers have also obtained correspondence from the Colombian government that they feel exempts them from military service, although Klassen found the letter obtuse and potentially misleading. Giesbrecht was somewhat surprised these sorts of privileges seem less important to these settlers than they usually are for Low German Mennonites.

As for Colombian Mennonites, who are known in the country for their peace work, Klassen said there is some uneasiness that the purchase of large tracts of potentially disputed land by other Mennonites will send a mixed message about what Mennonites stand for.

Questionable situations

Mennonites have a long history of moving to areas and unknowingly stepping into their questionable political and historical dynamics.

Willmar Harder, former head of MCC’s Low German program in Bolivia and now a pastor in Kan­sas, said Mennonites have often settled areas recently cleared of other inhabitants, and Mennonite settlement has often served the political-economic interests in their new countries. In the 1700s, Catherine the Great invited Mennonites to settle areas of Russia from which the Tatar people had been removed. In Manitoba, the government granted the “East Reserve” and “West Reserve” to Mennonites a few years after a treaty cleared the legal path for settlement.

Harder cited further examples from Kansas and Minnesota, where Mennonites came in following the Indian Wars; the Paraguayan Chaco, where Mennonite settlers helped Paraguay solidify its border with Bolivia; Bolivia, where Mennonites helped settle newly cleared, politically significant lands; and Mexico, where some large landowners, afraid of a changing government, were happy to unload their land holdings.

Tons of clothes await fun-loving volunteers

By and on Sep 18, 2017 in Feature, Latest Issue | 0 comments

NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — The payoff for a four-hour weekly round-trip to volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee comes in the joy of service, fun and fellowship.

Every Wednesday, some of the volunteers get up at 5 a.m. to drive a couple of hours from Manhattan to spend the day at MCC Central States, working hard and playing with just as much intensity.

Rod Franz of Manhattan, Kan., holds a pair of donated shoes at the MCC Central States Material Resource Center. — Carol Duerksen for MWR

Rod Franz of Manhattan, Kan., holds a pair of donated shoes at the MCC Central States Material Resource Center. — Carol Duerksen for MWR

Others live closer and volunteer on Wednesdays just to be a part of the group.

Their lively banter leaves no doubt they’re having fun:

“He who speaks the loudest gets the gaudiest stuff to model for us all.”

“There’s not much turnover here. It’s the pay that takes care of that.”

“They always try to give me their wisdom. Sometimes I accept it, sometimes I don’t.”

It all began with a family reunion at Bethel College in 2011. Stan Bartel and a group of relatives came to volunteer next door at MCC as part of their reunion and their efforts to pass on the spirit of volunteering to the next generation. Bartel saw what a difference the group made and resolved to keep coming once a week until the warehouse work was caught up.

Six years later, Bartel and Rod Franz are still coming from Manhattan, because there is always work to be done.

Baling donated clothes is one of the main jobs, as well as sorting shoes. Put a wide assortment of used shoes and clothing in the hands of fun-loving folks, and you can imagine some of the scenes that play out on any given Wednesday.

“It’s a lot of fun, but people work really hard here,” Jan Groves said. “Coming here is the highlight of my week.”

Groves is one of the locals who’ve gravitated to Wednesday volunteering because of the people he works with that day. Gerald and Lois Leinbach are there for the same reason. While Gerald works in the warehouse, Lois is in the workroom with a group of women.

“I have an MCC background for many years and have worked in the Akron and North Newton offices,” she said. “When I retired, I came to volunteer here. It’s school-kit season now, so we will do that for many months. I enjoy the camaraderie here.”

Harald and Lotti Boschmann also have an MCC background that inspires them to volunteer on Wednesdays, and it goes back to their childhood in Paraguay.

“I was about 7 years old, but time has not diminished how I remember the joy when I held the Christmas bundle in my hand which was prepared and donated by churches to MCC,” Harald Boschmann recalls. “Now Wednesday has become a highlight for me, when we bale around 10 bales of clothes, each weighing a thousand pounds.”

Lotti Boschmann also recalls the MCC Christmas bundles and the clothes donated to them once a year from churches in the United States. She, too, volunteers now “so that refugees can receive these kits so desperately needed in many countries around the world.”

Chatting or working?

Kate Mast, workroom supervisor at the Material Resource Center, loves Wednesdays too.

“The Wednesday ladies are so much fun,” she said. “There is much laughter and catching-up to be heard over the hum of the sewing machines. About half of them work on comforters, and the other half work on school kits, relief kits, hygiene kits or whatever needs to be done. Sometimes they apologize to me for chatting more than working, but I reassure them that community is a very large part of what we do here. . . .

“And of course that is most obvious when the guys from the warehouse come show us their ‘treasures,’ such as old prom dresses or 6-inch high heels.”

It isn’t all fun and games, and the work that is done is invaluable.

“MCC is incredibly fortunate to have tens of thousands of volunteers that help carry out our mission,” said Maynard Knepp, Central States director of donor relations. “Some may come once a year, some participate around the holidays, and then we have those that come every week like our Wednesday group. . . .

“It really brings a positive and fun atmosphere. These folks leave an impression with the staff of MCC and other people in the community. It becomes contagious to others who want to participate on Wednesdays.”

3 things I love about being an Anabaptist

By on Sep 18, 2017 in The World Together | 0 comments

When you belong somewhere, you are home. That’s why I appreciate not only my Anabaptist heritage, but my current experience as well. I think Anabaptists have a special niche that many other church groups do not experience. This is my perspective, and you are allowed to disagree with me. I’m simply sharing my sentiments and my viewpoint.

I’m an Anabaptist, and I’m at home. This is where I belong. Being an Anabaptist is how I live.

I recognize that since I grew up Anabaptist, I could be labeled as being partial. I agree with Chantelle Todman Moore, quoted in The Mennonite: “No one, no matter how far back they can trace their Mennonite roots, has the corner market on being Anabaptist.”

I don’t have a corner on Anabaptism, but I’ve experienced and lived it in one way or another ever since my birth. There are many others who have joined the Anabaptist faith after searching scriptures and choosing to embrace the Anabaptist way of life.

I didn’t take a journey from another tradition to Anabaptist faith and living. I’ve never felt the need to search for other grass when the grass I’m living on is plenty green enough. When you belong somewhere, you’re home. When you’re home, you’re at rest and at peace. I like not being restless and confused. I like feeling secure. I like to belong, just like you do.

Each tradition has its strong (and weak) areas. I will be the first to admit that my denomination has plenty of areas where folks aren’t genuine. There are situations where things are done wrongly. Sometimes we fall short of living kingdom lives. Yet, when the chips are down (we’re talking born-again, authentic Anabaptists), there’s something unique and special about these people whom I call my own. There are three areas where I think sincere, authentic Anabaptist people stand above other denominations.

1. Community experienced among believers

In Anabaptism, there is a community of believers committed to supporting and helping each other. This support is felt whether it’s in raising your kids, repairs after a house fire, putting up a new barn, hosting guests overnight or for several days or feeding several hundred people after a funeral. In groups where individuals fund their own health insurance, there continues to be support given when there is a need. For some Anabaptist groups, it includes your own health insurance, which means hospital bills of thousands of dollars are paid in full a mere few months after the bill comes in. On this, I am not exaggerating.

It’s a community that seeks to help bear the burdens of others by trenching it out in the daily activities of life. It’s a community that provides comfort, camaraderie and compassion among its people.

2. Convictions that are followed

Anabaptism is strong on core convictions. One of the distinctive traits of Anabaptism is the belief — and practice — that Christianity is not just being a Sunday-go-to-meetin’ Christian and whatever you do during the rest of the week is winked at or glossed over by others. In true Anabaptist communities, what you do on Saturday brings no cause for shame on Sunday. Your faith is exhibited in how you practice business or punch a time clock during the week and in how you file income taxes. It’s exhibited in relating to your neighbor every day of the week and not just on Sunday. The following tenets spell out the way authentic Anabaptists think and live.

  • Application of practices that include how we respond to our enemies and those in authority, using hospitality without grudging, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and not just a “Yes, I believe in God” system. Application means claiming that the words of Jesus 2,000 years ago are still relevant to follow today. Therefore, we follow his teachings without picking and choosing. It means taking his words, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say unto you . . .” literally and not just if we feel like it, if it’s easy, or checking around to see if everybody else is doing it.
  • Belief and practice in the principles of God’s Word and the conviction to follow them in the mundane of life. Many professing Christians live one way during the week and then go to church on Sunday. These professing Christians have a “feel good because I went to church” feeling that often isn’t lived out during the rest of the week. Integrity comes as a result of following the teachings of Christ. It means that your handshake is your word and is as binding as a written agreement. It means that following Jesus is a way of life and not just something we do when it suits or is not inconvenient.
  • Discipleship which combines teaching and practicing together. It means being accountable to live the daily grind in the reflection of God’s Word and his commands. Iron sharpening iron, shoulders rubbing shoulders, precept upon precept — that’s discipleship.
  • Practical living every day of the week no matter where one lays his head at night. Stewardship involves the wise use of finances, a life of simplicity and using resources frugally. It recognizes that God is the supplier of all things and that no man pulls himself up by his own bootstraps. Being practical involves using what we have been given and continuing to invest for the duration.
  • Returning good for evil, not because it’s easy or even fun, but because it’s the right thing (based on Scripture) to do. In my Anabaptist heritage, there’s the validated story of my great-great-great grandfather who opened his home to a family after their house burned to the ground. This family of several children lived with Benedict and his family at no charge for weeks (you see what I mean?). During the time of feeding this neighbor family, Benedict noticed that corn from his corn crib was missing, so he set a trap. The trap didn’t produce a bear, but it produced a neighbor who had been stealing corn. Benedict brought him in and invited him to sit down at the table with everyone else to eat. When the man left, his stomach was full and he was given a bag of corn to take home with him. The corn was never missing after that. We hear these true stories and learn how people back then fleshed out their faith and belief, and it gives us the courage to follow their footsteps.
  • Sharing one’s gifts freely in aiding the community of believers. While Anabaptists believe in a strong work ethic where each man pays his bills on his own, there is also a sharing of gifts among believers. Whether it’s hospitality, generosity or including everyone, Anabaptists practice community among themselves and with their neighbors.

3. Cross-bearing for the serious Anabaptist

Life isn’t about being applauded and accepted; it’s about serving Jesus, my Master. Sometimes this means sacrificing and giving up my “rights” or being willing to give up the sentiment that I “deserve to be happy.” It means pursuing holiness instead of happiness.

It means that we follow Jesus’ teaching that to be his disciple requires taking up our cross daily and following him. Anabaptists don’t always do it right. Yet, more often than not, authentic Anabaptists are willing to be hailed as weird or different or behind-the-times. This is because they choose to do things God’s way rather than trying to be like the crowd. In true Anabaptist churches, this biblical principle is taught as well as modeled.

In many circles in which I’ve moved, I don’t hear these sentiments readily. I hear about “rights,” “being happy,” “deserving to be happy” and climbing the ladder to success. I hear these sentiments from folks who profess a faith in Christ. They are churchgoers, but their goals are different from mine. Anabaptists do not view following Scripture as an option. It is our calling. We don’t pick and choose which parts to follow. Following Christ means having a relationship with him and seeking to obey him, taking what he says as though he really meant it (because he does).

My ladder to success is often different from others as well. When my goals are different, the road I travel will also be different. This is where people of Anabaptist faith walk a different path, in essence “marching to a different drummer.”

Birth, living, and dying

From birth to living and dying, there is a more specific difference in the Anabaptist faith and culture than in many others. This is the way it looks to me from where I live and from what I’ve experienced.

Children are recognized as a gift from God and are often publicly dedicated by the parents while the congregation affirms support in raising the child in the fear of God. Baptism symbolizes outwardly what has taken place inside. It is more than a rite or ritual. Nuptials are a celebration of the Bride of Christ and the Bridegroom. The focus is not so much on the bride and groom as it is in the beauty of the covenant of the church and the Bridegroom as well as the permanence of marriage. Celebration? Yes. Frivolity? No.

Similarly, the death of a saint is heralded as a glorious homecoming because of salvation and grace, and not on the merits of the person himself. I’ve attended many funerals of both Christian and non-Christian alike, and often (in non-Anabaptist churches), the person is heralded as now fishing on the shores of heaven, playing tennis on the golden streets, singing in the heavenly choir, or serving up potato salad or hot dogs in heaven — all things which the person has been known for here on earth. Death is glossed over, as though not thinking about it will make it easier. I come away from these services feeling empty and realize I was expecting much more because of my heritage. In Anabaptist churches, a funeral is a cause for considering one’s own soul and future destiny. It’s not morose or gloomy, but a reason to celebrate the salvation of a soul that is bound for heaven.

When it’s really over — and just beginning

For the follower of Jesus, success is following Christ in the every day of life and not just on Sunday. Following Christ means being faithful in church attendance and participation. It is giving one’s abilities and talents to enhance the kingdom of Christ, not to pad an IRA or savings account. We recognize that our highest calling is not in being successful in the eyes of those who are part of the worldly kingdom. Success is hearing him say at the end of our journey, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

For the Anabaptist Christian, the goal is to follow the commandments of Jesus regardless of what others are doing. It means we follow His calling to “come out from among them and be separate” (2 Cor. 6:17). We recognize that being chosen and royal in his kingdom also means, sometimes, to be considered peculiar, because being part of the kingdom truly means being different from many around us.

Our greatest ambition at the end of the day — and at the end of life — is to hear him say, “Welcome home! Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.”

No matter your denomination, to hear Jesus say those words means true success. That, my friends, is what matters most.

Gert Slabach is a member of Faith Mennonite Church in South Boston, Va., which is part of Mountain Valley Mennonite Churches. She blogs at My Windowsill, where this post first appeared.

Human just like us

By on Sep 15, 2017 in The World Together | 0 comments

“I can understand that Jesus is our example in spiritual things, but for day-to-day living, that just doesn’t make any sense.”

My friend raised a good point.

After all, Jesus never had to deal with high school peer pressure. He never married or had the responsibility of raising children. He never experienced losing a job or having to look for work. He never had a serious illness. He never lived in a world shaped by the internet, social media or air travel.

So how could Jesus possibly be our example for daily living?

Because in spite of the difference between Jesus’ world and our lives today, Jesus was human just like us. When he was born as a baby, he laid aside his divine power and his home in glory to take on all the limitations of being human.

Jesus experienced hunger and thirst. He faced temptation. He knew how it hurt to have family who didn’t support him and friends who betrayed him. He endured disapproval and criticism. He was often at odds with the religious establishment. He faced the death of a close friend. At times he felt discouraged and even abandoned by God. He knew suffering and death.

As Heb. 4:15 says, in Jesus Christ:

we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

The specific details of Jesus’ earthly life may be different from yours and mine, but by “being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7), Jesus fully shared our human existence and the human challenge of day-to-day living.

From Jesus, we can learn how to deal with criticism, what to do when friends betray us, how to face temptation, how to share God’s love with other people, and much more. His experience and teaching can inform all of our relationships — our spiritual relationship with God, certainly, as well as our human relationships with spouse, children, friends, co-workers and other people in our lives.

Even where Jesus’ earthly experience differs from our own, his example can teach and challenge us.

To those who equate fulfillment in life with marriage, children and owning a home, Jesus’ singleness and itinerant ministry demonstrate a different equation for success.

To those who place great value on being well-read, well-traveled and well-rounded, Jesus’ single-minded sense of mission expresses a different sense of value.

To those who tend to reduce religion to defining and following a set of rules, Jesus’ example points beyond the letter of the law to include its spirit.

So yes, friend, Jesus is our example in spiritual things and for our earthly, day-to-day living.

Let us seek to follow Jesus, “the pioneer and the perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2).

April Yamasaki is lead pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, Abbotsford, B.C., and the author of Sacred Pauses (Herald Press, 2013). She blogs at, where this post originally appeared.

Learning language is a spiritual discipline

By on Sep 14, 2017 in The World Together | 0 comments

We were invited by Swiss friends to eat in an exclusive restaurant during our last weekend in Switzerland. As we got settled around the table, my friend asked me: “Are you comfortable with speaking Swiss German, or should we speak English?”

There were four of us at the table and I was the only native speaker of English. All the others were native speakers of Swiss German. Even though the others could speak English, we were in Switzerland. Why would I force three others to struggle to accommodate me?

Truth be told, the lazy side of me wanted to speak English. Each speaker at the table had a slightly different dialect of Swiss German, and one of them spoke so rapidly I had to strain to catch every nuance.

Two days later, I was at a church service. The worship leader spoke in High German, the music director in the dialect of Bern, and the sermon was given in a mixture of High German and the dialect of Zürich. The Bible was read or quoted in High German, some of the songs were sung in High German and some in the Swiss dialect. I had to concentrate very carefully to worship and to understand.

Many years ago, in a seminary class, Lawrence Yoder remarked offhandedly, “Learning another language is a spiritual discipline.” He didn’t explain what he meant; he just let it hang in the air for us to try to make sense of it. As a teacher of languages for more than 35 years, that statement resonated with me, even if I couldn’t explain why.

The two recent experiences that I describe above may begin to give an indication of what he meant. In the first instance, my attention was completely focused on what my friends were saying. My mind was not wondering off to other places nor was I trying to form an answer before they finished speaking. I was fully present to them. It was “deep listening,” a practice so infrequently used in our everyday conversations that seminars and books have arisen to teach this practice. Being fully present to the other recognizes their worth as someone made in the “image and likeness of God.” It is a spiritual discipline.

In the second example, my attention was wholly focused on every part of the worship service. So often when I am in an English service, my mind wonders in and out of what’s going on. When I’m listening in English, I take my ability to understand everything for granted. In contrast, when I’m listening to a worship service in a language other than my native tongue, I need to be much more attentive. I can’t take my understanding everything for granted. This attentiveness brings me closer to the essence of the service and to hearing God’s message. Much writing on spirituality focuses on attentiveness and awareness. Learning another language facilitates this need to be attentive and present. They are spiritual disciplines.

Our culture is one of much distraction by so many different media and personal obsessions. Because of these distractions, it is difficult to be totally preset and totally aware. They clog our ears and blind our eyes. Yet these are spiritual qualities that even secular writers affirm. Jesus recognizes our need to be attentive and present to when he explains why he teaches in parables: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’ ” (Matt. 13:13).

While we should develop awareness and presence in whatever our cultural or linguistic circumstances, learning another language helps us to expedite developing such qualities. Learning another language is a spiritual discipline.

Don Clymer recently retired as an assistant professor in the language and literature department at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He is a writer, spiritual director and leader of intercultural programs in Guatemala and Mexico. He blogs at Klymer Klatsch, where this originally appeared.