A month ago twelve of us from Columbus Mennonite attended the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Phoenix.
I’ll give a taste of the Phoenix experience by sharing six different slices from the week. I guess you could think of this as Phoenix pizza, or a Phoenix pie, sliced six ways, hopefully containing some kind of nutritional value for the mind and soul.
Each slice is introduced with a verse of Scripture.
So the first slice is just to get a sense of the atmosphere of the gathering. The scene.
1. The scene – Hebrews 10:24-25
“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as we are in the habit of doing.”
These national conventions happen every two years and are a combination of business, continuing education, fellowship, worship, and fun. For those of us who have attended a number of them as well as various Mennonite institutions, it pretty much amounts to a sea of half familiar faces, making one at least a partial believer in the idea of previous lives. Someone comes up and greets you, and you do a quick search through your memory of which life it was when you knew them. Growing up? Camp? College? Voluntary Service? Seminary? Or just someone you sat at a table with at one of the previous conventions? I had the awkward experience of crossing paths with a fellow convention goer, each of us looking at each other in the face for several long and puzzled seconds, both no doubt jogging our memories and waiting for the other person to show the light of recognition, before we both silently averted our eyes and went our own way.
In talking with other CMCers who attended, however, I’m also aware of how foreign such a gathering can feel. Who are all these people? Are these my people? Our youth shared with me about feeling like outsiders at the high energy big band youth worship gatherings. Not living in a Mennonite hub can also feel like outsider status in our small but humbly proud tribe that is Mennonite Church USA.
The gathering involved urban are rural Mennos, Mennos-from-birth and adult convert Mennos, praise band and four part harmony Mennos, social justice and evangelical Mennos. Pink Mennos, Green Mennos, Red state and Blue state Mennos, Red, brown, yellow, black, and mostly white Mennos. A Mennolicious rainbow of God’s dear children gathered under one big air conditioned roof in the middle of the scorching desert. This was the scene at Phoenix 2013.
2. The theme – Leviticus 19:33-34
“When an immigrant resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the immigrant. They immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Church leadership had selected Phoenix as a Convention location a number of years ago, but after the Arizona legislature passed their harsh bill targeting immigrants in the state, it became a matter of contention as to whether or not we should stick with the location or move it out of protest against the law and in solidarity with immigrants sisters and brothers in the church whose safety in the state was now uncertain. Rather than go the route of a boycott, leadership decided to stick with Phoenix, but to use it as an opportunity to face immigration realities head on in a front lines region.
A highlight of the week for me was getting to take a day trip south to Tucson and hear from different people and organizations working with immigrants. An organizer of a day labor center for undocumented persons told me that he prefers to use the word migrant rather than immigrant since migration has been happening since the dawn of time, and immigration is an invention of colonialism which establishes and polices national boundaries. Our group heard an impassioned speech from an Arizona state public defender who was so disgusted with the degree of militarization of the border that the Senate immigration bill was calling for that, even though the bill did provide paths to citizenship for undocumented persons, she said, much to my surprise, that she hoped the bill would not become law. So far she has her wish.
We attended a hearing in a Federal Court in Tucson which conducts Operation Streamline – something I had not heard of before. Under this program, every weekday in Tucson 70 persons who are caught re-crossing the border are sentenced to a minimum 30 day prison sentence before being released to be deported. The prisons are nearly all privately owned now. Good numbers are hard to come by, but we heard figures of around $200 per day per person that the federal government – that would be you and me – pays to the booming private prison industry. The current Senate bill calls for Tucson to up that number from 70 to 210 persons prosecuted daily. Operation Streamline is also active in Texas. Being in a courtroom with 70 Mexicans, shackled ankle and wrist, 7 women and 63 men, each with an unspoken story, being streamlined into prison, was not something I will soon forget.
The delegates heard from multiple presenters about immigration and we reaffirmed a 2003 resolution to address these issues as a denomination.
Immigration, migration, is a complex matter, but I am learning that it is most helpful to learn from those most affected by it.
3. The absence – Colossians 2:5
“For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ.
The Hispanic Mennonite congregations made a joint decision to not attend the Convention because of Arizona’s immigration laws. It was challenging to learn together about immigration with these important voices missing. As a way of remembering their absence, an empty chair was present during all worship and delegate sessions.
Also absent from the Convention was the next moderator of the denomination, Elisabeth Soto Albrecht. Rather than attend throughout the week, Elisabeth traveled with a small team of people cross-country, from her home in Lancaster, PA to the Southwest, visiting Mennonite communities as they went. She invited people to tune in to her Journey With Elisabeth website as she traveled, and she connected with delegates via a live video feed a couple times during the sessions. She arrived safely in Phoenix to preach at the final adult worship service. Mennonite Church USA is now being led by a Latina of Puerto Rican origin who preaches in English and Spanish and broke out in a salsa dance in the middle of her sermon. Our prayers are with Elisabeth and denominational leadership as they seek to lead all of us into deeper engagement with God, each other, and the difficult issues of our time.
4. The interruption – Ephesians 2:14
“For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he had made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
The controversial topic of gays and lesbians in the church was strikingly absent from official conversations at Phoenix. This changed Friday morning, the last day of Convention. In the middle of the delegate session Pink Mennos began silently filing into the delegate hall, and standing among the round tables where people were sitting. Some were holding pictures of LGBT friends and family. As more and more filed in a number of us sitting at delegate tables also stood up. Business went on while this was happening, but the temperature was certainly rising as this was happening. After a while Moderator Dick Thomas acknowledged the Pink presence and said that he has always considered himself to be moderator of the whole church, lamenting that the church still struggles to find ways to talk well together. He called for a time of silence, and then ended with a prayer. He then gave the floor to Pink Menno leader Katie Hocstedler, who read a statement which ended with the sentence: “As followers of Jesus, we cannot, and will not rest until the Mennonite Church abandons its exclusionary impulses and embraces the width and breadth of God’s welcome, so that all may participate fully and God’s kin-dom is made whole.”
As a way of acknowledging the absence of gay and lesbian voices being heard in the church, the group brought in an empty chair of their own and placed it in front of the delegates.
5. The impromptu meeting – Psalm 24:1
“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.”
Impromptu meetings are potentially some of the best kind. One of the resolutions discussed, and passed in Phoenix was on Creation Care. It calls on the church to study what it means to be stewards of God’s creation, and to practice creation care in our local settings. These are good things, but there was a group of us, including, ironically, the author of the resolution, who felt that the resolution lacked the kind of urgency that our present climate crisis calls for, not just a tweak to the system, but a whole different way of going about life.
Psalm 24:1 was a verse often cited by the early Anabaptists. For them, the earth and all that is in it being the Lord’s meant that it’s not ours. While the issue of climate change wasn’t on their minds, it did greatly impact their views of discipleship.
A group of ten or twelve of us met in a rather impromptu manner to discuss an idea already being experimented with by a few folks out West. It is called Watershed Discipleship, and it has a couple different meanings. Its first meaning is that the ecological crisis makes this a watershed moment in our collective lives. Its second meaning is a new way of conceptualizing what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, which is this: reorienting ourselves around our local watershed. Learning from our watershed. Treating our watershed and everything within it as our rabbi, and having our scope of care for the world focused primarily on our watershed. To be very concrete, for us in the Columbus area this means treating the Scioto River Watershed, and the smaller watersheds within it, as our teacher, a spiritual guide to living a healthy life, when it is sick we are sick, and deciding that our commitment to following Jesus means we commit ourselves to the health and wellbeing of our watershed, this plot of land we have been given in this world that God loves.
A mantra of watershed discipleship is that we won’t save places we don’t love. We can’t love places we don’t know. And we don’t know places we haven’t learned from.
If you magnify this on a national and global scale, it turns out to be a really big idea. What would happen if all people of faith adopted watershed discipleship as their mode of being in the world? What if Columbus Mennonite Church and other Mennonite churches around the country became known as a leader in living out and advocating for a sustainable stewardship of our watershed? You have not heard the last of watershed discipleship.
6. The aftermath – Matthew 21:28-30
(Jesus said) “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of the Father?”
Over one of the lunches I happened to be sitting at a table with Keith Harder, a denominational leader from Kansas. He made the half tongue in cheek comment that these conventions always remind him of this parable from Jesus about the two sons. He didn’t need to elaborate a whole lot to make his point. Conventions are a time when we make a lot of commitments. We will work for justice for migrants. We will study and practice creation care. We will engage in dialogue around difficult issues. We will be the church of Jesus to a hurting world. We will go and work in the vineyard today.
Because of our emphasis on the local gathering of believers as the primary manifestation of the church, a large part of the responsibility for the aftermath of Convention comes down to our congregations and how we take up these calls from the wider church. One of the things that’s so valuable about congregational life is that these topics are never merely issues, abstractions to be discussed and debated. Our relationships with one another ground us, connect us to people and situations we would otherwise not know. Our small plot in the vineyard has its own characteristics unique to Columbus Mennonite Church. Discipleship in this watershed has its own gifts and challenges.
It is also energizing to know that we are a part of a wider church body that exists beyond us, nationally and globally. There are things we can do together that we can’t do apart. And so we set about the difficult and joyful work that the Spirit calls us to.