This evening I returned home from a week gathering in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for the Mennonite World Conference. Unlike many attendees of the conference, Anabaptism (the “mother” of “Mennonites) was not something that I inherited from my parents and then stepped into as I became an adult. Rather, it feels like I have been slowly immersed into the Mennonite faith. A number of different experiences, communities and individuals have brought me further into the world of Mennonites: studying Christian theology at a Mennonite institution has indelibly left its mark on me, researching the NGO work of Mennonite organizations (like Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) and Mennonite Economic Development Agency (MEDA)) from those within the organizations and those the organisations partner with, worshiping with a Mennonite congregation, and seeing women and men in their eighties and nineties actively pursuing activist-peace movements. It was this latter point that kind of “sealed the deal” for me in terms of making a commitment to a Mennonite way of life.
A few years ago I participated in an idle-no-more circle dance and gathering and I was struck by the presence of so many elderly white Mennonites in attendance; people who I recognized from peripheral Mennonite circles who were chatting it up with a number of the indigenous activist leaders – relationships that obviously had been developing for quite some time. Then I began to notice the groups of (mostly) women who gathered weekly, without fail, to quilt blankets and prayer shawls for displaced persons in Syria or refugees new to our city. I started to see the diligent commitment to a way of life that was simple, difficult and generous – based on the belief that claiming Jesus is Lord claims one into this activist (kinda) life. I have been profoundly touched by the commitment of many Mennonites to the plight of the more-often-than-not forgotten.
I often hear anxieties, frustrations and deep hurt towards a Mennonite faith/experience from many other young Mennonites or those who have at one time but no longer claim a Mennonite commitment. Frequently these oft-legitimate concerns stem from lives entirely immersed in a Mennonite culture that can feel, and often is, isolating from global connections and ignorant of diverse perspectives. Well, this past week I experienced a four hour workshop at the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) that contrasts drastically with the experiences of isolation and ignorance of some (ex) Mennonites.
On Friday, July 24th, I attended an afternoon workshop initiated and facilitated by the Latin American Women Theologians Network. Each day of the conference attendees could choose from dozens of different workshops to attend or simply take in some music in “the Global Village.” The whole Friday afternoon was a time set aside for a workshop called “Connecting Globally, Forming a Global Women’s Network” that I along with more than 86 other Mennonite women attended. The purpose was to discuss the possibility and functionality of a Global Anabaptist women theologian Network to work alongside MWC. In part, the focus of this gathering came from those who had seen that at the last MWC delegate meeting 12 delegates out of 150 were women. The Latin American theologians wanted to know if this was something that other women theologians around the world saw a problem with and if so what some possibilities might be for re-working the male dominated structure to more appropriately reflect church life and Mennonite commitments. The response from attendees was overwhelmingly a “YES! We need a Global Anabaptist Theologians Network.”
What was interesting to me was the lack of young people in attendance at this particular workshop. Out of the 80+ people gathered in this workshop, only four were under the age of 30. We got a round of applause just for being young and in attendance! This has me wondering about the vitality of feminist pursuits in the coming generations. I met with the women who began an organization called “Sister Care” that works in countries around the world, promoting Good self-image, self-care practices, and brainstorms methods to combat patriarchal and abusive systems in the church and other organizations of power. I heard from women who were the first to be ordained in their country and had never before set foot in a theology class with another woman. I held a woman as she wept for her friends who wouldn’t leave their abusive husbands because it was “God’s will.” I met women who had worked for decades pushing for LGBTQ rights and I met women who had worked for decades with women who wanted to leave their abusive partners. I heard from women in Africa and in Latin America who demanded that North Americans not abandon partnerships with them on account that we fear further colonizing them but rather partner with them in a spirit of listening so that we might help them to unlearn some of the patriarchal gospel readings our missionary ancestors brought to their countries. I heard them call responsibility from me and tell me who I was – a sister who needed to commit to a partnership of sharing knowledges and resources. I watched as a candle was passed from woman to woman, without a word said, and strangers from across the world kissed one another in the embrace of Christ. This last part was a portion of a prayer lead by a woman named Alex. She spoke in Spanish and through English translation I learnt that she told us we need one another to call out one another’s gifts and skills. She used different symbols and colors and banners to remind us of how we are connected and can be more of ourselves in the ways we build into those relationships.
I’ve known for a while that women are a vulnerable people group and so it makes women doing Good just that much more incredible to witness. But now I’m thoroughly in awe of the diverse work callings and capacity of Mennonite women around the world. If I had gone all the way to Pennsylvania only to attend this one afternoon workshop, it would have been worth it – Feminist Mennonites are cool and I wanna be one.