On June 13-15, 1925, a small group of Mennonite pastors—perhaps 40 altogether, from seven different countries—gathered at the Vereinshaus Nadelberg in Basel, Switzerland, for several days of worship and conversation.
The business of the meeting focused on the material and spiritual needs of the Mennonites in Russia, who had been devastated by the Bolshevik Revolution, along with the ensuing famine, and the imprisonment, deportation and murder of hundreds of their members.
But the group was also seeking to re-establish a common sense of identity in the aftermath of the First World War, a war that had brought Mennonite soldiers from France, Germany, Poland, Russia and even North America into mortal combat with each other. Christian Neff, the main organizer of the event, hoped that a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Anabaptist movement could provide a framework for a new sense of shared unity and commitment.
That modest event marked the beginning of the Mennonite World Conference (MWC).
Less than six months from now, July 21-26, Mennonites from all around the world will gather in Harrisburg, Pa., to celebrate the 16th Assembly of MWC. If the 1925 event was attended primarily by middle-aged men, nearly all from Europe, Assembly 16 will reflect the colors and diversity of a church that has become truly multicultural and international. North American Mennonites host the MWC assembly roughly every 30 years.
The event in July is a rare opportunity for you to represent the face of the Anabaptist-Mennonite church, along with several thousand other brothers and sisters in Christ who will be gathering from more than 50 countries.
Here are five reasons why you should be part of this global gathering.
1. Come to the MWC assembly to renew friendships. According to a recent survey of Mennonite Church USA congregations, nearly 40 percent of our churches have a relationship with a sister church outside the United States, and 76 percent include members who have served in international settings with Mennonite Central Committee or a Mennonite-related mission agency. Assembly 16 is a wonderful opportunity for your congregation to strengthen these long-established friendships with face-to-face encounters.
2. Come to make new friends. Anyone who has traveled knows the joy of unexpected, sometimes life-changing relationships, seemingly formed by accident. Participants in Assembly 16 will have a chance to meet regularly for conversation in internationally diverse discussion groups. Meals, workshops, field trips and recreational activities will provide dozens of additional opportunities to meet other participants. Go to the conference assuming that you will exchange phone numbers, email addresses and Facebook links. The connections you make could blossom into lifelong cross-cultural friendships.
3. Come to learn more about the global church. In addition to inspirational worship, the gathering in Harrisburg is a rare opportunity to learn more about sister churches in other countries. Dozens of workshops, booths at the Global Village pavilion, the Global Youth Summit and encounters with church leaders from the 102 groups that are members of MWC will help you gain a fuller picture of who we are as a global church. You will return home wanting to learn more.
4. Come to offer hospitality. The story of the early church is filled with accounts of Christians extending hospitality to each other as they traveled across cultures and languages. Hospitality is a fundamental Christian virtue. If you have spent time abroad—even as a tourist, a short-term volunteer or on a study tour—you likely remember times when you experienced a gracious and generous reception from others. Assembly 16 now provides us a rare opportunity to extend Christian hospitality to brothers and sisters from around the world. Regardless of whether you can attend in person, consider demonstrating your hospitality with a financial gift that will make it possible for someone else to participate.
5. Come to be renewed and transformed. Our congregations and conferences have been facing difficult times in recent years. Sometimes it’s difficult to be hopeful about the future. At Assembly 16 you will encounter Mennonite brothers and sisters from churches around the world who are also facing enormous challenges—poverty, access to education, HIV-AIDS, profound political instability and even persecution. Come ready to share, listen, bear each other’s burdens and be renewed by Christ’s promise that he will never leave or forsake his people.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review. This ran in the February issue of The Mennonite.