Downsized by pandemic, MennoCon21 goes hybrid to amplify message of peace, inclusion

In Cincinnati and online, more than 1,000 join MC USA assembly

The MennoCon21 crowd responds to worship leaders and musicians in Duke Energy Convention Center. — Mennonite Church USA The MennoCon21 crowd responds to worship leaders and musicians in Duke Energy Convention Center. — Mennonite Church USA

Mennonite Church USA’s smallest and first hybrid convention drew more than 1,000 people — 608 at Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati and at least 495 online — July 6-10, with programming to strengthen the denomination’s peace witness.

Church revitalization was a goal of MennoCon21, shifting the 20-year-old denomination’s attention from organizational development to fulfilling its calling as an inclusive body amid a trend of membership decline.

With a lower profile for delegate business — reduced to a two-hour virtual-only session at week’s end — the goal of revitalization relied upon the experiences of worship, seminars and fellowship.

Participants affirmed the theme, “Bring the Peace!,” and professed to enjoy a smaller gathering.

Ellen Kraybill of Elkhart, Ind., said the convention lifted her spirits.

“The worship was rich, and the music was inspiring,” she said. “It helped me feel more connected to the Mennonite church, and running into old friends is part of the fun.”

For Michael Swartzendruber, pastor of Wayland Mennonite Church in Iowa, a small convention was almost as good as a big one.

“A huge thing for me is to connect with people, so there’s a bit of disappointment in that I’m not seeing as many as usual, but I am still seeing old friends I haven’t seen in years,” he said.

He appreciated the Bible studies with Safwat Marzouk, a seminary professor who led three sessions for all adults and youth on peacemaking amid COVID-19 and racism.

“We’ve seen how the themes of peace and justice are deeply embedded in the specifics of the biblical story,” Swartzendruber said. Marzouk’s messages used the stories of Joseph in Genesis and the Hebrew midwives in Exodus to teach about overcoming fear of those who are different and raising up the oppressed.

About 270 of the in-person attendees were youth and sponsors. Eight came with Adalberto Guzman of Iglesia Menonita del Cordero (Mennonite Church of the Lamb) in Brownsville, Texas.

“They loved it,” Guzman said. “They thought it might be like going to class, but they saw that it was fun.”

Five worship services, with youth and adults together, featured messages on peace, some with testimonies of joy or sorrow.

On Tuesday’s opening night, Lesley Francisco McClendon and Caleb McClendon, a married couple who are pastors in Virginia, said being deeply rooted in Christ’s peace sustained them amid the devastating experience of miscarriage.

Meghan Larissa Good, a pastor from Arizona, said Jesus and peace are inseparable. This needs to be affirmed because “there are more and more people in our Mennonite church communities who are sure they know about good but not so sure they know about God.”

Ana Alicia Hinojosa, a Mennonite Central Committee staff member from Texas, told of her father’s healing after he nearly died from COVID-19. She urged her audience to reach out for “the hem of Jesus’ garment,” seeking their own miracle.

John Carlson, a pastor from Pennsylvania, said trusting God’s peace enables us to live beyond the logic of self-preservation.

“We can live peaceably, not because we trust others to be nonviolent but because we trust God to be present with us even to and beyond the point of death,” he said.

At the closing worship service on Saturday morning, Glen Guyton, MC USA executive director, revealed the denomination’s theme for the next two years: “Be Transformed.”

“Let us be advocates and allies for the marginalized,” he said. “Let us demonstrate the love of Christ in word and deed to those that don’t feel like this church is home. Let us call them to the foot of the cross, because God is enough, and nothing else will do. It is time for MC USA to be transformed.”

Throughout the week, seminars offered ideas for revitalization and peacemaking by affirming diversity and including the marginalized, including people of color, LGBTQ people and survivors of abuse.

Two Mennonite school administrators — Joel Gaines of The City School in Philadelphia and Jeanne Zimmerly Jantzi, formerly of Central Christian School in Ohio — led a seminar on “The Messy Struggle of Antiracism,” particularly as it relates to education.

Zimmerly Jantzi defended the teaching of antiracism, which has become controversial in some schools, including the one she used to lead.

Gaines urged being “open to experiencing discomfort” while learning to appreciate cultural differences.

“As a Black man, as a Black head of school, where Black male educators make up 1.7 percent of the teaching profession, I know what God has called me to,” he said, addressing the seminar remotely. “I run the race even though that road can feel very exhausting. I want to be within a Christian school space, a Mennonite school space, where we can have hard conversations about race, ethnicity and culture for the sake of shalom.”

LGBTQ interests were represented in seminars such as “Practical Steps to Becoming a Welcoming Congregation” and “Always My Child/Forever My Parent.” Russ and Beth Miller of Bellefontaine, Ohio, described their journey from devastation to affirmation after their son Luke came out as gay 20 years ago.

“Keep a soft heart,” Russ Miller said when asked what advice he would give to parents of LGBTQ children. “A hard heart will kill you. . . . I’m glad I’m the father of a gay man. I’m a better person for it. I no longer have the need to tell someone their story isn’t true.”

In one of the seminars on racial inclusion, Joseph Manickam, president of Hesston College, affirmed a vision of “The Multicultural Future of the Mennonite Church.”

“I believe we cannot be a denomination for people of the ‘right’ lineage, and we need to move beyond that,” he said. Speaking of his own identity, he said, “This is the right time for Hesston to have a president who is an immigrant, a person of color, who was not raised in the Mennonite church. For us to be viable, we have to be different and creative.”

The closing song at the last worship service lifted up Jesus Christ as the foundation of hope for the future: “Jesus, be the center of your church. Everything revolves around you. Nothing else matters. Nothing in this world will do.”

 

Paul Schrag

Paul Schrag is editor of Anabaptist World. Read More

Anabaptist World

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