Christian parents have long encouraged their sons and daughters to find a life partner at church activities. And they’ve encouraged their young adults to meet the global church through international experiences.
For Rianna Isaak and Benni Krauss, those situations overlapped.
The couple — he from Germany, she a Canadian-American dual citizen — got married last August, a little more than two years after they met at the Mennonite World Conference Global Youth Summit in Harrisburg, Pa.
“I had a gut feeling it would be a really cool experience,” Rianna said.
It turned out even cooler than expected.
The match almost didn’t happen.
Rianna felt drawn to the idea of attending the GYS, an event held in conjunction with the MWC assembly every six years. But she was directing a camping ministry that summer, and going to a conference in July seemed impossible.
Then, with barely a month to spare, she received permission to go. Filling the vacant role of a Mennonite Brethren delegate for Canada, she quickly compiled a survey of her national church’s young people.
“Getting two weeks off work was a pretty radical part of God moving things,” she said.
Benni, selected to represent his national church in Germany, co-organized a group of 12 from Germany and Switzerland to attend the GYS.
It was his second time at the MWC event. In 2009 he spent half a year studying in Paraguay, learning Spanish and gaining context to understand the global and local aspects of the worldwide assembly in Asuncion.
“Paraguay was pretty transformative,” he said.
In 2015, with a co-leader, he planned an extended program to “contextualize the experience” for the German-speaking young people. They took extra time in the United States before the assembly to learn about the challenges that threatened to split Mennonite Church USA. They visited LGBTQ-affirming and nonaffirming churches.
The experience “moved people further into leadership and awareness of the scope of the church,” he said.
To youth: ‘We need you’
Looking back on the GYS experience, Rianna Isaak-Krauss said being selected as a delegate sends a message from the church to a young person: “We need you; you are important.”
In 2018, at the halfway point between assemblies, that assessment rings true: 2015 North American GYS delegates are studying theology (including Rianna at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.) or serving as pastors, or as chair of MWC’s YABs (Young Anabaptists) committee.
There’s a feeling of a youth camp at GYS, said Benni Isaak-Krauss: “It’s fun, it’s participatory . . . [but] the delegates were also aware of problems and cared about them.”
For example, a delegate from Latin America approached Rianna to discuss perspectives on sexuality. The respectful conversation formed “a sacred space of curiosity and care,” she said. “We were able to bring the conversation back to our continent groups. It was a very humbling and shaping experience for me.”
Participants realize “the global church isn’t just a dream,” Benni said. “There is a profound love for the church, not just my own project.”
He left with some experiences and more questions: “How do we realize our diversity and start building relationships?”
On a personal level, the Isaak-Krausses built their own relationship despite diverse backgrounds. The spark of interest lit between the two Anabaptist nonconformists at assembly fanned into flames of love over the next year. He visited her home and community in Manitoba after assembly. She relocated to his parents’ community in Germany for several months.
This allowed her to act out another assembly lesson: learn a new language.
“Knowing only one language can be marginalizing,” she said. Not understanding any language but English locked her out of conversations.
Benni said everyone at GYS has two things in common: a unique personal identity and a shared Anabaptist identity. Out of that, friendship, partnership, mentorship — perhaps even romance — can grow.
“There’s what you can do, and then you have to lean on the Holy Spirit,” he said.