At 18, Mark Van Steenwyk was a cowboy-hat-wearing, flag-saluting, evangelical conservative who believed God had blessed America.
“I loved America. I was America,” he wrote in the introduction to his new book, The UNkingdom of God, published by InterVarsity Press.
As he grew older he noticed inconsistencies. The U.S. was a “Christian nation” but also a forceful empire. Jesus taught against wealth; America was rich. Christians pledged allegiance to the nation; God’s kingdom included the heavens and all the Earth. People Jesus called the least of these were forced to the margins.
He decided to approach Christianity in a new way and repent of participation in manipulative power.
As a result, in 2004 he and his wife, Amy, founded an intentional community, Missio Dei, in Minneapolis. Last year they renamed it Mennonite Worker.
They’re joined by others who aim to help each other follow Jesus’ teachings to live hospitably and simply and to serve their neighbors.
“Learning how to submit with people in the margins and learning how to not have power over choices — those can be very helpful correctives,” Mark Van Steenwyk said. “For me, living in community has raised those sorts of issues very clearly and sometimes painfully.”
Baptist church plant
The community began from an urban church plant with support from the Baptist General Conference. After a year, the Van Steenwyks felt the original vision had run its course. Some remaining members worked to begin Missio Dei as a house where they would live Jesus-centered lives together and open rooms to people who didn’t have anywhere else to go.
A few Minneapolis residents still join them each Sunday for a worship service.
Four years later, the Baptist affiliation wasn’t working as well as they hoped, according to Sarah Lynne Gershon, who’s lived in the community since graduating from college in 2008.
“The Baptists just didn’t understand us at all,” she said.
She found Mennonite Worker while looking for opportunities to serve. She finds community life helps her live by her values.
“It’s kind of hard to live into the things that Jesus calls us to without having the others around us help us,” Gershon said.
None of the members of the community’s two households come from the Mennonite tradition. But Mennonite Church USA came onto their radar as they explored other traditions.
“I knew the Anabaptist vision was something we resonated with,” Van Steenwyk said. He set up a meeting with Ed Kauffman, the Central Plains Conference minister at the time.
He asked Kauffman what a Mennonite success story looked like. The Baptist measure of success usually had to do with membership numbers. Kauffman described a church in Colombia where two people from opposite sides of a violent conflict worshiped together.
“Now that’s a success story,” Van Steenwyk thought. They resonated with Mennonite values like community and hospitality, nonviolence and living simply. Plus the denomination offered some credibility.
“There’s a tradition within the Anabaptist movement of these communal experiences,” Van Steenwyk said. “Most people know Mennonites are supposed to be kind of strange, but in a good way.”
They joined the conference in 2008. He admits that, like any label, being Mennonite has limitations and can create problems. Often Mennonites are deeply tied to their roots, including through blood relationships.
“If we see ourselves as a family, it’s really hard to see ourselves as a movement that can spread out and get places,” he said. At the same time, the family aspect can help hold the church together during disputes.
“We’re Mennonites not because we think they’re the greatest thing in the world,” he said. “We at least understand each other and have common [spiritual] DNA.”
The group decided to change its name after years of people misunderstanding or being distracted by the Latin name. Some Catholic Worker friends described them as a Worker community, but Mennonite. They liked the idea and became Mennonite Worker.
There are currently seven members of Mennonite Worker with three children. Four guests are living there. Six more live in the houses as residents as they consider or pursue membership.
“You don’t have to be a specific kind of person or have a specific spiritual background,” Gershon said. “You just have to be present.”
To be present means attending discernment meetings, sharing household duties, living according to the community’s values.
Members range from their 20s to 60s, with three children.
Van Steenwyk said there’s a lot of room to grow. They aren’t very racially diverse and, especially at first, weren’t economically diverse.
“We’re increasingly just all kind of economically poor,” he said. “We’re growing among the poor. That’s good. I like that.”
Gershon and Van Steenwyk know that coming from a well-off background and living among those who don’t can lead to condescending attitudes.
“There’s always a desire to fix people,” Van Steenwyk said. “I feel like that’s the wrong goal.”
Gershon had to adjust some of her idealistic visions.
“We’re not trained to fix people. We are not counselors,” she said. Houseguests are usually homeless and often bring alcoholism and other mental health problems into the house.
If they encounter problems, she said, community members ask themselves what is the most loving thing to do.
Gershon said currently most of the members have jobs outside the community, but they hope to have enough stability so that they can allow some who want to work inside the home — as caretakers, volunteers, tending the garden, helping the house guests — to do so.
For over a year they’ve been fundraising to purchase a second home to help with this.
The community fluctuates to some degree. At one point it included three houses. Last year the home the Van Steenwyks owned went into foreclosure.
“It’s kind of a common story of founders extending themselves,” Mark Van Steenwyk said.
While it wasn’t an easy time for his family or the community, he describes it as an act of gelassenheit — an attitude of humility that historically has been important in Anabaptist communities.
“It’s just a way of being attentive to what barriers exist in our communities, being honest about them and letting them go,” Van Steenwyk said.
Both he and Gershon see gelassenheit as important to community living.
“That needs to be part of your life to be able to live in community in a healthy way,” Gershon said.
It comes up in The UNkingdom as well. The book is structured with stories — often funny or awkward — about Van Steenwyk’s upbringing and the Mennonite Worker group woven throughout.
“Christianity has become imperialized,” he said, summarizing the book. “That’s not what Jesus wanted, so we have to find new ways to relearn the gospel. The posture of the book is confession, not pointing fingers.”
He hopes people will view the book as a call to relearn how to live their faith. For him, that means community living. He doesn’t expect that to be the right answer for everyone.
“I like to think that anybody who feels convicted by anything from the book can take some helpful step and not feel beaten up for not being radical enough,” he said.