This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

In Philadelphia, Scripture speaks to an urban context

When he was 15, Juan Marrero, now an Anabaptist pastor in Philadelphia, used a pair of boxing gloves to settle a dispute with a young man who attacked his aunt and broke her ribs.

Hand-to-hand fighting isn’t how many Anabaptists interpret what it means to turn the other cheek. And yet, choosing to box — rather than wield guns or knives — created peace in Fair­hill, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Hesston College instructor Michele Hershberger teaches the “Bible as Story” at Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust in Philadelphia. — Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust
Hesston College instructor Michele Hershberger teaches the “Bible as Story” at Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust in Philadelphia. — Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust

Marrero, preaching pastor at Christ Centered Church and director of Crossroads Community Center, shared this story in a weeklong “Bible as Story” class in Philadelphia in late July. Kingdom Builders Network — a consortium of about 40 Anabaptist leaders who gather monthly for reading Scripture, prayer and discernment — partnered with Hesston (Kan.) College and Mennonite Mission Network to sponsor the class.

Marrero and Michele Hershberger, chair of the Bible department at Hesston College, team taught the non-credit class for 15 students, including Latinos, African-Americans and Anglos from about 10 congregations throughout greater Philadelphia.

Marrero supplied urban context to the biblical story, including the boxing example.

“No one got shot and nobody got killed,” Marrero said. “Since my father had been a boxer and was respected for that, choosing to settle accounts this way preserved everyone’s dignity, which is also part of creating God’s shalom in our community.”

He recognizes that Mennonites from rural settings might find this method of conflict resolution hard to understand.

“And yet, there could have been 17 other ways to handle the situation that would have ended in violence,” he said. “Instead, it ended in peace, and my aunt was never bothered again.”

This story, as well as others, helped Hershberger to see the Sermon on the Mount in a new light, she said.

“The Bible came alive for me in new ways, and my eyes were opened to all kinds of things I hadn’t seen before,” she said. “The richness of our teaching together from our different perspectives can’t be overstated. . . . Kingdom Builders is such a good model for what that means — coming together in our diversity, transcending theological and cultural differences, to unify around sharing Christ’s gospel.”

Seeing Bible’s diversity

Marrero and Hershberger used a new book, The Bible as Story: An Introduction to Biblical Literature, co-authored by Hershberger, Marion Bontrager and John Sharp, as one of their texts for the class.

The book is a compendium of Hesston College’s Introduction to Biblical Literature course, developed since the mid-1980s under the guidance of Bontrager, its founder. The course helps students to connect their own story in God with God’s story and to engage in inductive Bible study and biblical interpretation.

Marrero and Hershberger taught the class at Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust, the oldest Mennonite meetinghouse in North America.

Philadelphia was a great site for teaching of a biblical narrative that is much more diverse than many people perceive, said student Jill Witmer Sinha. She is a member of Calvary United Methodist Church in Ambler, Pa., and a graduate of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Those of us who are white and Western often fail to perceive the Bible’s diversity,” she said. “This class helps to reveal just how missional God is. Even before Jesus, there was a pattern of inclusivity. . . . God’s covenants were for all those who wanted to do what was right. Those leaving Egypt in the exodus were not only Israelites. The Passover was not solely religiously or ethnically oriented but was open to all those who believed.”

Another student was Leonard Dow, senior pastor at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church and chair of Kingdom Builders, which he guides with vice chair Marrero and others. The team-taught class brought a Christ-centered lens to the Bible from different contexts. That model dovetails with Kingdom Builders’ objectives, which include building a foundation of Anabaptist education to support a widening development of ministries.

“In Kingdom Builders, we are learning, through God’s grace and through dwelling together in the Word and prayer, what it means to collaborate in ministry from different theological perspectives,” he said. “No matter what Anabaptist stream we come from, in the city we have common challenges — clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, healing the broken, finding jobs for the unemployed, comforting the imprisoned. We are continually discerning together what we can do together.”

An urban investment

The model of Kingdom Build­ers is one that Del Hershberger, staff member of Mennonite Mission Network, believes the wider Mennonite church needs to emulate. Over the past three years, Hershberger met with Kingdom Builders to build relationships and learn from urban leaders. Hershberger is exploring partnership possibilities in other urban centers, including Los Angeles and New York City.

“Kingdom Builders Network is an amazing group,” he said. “Its members [including representatives from Mennonite Church USA, Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren and others] don’t let their different theological viewpoints on social issues divide them.

“As the strengths and treasures of the wider church’s rural and suburban congregations are diminishing, it is important to invest resources in these urban centers, as we discover together the next stage of the ongoing story of God in the Anabaptist community.”

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!