On the afternoon of July 7, I found myself isolated and alone in a hotel room in Salatiga, Indonesia. It was not what I was expecting.
For more than two years, I had played a small role in planning for the 17th Mennonite World Conference assembly. My efforts had focused largely on writing a history of the three Indonesian synods that are part of MWC, planning the agenda for Faith and Life Commission meetings, working on presentations for the General Council and conferring about workshops.
But the energy I had put in was nothing compared to the efforts of colleagues — many of them youthful volunteers in the Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network — who had been living in Central Java for months, working with Liesa Unger, the MWC international events coordinator, and the Indonesian national planning council.
From a distance, it’s difficult to appreciate the logistical magnitude of these global gatherings. The challenges are not only technical — coordinating visas, flights, local transportation, food, lodging, publicity, printing, finances, translation, interpretation, technology and medical care — but also planning a program with the right mix of worship, business meetings, education, tourism and time for informal exchange. All this becomes more daunting if those in charge are attentive to the many different cultural perspectives of those involved.
The payoff, as anyone who has attended an MWC assembly knows, is profound. The transcendent experience of cross-cultural worship and music; the renewal of friendships and discovery of new brothers and sisters in Christ; the fresh awareness of the diversity within our Anabaptist-Mennonite family; the clarity that we are not alone — all were expressed in the assembly theme, “Following Jesus Together Across Barriers.”
but it seemed after all the planning, anticipation and effort, things were coming unraveled. Despite precautions, I, like dozens of others, had tested positive for COVID. This entailed five days of isolation.
The disruption felt truly dire. Most General Council meetings were canceled. The commissions’ agendas were thrown into confusion. Some interpreters were unavailable. Spotty internet service compounded the frustration.
Hungry for face-to-face connection, those in isolation were left with the paradox that love of neighbor meant avoiding neighbors.
My frustration was personal. But the event was also a stress test for MWC as a whole.
In many ways, MWC has never been stronger. Its membership — now numbering 109 national conferences — continues to grow. MWC has played a remarkable role in nurturing connections among its members — especially South-to-South relationships, which sometimes go unnoticed in the North.
At the height of the pandemic, MWC coordinated an outpouring of financial support from around the world through its Deacons Fund.
The monthly online Global Prayer hour continues to be popular.
The networks of global mission and service agencies, established in 2009, are now being joined by four emerging networks: one focusing on peace, one on health and two on education.
Conversations about a possible name change — including a proposed shift from “Conference” to “Communion” — have prompted important theological conversations about the nature of the church.
The experience in Indonesia was sobering. Our form of church relies heavily on face-to-face, embodied expressions of life together. This takes a lot of energy and resources. The global travel that makes such gatherings possible is destructive to the Earth’s fragile climate, a fact that conversations about the future of MWC must continue to address.
In the body of Christ, we truly do not know who we are apart from relationships beyond our countries and cultures. But the global church is vulnerable — always being broken, always “re-membered,” always called into question, always being renewed.
What new forms of global communion are waiting to emerge?