I’ve relied on my training and experience as a journalist/ writer to guide my work as a pastor. Listening to people’s stories, noticing details, paying attention to both what is said and unsaid remains critical for me.
My first published articles were in MWR when I was asked to write our congregational updates as a high school student for my home congregation, a church plant in a small mining community in Western Pennsylvania. I’ve valued these pages as a sacred space to connect us across geography and experience. I have sought out ways to tell our stories that drew the circle wider toward including a larger version of us — people who sometimes didn’t feel included in the shared Mennonite narrative because of ethnicity. In those days from Western Pennsylvania I wanted to tell the stories of Carl and Norma Fisher (who in their 90s will likely still read this column from their home in Boswell, Pa.) along with the stories of Mildred Czuplak and Rose Punako. All people who I loved deeply as part of my church family. I was also writing myself into our narrative by having my Slavic surname in the byline (no, that’s not a misspelling of Kniss).
The way we tell stories and the stories we highlight matter. Whose story gets to be told? How honest can we be? Are we prepared to hear from multiple experiences? Truth be told, we often are not ready to hear, but yet we must for the sake of the integrity of the Good News. As a pastor, I learned stories from those who felt themselves to be outsiders. I’ve also learned the risk and consequence of those who refuse to give up on telling us our shared truth when it has not always portrayed us in the best light.
There are many stories that feel too private or painful for public consumption. I have learned a lot about the stories that are not mine to tell, only rather to hear, bear witness, express apology, offer solidarity, compassion, prayer, grace. However, I have also learned we need to pay attention when the storytellers are prepared to come forward with those sacred fragile experiences of abuse, of discrimination, of alternative narratives. Facing up to these experiences is critical to the future of our faith. It is not the storyteller who breaks a sacred trust by breaking the silence surrounding actions that have fallen short of our professions of faith, hope and love. I hope we’ll listen, confess and repent more quickly than we have in the past.
This is my last column, in one of the last issues of MWR. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have told stories, shared insights and experiences. I’ve felt the weight of the legacy of John Esau, who wrote in these spaces for years before me. I also felt his warmth and encouragement for a next generation of leadership and sharing. As a former board member who participated in the merger of The Mennonite and MWR, and as a former staff person at Mennonite Publishing House in Scottdale, Pa., I want to hand off the baton and cheer on those whose words will continue to shape us and illuminate our paths in Anabaptist World. We need new voices to help us find our way.
The new publication will carry on a great legacy of writers with streams of tradition that connect those of us who are part of Mennonite Church USA to other parts of the Anabaptist movement in North America and beyond. The task is formidable — nearly impossibly possible. It is a worthy effort to connect us and remind us of God’s hopeful future.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.