Global Anabaptist: Stories from the global Mennonite church
I had been planning the trip to the Philippines and India for several months, eagerly anticipating a firsthand encounter with people and churches that I knew only through impressions gleaned from books, articles and emails. As it turned out, however, local realities disrupted my international plans. Two days before my scheduled departure it became clear that my mother-in-law, Mattie Miller, was in her final stages of her life.
In the week that followed I thought a lot about the global church through the lens of the grief associated with Mattie’s death and the disappointment of a cancelled trip. A primary goal of the trip had been to meet with two people: Regina Mondez, a peace worker with the Integrated Mennonite Churches of the Philippines, and C.S. Joel, a teacher at the Mennonite Brethren Church seminary in Shamshabad, India.
Both had been appointed by their national churches as research associates for the Mennonite World Conference “Global Anabaptist Profile,” but their visa requests to attend a planning conference in the United States had been denied. So the trip was a chance to discuss their role in a major research project while also giving me a firsthand introduction to their churches and cultural context.
By most standards, Mattie had almost nothing in common with Regina Mondez, C.S. Joel or the global church. Born into an Amish family in Holmes County, Ohio, at the height of the First World War, she completed her formal education at grade eight and lived her entire life within a 15-mile radius of her childhood home. She died on Aug. 18 at the age of 95, and the friends and family who gathered a week later to celebrate her long life remembered the delight she took in the local and the particular: sharing produce from her bountiful garden, serving in her local congregation, stitching quilts for the Ohio Relief Sale and spending years of faithful service at the local MCC Save & Serve store.
Yet even though her feet were firmly planted in the soil of Holmes County, Mattie’s heart was open to the world. Her perspective was never limited by geography. Mattie recognized the divine image of God in everyone she encountered, and she embraced them with open arms. A vast network of folks from the wrong side of town remember her warm generosity; a Japanese exchange student from Malone knew he was welcome into her home; an African-American teenager from Pittsburgh found deep love and acceptance under her roof. Mattie owned a passport. And if a family member serving the church in some distant land worked out the details, she was open to travel: to Haiti, Puerto Rico, Germany, Mexico, Costa Rica.
In her long and rich life, Mattie bore witness to one of the central mysteries of the Christian faith: the God we worship—the Creator of the universe who exceeds all our feeble efforts to describe in words or concepts—was made visible in a local and particular form. Indeed, in the person of Jesus, who spent most of his life in a tiny country at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, serving within a 20- or 30-mile radius of his hometown, we have seen the character of God.
Mattie was not perfect. But because she loved Jesus—because the life and teachings of Jesus were so much at the center of her life—the small, daily, humble acts of her ordinary life offered a glimpse to those around her of the vast and extraordinary nature of God.
I have often asked myself and others what it means to be part of a global church. Surely it includes face-to-face visits with people like Regina Mondez and C.S. Joel. I still hope to visit the Philippines and India sometime. But at a deeper level, it probably has less to do with intercontinental travel and more to do with a way of being in the world wherever we are. Mattie was one face of the global church—firmly rooted in the particularity of time, place and culture yet eager to see the presence of God in everyone she met.
Where have you seen the face of the global church?
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College, director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism and editor of Mennonite Quarterly Review.