We found much to love about the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Harrisburg, Pa., in July. Spectacular music complemented thought-provoking speakers. Diverse Mennonites discussed justice and reconciliation while eating delicious food on compostable foodware.
But we felt agony amid this ecstasy. There was a disconnect between MWC’s affirmation of unity, reconciliation and social justice and the disregard for the presence and needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people within MWC.
MWC’s official policy was to avoid “controversial” subjects with a “regional flavor.” Deeming the inclusion of LGBTQ people a “regional issue,” MWC rejected all the proposed workshops from the Brethren and Mennonite advocacy organizations supporting LGBTQ people that would have featured a facilitated dialogue among Mennonites across the conservative and progressive spectrum on same-sex sexuality.
Given no formal space inside the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex, Pink Menno supporters gathered in the parking lot, a bit like lepers waiting outside the gates. More than 100 Pink Menno supporters who were attending the assembly shared their experiences of persecution, exclusion and punishment inside the church. They held in common a belief that Jesus welcomes all people.
Pink Menno supporters from the Global North and South discussed their concerns with MWC policy to exclude discussion on same-sex sexuality. Here are some of the themes that emerged:
Conflict avoidance undermines church unity.
Anabaptists share a set of beliefs: a desire to follow the way of Jesus, adult baptism, service to others, love of enemies and separation of church and state. While we can build on common ground, pretending there is no conflict does not allow us to feel unity with each other.
Though the global church is deeply divided on whether to affirm the humanity and call for the end of persecution and exclusion of LGBTQ people, MWC did not acknowledge this reality. Many LGBTQ Mennonites and their supporters entered the space to fellowship with the global family, but MWC’s lack of acknowledgment of the presence of LGBTQ people in the church made them feel invisible and isolated.
Mennonite institutions must use peacebuilding skills.
Avoiding conflict and controversial subjects at MWC lacks integrity and damages the reputation of Anabaptist peacebuilding. How can we tout diplomacy and negotiation with our global “enemies” when MWC leadership refuses to make space for any conversation between Mennonites who disagree? How could MWC offer workshops on the values of dialogue and conflict transformation while not practicing these skills with the global body? Peace and unity are devoid of meaning if we aren’t humbly engaged in listening and dialogue.
LGBTQ people are not a regional issue.
LGBTQ people are not a conflict, an issue or a problem to be solved or avoided. They are people, believers and siblings in congregations across the globe.
MWC cannot justify its exclusion of workshops and discussions on LGBTQ people’s human rights, dignity and freedoms by framing them as a regional theological issue rather than as a global rights struggle.
MWC opened its assembly with a compelling media tour of countries where Anabaptists live. In many of these countries, Christians persecute and even kill LGBTQ people. Mennonites in some of these countries think they are being faithful followers of Jesus by joining in the persecution. In all countries, LGBTQ people face psychological persecution. Shunning is church-sanctioned psychological and social torture.
Before the arrival of Western Christianity via colonialism, some traditional and indigenous societies viewed queer people as gifted. Some Western Christians continue to actively export anti-gay persecution. Currently, a few prominent U.S. Christians and Christian organizations are leading the anti-gay legislation in Uganda calling for the death penalty for homosexuality.
Mennonite institutions have a mandate to educate and build bridges.
The day before MWC began, Goshen (Ind.) College and Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., announced they would welcome LGBTQ faculty and staff. We heard people at MWC asking, “Where will we send our children to be educated, now that Goshen and EMU have left the Mennonite church?” How will MWC member churches understand EMU’s and Goshen’s hiring policies if they are not provided an opportunity for dialogue with LGBTQ Mennonites and their allies?
Many Mennonites are simply not informed about LGBTQ people. There is mass confusion about the distinctions between homosexuality, promiscuity and pedophilia.
We hear Mennonites say, “I have never met a gay person,” and publicly question whether their children are safe with queer people, wrongly implying that there is a correlation with sexual abuse. Others assume Pink Menno advocates are not Mennonites. Church institutions like MWC have done almost nothing to educate people or to make space for dialogue.
How can Mennonites be proud of Mennonite peacebuilding internationally while MWC silences our attempts at internal peacebuilding within the Mennonite church?
While Anabaptists may not all agree on giving church membership to queer people, could we agree that we must speak out to stop the violence against queer people and commit to hearing each other in the midst of disagreement?
Lisa Schirch and Jacob Mack-Boll belong to welcoming Mennonite churches in Harrisonburg, Va., and Lancaster, Pa., respectively. Their work is grounded in social justice and peacebuilding.