European Mennonites with Pink Menno T-shirts in Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex parking lot during Mennonite World Conference. Photo by Lisa Schirch.
The Mennonite World Conference (MWC) assembly, held July 21-26 in Harrisburg, Pa., provided opportunities both to celebrate and lament what it means to be Mennonite. Many peace and justice issues were discussed at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex where the conference took place. But reconciliation or even acknowledgement of the conflict on same-sex sexuality within Anabaptist churches around the world was missing.
It felt like there was no formal room for those who support the dignity and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people.
Carol Wise from the Brethren Mennonite Council on LGBTQ submitted several proposals to lead workshops that would have provided a forum for balanced conversation between Anabaptists from around the world with diverse theological opinions. These workshops would have provided an opportunity to provide information and dialogue to reduce the widespread ignorance on sexuality in MWC churches. MWC rejected all these workshop proposals.
Following the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City, Mo., Pink Menno asked for a volunteer to distribute leftover T-shirts but had not planned any activities for MWC. We announced on Pink Menno’s Facebook page that anyone wanting a T-shirt should find a red Prius in the parking lot of the Farm Show Complex.
When I arrived at the empty parking lot early one morning, parking attendants had circled the car.
Lisa sat in the front seat with the door closed. There was no sign or public solicitation. Yet the attendant informed her she was not allowed to distribute T-shirts. This felt like an authoritarian attempt to control a small voice quietly supporting human dignity.
After we shared this experience on Facebook, MWC staff set up a meeting with us for the next morning. Two female MWC staff apologized for what happened in the parking lot and told us we were allowed to give out free Pink Menno T-shirts and wear our T-shirts to MWC events.
MWC staff explained that the decision to exclude any LGBTQ workshops at MWC was part of a broader policy to not include issues facing only specific regions of the world. Since, in their point of view, LGBTQ concerns were only being discussed in Mennonite Church USA, which was one of four North American denominations hosting this assembly, this “regional issue” did not deserve a space for wider discussion at MWC.
Approximately 100 people at MWC asked to have a Pink Menno T-shirt.
Individuals from Ecuador, India and Honduras, as well as groups—including approximately 40 European youth—showed up in the parking lot to get T-shirts.
The MWC parking lot gave birth to a global Pink Menno network, as Mennonites from around the world who were participating in MWC came to offer their support and pick up a T-shirt. People hugged and exchanged stories of the church’s persecution of LGBTQ people in their countries. The oppression of LGBTQ people seems clearly relevant to the global Mennonite church.
People shared their conviction that the teachings of Jesus are at variance with Mennonite churches’ teachings on sexuality. We believe in a Jesus who told us the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. We believe in a Jesus who welcomed all people. We believe in a Jesus who instructed people to look at the log in their own eye before judging the speck of dust in their neighbor’s.
Before Western colonialism, many Indigenous societies viewed queer people as specially gifted.
Colonial religious leaders imported the idea that the church should persecute and exclude queer people.
The Nazis designated the color pink as a symbol of people with the gift of same-sex sexuality. Like the Jewish star, it was a symbol of Nazi extermination plans for all queer people.
Today in Nigeria, Ukraine, Uganda and many other countries, many Christians continue a Western cultural pattern of violently persecuting LGBTQ people for their God-given sexual orientation. This persecution takes psychological forms as well, such as shunning, which leads to an alarming suicide rate among LGBTQ people.
The night before the final day at MWC, approximately 60 young, mostly European Mennonites gathered outside to discuss how they could respectfully oppose church persecution of LGBTQ people. Some expressed fear that we as Pink Mennos would seem “angry” and “antagonistic” if we sat in a “pink block.”
Others noted that U.S. civil rights activists who sat at lunch counters were also seen as “antagonistic.” In fact, prophets of all ages were cautioned to be patient and diplomatic in the face of the injustice they worked to stop. Calls for patience almost always come from the powerful and privileged.
Some Pink Mennos vocalize the need to “go slow.”
Others note that the church has asked for patience for over 30 years, and in those decades countless queer Mennonites have committed suicide, left the church or lived in pain and fear, intimidation and silence.
We met a young gay man from another country at MWC. He apologized, explaining that he wanted to support Pink Menno but was afraid to wear a pink T-shirt. If his home community found out that he is gay, he would be punished.
How can Mennonites not bear witness to this pain of LGBTQ Mennonites around the world? What benefit will come from the complete exclusion of any conversation on the humanity of LGBTQ people at MWC? What are the costs of this strategy?
Pink T-shirts dotted the crowd on the final day at MWC.
Some with pink shirts stood up as a witness when one of the speakers named sexual diversity as the “leprosy” of today. The crowd clapped, endorsing the end of silent complicity with violence against and exclusion of queer people.
Anabaptist churches may not all agree on including LGBTQ people as members in their churches. But as a pacifist church, we should all be able to agree to resist violence against LGBTQ people and to dialogue and reconcile among ourselves, even in the midst of conflict.
Lisa Schirch and Jacob Mack-Boll both belong to welcoming Mennonite churches in Harrisonburg, Va., and Lancaster, Pa., respectively. Their work is grounded in social justice and peacebuilding.