In a remarkable little book, Sharing Gifts in the Global Family of Faith (Good Books, 2003), Pakisa Tshimika and Tim Lind reported on a two-year project, sponsored by Mennonite World Conference, in which they led 13 workshops in 10 countries on the theme of gift sharing among churches in the Anabaptist-Mennonite global communion.
In the course of their work, Tshimika and Lind uncovered a host of inspiring stories, compiled an inventory of the diverse gifts churches around the world were prepared to share and developed a compelling biblical argument for giving and receiving as the basis of healthy church relationships.
Their project also revealed a deeply entrenched pattern in which Mennonite churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America were understood largely as needy recipients, while churches in Europe and North America were wealthy givers.
On the surface, it’s easy to understand the source of these assumptions. In 2015 close to half of the world’s population (46%) — mostly from Latin America, Asia, or Africa — was subsisting on less than $5.50 a day. Today, 62 percent of the world’s millionaires reside in Europe and North America, with almost 40 percent living in the U.S.
Daily headlines reinforce these impressions. Back-to-back hurricanes this fall yielded familiar images of flooding in Honduras and Nicaragua, with calls from Mennonite Central Committee to provide relief aid. News of violence in Tigray, Ethiopia, has prompted concerns for how the Meserete Kristos Church, the Anabaptist church in Ethiopia, can play a more active role in peacemaking.
On an even larger scale, during the past six months, a remarkable coalition of North American and European Mennonite mission and relief agencies has collaborated in an effort, led by MWC, to provide direct financial assistance for sister churches in the Global South who are affected disproportionately by the global COVID-19 pandemic. By the end of October, the initiative had distributed some $414,700 in direct financial aid to 53 national Anabaptist churches in 28 countries.
On the surface, it might seem that these news stories and the COVID-19 response only reinforce the image of wealthy Mennonites in Europe and North America sharing their largesse with the needy churches of the Global South. But the deeper truth is much more complicated.
In the first place, the stereotype of the rich North and poor South hides the reality of profound wealth disparities within Europe and North America — disparities reflected in the economic resources of our congregations.
Emerging economies in many countries of the Global South — China, India, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Indonesia and others — now have large middle classes, including groups of wealthy Mennonites. The task force that disbursed the money gathered in the MWC COVID-19 Fund included members from Burkina Faso, the Philippines and Colombia. Anabaptist groups in many countries that received assistance — Nicaragua, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Ecuador, Mexico and others — cooperated with each other in assessing local needs and coordinating the distribution.
And in several instances, national churches served as a conduit to pass along resources to other groups in neighboring countries. Thus, Mennonite churches in Burkina Faso supported the church in Sierra Leone, and Mennonites in Colombia facilitated projects in Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Seen through a still different lens, we in the North are profoundly needy. Many Mennonite groups in North America are spiritually impoverished, hesitant to share the Good News and uncertain about our future. And the current fragility of democracy in the United States should make us cautious about sharing confident judgments about the political conditions of other countries.
Throughout the book, Tshimika and Lind repeatedly insist that every member of the global Anabaptist-Mennonite church has something to contribute — not in the condescending sense of the “widow’s mite” but as a vital and necessary thread in the fabric that binds us together.
Even as we continue to share a portion of our economic abundance, what gifts are we willing to receive from brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world?