It might have been providential that U.S. Anabaptists got to host the Mennonite World Conference assembly for the first time in 38 years. While conflict over sexuality is tearing apart the largest U.S. Mennonite denomination, the July 21-26 event in Harrisburg, Pa., did what MWC gatherings are supposed to do. It revived a spirit of unity. It put any single group’s concerns in perspective by showing the bigger picture. It challenged members of the global church to walk more closely with God and with each other.
In the humble setting of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex arena, more than 7,500 people from 65 countries heard many words of encouragement and admonition. Three simple messages resonated: Rock on. Repent. Don’t turn comrades into casualties.
For Bruxy Cavey, a Canadian Brethren in Christ pastor, to rock on is to go beyond the ethic of a rock. A rock doesn’t do any harm, but it doesn’t do any good either. Followers of Christ need to do good actively.
Cavey’s message could be distilled to a simple truth: Love one another. “You’ve got to love God and your neighbor as yourself,” he said. “If you don’t do one, you’re a liar about the other.”
The assembly heard a prophetic word in Kevin Ressler’s call for North Americans to repent of our lust for comfort and power and to make Anabaptism our core identity. He indicted those who have abandoned pacifism in order to fit in with American Christianity. He said we have become like Pharisees, using the Bible as a weapon to narrow the gate instead of widening the path. “Woe unto us,” he warned, “for we have chosen to take the power of Jesus Christ and selfishly use it for our own gain to keep others who are different from us out so we can feel more righteous.”
Remilyn Mondez, a young woman from the Philippines, poignantly told of becoming a casualty of church conflict. As a teenager, her world was crushed when she lost her childhood friends due to one group of Mennonites cutting off relationships. The rift occurred when some families switched from a plain-dressing church to a more liberal one.
“Remember, there are children and young people caught in church conflicts,” Mondez said. “Sometimes they become church-haters. And we wonder why we are losing young people in the church.”
An MWC assembly brings many joys, not the least of which are the small moments that connect people whose common faith transcends vast differences. One evening, Janneke Leernik of the Netherlands and Siaka Traore of Burkina Faso smiled at each other across a supper table. The Dutch young adult had snapped her plastic fork in half. “It’s OK,” Traore said. “The same thing happened to me yesterday.” Holding the stub, Leernik declared, “We are the people of the little forks,” and reached across the table to fist-bump with the African pastor.
Being the people of God is serious business a lot of the time and discouraging some of the time. But in Harrisburg there was a lot of joy, in moments big and small. We need more of that.