A three-day “people’s summit” in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for U.S. and Canadian Mennonites originally held some promise. Now the purpose of this “crossroads” gathering July 8-10 seems to be in peril. While more than 400 Canadian Mennonites will attend, only 50 U.S. Mennonites are registered. Furthermore, the goal of the gathering is to help build relationships among members of both denominations at the “grass roots.” But many of the U.S. registrants will represent Mennonite Church USA agencies.
Pam Peters Pries, the Mennonite Church Canada staff person primarily responsible for organizing the gathering, was gracious in her explanations about why so few U.S. Mennonites will attend:
- This is the first time the two denominations have had an event like this that does not have a business meeting with it.
- The low turnout by U.S. Mennonites may relate to its location (Winnipeg) or its timing (summer vacations near July 4) or the mid-week dates.
Peters Pries also cautioned against reading too much into the low U.S. turnout.
“I would not leap very quickly,” she said, “to say that there is a lack of interest from U.S. Mennonites in partnerships with Mennonite Church Canada. If we want to build relationships at a grassroots level, maybe [the low turnout] is a sign that we need to look at other ways.”
Mennonite Church Canada held its annual conference as part of the joint convention in Charlotte, N.C., in 2005. Perhaps there was an implicit assumption that Mennonite Church USA would reciprocate some time and hold its biennial convention in Canada.
But the two gatherings are very different in size. While several hundred Canadians gathered in Charlotte, it would be a challenge to get 5,000-6,000 U.S. adults and youth to travel to Canada. So the idea for a study conference emerged as a way for the two denominations to maintain contact. A “peoples summit” would be a gathering of all those who want to reinforce relationships with former brothers and sisters in General Conference Mennonite Church or Mennonite Church.
However, it is not to be just a family reunion. The event, entitled, “At the Crossroads: Promise and Peril,” will focus on a very important matter: the assimilation we are experiencing as North American Mennonites.
“Wherein lies the security of the people as they inhabit this land and as they deal with the temptations of wealth, power and ownership?” is one of the questions posed on the registration form.
But less than one-half of 1 percent of Mennonite Church USA will be present to wrestle with such a question. I suspect there are reasons other than those offered by Peters Pries. Some of these reasons are profound; some are pragmatic:
• We don’t really want to talk about our power as U.S. citizens with our Canadian sisters and brothers.
• The strength of our relationships with Canadian Mennonites has faded; we no longer consider those relationships worth the costs involved.
• In this economic slowdown, many of us are spending less on travel as those costs increase.
Mennonite Church USA convention-goers are accustomed to a youth convention being part of the biennial assembly; there is no youth convention associated with this gathering.
It’s fair to ask, Would 500 Mennonite Church USA members attend a “study conference” in the United States if that gathering had no decision-making authority (a Delegate Assembly) and no youth convention? Probably not.
Regardless, I expect that the meager response to this invitation will frustrate our Canadian sisters and brothers. It may also inject some pragmatism into the relationship: any hope for regular binational gatherings will not come to fruition. But as Peters Pries suggests, God may have some new way for us to relate. I will be eager to learn whether that is the case.—ejt
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