Photo: A cross stood at the front of the sanctuary all weekend long, accompanied by a display of stones on Friday evening. Photo by Caleb Fire.
Around 200 attendees gathered July 21-23 for the annual assembly of Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg. The theme of the gathering was “Adopted: Peril and Promise in the Household of God.”
In the midst of controversy, people came to worship. A time of silence was followed by the hymn, “Come Bring Your Burdens to God.” Select members of congregations carried rocks, representing burdens, to the foot of a cross at the front of the sanctuary. By the following day, the pile of rocks had been assembled into an altar.
In May, Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship, had his credentials suspended after he officiated a wedding ceremony for two women. At the winter VMC assembly, Villegas had been informed that if he officiated the wedding his ministerial credentials would be suspended. Across the conference, congregations and individuals expressed disagreement about this response. Although Villegas’ actions were never discussed openly by the gathered body, Clyde Kratz, executive conference minister, acknowledged them when he discussed his role as leader. He requested prayer for wisdom and patience as the conference continued to discern what to do.
“There is not a template for this kind of scenario,” Kratz said, referencing the fact that suspension of credentials is rare. “What is best for the whole of the conference is weighted against the effects those decisions will have on those involved.”
Photo: Clyde Kratz, executive director of Virginia Mennonite Conference, speaks at the conference’s annual assembly. Photo by Caleb Fire.
Several attendees wore rainbow colored strips of cloth pinned to their lapels in support of Villegas throughout the weekend.
The actions of Lindale Mennonite Church, VMC and Eastern Mennonite University have come under intense scrutiny as more details surrounding allegations of abuse by Luke Hartman, former EMU vice president, have come to light. Hartman resigned his position at EMU following a January police charge of solicitation of prostitution and subsequent allegations of abuse by Lauren Shifflett, a former Lindale Church member, on the blog Our Stories Untold. In response to a May 13 recommendation from the denominational Panel on Prevention of Sexual Abuse, Lindale, VMC and EMU are planning for an investigation of institutional responses to and knowledge of these events. An announcement of the party chosen to conduct the investigation was expected the following week.
On June 22, seven current and former members of VMC, including Shifflett and her sister, Marissa Buck, submitted a formal complaint regarding Lindale pastor Duane Yoder’s response to allegations against Hartman. Some of these complaints were also outlined in an April 21 blog post by Buck. According to Buck and Shifflett, prior to the complaint, neither of them had been contacted by VMC leadership. In a June 28 email, Patsy Seitz, chair of VMC’s Faith and Life Commission, which deals with credentialing concerns, responded to the complainants, writing: “VMC leadership is committed to the independent process that EMU, VMC and Lindale Mennonite Church have agreed to. Upon completion of that process, if there are any specific recommendations regarding Pastor Duane Yoder, we will proceed with them, keeping your concerns in mind.”
Despite these topics of peril, there was also plenty of promise to be found during the weekend.
Delegates approved VMC officers and commission members for the coming year and affirmed VMC’s new visions and mission statements. Table groups discussed the possibility of changing the structure of membership guidelines to allow for more diverse opinions to be held in harmony. Delegates considered a “centered-set” model in which core beliefs are stated though not expressly required to be followed, as opposed to the traditional “bounded-set,” in which people and congregations are either in or out of fellowship based on their alignment with stated beliefs.
Delegates heard reports from VMC leadership on the budget, a shortage of storage space in the VMC archives, and the possibility of writing a new history book about Mennonites in Virginia.
Music for the conference was led by The Walking Roots” a local Anabaptist band whose lyrics often draw inspiration from hymns.
The worship services also featured keynote speakers Drew Hart and Patricia Shelly. Hart, professor of theology at Messiah College, Grantham, Pa., and author of several books (most recently Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Race Relations), brought the message the first night, addressing the need for Mennonites to confront their past and current interactions with antiracism work.
Photo: Drew Hart, author of the book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, speaks during Virginia Mennonite Conference’s annual assembly. Photo be Caleb Fire.
“The church has averted its eyes from the suffering of the underclass and covered its ears to the cries for justice from those that have been crushed by oppressive systems,” he said. “The church in America is deeply implicated in all of this. Mennonites in the U.S. have claimed stolen lands and benefited from the slave economy. We need the reconciling work of Jesus Christ to be made visibly manifested in the church and in our society today.”
The next day, Shelly, moderator of Mennonite Church USA and Bible professor at Bethel College, North Newton, Kan., reminding attendees that we are all adopted into God’s household. “It is not the newcomers who have to adopt ‘our ways,’—as if it is our job to bring order to God’s household—but all of us who are welcomed into the project of reconciliation that is God’s mission in the world,” she said. The service ended in a joint commissioning time for VMC ministers and VMMissions workers.
VMC moderator Elroy Miller praised the assembly’s unity and encouraged additional perseverance and patience.
“The fact is, we mustn’t stop or give up; that’s not the New Testament way,” he said. “The New Testament way is to continue forward through difficult conversations, thoughtfully and prayerfully searching out God’s will.”