LEESBURG, Va. — As an Indigenous woman who claims Anabaptist theology as her own, Sarah Augustine often questions how much “Mennonite” is really part of her identity.
This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review
After an Anabaptist women’s theology conference Feb. 20-22, she has no doubt.
“These are my people,” she said. “That recognition and affirmation is profound.”
Examining and sharing stories and issues related to diversity often found in the margins of Anabaptist churches framed the conversation for the conference, “All You Need Is Love: Honoring the Diversity of Women’s Voices in Theology.”
The conference was part of Mennonite Church USA’s Women in Leadership Project, which co-sponsored the event along with Mennonite Central Committee.
Mary Lackore, an 80-year-old resident of Greencroft Retirement Community in Middlebury, Ind., came ready to dispute that theme.
“Love is enough?” she said. “No, that is not true.” She and two others were able to attend through a Greencroft scholarship.
Just as she hoped, she found many opportunities for conversations about times when love isn’t enough, and much more.
Over the two and a half days, speakers, group leaders and participants explored the idea of love during small group conversations, worship sessions, meditations and many breakout sessions on food, mothering, ecofeminism, power, mentoring, mission, publishing, social media and more.
Women presented academic papers on topics including business, farming, infertility, miscarriage, adultery, adoption, violence, sexual ethics, beauty, technology, veganism and sports.
And all 200 or so women (and three men) came together each day for three or four speakers who shared stories reflecting on what it means to love in specific contexts.
Love amid oppression
Calenthia S. Dowdy, director of faith initiatives at an HIV/AIDS organization, Philadelphia FIGHT, opened the first large group conversation on love in the midst of oppression.
She described coming from a black Baptist background to the Mennonite church in her late 20s and being welcomed warmly by the women in the church. But one church grew divided over race issues.
“Those same sisters, the white women in the church who loved me, were very silent when I needed them to be vocal,” she said. “That scarred me. I’m still scarred.”
There can be no love, she said, without a corresponding action.
“If we as sisters in the body of Christ are going to really love one another and show solidarity to one another, we probably have to do something,” she said. “We probably have to sacrifice something.”
Blanca Vargas, pastor of Iglesia Menonita Comunidad de Vida in San Antonio, Texas, told about the sacrificial love of her mother, whose determination to educate her children expanded opportunities for underprivileged Colombians.
“The lives of many men and women in Colombia have been transformed because of the love, faith and hope of one woman,” she said.
Laura Brenneman, a chaplain resident at Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal, Ill., and a visiting religion professor at three colleges, reframed the idea of the Good Samaritan to the “good enough” Samaritan.
In the parable, when a traveler is beaten, robbed and left by the side of the road, the Samaritan helps but then leaves because he has done enough.
“The good enough Samaritan is able to keep his or her goals and also take good care of someone,” she said.
Erica Littlewolf, who works in Albuquerque, N.M., at the Indigenous Vision Center with MCC Central States, spoke about love in Indigenous contexts in Friday’s large group discussion.
She said six words translate as “love” in Cheyenne, with at least 12 different forms.
“In none of those were they ever a noun, always an action,” she said.
She described the actions Christians, including Mennonites, took when they forced Indigenous people into boarding schools. They assumed Indigenous people didn’t know God.
“Since this harm was done together, we realize we must also heal together,” she said. “How does the Mennonite church need to be healed?”
Argee Macliing Malayao, the national spokesperson of KAMP, a national alliance of Indigenous peoples’ organizations in the Philippines, spoke via recorded video to describe how she found love in her context where Indigenous people face violations of their rights, like forced evacuations.
“Love will flourish, not just by ending the militarization of our communities, nor by the simple absence of violence,” she said. “It is in our search for social justice and genuine recognition of our collective rights to ancestral lands and self-determination that we find and develop love.”
In the same session, Linda Gehman Peachey talked about personal relationships and everyday living. She said many of her difficult experiences of loving day-to-day enemies have been in the church.
The issue of women in leadership shaped how she viewed herself and her faith.
She remembered thinking “something was so wrong with women that even Christ could not fully redeem them.”
There were times when she would run away from people with whom she disagreed, but throughout her life she has worked to learn how to stay. Staying has been a blessing to her faith.
Malinda Berry, recently named assistant professor of theology and ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, offered a theological response to the three stories. She said she heard a theme: women who experienced a reality where their existence was a problem.
“What does our understanding of the Christian gospel move us to say in the face of such a statement?” she asked. “How are we called to respond?”
She quoted theologian Karen King, who described Mary Magdalene as “the apostle to the apostles,” commissioned by a risen Jesus to spread the word to the disciples.
“Perhaps out of this conference we may commission ourselves to be like Mary, to be apostles to the apostles,” Berry said.
Some of the most vulnerable stories were told and responded to on Saturday, during a private large group session regarding violence done to women.
Come when invited
Augustine, a sociologist from Toppenish, Wash., who co-founded the Suriname Indigenous Health Fund, served on the planning committee. She said the turnout demonstrated, somewhat to her surprise, that people show up when invited.
“What is amazing to me is how responsive the women here have been and willing to hold up and examine our lives,” she said. “It has culminated in a way so much better than I imagined.”
She was pleased that they managed to create an inclusive atmosphere, an attempt that can often feel forced.
A variety of ages was represented, as recent college graduate, Emily Kraybill and her family demonstrated. She attended with a sister, her brother and their mother.
“I’m surprised at how many young women were not just excited, but pumped, to be here,” Kraybill said. Lindsay Davis, a student at Eastern Mennonite Seminary from Winchester, Va., agreed.
“It’s just really wonderful to know that there are this many women who are this passionate,” she said.