Two seemingly unrelated conversations keep colliding. The first included an explanation of how Mennonites are racist, how they speak of peace but don’t practice it very well. The second happened later that same week in a Zoom meeting that digressed into local history, interconnected families, the Hochstetler massacre and which cemetery to visit.
As a non-native Iowan, I am used to becoming lost in conversations of family connections. There is something important about belonging. We want to be part of a tribe.
When does tribalism become harmful? What does it take to feel included in a Mennonite congregation? Do people need to learn certain songs? Enjoy certain foods? Tolerate Euro-ethnic cultural pride?
Cultural tensions are not new. Soon after Pentecost, the church’s birth, tensions surface (Acts 6:1-6). The outsider Grecian widows are being overlooked. Unlike the local Aramaic-speaking Jews, these Jews speak Greek.
Did the locals question the authenticity of their Jewishness? Having lived outside the Jerusalem community, were these Jews viewed as too worldly? Did they fail at playing the Jewish family-connection game?
Cultural tensions surface in food allocation. The Greek widows receive less. Did they not understand how things were done in Jerusalem? Were they viewed as undeserving immigrants?
Whatever the reasoning, the Greeks are marginalized. The local Jews held the power. Pentecost may have seen a diverse group coming together, but underlying tensions resurfaced.
The church faces the problem and decides to appoint seven men with Greek-sounding names to deal with the marginalized widows. We sometimes assume these men are selected to distribute food, but we hear noth-ing about them handing out lunches. We do hear that Stephen, one of the appointed, is out witnessing (6:8-7:60). We hear another, Philip, is on a missionary journey (8:5-13, 26-40).
Their roles seem open-ended. They were empowered to serve in multiple ways.
The church’s unity returns through empowering the marginalized group. Unity is a continual process for them and for us. As congregations, how are we empowering a diverse body?
We live in divided times. We easily see our political divisions, but we can miss unintentional tribalism rooted in family connections and geographical history. We see the arrogance of national patriotism but can miss the arrogance of Euro-ethnic Mennonitism. Jesus reminds us it is easy to love the ones who love us, the ones from our tribe. But we are to love beyond our in-circle (Luke 6:32).
Telling stories of our historical roots is important, but we can learn by including our flaws. What if the next time we tell of the Hochstetler massacre and the father’s refusal to allow his sons to use guns against the Delaware, we also remind ourselves how we have benefited from confiscated Indigenous land?
Next time we start making family connections, let’s look around and see who is being excluded and ask about their relatives.
We all are guilty of unintentionally excluding others. I may not slight people by going on about the greatness of my fifth cousin, but I can sound exclusive when I start rambling about ecclesiology. We can all learn to be more inclusive of outsiders.
Let’s look at our congregations and carefully consider who holds power. Are there “Greeks” on our church councils? Diversity may be what saves us from cultural blindness.
Let’s remember Mennonite culture is diverse. Let’s keep telling the stories, both the good and the flawed. Let’s include stories beyond the Euro-Mennonite tribe. Let’s keep loving beyond our limited cultural clan.
This being my last column, I’d like to thank my readers. Thank you for your feedback and conversations. Keep reading. Keep loving. Keep walking the surprising and sometimes outrageous Jesus path.
Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.