A Parable

I posted this a few years ago, thought it might be worth some updating: Then I sought the Lord in prayer and asked, “Lord, I want our country to be Christian again, but this can’t happen if we just let anyone in. How much longer should I show hospitality to the stranger?

And Jesus answered, “I tell you hospitality, openness, and welcome, especially to those who are different, is the very essence of what it means to be Christian.”

You see, citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is like a chief who wanted to make sure the people living in his territory belonged. As the chief was going over the pedigree of his servant, it was soon discovered that five generations back the servant’s family came from across the ocean seeking a new start in a land free of religious persecution. Surprised and enraged the chief summoned the servant into his presence. Since the servant could not prove the purity of his citizenship, the chief ordered him deported along with his wife, children, and extended family.

The servant fell on his knees before the chief. “Please don’t send me back, I will prove my worthiness to stay here – just give me a chance.”

The chief took pity on his servant, and gave him and his family amnesty.

But when this servant went out, he found a fellow immigrant, who had come from the territory to the south two years ago, hoping to find a way to provide for himself and his family. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “You have no right to be here; your presence is taking away jobs, draining our resources, and trampling on our Christian values.”

His servant fell on his knees. “Please don’t send me back, I will prove my worthiness to stay here – just give me a chance.”

But the servant refused. Instead he went off to the local immigration office to report the man and his family who were then deported.

When the chief’s other servants heard what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went to the chief and told him everything that had happened.

Then the chief called the servant in. “You wicked foolish man,” he said, “I gave you amnesty, I gave you a chance, I welcomed you with arms wide open. Shouldn’t you have shown mercy on your fellow immigrant just as I had on you?” In his anger, the chief had this man, and his wife, children, and extended family sent back to the land of their ancestors.

How should we treat today’s refugees and immigrants? Maybe with arms wide open?

A more complete God

More often than not when it comes to testimony time at church, the stories are about what God has done for “me.” It usually goes something like this, “I needed a job and God provided me with one,” or “there was no money for rent and a check showed up with just enough to cover the payment.” These are important stories and powerful reminders of how God is at work in our lives. What I have been longing for lately are the stories about how God is working outside of individuals. I know that God cares about my issues and problems. Limiting God to my world seems a bit petty and myopic. We need to hear stories about how God is working in Ferguson, the public school system, and the fight for equality of all peoples. Some people worry that these issues are too political and not really religious. After all, isn’t Christianity about inviting people into a personal relationship with Jesus? The logic continues by assuming that once people have Jesus all this “other” stuff will work itself out. In theory this sounds nice, but I have rarely seen this work out in practice.

In my experience Christians have the ability to be as judgmental, racist, and sexist as anyone else. Limiting our experience of God to an “individual” testimony is dangerous because it leads to reinforcing a particular set of stereotypes of who God is. We need experiences that demonstrate God’s concern for the world and displeasure with structural sin. Some examples of structural sin are institutional racism, economic disparity, unregulated consumerism, and the dehumanization of those without legal rights. For many in the church it is much simpler to have a God who is only concerned with my needs and personal salvation. A God who cares about the whole person and the whole world is intimidatingly large.

This may be the strongest argument for sending people on short-term learning (mission) trips. Getting to know a God who cares for the whole world can be a faith stretching experience. If the essence of conversion is change or seeing the world through new eyes, then even conversion is possible.

One of the more dangerous things pastors can do is to point their congregation to examples of how God is working beyond the walls of the church. Developing a larger understanding of God changes everything. Tight simple answers will begin to disappear. People will begin to question long held assumptions. It may even seem that God wants us to figure things out, as opposed to providing us with easy answers, especially to the big questions.

As a child the God I knew cared about me and protected me from the bad people. I still pray to the same God, but as I have grown this God helped me see a more complete picture of who God is. God still cares about me, but this God has also always cared about the rest of the world. Where there is hatred between people, God desires reconciliation. Where there is judgement, God desires grace. Where there is structural sin, God asks us to work for change and be the change.

Faith and Diversity

For the most part I have chosen not respond to comments made about my blogs. My hope it that comments both positive and negative spur deeper conversation. Some like this policy while others think it is a bad idea. Today I am going to deviate from my policy and reflect on a theme that emerges whenever I write about diversity - women, race, immigration, and sexual orientation. Interestingly enough people do not challenge the idea that women and race are important when it comes to faith and diversity. It seems that including people of color and women in the kingdom of God and church leadership has become a theological “given.” This is good news!

This is not always the case when I move further down the list. Including immigrants and especially people of various sexual orientations stresses people out. The result of this stress is a movement from acceptance to exclusion. For many the Word of God is clear, and these people are out. Even entertaining the possibility that they might be part of the kingdom of God is viewed as wrong, verging on sin.

Now I am a white straight male; from a certain perspective I have nothing to gai2014-06-26 09.16.06n or lose by including immigrants and gays in the list. (Although I do have to visit the Department of Homeland Security later this week to renew my Green Card.)

I realize that there is a major theological and biblical debate raging about sexual orientation and to a lesser extent immigration. There is much you can read on these topics. The cliff notes version of all of this is that the bible is not nearly as clear as people assume, need, or want it to be.

I am fascinated with is this deep-seated need to have someone or some group to exclude. In many ways this desire goes back to Acts 6 when the Hellenistic and Hebrew Jews could not get along with each other. It almost seems as if people of faith have always needed someone to exclude, and the list is long – women, Jews, people of color, Catholics, protestants, communists, Muslims, insurgents, immigrants, and homosexuals. For every one of the excluded groups or individuals the church has found biblical and theological reasons to place them outside the kingdom of God.

What would happen if the church adopted what I am calling the Mark Twain approach? “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” When Jesus was asked about the important stuff his response was simple and clear: love God, love people. It will not be easy to overcome the need for a “sinful” other. If we can find the courage to move past exclusion I suspect the world and church will be a much more joyful place.


The other week I was at a conference. One of the speakers challenged us as church leaders to “be on the right side of history.” He then went on to reference women, race, immigration, and sexual orientation. I have been thinking about his challenge ever since. On one hand I like the idea of the church being prophetic, creating spaces for those who have been excluded from the table. From a distance it seems heroic. There is also that other hand. I am part of a church tradition that was once referred to as the “radical reformation,” the Anabaptists. Five hundred years ago one of the few things that the Catholic and Lutheran church leaders could agree on was that the Anabaptists should be burned at the stake. Looking back on that period, it is now easy to say that the Anabaptists were on the right side of history. Their emphasis on community, non-violence, and the priesthood of all believers are ideas that have gone mainstream and as a result have been accepted in the church at large.

The result of this is that we have become less radical and more normalized. And normalization has led to institutionalism. This in turn has led to maintaining the status quo (the institution). Although it is true that institutions create stability and help to maintain order, the downside is they do this by resisting change. This resistance can and does lead to being on the wrong side of history.

Even my radical tradition was, and still is among some groups, resistant to inclusion of women at all levels of church leadership. Racism continues to rear its ugly head. Our acculturation has occasionally led to an unwelcoming attitude towards the immigrant. Currently we are either ignoring the sexual orientation debate or threatening to let it tear the church apart.

You see, there is a cost for being on the right side of history, especially in the church. Confronting injustice more often than not leads to misunderstanding and sometimes goes all the way to charges of heresy. Being thrown out of the church for “not holding the correct beliefs” is not fun.

I realize that it is not easy to go to church with people whose beliefs are radically different than the traditional way. If the church is going to be the church, then it needs to figure out how to embrace and include that which is different. It is the only way we can find our way back to the right side of history.

The Price

Last week I had the opportunity to observe an evening reflection session at DOOR.  There were 40 youth and adults in the room.  The session was led by Mari the local board chair and a Latina.  I have known her for a little over 16 years during which she has led reflection sessions for visiting groups.  Mari likes to talk about stereotypes, specifically the labels folks have about Latino, Latina and Hispanic people. It had been quite a while, over a decade, since I had observed one of these sessions.

Mari started the evening by assuring the group that this was going to be a safe space.  She encouraged them to be brutally honest and opened a space for them to ask any questions, both appropriate and inappropriate, they might have.  At this point my interest was grabbed.  What was going to be said?

The next step was to divide the group into teams of 3-4 people.  She handed out large sheets of paper and markers.  The assignment was to write down all the words and phrases that came to mind when they thought of Hispanic, Latino or Latina.  For 10 minutes there was a buzz in the room as everyone began to contribute ideas and the sheets of paper filled with words.  I could hardly wait for the reporting back to begin.

Then it began.  Some of the words were positive – family values, good food, salsa (both dip and dance), and passionate.  Other words were more neutral – brown hair, short and Spanish speaking.  Then there were the references to famous people – Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, George Lopez, and Selena.  In the midst of all of this there were a lot of words and phrases that could be described as hurtful- illegal, lazy, wet-back, and the list could go on, but I am choosing to stop.

Throughout the entire time Mari listened, received what people said and never reacted negatively.  My interest shifted from interested to wonderment.  This wasn’t the first time Mari had led this session.  I do not think she could count how many times she has led groups through this exercise over the past 16 years.  Allowing them to express their stereotypes and then gently letting them know that Hispanic, Latino and Latina people are humans created in the very image of God.

Last week I was reminded that sometimes I ask staff, board members and volunteers to do some very difficult things.  Helping people to see beyond their privilege, gender, race and economic status is a calling, a difficult calling.  I am so thankful for people like Mari who find the strength to help people like me understand the breadth and depth of the Kingdom of God.

Thoughts on immigration

“Mr. Obama, tear down this wall.” Can you imagine Enrique Peña Nieto, the 57th President of Mexico, giving this speech?  How would Americans react?  Don’t we have the right and responsibility to protect our land?  To keep our people safe from invaders who would take our jobs and abuse our social systems?

I am old enough to remember when in 1987 then President Regan issued a similar challenge to Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to destroy the Berlin Wall.  Interestingly not many folks took notice when the speech was first delivered; in time this became the prophetic moment of the Regan Presidency.  Within a few years the wall came down and western style freedom spread like wildfire through much of Eastern Europe.

Last week Mennonites from all over the USA gathered in Phoenix, AZ to discuss where they are as a denomination and where they are headed.  The theme was “Citizens of God’s Kingdom.”  I believe that this theme also has the possibility of being a prophetic moment, not only in the life of the Mennonite Church but also in the life of the American Church.  It was a theme which affirmed citizenship in the kingdom of God and the notion that Christianity and the Christian community crosses all borders.

Without a doubt immigration is a controversial political issue.  I sort-of get why, but as a Christian matter I am not sure that there is much controversy.  After all, Jesus calls us to a new understanding of family.  Blood lines no longer define relations.  It possible to say, “Our unity in Jesus trumps blood, borders and anything that would separate us from one another.”  As we all know families need to connect, get together, and fellowship over meals.  Anything, including politics, which prevents this from happening, needs to be called out.

So maybe it is time for a new speech, this time from people of faith – “Mr. Obama tear down that wall.”

Next week

I did it again.  I have agreed to lead a seminar about privilege.  Two years ago at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Pittsburg I led this same seminar – “Crossing the Bridge of Culture and Race.”  Once again I have been tasked, this time in Phoenix, with leading a discussion on White Privilege, the ultimate “elephant in the room” topic. Talking about white privilege means owning the fact that King’s world, one in which people are judged only by the content of their character has not yet arrived.  I have the privilege of leading a ministry that is diverse in almost every way diversity can be used.  We are young and old –actually I prefer people with life experience and those without; men and women; American and Immigrant; conservative and liberal; married and single; white and colorful; athletic and couch potatoey; high church and earthy church; straight and gay.

Quite honestly I find this this level of diversity to be prophetic, chaotic, affirming and draining all at the same time.  As the person charged with giving leadership to this organization, I am oddly qualified to talk about privilege, especially at it pertains to being male, white and tall.

Admitting that I am afforded privileges simply because of my skin color is uncomfortable.  The level of discomfort increases when I think about the people I work with.  I want us to be equal co-laborers in the kingdom of God.  In this context privilege is not easy to talk about. On one hand I enjoy the privileges of being a white male.  I have never been stopped by the police because of my race.  I can travel to Arizona, where I will be presenting this seminar, without worrying about having to produce documents proving my legal status and I am not even an American citizen.  On the other hand it is embarrassing to just have this privilege.  I did not do anything to earn it.  I was born white and will die white, this privilege just is – a type of unearned power.

How do I talk about something I didn’t ask for, but certainly benefit from?

Maybe the first step is to own the privilege.

And the second step is to create sacred spaces - to talk about the issue and hear the stories of people who have been negatively impacted by white privilege.  These spaces are rarely comfortable places for white people to be.  But occupying the space, hearing the stories and owning the privilege creates a possibility for a new world – a world where people are judged by the content of their character.


In the last three weeks I have been drawn into at least five separate conversations regarding immigration.  The general tone of these encounters has been critical of current USA policy.  At the more benign level people argue that Christianity and hospitality are connected.  This call to hospitality demands that Christians advocate for an open immigration policy.  On the more radical end there are those who say that the USA made its wealth by taking much of the American Southwest from Mexico and continues to reap benefits from unfair trade practices and sweat shops.  For these folks immigration isn’t so much about hospitality but rather it is about reparations.  People are coming here because they want their “stuff” back. As you can well imagine, these discussions are filled with a whole lot of emotion.

The exchange that I keep coming back to occurred this week.  It was with my friend Anton Flores.  He runs a small not-for-profit in La Grange Georgia called Alterna.  Alterna is a group of people that offers community, fellowship and hospitality to the “un-documentable.”  It is important to note that “un-documentable” does not equal criminal or terrorist.  These are people who have come because providing for their family in their home country has become all but impossible.  More often than not the conditions that have driven them to the USA are tied to foreign policies and actions of the past and present.

I empathize with those who wish for stricter immigration laws and regulations.  The desire to feel safe and secure is powerful.  What I do not understand is why the church so often supports these laws uncritically.   Hospitality and making things right are cornerstones of the Christian faith.  As believers our first loyalty is to each other and humanity.  When this loyalty comes into conflict with the laws of the land, our faith commitment must always come first.


I am writing this entry from my front porch.  Across the street a family is gathering,  mostly to support each other.  Earlier this week Hector (not his real name) was rushed to Denver Health Medical Center.  He had slipped into unconsciousness. His liver is failing and unless he gets a new one he is going to die.  Hector is a father of four; the youngest just started kindergarten at the school down the street. I met him the day I moved into this neighborhood, 14 years ago.  He likes to talk – a lot!  He is a good neighbor, father, worker and husband.  It is obvious that he adores his family.

On its own this is one of those situations that raise all kinds of “God” questions - Why would you allow this to happen?  Is this really just?

But there are other complicating factors as well.  You see Hector does not have “documentation” that allows him to “legally” live in this country.  The direct implication is that he is not “qualified” to be on a transplant list.  I realize that immigration is an extremely contentious political issue.  But watching this scene play out across the street and in front of my eyes moves the discussion from a disconnected political debate to a deeply personal reality.

Hector is going to die and leave behind a family that needs him, simply because of where he was born.  Somehow this makes him less worthy – less human.  Can this be moral, right or just?  Especially in a country that regularly claims to own the moral high ground.

The more I study Scripture the more the theme of “inclusion” emerges.  How we treat the stranger and alien says something about the quality of our faith.

I am not a politician.  I still believe that this is one of the most amazing places to live.  But we can be better and we can do better.  One of the first steps is choosing to welcome, include and allow access to all levels of services to the strangers and aliens among us.

Mennonite Church USA Project

For the past year I have been part of a three member urban church listening team for Mennonite Church USA.  The following is the final report from that tour.  It is a long document, but your thoughts and comments would be appreciated:

Building Community and Starting Conversations

The Urban Tour Report

Hugo Saucedo, Glenn Balzer, Marie Voth

November 19, 2010

In September 2009, the One Voice Team, a collaborative group of Mennonite Church USA leaders, commissioned a team of denominational leaders to begin the work of building relationships between conferences, congregations and the denomination.  The denominational ministry team was asked to focus on the following: Church Planting, Peace and Justice, Racial/Ethnic relationships, Missional Church and Urban Ministry.

 The two of us, Hugo Saucedo, Director, Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS), and Glenn Balzer, National Director of Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR), were asked to give leadership for the Urban Ministry portion of the Denominational Ministry team.  Marie Voth was later added as the third member of this team.

The tour began in January 2010 and wrapped up in September 2010. It included visits with pastors and urban leaders from the following 18 locations/regions:

  • Philadelphia, PA
  • Denver, CO
  • Chicago, IL
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • Minneapolis/ St. Paul, MN
  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Raleigh/ Durham, NC
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Atlanta, GA
  • Seattle, WA
  • San Antonio, TX
  • Dallas, TX
  • Tampa/ Sarasota, FL
  • New York City, NY
  • Hampton/ Newport News, VA
  • Washington DC/ Baltimore, MD
  • Cleveland, OH
  • Portland, OR

 During each visit, we asked the following four questions:

  • Who are you?
  • How are you?
  • What are the things that you do well?
  • How can Mennonite Church USA be helpful?

 We want to remind readers that this report grows out of the stories we heard; we make no claims that this was an objective or scientific study.  We believe that there is value in the subjective nature of our tour. By listening to stories, we began to build relationships.  Stories have a unique power; they are a gateway of sorts into the soul of the urban community. It was clear that stories and relationships held more value in the urban community than any scientific study.

Many people voiced frustration about being visited for yet another urban study, especially since they had not seen any changes or improvements because of previous studies and reports.

The intent of this report is (1) to summarize the major themes that emerged during the tour, (2) to be a starting point for discussion about urban ministry within Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA), and (3) to present recommendations to the leadership of MCUSA about the future of Urban Ministry within the context of our denomination. This report is a first step in this continuing discussion and relationship.

Over the course of the tour many ideas, issues and concerns have been brought to the table.  The conversations have been lively and filled with agreement, disagreement, frustration, joy and raw emotion.  After much reflection and discussion by and between the members of this team, we divided what we heard into four major categories: Diversity, Institution, Being an Urban Mennonite, and Different Manifestations of Church.


 Diversity includes controversial subjects, but addressing all the questions that diversity raises is critical to who we as MCUSA will become.  How different can church members be from each other and still worship together or claim the same faith?  Is the church big enough to hold the diversity?  Does difference demand that churches or members separate from each other?  What does it mean to embrace all this diversity and still be one church?  Is it even possible to do this?  If not, where or how does MCUSA begin to talk about what is and is not acceptable?

Thoughts from the road…

We are “multi-“ racial, cultural, lingual, class, theological. That is good, but our multi- nature is primarily between congregations and not within congregations. We appreciate our differences when we get together but when it comes to Sunday worship we are still segregated.


The Mennonite thing doesn’t always lend itself to diversity.


It’s a myth that people with different understandings of theology can’t worship together.


In other places there could be different (Mennonite) churches with a clearer/ unanimous vision. We’re all kind of stuck with each other, which is probably how the church ought to be.


 It is not how you deal with diversity as much as how the other person deals with diversity. Some people view diversity as healthy or tolerant. Others feel that to be faithful, you have to be in an active defensive position against the thing that is different from you. The act of faithfulness is equated with being defensive. That is difficult. It can be easy to demonize a fundamentalist, conservative mind. But I need to understand that they want to be faithful.

        ~A pastor from Portland recognizing that different theological approaches to diversity are important

 Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference is a conference that experiences diversity at every conceivable level; from immigrant churches to traditional European Mennonite congregations; congregations working through gender/sexuality inclusion issues and those working with drug, prostitution and homeless issue; from highly educated people to people who have not had educational opportunities; from Pentecostal to quiet. In the midst of all of this, they are conducting services and holding meetings with at least 10 different languages represented.

It can be a battle for what diversity takes priority.


Congregations do very little dialogue on issues like this. They often embrace the view from the pulpit.


Congregations that have a lot of diversity focus on coming together. Congregations that have little diversity tend to focus on differences.


Engagement with the urban Mennonite church means encountering diversity. The urban churches of MCUSA represent a good portion of the diversity present in America today.  When it came to discussing diversity, the questions back to the team were often pointed and personal.  Is MCUSA able (willing) to contain the breadth and width of the diversity that is present within the urban church?  Can MCUSA celebrate diversity when people feel rejected and devalued?  Are leaders and members of MCUSA truly in relationship with every brother and sister or are some held up as tokens?  If MCUSA is going to be authentically urban, then questions like these cannot be avoided.

Our urban brothers and sisters are creating spaces where differences can be talked about, argued about, embraced, struggled with, and respected.  More often than not, these conversations are filled with pain, misunderstanding, frustration and love. Diverse gatherings consume a tremendous amount of emotional energy.  It is imperative that MCUSA find ways to communicate across multiple cultures.  Everywhere we went people expressed a commitment to intercultural respect, but the “how to do this” part is not so easy.  How do leaders train for this?  How should it look when MCUSA and conferences conduct meetings where multiple cultures are represented?  Does one assume that everyone understands English and its cultural nuances?  Where does MCUSA find the inter-cultural experts skilled in helping churches and conferences navigate these issues?

Diversity is much more than culture and language. Diversity also includes differences in theology, education, socio-economic status, political views, age, and family configuration and different understandings of gender roles, military participation, and sexual orientation.  Picking and choosing which diversity to embrace only causes more pain. 

 Everywhere we went people claimed some level of diversity.  It seemed to us that healthy conferences and churches understood that diversity adds something important to the life of the body.  Congregational life is enhanced when members with different cultures, backgrounds, and ideas add their gifts to the community.

 Diversity has an ugly side as well.  While it provides space for opportunity and celebration, it also carries the potential for pain and rejection. No one has ever suggested that the church become less diverse.  But tension quickly emerges when we start talking about our differences, especially when the differences appear to cross a theological line. Sometimes inclusion of one diversity seems to result in the rejection of another.

 Many churches have or are struggling with issues involving diversity.  Several churches are currently having congregational discussions about diversity related issues. Other pastors expressed pain because of conference discipline based on a congregational position (i.e. on sexual orientation) or because of institutional racism and ethnocentrism.

 In the words of one pastor, “We are enriched by diversity but we can’t sit back and let it happen.” There are amazing examples of churches, groups, and conferences who choose to worship together despite their differences. Welcoming, embracing, and integrating a diverse group of people takes work, patience, and grace. 


Pastors and ministry leaders asked hard questions and challenged the Mennonite institution(s) in a variety of ways – what follows are, for the most part, unedited comments:

Treat city and urban areas with the same standards as other areas


MCUSA needs to look at itself, at the institution. It doesn’t reflect the new urban reality and diversity


Leadership in all areas is too heavily ethnic (Anglo) Mennonite


Leadership should not be so afraid to tell the truth - they need to learn to take a stand

        ~San Francisco

The current language from MCUSA is dividing-“ urban”,” church of color”,” minority”


Find ways to walk alongside and support the work and vision of local conferences and churches. Sometimes MCUSA/MMN only seems interested in inserting its own programs and these are not necessarily programs that the conference needs or the only way conferences would like to engage with MCUSA/MMN.


Everything should be geared towards empowering the local congregation


Make room at the table for those with significant variances to the confession of faith


The confession of faith has become a rigid document designed to exclude people

        ~San Francisco

Need to go back to the core, to the foundation of what makes us Mennonite and Anabaptist; to what sets apart our doctrine. Cultures have become the focus. We need to put the core vision in front.

We need to articulate “what it means to be a Mennonite” using language that people understand.

        ~Los Angeles

Be clear in the distinction between Anabaptist theology and Mennonite culture. The clothing people want is Anabaptism, not Germanic heritage.


Understand and demonstrate that mission is not just overseas

        ~Los Angeles

They like the MMN tagline- “across the street and around the world” and would like to see a good balance between the two. If we continue flubbing “across the street,” there may not be an “around the world.”


Renewed focus on church planting


Some of the staff and leadership of MCUSA should live in urban areas to get a better feel for them. They should be more visible away from the center.


Create a larger category of “partner in mission/ministry” for groups that aren’t quite traditional churches, like intentional communities


What is the role of the conference versus the national structure?


How can we nationalize urban projects that come from the urban people, not MMN?


Control doesn’t make the church better.


Tradition is killing the Mennonite Church. We must innovate and bring new things.


If you are going to help somebody, ask what they need. Don’t just give without asking.

        ~Washington DC

VMC has a membership category for people in the military. Why can’t we do the same for LGTB persons?

        ~Washington DC

What would it be like for MCUSA to claim the early Anabaptist vision? The movement started in the city. The city was not seen as a bad place but as a place to engage and converse with people.


Quit parachuting leaders into urban areas

        ~Los Angeles

Take the needs of bi-vocational pastors into consideration when planning meetings and events


Have the church/ institution become the policing agency instead of the (Gospel) delivery system?


I sometimes wonder if MCUSA is trying too hard to portray an image of diversity (that may not be accurate) in our advertising and publications


When talking about the Mennonite institution(s) it became clear that in general urban Mennonites do not draw all the same lines of distinction that those who are closer to these structures do.

Acronyms (institutions) like MMN, MCUSA, MEDA, MCC, MDS, MVS, MEA and MMA (now Everence) are not always understood to be distinct.  The confusion only increases when we talk about different programs within a particular institution.

Attitudes towards institution (denomination and local conference) varied greatly.  Some churches are grateful for their local conference.  Other churches are angry at their local conference and/or MCUSA.   In some cases, we fielded questions about the unwillingness of MCUSA to step in and fix the layering of conferences, particularly in the east.   Others were indifferent and ambivalent towards both.  Some openly questioned the relevance of the institutions. 

One thing is clear, urban congregations are becoming less dependent on institution.   This manifests itself in both positive and negative ways.  On the positive side, frustration with the institution has given way to local empowerment.  If the institution is not going to help the local church, then they will figure it out for themselves.  On the negative side, frustration with the institution has lead to feelings of abandonment and not really belonging.  Among some churches of color, there is a sense of being used; that MCUSA only turns to them when a good diverse photo shoot is needed.

There was also recognition that MCUSA institutions can be helpful and supportive. MBM and MMN helped nurture the church start in Albuquerque, which is now a thriving congregation. Churches with MVS units see them as vital to their congregational mission. Many churches said they would like a MVS or Service Adventure unit in their city. Some pastors said that information and programs from MCC and MMN help their church feel more connected with the larger Mennonite church, both in the US and around the world. One conference noted that they also need to be open to allowing institutional people come in.

In Hampton, VA, we had a vigorous discussion regarding MMA’s decision to rebrand and become Everence.  Is it time for MCUSA to consider rebranding?  If MCUSA wants to be a diverse denomination, it is important to recognize that here in America “Mennonite” known more as a culture than as a denomination.  It would be wonderful to say “Mennonite” and not jump to a mental image that looks more Amish than African American.  Mennonite theology is solid, but MCUSA branding leaves much to be desired.  The road to diversity will ask MCUSA to consider branding and presentation.

One pastor from Raleigh suggested that the institution’s purpose is not to be nimble, but to pay attention to the witness of those who came before, to tell the stories of the dead and to know the faith of our ancestors.

When asked how MCUSA could be helpful, relationships and resources were the top responses. In many cases, churches meant financial resources. We believe this to be a reflection of the economic realities many congregations face.

More than money, pastors and leaders have a strong desire for real relationships- with MCUSA, local conferences, other urban areas, and within their own cities. It was clear that all these relationships need to be non-conditional. MCUSA and conferences need to provide movement space without telling local groups and congregations what to do, without controlling relationships and conversations.  MCUSA needs to learn how to engage without needing to control.  It is of critical importance that relationship and networking take place in a context of mutuality and partnership.

Many leaders asked for resources including curriculum, peace building and conflict resolution training, church planting assistance, MVS units, materials (translated into Spanish and French), consulting and local mission expertise. Some churches would also like help in developing best practices or help in facilitating open discussion on divisive issues.

A number of leaders lamented that our Mennonite Schools of higher education have become inaccessible, from a financial and location perspective.  They are viewed as being too expensive and too rural.

When we spoke with leaders who have come to the Mennonite Church by choice as opposed to birth, they often talked about feeling like outsiders.  How does MCUSA work with and include people who have adopted the Mennonite church?

Being an Urban Mennonite

The urban Mennonite Church is thriving and creative, made up of a plethora of cultures including both immigrant and US born.  As the tour progressed, it became increasingly clear that people join and participate in the church because of the theology – active faith, peace-building, and community make sense in the urban world. 

While Anabaptist theology works well in the city, Mennonite culture does not always translate.  The tension between theological and cultural understandings of being “Mennonite” is significant.   Urban leaders of color tend to believe that the North American Mennonite Church is primarily controlled by cultural Mennonites.  No one is arguing that being a cultural Mennonite is wrong, but frustrations arise when cultural heritage becomes an advantage when seeking denominational leadership. The ethnic/ non-ethnic Mennonite divide can also hinder effective communication.

Another urban reality is the emergence of commuter churches.  These are churches where the meeting space is in a neighborhood that is separate and different from the neighborhood(s) where members of the congregation lives.  These worshipping groups are grappling with being a presence in the community in which the church facility is located. This issue only intensifies when a neighborhood changes from one culture to another; often this change is from white to brown.

We also encountered urban churches best described as a gathering of Mennonites who have “fled” to the city.  These churches are made up of MVS alumni, graduates from Mennonite Colleges who have moved to the city for work and friends, and people escaping the narrow theological confines of home.  In the city, they have created communities where it is possible to hold on to what they would define as the central core of Anabaptist theology with the space to be progressive theologically.  Not surprisingly, these churches often find themselves in conflict theologically with immigrant churches.

The networking ability of urban pastors is impressive.  They instinctively understand the need to partner.  It is second nature for urban leaders to connect across of traditional and non-traditional lines.  It was not unusual to hear stories of how local churches have forged working relationships with other Christian and non-Christian leaders on various community issues and initiatives.

Urban Mennonites are on the front lines of issues and concerns that the larger church will eventually have to deal with.  These are the leaders who are/were the first to deal with inter-cultural communication, women in leadership, sexual orientation, immigrant concerns, cost of living and race.   Is MCUSA prepared to include undocumented pastors at all levels of church leadership?  Are seminaries preparing future pastors for bi-vocational leadership? 

The city can be an overwhelming place for pastors.  How does one balance the needs of everyone in the congregation, especially as it tends to function as an extended family?  What does it mean to serve the poor and the rich?  What does it mean to be a place of healing and reconciliation for those who have been hurt by the church?  Raising a family is expensive.  What does it mean to be a good parent and a good pastor?  Cities tend to be transient.  What does it mean to be a place of stability in a shifting world?

Churches in urban locations stand in a place of unique convergence.  Young ethnic Mennonites are moving to the city at an increasing pace and non-ethnics are joining the ranks of the Mennonite church at an astonishing level.  The challenge for Mennonites at all levels (local, conference, and national) is to intentionally engage, listen to, and provide leadership opportunities for young adults and new Mennonites.

The Different Manifestations of Church

Mountain States Mennonite Conference recently commissioned a task force whose express purpose is to explore and encourage emerging manifestations of the kingdom of God.  Right from its inception, this group recognized that traditional church models would not be a primary focus.

In Minneapolis, there are growing intentional communities who have adopted Anabaptist theology and the Mennonite church.  They look a whole lot like the Acts 2:44-46 church. Central Plains Mennonite Conference created a conference membership category for these groups.

In Seattle and Philadelphia, there are churches with creative facility usage that allow them to connect with the local community and stay financially solvent through rental agreements.

 In Denver, a group of young adults meets regularly for community, spiritual discussion, and an opportunity to sing out of the blue hymnal.  They do not want to be called a church.  That level of organization is something they are intentionally avoiding.

In Philadelphia, Kingdom Builders is a relationship-based network of local pastors, conference leaders, and ministry leaders who meet regularly.  Area Mennonite conferences claim this group, but the gathering is much more than just Mennonite.   Kingdom Builders does not seem to make any distinction between those who are part of the institution and those who are not.  Do we have space to include leaders, churches and ministries who share Anabaptist convictions but have no interest in being a part of MCUSA?

In Washington DC, there is a church that is connected to MCUSA, but they self-describe as being inter-denominational.  What does it mean to be one part of a greater whole?  Can MCUSA engage churches like this?  They want the accountability of a larger institutional body, but they need the freedom to be more than just another Mennonite church.  Is it possible that this is what “missional” is?

Bi-vocational pastors lead many of our immigrant churches.  At an institutional level, MCUSA likes to claim these churches.  At a practical level, MCUSA is still trying to figure out how to include these leaders and congregations.

There are groups that self describe as “urban Anabaptists.” They like the theology but are not universally interested in the institutional church. How does the institution (conferences and MCUSA) include these leaders in the church? Do leaders need to rethink what membership in MCUSA looks like?  When does a worshipping group become a church?  Many people are not ready to be a church because of past hurts. What does it mean to include without being overly formal about the inclusion?


All of us on the team have considered it a privilege to participate in this project.  The urban Mennonite church is alive, well and thriving.  We have become convinced that the future of MCUSA is inextricably tied to the health and vitality of our urban brothers and sisters.

It is possible to view the issues of Diversity, Institution, Being an Urban Mennonite and Different Manifestations of the Church negatively.  Doing so would be a misunderstanding of this report.  The tough statements and frustration are out of a stance of engagement not rejection, resignation, or apathy. Choosing to engage each of these concerns positively and with intentionality will only serve to make MCUSA a healthier, stronger and more prophetic church.

Does it make sense for MCUSA to have a national urban strategy?  After nine months and countless conversations, we believe that the answer is yes.  It is critical that any urban strategy be developed and owned by urban people.  With this in mind, we offer the following possibilities and suggestions; understanding that this is just the first step towards what we hope will be a healthy national urban agenda.

We, participants at the Urban Leaders Summit, make the following recommendations to the Executive Board of MCUSA and its staff:

Recommendation #1A

Develop a national urban strategy. This strategy should include the identifying and training of inter-cultural urban specialists and leaders.  There is an urgent need for leaders who know how to communicate across multiple cultures and theological perspectives.

Recommendation #1B

Develop a national networking/ listening team.  Ideally this would be a 2-4 person team inclusive of active leaders who remain engaged in their local urban community.   It is critical that this team be given 5-7 years of “open job-description” time.   Members of the team would need to commit to this time frame as well.  This first 5-7 years would be dedicated primarily to building relationships and trust.

Recommendation #2

Create a variety of spaces and opportunities for urban people working on similar issues to get together and have focused conversations.  We imagine gatherings of intentional community leaders, bi-vocational pastors, immigrant church leaders, pastors leading multi-cultural churches, and so on.

Recommendation #3

Develop and implement a clear path for entry, engagement, or membership for urban Mennonite leaders, affinity groups, and potential congregations with both conference and denomination.

Recommendation #4

Provide marketing and communication resources for local urban congregations and conferences in a contextually appropriate way, recognizing that urban congregations may or may not use the Mennonite name but hold the values of the Anabaptist theology.

Recommendation #5

Have the current listening team and Nicole Francisco, Abraham Thomas, and Matthew Krabill meet with the Executive Board of MCUSA at their earliest convenience to present this report and recommendations.

Here in America

The speaker began with these words, “Regardless about your political leanings regarding health care, here in America we privatize profits and socialize risk.”  He was referring to the recent government bailout of banks that are “too big to fail.” His comment has been rolling around in my head ever since.

It is interesting to think of socialism as a system designed to keep the rich wealthy.  Many people see socialism as a system designed to give lazy people a free ride.  Come to think of it, that may be true.  Wealth is no more an indicator of hard work than poverty is an indicator of laziness.

I suspect that when we get to heaven folks will not be debating the merits of capitalism verses socialism.  I find it hard to believe that Jesus would even have an opinion on which is the better system.  From what I can tell, the only question that will matter is, “How did you treat the least of these?”

When we create systems that exclude and devalue our fellow human beings, we are crossing to a place that is in opposition to the Christian faith.

Laws that deny strangers and immigrants hospitality are at best wrong and at worst evil.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, those who gain access to heaven are the ones who included the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner.  I am not sure that this is easy to do.  Occasionally, people in lists like this can be scary and dangerous.  They might even threaten our security and personal safety.

In spite of all the potential pitfalls, we are not call to build walls of protection around ourselves.  We are called to step out in faith and do the difficult and uncomfortable thing.  We are called to welcome, to feel, to create a space at the table and to be hospitable event if the intention of the other is evil.

An Immigration Parable

Then Tom sought the Lord in prayer and asked, “Lord, how many more times should we offer amnesty to foreigners who keep trying stay in this country? After all we did offer this in 1986!”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just in 1986 – but in every year that people cross into your country seeking a new start…

You see, citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is like a chief who wanted to make sure the people living in his territory belonged. As the chief was going over the pedigree of his personal servant it was soon discovered that five generations back his servant’s family came from across the ocean seeking a new start in a land free of religious persecution. Surprised and enraged the chief summoned the servant into his presence. Since the servant could not prove the purity of his citizenship, the chief ordered him deported along with his wife, children, and extended family.

The servant fell on his knees before the chief. “Please don’t send me back, I will prove my worthiness to stay here – just give me a chance”

The chief took pity on his servant, and gave him and his family amnesty.

But when this servant went out, he found a fellow servant, who had come from the territory to the south two years ago, hoping to find a way to provide for himself and his family. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “You have no right to be here; your presence is taking away jobs, draining our resources, and trampling on our values.”

His servant fell on his knees. “Please don’t send me back, I will prove my worthiness to stay here – just give me a chance”

But the servant refused. Instead he went off to the local immigration office – reported the man and his family and had them deported.

When the chief’s other servants heard what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went to the chief and told them everything that had happened.

Then the chief called the servant in. “You wicked foolish man” he said, “I gave you amnesty, I gave you a chance to prove your worthiness. Shouldn’t you have shown mercy on your fellow immigrant just as I had on you?” In his anger the chief had this man, his wife, children and extended family sent back to the land of their ancestors.

So here is the question, how should we treat today’s immigrants?