My Son’s Faith

As a parent one of my greatest desires is for my children to become thoughtful adults. I want them to have a strong faith, a faith they can own for themselves, and a faith that will help them navigate life’s obstacles. Last week my youngest son called me. He had a theological question. For those of you who do not know me well I am a self-described theological nerd. So being asked to help my son process a theological question sent my heart aflutter!

He was writing a response to someone’s statement about Ephesians 5:22 where Paul says, “Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” According to his fellow classmate this verse was clear proof that the church should reject the temptation to allow women to be leaders in the church or family.

We talked for about 30 minutes. Then he said, “Dad, give me some time to think a write.” Here is his response:

I think the relationship between Christ and the church is a relationship about mutuality. Christ is always inviting people to himself. The choice to follow is always on the individual. To assume “authority” means dictatorship is a misunderstanding of both Paul and Jesus. Jesus is not the churches dictator not is the man ever called to be a dictator.

If we are serious about reflecting Christ in marriage than it should be a relationship where both parties have an equal say in what goes on. Christian relationships whether in the church, the context of marriage, or peers should always be mutual and invitational.

If a person is going to read Paul than read all of Paul! It doesn’t take long to discover that there are contradictions all over the place. In Ephesians Paul talks about women submitting to husbands but in Galatians Paul claims that there is no male or female in Christ and that we're all equal so how then does that fit in?

As people studying theology we can't just look at one verse and assume that we know what its saying. Look at everything, where was Paul and why did he write those things? Paul was not writing to CBC students for intro to Christian theology, 2017. Christ certainly should have authority over our lives and influence the way we do things and decisions we make, but that's just it, Jesus was about love and caring fellow humans not having dominant authority.

Christ invites us into relationship of choice and mutuality and that ought to be how the marriages we enter in reflect.

When it comes to the topic of women in leadership I believe we have been living in a society where the male bias has dominated for far too long. God is not just father but also mother. Her love extends to everyone and I believe She is changing the world to a place where women need to hold just as many leadership positions as men do and the idea that there needs to be a "man" of the house is passing way. Some of the most brilliant pastors I know are women and I wish for a world where there's more of that.

As have reflected on this conversation, it began to dawn on me how significant his DOOR experiences had been, particularly his Dwell year in Miami. For Quinten his time as a Dweller gave him a space to work out his faith for himself.

If you are a parent, grandparent, or mentor to a young adult reading this- know that a gap-year away from college and home may be the greatest gift you can give to your young adult.

Hangover

“When they go low, we go high.” Nice words, but this morning they seem a little too optimistic. Here in the United States of America, going low won the day and the next four years.

We just elected a president who started his campaign by describing an entire people group as rapists, thieves, and drug dealers. Over the course of his candidacy he made it OK to objectify women thereby creating moral space for misogyny. Now he is calling us to unite, to come together as one. How does this even happen? I don’t even know how to approach my fellow believers who justified their vote by saying, “well he’s a baby Christian.”

I work for organization that has hired Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, immigrants, and people from the GLBTQI community. They are terrified and not figuratively. The fear is real; it is based on actions and statements made by the candidate. Their very humanity and lives have been brought into question.

I don’t know how to come together. How do you hold hands and sing Kumbaya with someone who denies your very right to exist?

Where are the people of God in all of this? Where is the church?

Too many church leaders, who tend to look like me, white and male, have sacrificed the gospel of Jesus for a shot at power and dominance. The best way to do this was to rewrite Scripture so that the only things that mattered were prayer in school, abortion, and homosexuality. Loving God and loving people have become side issues. As long as we have someone in our camp who hates who we hate, then we can look past the misogyny, the racism, the sexism, and the fear mongering. All of this has brought us to today, November 9, 2016.

I do not know what the future holds; today I am pretty pessimistic. But maybe it is time to remember that people of faith have always been most effective and prophetic when they find themselves judged, misunderstood and in the minority.

Where will I stand?

It seems to me that a new line was crossed last week. First, two public encounters with police were caught on video resulting in two dead African American men. Then in Dallas, five police officers were gunned down. If your social media feed is anything like mine, it blew up. Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter. For each hashtag there are leaders of faith who claim their perspective is the right perspective, the Christian perspective.

As a person of faith myself, I want to know where we go from here. Standing on the sidelines and just hoping this will blow over does not seem live a viable or moral option. People are dying, and this needs to stop.

I wanted to write something last week. All I could do was stare at a blank screen.

When I read John 3:16, I discover a God who cares about all people. Jesus was sent for the world. In Philippians 2 there is a song about Jesus emptying himself of all his divinity, taking on the very nature of a servant, and dying on the cross. When asked to describe pure religion, James said it had something to do with how we care for the powerless. When Jesus was spoke to his followers about violence he talked about turning the other cheek as a creative non-violent way of resisting the power structures. This was a cornerstone strategy of the civil rights movement as led by Martin Luther King, Jr. When Jesus stood before Pilate and the religious leaders facing and receiving violence, he never lost his cool, never returned violence for violence. On the cross Jesus offered forgiveness to his executioners and an invitation to a fellow cross-mate.

I look at Jesus and try to imagine how he would respond. I see a person who loved without exception. This same Jesus knew that the only way to measure our commitment to all lives had something to do with how we treated the powerless and disenfranchised among us. Quite simply this is the heart’s cry of Black Lives Matter and all the movements that proceeded it.

This I why I choose, as I believe all people of faith and good conscious should, to stand with Black Lives Matter. It not about valuing one person over the other. Rather standing with Black Lives Matter is the most radical and Christ-like way we can demonstrate a commitment to the intrinsic value of all lives.

Mikey and Anthony

Last week I wrote about one of our staff who has lived with a very real fear of being shot for over 30 years. This past Sunday one of our Discerners in Chicago lived that reality. Michael (Mikey) Taylor, our Discerner, and his cousin Anthony Jackson were returning home from a night out. While at the bus stop they noticed a car full of young adults slow down and look them. At first they were not too worried because the bus was approaching. The car quickly turned and circled back through the alley. Meanwhile the bus was delayed at the stop light. As the car came by the second time, four shots rang out. Mikey dived behind the bus stop bench and the bullets barely missed him.  Anthony wasn’t so fortunate. Three shots hit Anthony, one in the leg and two in the shoulder.

As I am writing this Anthony is recovering from his second surgery. Initially the doctors and Mikey thought Anthony had been shot twice. There were two obvious entry points. Twenty four hours later they found a third bullet in his shoulder.

Today Mikey and other family members are at the hospital with Anthony. For the first time in 48 hours the prognosis is no longer life threatening. There is just a whole lot of healing that needs to take place, both physical and emotional.

All of this is taking place in the middle of our Discover season. This week our Chicago program is hosting 57 participants from Indiana, Georgia, and Oklahoma. DOOR hosts programs in five cities. We invite people to our cities to “See the Face of God in the City.” One of the reasons Mikey chose to work for DOOR this summer was his desire to show visitors another side of Chicago. He said, “I want to show people how Chicago really is, and that it is not a war zone. There are some people that want to help improve the city. I won’t stop teaching and telling the multiple stories of Chicago until people have a deeper understanding of our city!”

There is a part of me that doesn’t know what to do with these events. Why would God allow this to happen? The truth is, these kinds of tragedies are happening every day. Mikey knew this when he signed up for DOOR. Yet he wanted to and continues to want to show our participants another side, a more hopeful side, of Chicago where God is present.

This blog is dedicated to Mikey and all of our racialized and marginalized staff across the country. Their willingness to come to work every day and speak truth to power is a living testimony of the power of salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16):

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Please keep Mikey, Anthony, and their friends and family in your prayers. When we hired MikeyMikey one of the first questions his mother asked of us was, would he be safe? She recently lost her other son. Facing another death in the family would be more than she could handle.

 

White Privilege

One of my job responsibilities is to have regular check-ins with our City Directors. These calls are usually filled with laughter, frustration, anger, and occasionally the unexpected. This past week the unexpected happened. We were about 30 minutes into our conversation, when all of a sudden the person on the other end when into a minor panic moment. Like me she was multi-tasking. The call started with her working from home, then she packed up and headed to her car to go to a meeting. In the process she went from talking on her headphones to switching to her car’s Bluetooth system. The crisis happened about 5 minutes into her drive. At first I was worried she had gotten into an accident. This was not the case.

She had forgotten to take out her wallet and put it on the dashboard. Her panic seemed a little unwarranted to me. So in a silly attempt to say “no big deal” I started laughing. For her it was a big deal.  In a moment of grace, on her part, she proceeded to explained things to me. It went something like this:

“Glenn, I am a black woman driving a car, if the police decide to stop me I don’t want them to think that when I reach for my wallet that I am reaching for a gun.”

This staff person is close to my age. Both of us have been driving for 30 plus years. In all of that time I have never worried about where my ID is. To be honest I don’t even panic if I forget my ID at home. Getting a ticket would suck, but I wouldn’t be afraid of the encounter.

For more than 30 years my friend and co-worker has had to think about where her ID is every time she gets into a car. This grows out of a very real concern for her life.

Privilege, particularly white straight male privilege, means that I get to go about my day-to-day life without worry. For the most part I do not need safe places, mostly because the world is my safe place. I don’t always know what to do about my privilege. I didn’t earn it, it simply is. One thing I am slowly learning is to listen to the concerns of my friends of color and those in the GLBTQI community. Their fears are not “boogeyman-ish;” they are real. All you have to do is turn on the news. Somehow I want to find a way to be part of the solution. This is my hope and dream.

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.

Leadership

Last night I saw Selma for the second time. The movie tells the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches. For those who have not taken the time to see this movie, please go. It is worth the price of admission. This movie is a stark reminder of a past that many would like to forget. 1965 was a time when Jim Crow laws shaped the daily lives of our brothers and sisters of color by instituting various racially motivated economic, education, and social hardships. These laws mandated the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation including restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains.

In the midst of all of this a leader and prophet emerges, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had always assumed that leadership came easily to King. Hearing his sermons still takes the listener to a higher place. Who doesn’t resonate with “I have a dream” or “He’s allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I have seen the Promised Land”? King had a way of rallying people to his cause, of stirring people to action. I imagine that just being in his presence made you a better person.

The movie dared to expose a more personal side of King; a side that questioned, doubted, and wondered. Sometimes it is easy to assume that leadership is about confidence and strength. It was good to be reminded that leaders are human beings as well. King found ways to overcome his fears and questions. In doing this he became the prophet, pastor, and spiritual leader we needed and continue to need.

Today we still need people who can move beyond their fears, questions, and weaknesses to find the courage to speak truth to power. We need people to dream, to go to the mountain and see not what is but what can be.

Progress – yes and no

For me October is always a month of reflection; by the end of this month I will have completed 20 years at DOOR. My conference minister regularly reminds me that people and institutions become what they pay attention to. It was December 2004 when I began paying attention to something different. In many ways this something different was and is tied to the words in Jesus’ prayer “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The journey began in 2003. When recruiting for a new Denver City Director there were no applications from people of color; the scenario repeated in the search for a new Chicago City Director a year later. In both cases extremely well qualified individuals were hired. But what did it say about DOOR and our commitments to diversity that we were unable to attract even a single candidate of color for these positions?

If DOOR was going to become a “multi” ministry, we were going to have to begin paying attention to different things. With a great deal of naiveté I wrote the following reflection/vision statement:

 As we think about DOOR in 10 years, part of that dream includes a transformation of the ethnic make-up of our City Directors. We are not saying it is wrong to hire Anglos, nor do we want to fire any of our current staff. Our current City Directors are some of the finest and brightest people with whom one could ever hope to work. We do, however, want to think about how and with whom we replace outgoing City Directors.

As DOOR looks down the road 10 years, it is our desire to develop a plan that would enable us to identify, train and hire City Directors who are from the urban minority community. It is important to recognize that for a plan like this to be successful our current set of City Directors will have to own this vision.

The goal was that by 2014, 51% of full-time DOOR staff would come from the urban minority community.

Well, its 2014, how did we do? Today, ten years later, 50% of our full-time staff and 72% of our summer Discerners are persons of color, and our local boards are no longer dominated by white men. The changes at DOOR are real; however we still have much to learn.

You see, in 2004 we were primarily thinking about diversity through the lens of race. The other forms of diversity - theology, class, age, orientation, and gender- were always important, but there was a sense in which these secondary diversity issues. In the last few years it has become increasingly clear that to limit “diversity” to one particular aspect, in DOOR’s case “color,” leads to an incomplete and potentially twisted understanding of the kingdom of God.

DOOR is both a tolerant and intolerant organization. On one hand we are open to participants who “don’t get it,” but on the other we do not have a whole lot of tolerance for people who are content to live out their racial prejudice or stereotypes. What happens when we expand this tolerance-intolerance tension to issues of religion and orientation?

History

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.

Memorial Day

Yesterday my pastor spoke from Psalm 77, specifically focusing on verse 11 where the writer declares, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” Today is Memorial Day. More often than not I think of this as the first day of summer, not as a day to remember. It may have something to do with my Mennonite upbringing. As a pacifist I have struggled with the “war” holidays while admiring anyone who is willing to sacrifice their life for something greater than themselves. So, regardless of my personal beliefs these acts of courage and sacrifice need to be remembered.

As my pastor reminded the congregation heroic acts are not limited to times of war. There are civil rights heroes; just last week we lost Dr. Vincent Harding, probably best known for drafting Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. I am also reminded that we have ordinary heroes who don’t always make the headlines, but do make a difference. Something is lost when we forget to remember those who help us to live in a better and more just world. In my work life I am surrounded by these every day heroes. It seems appropriate to remember and recognize them on this day.

Staff 2013 Chicago Cropped medium size file

It has become increasing clear to me that I benefit from the past and current (and future) cloud of witnesses that has cleared the road before me and continues to walk beside me. This group of women and men has helped me to experience a Christian faith that is much more than male, white, conservative, and privileged. It is has been their constant nudging, pushing, and prophetic vision that has pushed the ministry I lead beyond “Anglo.”

Today, in 2014, our staff and boards are made up of young and old; men and women; Anglos and persons of color; single and married; straight and gay; Americans and immigrants; the theologically conservative and liberal. Without this cloud of witnesses, transformation could not have happened.

It was Dr. Cornel West who said, “If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders – who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated to tell the truth.”

It has been the gentle and not-so-gentle questions, proddings, and pleas that have prevented DOOR, the organization I lead, from entering into a well-adjusted indifference. Prophetic presence comes with a high personal cost and sacrifice, which I have not always acknowledged. To my board and staff I apologize for the times DOOR has failed to live up to its calling as the Beloved Community.

Please accept my sincere thanks and gratitude for the work you continue to do to help me live in a world where inclusion, justice and equality are in simple terms “normal.”

 

Baseball & Reporters

2014-04-08 17.13.40Last Friday I cut out of work early to catch the first of my son’s double header. It was one of the last baseball games of the season. My travel schedule is such that I miss too many of his games. When I am in town and he is scheduled to play, I go. Before the first inning was finished, I was approached by a young man in a suit. All by itself this was a bit strange, after all who wears a suit to a high school baseball game? He initiated the conversation, asking if I’m a parent and if my son is in right field? This went on for about 10 minutes; eventually he got around to explaining his presence. He was a reporter for the local Fox news station. They were doing a follow-up story to the “gun incident” that occurred two days prior and wanted get some “parent” reactions.

According to his source a student had brought a loaded gun to school. He was caught before anyone was harmed. Stories like this are hard to hear and understand. What is it that drives a teen to the point of wanting to commit this kind of violence? Why are guns so accessible?

After I worked through all the philosophical and theological questions, it began to dawn on me. My son goes to that school. If the situation had escalated, my son could have been in the line of fire. This is not a pleasant thought. This kind of reflecting quickly leads to a strange kind of personal questioning. What are the decisions I made that ended up with my son being in that school?

Almost 20 years ago our family moved from the suburbs of Denver to the city; according to some it was the inner city. Then we choose enroll our boys in the local elementary school, one that would eventually “three strike out” under no child left behind. This decision influenced where our boys would attend middle and high school – local and public.

All along the way well-meaning people have asked us questions. How can you send you boys to those schools? Are you being a responsible parent? Then there were the strangely judgmental comments. As a parents you are responsible for the safety and well-being of your children. These comments and questions seemed to be lodged in the assumption that the “inner city” was dangerous and the “suburbs” were safe.

All of this was weighing on my mind last Friday. This story does not end on Friday, and thankfully neither does the Christian story, Sunday eventually comes around. On Sunday DOOR Denver held its third annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. This is an event where a number of local churches get together and share food, worship, and fellowship. There are Mennonites, Hispanic Pentecostals, Folklorico Dancers, and rap artists who spend an afternoon together celebrating each other’s culture. My favorite part is eating Mennonite pies with rice, beans, and carnitas tacos in one sitting – a Mennonite Mexican fusion meal!

As always I was left with a choice. Would I let the violence in my neighborhood be the defining result of my family’s move from the suburbs to the city? Or would the multi-cultural celebrations of faith, food, music, and friendships be the defining factor?

Please don’t get me wrong, I want to do everything in my power and sphere of influence to reduce and deescalate the “need” to act violently. Honestly, once you move past the stereotypes of where violence occurs, my neighborhood isn’t that much different than any other neighborhood. Learning to see the world through the eyes of other cultures, classes, and religions is a gift that my boys will carry with them for a lifetime.

Manny’s Story

There are very few things more powerful than someone’s testimony.  This week I want to share with you an article that was written by one of our Discerner’s.  His name is Manny Alvarez and he just completed his third summer with DOOR. There is something about living in an intentional community in an urban setting that changes the way you look at a city. At times people tend to fear the city and be intimidated by its fast pace. Those that are local have the city in their back yard yet know nothing about the needs of the place they call home. DOOR has changed a lot of my philosophy of how I’ve viewed the city, my city.

Before DOOR I was clueless about the issues affecting the city and when I realized this, I felt embarrassed. I’ve worked at DOOR Denver for the last three summers as a Discern staff leading the Discover groups that came for an urban service experience. The Discern summer staff program has built me up as leader, taught me how to live in a community with others, encouraged me to live in solidarity with others, and helped me get closer to my calling and purpose through discernment.

I’ve learned that someone with everything can have nothing to offer a dying city yet someone with nothing has so much to offer. This summer I worked with people that live homelessly and I did not know I could see a mentor in one of them. Five years ago I was scared of people living homelessly because they were always drunk, at least that was my stereotype. This year I saw something different. I saw the face of God in them. Being a Discerner takes a lot out of you because you are always giving your time and energy to the groups and it can cause you to burn out. It’s the same routine every week and it can get a bit repetitive but every week that I went back to visit my friends from the streets, I was filled up again. My sponge never ran dry and I owe it to the men and women that unfortunately are homeless. They are a part of the city, that city I was so clueless about.

DOOR also helped me learn about gentrification and a single story. Gentra what? Single Story? I could not believe I did not know about these issues before. Neighborhoods are being gentrified and low class families are being driven further away from the city. A lot of it happens to clean up the neighborhoods and to make it less violent but that only moves the problem to another neighborhood and it does not fix it. The single story concept deals with stereotypes and labeling someone as one thing only. For example, all illegal immigrants are Mexicans, which is not always true. I had a lot of single stories about other issues but DOOR has taught me to find two or more stories for every issue or person I come across.

DOOR not only creates leaders but it enhances them. It challenges us to face those issues that we don’t really want to talk about. It gets us out of our comfort zone and allows us to see the face of God in the city. DOOR has helped build my faith to what it is now and has changed my philosophy about the city for the better. It provides a great opportunity for discernment and vocational search to those that are still struggling to find their purpose. It provides an urban experience so those like me can see the other side of the city and the other side of those people who are marginalized, poor, oppressed, and homeless. It is the first step to a solution and if we all took the time to see and hear the misery and cries, the cities around our nation will begin to change. Together we can do anything through Christ. We are all a part of the body of Christ and all serve a purpose. DOOR is the eyes of God who sees humanity has one tribe.

An Eternal Moment

Every once in a while I find myself participating in an important moment. These moments rarely arise because of planning. They just happen. Last evening I was part of one of these moments. It took place after the DOOR Atlanta board meeting at Manuel’s Tavern. I like going there because they have two prime parking spots reserved for clergy. There were eight of us around the table. Two board members, our Atlanta City Director, my friend Anton, me and three Discern staff representing three of our DOOR cities. These2013-08-12 22.48.07 Discerners were in Atlanta for a Fund for Theological (FTE) event. Chris is from the west side of Chicago and has worked for DOOR every summer for the past 10 years. Today he is a confident 20 something about to complete his Master of Communication Studies, but I remember the high school freshman who was so skinny the wind could blow him over. Manny just completed his third summer in Denver. He likes to claim Los Angeles as his home town, but he spent most of his teen years in Denver and is a member of the church our family attends. Kelli spent one summer in both Denver and Hollywood. She came to DOOR through a more “traditional path;” she came as a Discover participant, liked the program and applied for a summer staff position. Here were these three young adults – a Hispanic, an African American and an Anglo.

For two hours we sat at that table. The waiter could hardly get a word in to take our order. The conversation was animated, passionate and emotional. We began with the “simplest” of topics, how should we think about sexual orientation? This went on for about 45 minutes. Once we had come to a general consensus we moved on to talking about how working for DOOR has impacted each of their lives. For each of them working with a diverse staff had helped them to better understand who they were and the radical breadth of the kingdom of God. The concept of “For God so loved the world” had taken on new meaning.

One of our hiring commitments is to find people who are different from one another and ask them to work together in unity. Our staff comes to us from urban, rural and suburban settings. Some have been raised in the church while others are new to the Sunday thing. They are young adults of color and they are Anglo. Some are progressive while others hold a more conservative theology. All of this diversity could be viewed as a prescription for disaster. I am constantly surprised that this doesn’t blow up in our face. Every year these young adults choose to define themselves first by what they hold in common. When this happens everyone is given a glimpse of what the church can be.

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.

Christian

What makes someone a Christian?  As a pre-teen I remember an “End-Times” speaker coming to our town and talking about how all the planets would line up in 1982.  He speculated that this would signal the beginning of the end or the start of the “tribulation.”  I was so afraid that I would be left behind when Jesus came to “rapture” the real Christians that I went forward every night to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.  Becoming a Christian had something to do with praying the right set of words.  Confession of sin and asking Jesus to sit on the throne of my heart needed to be included in the prayer.   I kept going forward every night because I wasn’t sure I prayed the prayer correctly. The fear of not having done it right haunted me for years.  More than once I snuck out of my bedroom at 2 AM to check on my parents to make sure they hadn’t been raptured away.  It took years to realize that the rapture theology that consumed my youth was a non-biblical scam made up to sell books.  There has been much freedom in discovering that Christianity is so much more than a way to avoid “The Tribulation.”

This journey into a new understanding of Christianity has only intensified the “what makes someone a Christian?” question.  During Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3 there is a fascinating conversation about entering into a process of rebirth.  It would seem that Christianity has something to do with resetting, rebooting and starting over with a clean slate.  In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a strange story about sheep and goats.  Eventually the sheep are invited into the kingdom of God and not because they prayed the right prayer.  There is no indication that they ever went forward at church and accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.  They are invited in because of how they lived their lives in service to others.

The more I read scripture the more I am convinced that Christianity has everything to do with who we are and how we live our lives.  There is a song from my youth that says well what I am trying to say, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

There are still well-meaning people who want a Christianity defined by rules and formulas.  The reasons for this grow out of the best of intentions.  The problem is that the God of Scripture has no interest in rules and formulas, no matter how well-intentioned they are.  The closest Scripture comes to a formula is love, radical and unconditional love.

Remembering

One of the habphotoits I have picked up over the last few years is running. Initially it was a way to lose weight and get in shape. In this sense running has been good for me; I have lost weight and my physical stamina is much improved. Running has become so much more than a way to stay physically active. There is something spiritual about running along Hollywood Boulevard at 7 AM before the tourists emerge or being stopped by the police in West Garfield Park, a neighborhood in Chicago, to find out if I really intended to be out and about in that particular part of town. Running in my particular neighborhood, East Denver, helps me notice things that go unnoticed when I am rushing about in my car. Roadside memorials are one such thing. The memorials along my running routes are remembrances of people, mostly teens and young adults who were shot and killed as a result of gang activity.

This coming Saturday Edward Armijo, also known as East Side Eddie, is hosting “A Day to Remember Lost Lives Slain to Violence.” This event will take place at Sunken Gardens Park; this park is right across the street from my office. It is also a place where 1,000’s of DOOR participants have played soccer, ultimate Frisbee or escaped to for a few moments of silence.photo4

On Saturday over 1,000 names of young people who have died unnecessarily on the streets in Denver will be read. In some cases parents will share stories of lost loved ones. Tears will flow.

Since the late 90’s our family has lived in a community affected by violence. We know the difference between a fire cracker and a gun shot. By the way these are skills that were never taught in seminary. I know of no easy or quick fixes for urban violence. Serious solutions will demand that parents, schools, churches, the police and politicians work together.

Making Friends

Book reviews are not a normal part of my blogging life, but last week I received a book entitled, “Making Friends among the Taliban.”   It is written by Jonathan Larson, an amazing story-teller and former chair of our DOOR-Atlanta program.  In it he tells the story of Dan Berry who on August 5, 2010, was murdered along with nine other members of a medical team in a remote region of northern Afghanistan. This is not a story of a senseless death, but rather of a life lived to its fullest.  Dan spent 30 plus years becoming a part of the Afghan landscape.  He was someone who seemed to have figured out how to be fully Christian in a place where Christianity, especially the western version of Christianity, is viewed with suspicion and apprehension.

From a certain perspective Dan was the wrong person to represent the Christian faith.  He lived without deadlines, communicated poorly, was easily distracted, liked to stop and smell the roses, viewed dangerous situations as simply obstacles to overcome and enemies as potential friends and allies, and thought the best places to visit were always sketchy and somewhat seedy.  You could say that Dan lived on the edge and therefore the manner in which he died was not all that surprising.

There is another perspective from which to hear this story.  Here was a person who knew the power of friendship.  Dan was willing to go to extraordinary measures to be a friend.  The title of the book hints at this, the Taliban was never his foe.   Like Jesus, relationship always took precedence over rules, policies and regulations.  For Dan everything was negotiable.  Being able to respect and understand all sides of any issue allowed Dan to be a peacemaker where peacemaking seemed impossible.  I cannot help but wonder how different our world would be if Christians choose to value relationship over conversion - not because I am against conversion.  So often the desire to convert becomes the barrier to seeing the other as a child of God.  For too many people, especially Christians, conversion is code language for you need to become like me.

One of the lasting legacies that Dan Berry has left for the church is new possibilities for being authentically Christian in a world where religious violence, mistrust and intolerance seem to be increasing.

Why?

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

 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.

        ~Chicago

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

        ~Minneapolis

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

        ~Philadelphia

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.

        ~Portland

 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.

        ~Hampton

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

        ~Cleveland

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

        ~Cleveland

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. 

Institution

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

        ~Philadelphia

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

        ~Philadelphia

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

        ~Denver

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”

        ~Philadelphia

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.

        ~Denver

Everything should be geared towards empowering the local congregation

        ~Raleigh/Durham

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

        ~Chicago

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.

        ~Seattle

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.”

        ~Phoenix

Renewed focus on church planting

        ~Phoenix

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.

        ~Minneapolis

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

        ~Minneapolis

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

        ~Raleigh/Durham

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

        ~Tampa

Control doesn’t make the church better.

        ~Tampa

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

        ~Tampa

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.

        ~Portland

Quit parachuting leaders into urban areas

        ~Los Angeles

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

        ~Dallas

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

        ~Hampton

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

        ~Cleveland

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?

Conclusion

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.

Bearing Witness

As a young adult I attend a college that had a daily mandatory chapel requirement.  For four years, I heard six sermons every week.  I quickly became an expert at evaluating the quality of a preacher within the first half-minute.  If the preacher didn’t pass the 30-second test I could be asleep within the next 30 seconds. In many ways, chapel became a place of rest for me.

After four years of six sermons per week, one in particular has stuck.  It was delivered by a professor not known for his public speaking skills.  I can no longer recall his name, but I remember the sermon as if it were yesterday.

His text was the book of Job.

He spoke shortly after the death of his wife.

She died after a long struggle with cancer, leaving behind her husband and two children.

I remember him talking about Job’s friends.  These were the guys who came to comfort Job after he lost everything: his children, his wealth and his reputation.  Initially, they came and just sat with him - listening and bearing witness.

After a while they started to talk. They tried to explain the “what” and the “why” of Job’s loss.

This is where they went wrong.

Like Job’s friends, we live in a culture that needs to understand why bad things happen to good people.  Simply bearing witness to pain and loss seems inadequate.  So we try to explain and justify: “All things work together for good,” or, “She is in a better place.”

The only thing that Job’s friends did right was sit with him for seven days and bear witness to his pain.  It was when they opened their mouths that everything when wrong.

Why is it so hard to simply bear witness to someone’s pain?