Kiron Mateti attends Plains Mennonite Church in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, and lives in Telford, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Rachel, and three kids. He also serves on the Mosaic Mennonite Conference Board. He spends his days on Zoom, as a robotics engineer, developing software for autonomous semi-trucks, and will talk for hours about robots, if you let him. He enjoys playing guitar, throwing frisbee and building Legos with his kids.
I didn’t grow up Mennonite, or even Christian for that matter. My introduction to the Mennonites came from meeting a woman named Rachel while in campus ministry at Penn State in 2006. I had just come to Christ months earlier, after my older brother had passed away in a car accident. My mother, who had converted from being a devout Hindu to a “born again” Christian a decade prior, had a large influence on me, but I wanted my own faith, so started reading the Bible. In Matthew, I began to see contradictions between what Jesus said and what I saw in the church. So far, my take was that Christians were conservative, nationalistic, pro-gun and seemed to only care about internal piety, versus systemic social justice issues.
Rachel was different: She had traveled internationally, cooked huge meals of rice and lentils from the More-with-Less cookbook, lived in community, had wall hangings, played Dutch Blitz, and she pronounced Pakistan correctly. As an Indian-American, that last point impressed me and showed a desire to learn about other languages and cultures, instead of having an America-first mentality. The Mennonites showed me a different Christian expression that I could sign up for. I would later marry Rachel, and I use her last name, Zimmerman, to play the “Mennonite game.”
At the time, we attended University Mennonite Church (UMC) in State College, Pennsylvania. I remember the feeling when I first heard four-part harmony hymns. Imagine a magical elvish woodland paradise. It was there that I fell in love with the hymns of the Mennonite church, such as “What is this Place” (VT 22), “We are People of God’s Peace” (VT 797) and, of course, “Praise God from Whom” (“606”) (VT 70).
Despite being very internationally focused, I was one of the few non-white people at UMC, which is something that I had gotten used to, having grown up in the suburbs of southwest Ohio.
Even so, I cherished the people I met, and I saw how the Mennonites respected the Sermon on the Mount, living out their faith and working toward peace and justice.
Fast forward to January, as part of Plains Mennonite Church, Rachel and I attend the Laurelville Worship Retreat, in which hymns from the new Voices Together (VT) hymnal are introduced and tested. Walking into the room with 70 worship leaders singing perfectly pitched four-part harmony was an incredible experience. We discussed the selection of songs that went into VT with the people who put it together and learned of the great effort to include songs from Mennonites around the world. Some foundational hymns were reworded to portray God as gender neutral, or even to include the feminine side of God. It was clear that this was an affirming and inclusive group of Mennonites. Still, I was once again one of the only people of color, despite intercultural intentions.
Accordingly, the guest speaker at the Laurelville Retreat was Safwat Marzouk, an Egyptian-Presbyterian, and author of the book, “Intercultural Church.” He introduced the idea of “hyphenated Christians,” which resonated with me. We are all hyphenated in some way, bringing our heritage, experience, culture to the table. For me, I am an Cleveland-Indian-American-Charismatic-Anabaptist Christian. I have to stop and consider my life experience, and my faith journey is quite different from many Swiss-German Mennonites.
Just a few weeks after the Laurelville retreat, I had the opportunity to go to Mennonite Church USA’s Hope for the Future Conference (HFF) as a Mosaic Mennonite Conference board member.
I was no longer the only person of color. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) leaders from nearly every continent, ethnic background and generation came together to connect, learn and celebrate.
The radical hospitality of Anton Flores-Maisonet and Casa Alterna, giving hospitality to strangers, is the antithesis of xenophobia. I learned that “white” words, like intentionality, are foreign, but words like “family” are more trusted. Frank Scoffield Sánchez challenged us to see the crises that are in front of us, that have become normal, and we just “keep scrolling.” Thulani Conrad Moore challenged men at the conference to take the lead in “interrupting male dominance,” showing that those in power have responsibility to see and fight against injustice.
Wearing my kurta pyjama, I saw a Mennonite world that didn’t sing out of hymnals but cleared the tables for dancing. Our first practical lesson in being intercultural was learning how to salsa dance! I managed to sneak a Bollywood song in there, to give a little Indian flavor to things, teaching the “unscrew a light bulb and turn the faucet on” technique. My incredibly mediocre dance skills did not do India justice.
I see examples of the kingdom in both of these seemingly different experiences — one more traditional and one that gives a glimpse into what the Mennonite church of tomorrow looks like.
We must progress from being multicultural, in which these differing cultures exist independently, to being intercultural, in which we immerse ourselves in cultures unlike our own. Further, just as Jesus turned the kingdom upside down, those in power must lead to interrupt that dominance and ensure that everyone has a seat at the decision-making table. We do not have to abandon our own culture, but when everyone has a seat at the table, we can have mutual respect for one another and truly call ourselves the family of God.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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