This post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s MennoCon21 #BringThePeace series.
Polly Carlson grew up in Freeman, South Dakota, where she graduated from Freeman Academy and attended Salem Mennonite (South) Church. In May of 2020, Polly graduated from Bethel College of North Newton, Kansas, with a BA in elementary education. A few months later, she moved to San Francisco, California, to do a year of service with Mennonite Voluntary Service, where she currently teaches elementary school aged children from immigrant families in the Mission District.
When I was asked to write about my experiences at MennoCon, it didn’t take me very long to say yes — because I LOVE convention. I attended as a youth in 2013 (Phoenix) and 2015 (Kansas City). In 2017 (Orlando), I begged my campus pastor at Bethel College to let me attend as a student representative in the Mennonite Higher Education booth, and he agreed. He also asked me to participate in the Future Church Summit, which is where I spent the majority of my time that week. In 2019 (Kansas City), I happened to be working at a summer program at Rainbow Mennonite Church, so I was able to join a group of congregants in a choir as part of the anniversary celebration of the Mennonite Piano Concerto by Victor Davies.
That brings us to 2021. I am currently serving with MVS in San Francisco, California, and I tried to think of a way that I could get to Cincinnati, Ohio, for Mennocon21, but I determined that, this year, my students in San Francisco need me more than MennoCon does.
So why has convention made such an impact on my life that I am finding myself saddened that my streak is ending? The first reason is the large worship services. As a freshman in high school I had never experienced a worship service quite like the youth services at convention. My youth group loved them. We would take turns waiting outside the doors — sometimes for an hour and a half before worship started — so that we could get seats as close to the front as possible. We had a huge inflatable princess swan that we carried with us so that our group could be easily found. The crowd was so big that you didn’t have to worry about anyone watching you. An environment is created where you can fully immerse yourself in worship and sing as loudly as possible.
My first experience of feeling God’s presence was at one of these services. I had been “broken up with” by a boy for the very first time at the Phoenix convention. It happened in the hotel hallway, before everyone went to bed — and what made it even more fun was that there were still three full days of convention left, both his and my parents were youth sponsors on the trip, AND we still had a 26-hour bus ride back to Freeman, South Dakota, to look forward to! We’re friends now, but as a 15-year-old, you could say I was a little bent out of shape.
I remember that at the close of the final night of youth worship, there were adults that lined the perimeter of the worship hall, and we were invited to go forward to talk to any of them about whatever was on our hearts — to receive a blessing, ask for prayer, accept Christ into our hearts, etc. At the time, I was not the type of person to do something like that. I worried too much about what my friends might think, or I didn’t think I “needed” it. But I was a very broken girl that night, and I knew that I was not going to get through this heartbreak without God, so I went and prayed with one of these adults.
I felt God’s peace and comfort in a personal way for the first time, and that was the start of a more personal relationship with God and my individual internal faith.
Convention was also the first time I was able to see that I was part of a much larger church. When I’m at MennoCon, I feel like I belong to something bigger than myself.
When I took catechism class at my church in preparation for baptism, I learned the mission statement “Jesus is the center of our faith. Reconciliation is the center of our work. Community is the center of our lives”. When I went to my second convention as a youth, I remember seeing those words run across the big screen before worship started, and it meant so much to me to be in a room with so many kids my age that were growing up in the same faith I was.
Since my days of attending convention as a youth, I have graduated from Bethel College. While I was there, I learned how many of my college friends had attended the same conventions I had, before I even knew them! I love how MennoCon brings a community together.
When I was a participant in the Future Church Summit, I was able to see what is important to the broader church, and to feel like I was a part of shaping its path moving forward. Being Mennonite is such a big part of my identity, and I want to see the greater church thrive.
MennoCon is one of the most tangible ways of seeing how many others share that passion. I hope all of the youth, in particular, enjoy convention this year, and feel the same sense of unity and belonging that I did during my high school years. I also hope they get a lot of free T-shirts and SWAG in the exhibit hall!
Hopefully I’ll be able to make my return to MennoCon in 2023!
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.