By Johnny Kauffman and Annette Brill Bergstresser
“Citizens of God’s Kingdom: Healed in Hope” (“Ciudadanos del Reino de Dios: Sanados por la Esperanza” has been chosen as the theme for Mennonite Church USA’s next biennial convention, to be held in Phoenix in 2013.
A 14-member “Working Group” met for 40 hours on May 12 and 13 in Colorado Springs, Colo., to discern this theme, which was approved by the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board Sept. 16 during its first meeting of the 2011–2013 biennium. The Working Group spent the time praying, reading Scripture, storytelling, discussing and reflecting until a theme developed that they felt embodied their process and the message of God to the denomination.
“This is a theme not just for the five days of worship, service and teaching that will take place in Phoenix in 2013; it is a prophetic call to help mobilize Mennonite Church USA as it works towards undoing racism and towards its vision of healing and hope,” said Glen Guyton, a member of the Working Group and director for constituent resources for the denomination.
The Working Group consisted of two youth, one young adult, several pastors, a staff leader for Native Mennonite Ministries, a Phoenix city official who is Mennonite, the immigration education director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S., two Executive Board members, and four denominational staff members. In accordance with 11 commitments made by the board in January 2011 in response to concerns raised by Iglesia Menonita Hispana about the Phoenix location, eight of the 14 group members were Racial/Ethnic, and several were first-generation immigrants.
(See end of article for photo caption.)
“The theme was born out of a discernment process deeply rooted in Scriptures,” said Saulo Padilla, a member of the Working Group and director of the Immigration Education Office of Mennonite Central Committee U.S. “It is an invitation to bring down the walls of division that the world has built for us—to walk to Phoenix and proclaim that ‘the earth is the Lord’s’ and that we are all created in the image of God, ‘no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but all citizens and members of God’s household.’
“It’s my hope that my brothers and sisters who think the Phoenix convention will be based on activism would discern with us that our call to go to Phoenix is deeply rooted in our Anabaptist theology and our faithful witness to justice and peace. I also hope that my immigrant brothers and sisters who are directly affected by unjust immigration laws would find new hope in the church, and feel encouraged and supported by those of us who will be proclaiming our alliance over all to God’s Kingdom in the streets of Phoenix.”
Not ‘business as usual’
The context for the group’s work in developing the convention theme was notably more complex than that of prior conventions. The Phoenix location became a source of controversy when Arizona passed a new anti-immigration law in April 2010. In January 2011, after an eight-month churchwide discernment process, the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board reaffirmed its 2009 decision to hold the 2013 convention in Phoenix, and made 11 commitments to follow through on immigration and anti-racism work (see http://www.mennoniteusa.org/Home/Blog/tabid/519/EntryID/463/Default.aspx).
Having been part of the location discernment process, Convention Planning staff understood that coming up with a theme would not be an easy task. “Few things about Phoenix 2013 will be business as usual,” Guyton said.
Traditionally, theme planning for a Mennonite Church USA convention does not begin until the year prior to the event. However, the interest in and concern around Phoenix 2013 within the denomination led the Executive Board to ask for the theme to be developed before the Pittsburgh 2011 convention in July so that they could share it with delegates, and to wait to decide upon it until after hearing delegates’ responses.
Guyton said that while the Working Group members considered the issues and implications of the convention’s location, they remained focused on developing a theme that spoke to the denomination more broadly.
“It’s not just about one issue; it’s really about figuring what God wants to say to the church,” he said. “We thought about what the purpose of the convention is, and we had a context we had to address, but it had to be consistent with who we are as Anabaptists.”
Forty hours of discernment
Rachel Swartzendruber Miller, former director of Convention Planning and a member of the Working Group, said that great emphasis was placed in dwelling in God’s word during the theme discernment process. The group also focused on the denomination’s “Healing and Hope” vision statement and seven priorities (Christian formation, Christian community, holistic witness, stewardship, leadership development, undoing racism and intercultural transformation, and church-to-church relationships), and reviewed the documents that were part of the discernment process about the location.
The meeting included a time of storytelling in which African, German and Latin American immigrants told stories of their journeys to become legal residents. Second-generation children of immigrants also shared their experiences and described how U.S. immigration policy affects them.
A number of group members mentioned a meaningful exchange between Hannah Nursalim, an Indonesian high school student from Maranatha Christian Fellowship in Northridge, Calif., and Jasmine Harris, a young Eastern Mennonite University Student of African-American and Cuban heritage from Calvary Community Church in Hampton, Va.
When Nursalim told of the challenges of keeping her youth group “family” together when traveling to previous Mennonite Church USA conventions, Harris gained a better understanding of the struggles that immigrant youth face not only in going to Phoenix, but also in living in the United States as people without documents.
“I didn’t really realize the impact of the immigration law,” said Harris. “I didn’t really know anybody who wouldn’t be able to go [to Phoenix], but that really hit home.”
After prayer, quiet reflection, and discussion, the group members chose four Scriptures that stood out to them: Psalm 24:1 is a reminder that the earth and everything in it belongs to God; Philippians 3:20-21 gives an understanding of solidarity that draws together all who have been transformed by Christ; Romans 5:1-5 points toward faith, which gives hope in the midst of suffering; and Ephesians 2:14-22 speaks of the reconciling nature of Christ, which breaks down walls of enmity. Near the end of the two-day gathering, the group began to discuss theme ideas, and settled on the theme to recommend to the Executive Board.
David Boshart, a member of the Working Group and of the Executive Board, commented on the choice of the word “healed” (as opposed to “healing”):
“This committee wrestled with every letter that went into the theme statement,” he said. “Because we believe that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God has provided everything we need for reconciliation, the past tense more truthfully reflects that God has already accomplished what God needed to do to bring about the reconciliation of all things to God’s self. Though we continue to live in a world where relationships are broken, in Jesus we have everything we need to be healed.”
Guyton believes the opportunities for transformation inspired by the Phoenix 2013 theme should not be limited to the Phoenix 2013 convention or to the state of Arizona.
“If the only thing that the theme changes is five days in July, then we have missed the boat,” he said. “Hopefully this is a message that we can work with for the next two years. It should speak to where we are going as a church.”
For background information on the Phoenix location discernment process, see: http://www.mennoniteusa.org/Home/Convention/Phoenix2013/tabid/1624/Default.aspx
The Phoenix 2013 theme planning group:
front (l. to r.): Carol Roth, Native Mennonite Ministries staff, Clinton, Miss.; Hannah Nursalim, youth, Van Nuys, Calif., Maranatha Christian Fellowship, Northridge, Calif.; Glen Guyton, Executive Board staff, San Antonio, Texas; Scott Hartman, Executive Board staff, Elkhart, Ind.; Rachel Swartzendruber Miller, former Executive Board staff, Hesston, Kan.
second row (l. to r.): Ken Gingerich, Executive Board staff, Mountain States Mennonite Conference member, Albuquerque, N.M.; Nehemiah James Chigoji, pastor, First Mennonite Church of Upland (Calif.); Rebekka Stutzman, Pasadena, Calif., youth pastor, Maranatha Christian Fellowship.
third row (l. to r.): Kenneth Thompson, Executive Board member and pastor, Friendship Community Church, Bronx, N.Y.; Saulo Padilla, director of the Immigration Education Office of Mennonite Central Committee U.S., Goshen, Ind.; Jasmine Harris, young adult, Calvary Community Church, Hampton, Va.
fourth row (l. to r.): Ed Zuercher, leadership team moderator of Trinity Mennonite Church, Phoenix, Ariz., and employee of the city of Phoenix; Carmela Dow, youth, Oxford Circle Mennonite Church, Philadelphia.
back: David Boshart, Executive Board member and executive conference minister for Central Plains Conference, Parnell, Iowa.
(Photo provided by Carol Roth)