Meghan Florian is a writer and editor from Durham, North Carolina. She blogs about theology and feminism at www.femmonite.com, and is currently at work on her first book. Meghan is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.
After I had been attending a Mennonite church for about six months, someone asked me if I ever felt like an outsider. I think what she meant was, as someone who was not a “cradle Mennonite” (how people who practice believer’s baptism could manage to miss the irony of such a term is beyond me), did I feel like I fit in – or rather, did I experience this community from the periphery?
I think I laughed. How else could I respond?
I have felt like an outsider in the church in some ways for my whole life.
From the time I was six years old my family attended a Christian Reformed Church in West Michigan. And, like so many churches in that tradition, our church had overwhelmingly Dutch roots. Even my high school boyfriend was not afraid to make the occasional “You ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much” joke in my presence. Still, I learned to love the Heidelberg catechism, banket and joking that my last name was VanderFlorian.
I found a home in that tradition for a time. I found mentors. Even in a tradition that was still not supportive of women in ministry, my pastors encouraged my theological questioning, my seriousness, my hopes and plans.
They saw something in me I had not yet named in myself, I think, and though they never invited me to the pulpit, I like to think deep down maybe they could have imagined me in one, someday.
And so, a year into my seminary education, when I was unexpectedly thrown in with these Mennonite folks in Chapel Hill, the proliferation of certain last names, hymns, and traditional foods (entire cookbooks, even!) didn’t faze me. Those sorts of things I was used to; it was the theology and ecclesiology that were new.
A few weeks after I began attending, someone asked me to read scripture. It was the first time I had ever been asked to do such a thing in church – simply to read, much less to pray or preach, which would come later. So small a thing, but it was my first lesson about being Mennonite: we do church together.
While hovering outside of certain aspects of Mennonite tradition, I have been welcomed into the life of this church in such a way that I rarely feel like an outsider anymore.
I am part of this living body, now, even if my name is not recognizably Mennonite, and even if I still can’t get that four-part harmony thing down. (I keep trying.)
Yet there are still times when I am hit hard by reminders of all the ways that I may never fit neatly into the denomination I now call home, even family. When I read statistics about our pastors, for example, and realize just how rare it is for someone like me (a young, single woman) to pastor a Mennonite church. And when I remember the people I love whose relationships and callings are still rejected by the official denominational line, despite a slowly growing number of welcoming congregations like my own. At such times, mostly I just cry. I weep for all the good we could do, and all the grief I carry because of the pain we inflict, the violence we perpetuate against our own body’s limbs.
Too often “we” feels like “us” and “them.”
For me, the hashtag #WeAreMenno highlights an absence. But it is also my way of saying you can’t get rid of me so easily. I refuse to be excluded from this “we” for being at variance – a nice way of saying my theology is on the edges of what those at the center consider acceptable. I am pushed to the fringe.
Yet my story is one of having the privilege to choose to stay – my theology on the edge, but my person still accepted, because I am not gay.
Recently I visited a Mennonite church other than the one where I am a member. A friend – an openly gay Christian man – asked me if he would be welcome there. He asked with such simplicity, such frankness, his honest, open face turned toward me in trust. And I had to look this beautiful, faithful Christian man in the eyes and say, “I don’t know.” It didn’t matter in that moment that I do know that he is welcome at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, because I am not just a member of CHMF but part of a larger denomination whose default position refuses to accept this man as a whole person, as a beloved child of God to be cherished and supported as he seeks to lead a faithful life. Not merely tolerated, but listened to, loved, valued for all his many gifts to the family of God.
And so my prayer is that I would continue to see my life caught up in his, that I’d resist the comfort of being on the inside, believing rather that until all are invited and heard, none can be truly free.
The table is large – that is part of what being Mennonite has taught me. Come and sit with me. Take, eat, remember and believe. Christ has come to reconcile us to one another. And we all need to learn how to love.