This post reflects on the upcoming women’s conference, All You Need Is Love: Honoring the diversity of women’s voices in theology. It will be hosted at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Va., February 20-22, 2014.
By Joanna Shenk
I’d have to say, when I first heard of the price tag for an event at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Virginia, I wrote it off. Charging over $300 seemed unthinkable to me as a frugal traveler who is often hosted in people’s homes. Furthermore, I have been known to lament the “professionalization” of some of our church gatherings, where we stay at hotels and meet in ritzy, impersonal conference rooms.
So why would I support having our women’s conference at a conference center with a seemingly steep price tag?
As a white woman, only recently have I learned from some friends/colleagues of color that they don’t prefer to be hosted in other people’s homes. I’ve never thought about the prospect of having racist behavior directed at me. For example, being asked uncomfortable (or even racist) questions related to my ethnicity while chatting together or sharing a meal. I had not realized that “Mennonite-ing your way” might not work so well for everyone.
In our conference planning we were reminded of these facts and implored to find a location that was in proximity to quality hotels. Initially we had hoped to have the option of home-stays and hotels.
Other requirements included finding a location near a large airport to ensure easier travel, which is generally less expensive, as well as a non-rural setting. Whereas some people feel quite safe in rural areas, like where many large Mennonite churches are located, others feel the opposite.
These requirements (near a large airport and non-rural) pretty much knocked out every “Mennonite hub” which could offer cheap meeting space and home-stays plus hotel options for lodging, all within proximity to the venue.
Although cities like Goshen, Elkhart, Harrisonburg and Newton can offer cheaper space and can be a good way for people to become familiar with Mennonite institutions, they can also be inhospitable to those who are coming from urban areas or who lack familiarity with European-descent Mennonite culture. And these locations are not necessarily easily accessible destinations, especially for those who are flying. They can reinforce the idea in our denomination, even if unintentionally, that historic European Mennonite areas are more important than urban areas.
Choosing against these Menno hubs left us with Philadelphia and the National Conference Center in Virginia. The churches and event spaces that we explored in Philadelphia either didn’t have enough space or weren’t available for multi-day events. This was disappointing, as Philadelphia was ideal in many other ways. It had good hotel options and public transportation, as well as being in proximity to a number of Mennonite churches which could have offered lodging, if needed.
So the National Conference Center remained. It is near to a major airport—Washington Dulles. It offers hotel-like accommodations in a collaborative environment. It has the space to accommodate our group. It is a possible road-trip destination for those on the east coast and in the Midwest. Its costs include everything participants will need—parking, internet access, exercise space, meals, snacks, lodging, plenary space, workshop rooms, outdoor walking options and collaborative space. For more information, visit the registration webpage.
Although $350 is still a chunk of change, participants will not be paying piecemeal. For example, if the registration price was $150, not including hotel costs, public transportation, food and internet access, participants could still be paying the additional $200 for two nights of accommodations, meals, snacks and internet access in a large city.
Granted the price tag is higher than we hoped for, but we are excited about the opportunity to have all participants staying together, eating together and intersecting with each other throughout the gathering.
We are also working hard to raise funds in order to ensure that there will be scholarships available for those with financial need. If you are in need of scholarship assistance, please note this on your registration form. And if you are in a position where you are able to support our scholarship fund, you can do that by credit card here! Every little bit counts!
I’m energized as I think about hundreds of women getting together to be the church and to shape the church. As the conference planners have said, this is an opportunity for us to seriously discuss what divides and unites us as women. The journey before us is not necessarily easy, but the strength we draw from each other and the Spirit compels us to carry on… and with joy!