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The gift of a small church

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Romans 12:9-13.

Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship is a small house church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, fewer than twenty people, including kids, on a good day. We are part of the Indiana-Michigan Conference of the Mennonite Church, USA, the largest, at least for now, Mennonite denomination in the United States. I say, “at least for now” because difficult questions around scripture, human sexuality, and politics have led many congregations and even whole conferences to leave. The very idea of having respectful conversations is critical to institutional survival, but it is also critical to our spiritual growth and obedience to God’s command to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger (James 1:19).”

Even though we are a small church, we believe that God gives us the gifts that we need, as Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 12:7 and passim). If this is true, then when we do not have a particular gift, it is at least likely that God has decided we don’t quite need it yet. The charism of a small church is intimacy and a certain ease: we don’t need to do everything; we lack time and resources.

What kind of social service ministries the Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship provide?

As a church, we have exactly one social service ministry per se: almost every Thursday night, people (almost always women) gather to make comforters which are then distributed by the Mennonite Central Committee in Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere. This small and faithful cadre makes about 65 comforters per year.

However, we have no paid staff and no building to maintain, and so when we donate money to “the church,” almost all of that ends up going to others. We don’t really have a budget, but about 90% of our money ends up going to others. The “social service ministries” we supported in 2017 included:

And several of our members work in social services, including a chaplain at a local hospital, the education director of Community Homeworks, and the president of The Colossian Forum. Another is a librarian, one of the most important social services around, although libraries are so much part of the warp and woof of our society, it’s easy to forget this.

How do you encourage your members to become involved in social service ministries?

Here’s a bit of our story. Some details have been changed to protect privacy. But I tell it because it tells the story of how we have gotten involved in “social service ministries.”

Some friends of ours came over to sing together at our house on November 8, 2016. We thought it was a better way to spend time than waiting out the US presidential election returns. All of us, I think, expected Clinton to win; none of us, I think, were especially glad of that expectation. But we had been appalled by candidate Trump’s brutal words about immigrants.

As the night passed, the singing petered out. Our hearts weren’t in it, for the news was depressing — fortunately, we hadn’t spent every waking moment in anxious waiting. Singing is a good alternative to anxiety. We woke to the news that Trump had won the election.

In the wake of election and inauguration, many of us in the church were discouraged and disorganized. It seemed important to take some kind of action, if only to clear the miasma we felt. Like the singers who gathered, a major discouragement for us as a church was President Trump’s immigration policy. Some of us had lived overseas, and some of us had been directly or indirectly involved in the “Overground Railroad,” which helped Central Americans, fleeing war and distress in their home countries get to Canada in the 1980s. And of course, our comforter group had been making comforters for refugees and immigrants elsewhere, and our hearts were soft towards those who sought a better life. We try to be a place of welcome: “Welcome the stranger,” and “welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God,” as Paul wrote in Romans.

As a church, we agreed to look for ways to be more involved in welcoming immigrants. Some of us attended protests and demonstrations of support that started to happen in our downtown park. (At one, I stood on the stage with Nathan Dannison, one of my co-discussants). These demonstrations and protests, as important as they may have been, didn’t especially connect with our desire to welcome.

One of our members, Carlie, volunteered to contact Bethany Christian Services and see what would be involved in sponsoring a refugee or immigrant family. The branch director, Joel Bell, came to our church to talk through what this would mean. When we looked around at who we were, and what this entailed, we realized it was more than we could realistically offer. Other churches than ours have support groups for refugee families that are bigger than our church.

It did introduce us to Joel Bell. My wife, Bess, learned that he and his family welcomed ten members of a refugee family into their home for six weeks. Bess said, if they could do that, so could we. So, we offered our home for emergency housing. Through Joel and Bethany’s Refugee and Immigrant Services, we have been able to welcome a lively Egyptian family for a couple of weeks, and a young Rohingya man, fleeing genocide in Burma, and whom Bethany essentially rescued from enslavement locally. Before meeting him, we knew nothing of the Rohingya people and the dangers and horrors they have been undergoing.

Joel came to us with a bigger ask: a longer term commitment to a young man from Guatemala named Helder, who came as an unaccompanied minor to the US, taken under Bethany’s care, and who was about to age out of their services. A sweeter and more helpful person you couldn’t imagine. Coming from a farming family, he loves working with Bess in our garden, taking good care of our rabbits, cooking us empanadas, and telling stories from his village and especially about his abuelo. Helder is here legally, and is waiting for a final determination of his case. Both fortunately and unfortunately, the case load is heavy, and Helder’s had to wait a long time. It’s unfortunate because he lives under a constant cloud of uncertainty, and is unable to work without government permission. It’s fortunate, because he’s been able to secure needed medical care and learn English.

And it’s been fortunate for us: both our family and our church. It’s great to have a sweet, kind young man in the house, who is handy and tells a good story. Bess and I lived in Spain donkey’s years ago, and we’ve been able to revive, somewhat, our atrophied Spanish. He also attends worship with us. We have begun to make parts of our service bilingual. Even the non-Spanish speaking members of our church don’t seem to mind hearing a sermon in both Spanish and English.

Having these folks in our home has taught our church many things, including:

  • Gratitude for the gift they are, in and of themselves
  • Gratitude for the ways state, federal, and local agencies have programs in place to welcome immigrants and refugees (it’s not all bad)
  • Anger at the ways immigrants and refugees are exploited by unscrupulous family and so-called sponsors
  • Anger at the ways immigrants and refugees are often scapegoated in the current political climate
  • Anger at some of the piss-poor services offered to immigrants, borne by the the public, but often flowing to private, for-profit organizations
  • Acceptance of our limits of what we can realistically do
  • Spanish Vocabulary We’re learning words we never knew in Spanish 😀. ¡It’s really estirando us!

Do you encourage your members to be politically active, and why? What are your reasons for NOT taking church-wide political positions or initiatives?

First, some background.

I did not grow up in the church, but my father was what came to be called a Reagan Democrat. He strongly believed that participation in civic life, especially voting, was the duty of every citizen. This duty was strongly engrained in me. It came as some surprise to learn that the traditional — or at least one traditional — belief of the Anabaptists was to not participate in politics, even to vote.

Mennonites form one of the historic “peace churches” (along with the Church of the Brethren and the Quakers). And, historically for Mennonites, that meant being nonresistant in the face of violence. And, because “the sword” is reserved for those in government service, we should not, therefore, participate in government as office holders, or even as voters. One of Anabaptism’s treasures is The Martyrs' Mirror, a hagiography of how “defenseless Christians” faced down violence and torture in faithful obedience to Christ.

The current confession of faith used by Mennonite Church, USA expands and erases some of this historic understanding. The idea of nonresistance is expanded to include peace and justice. Jesus, as the confession says, “has called us to find our blessing in making peace and seeking justice.” We are still not to resort to violence, and we call on our members to conscientiously object to military service. But influencing and participating in the secular political process is not forbidden, and even encouraged. Mennonite Central Committee (independent from, but supported by Mennonite Church USA) even maintains a Washington, DC office to “better advocate for U.S. government policies that make for a more peaceful and just world.”

Some more traditional Mennonites and other Anabaptists maintain the more traditional nonresistant position. Other conservative Mennonites have joined the general trend of conservative evangelicals in supporting politicians and policies set forth by political conservatives. And, for some, this has meant supporting the military and other so-called pro-American values. This has led to some interesting politics, in and outside the church. For example, the upcoming 2018 congressional election in the newly created Pennsylvania 11th district features a politically liberal Democrat and Mennonite, Jess King, versus conservative Republican Lloyd Smucker, who was raised Amish.

There’s a bit of an open secret about Mennonite history that’s relevant, too. A large strand of the Mennonite and Anabaptist movement in Europe was German-speaking. Many migrated to what is present-day Ukraine. When the atheistic Communist revolution occurred in Russia, these Mennonites found themselves sandwiched between Germany to the west, and the Soviet Union to the east. With the rise of Hitler and Nazism, many Mennonites saw the Nazis in a positive light, supporting their German culture and their religion, and the Nazis saw the Mennonites as good Aryan Volk and possible partners in a Greater Germany, both in Europe as well as Mennonite colonies in places like Paraguay. The most recent issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review treats aspects of this history. The open secret is that some Mennonites, in living memory, were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. I have friends who have great uncles or grandparents who were.

The sweep of Anabaptist history has tended towards non-involvement in politics and non-resistance to violence. Over time, these ideals have been lost and compromised (as in the case of Nazi collaboration), or changed and enhanced to include a focus on social justice and social peacemaking, as in the official confession of the Mennonite Church USA.

As a pastor, I have been very wary of encouraging people to identify their political convictions with their Christian beliefs. I’ve even hesitated to suggest people vote, which I’m sure causes my union-going Democrat father to spin rapidly in his grave. In the end, during the 2016 presidential election, I did encourage our church to vote, not for one candidate or another in mind, but to vote. At the time, we had at least two regular attenders who grew up under the ancien régime, and so were not even registered to vote, and were not inclined to do so. I’m pretty sure the others would have voted whether or not I encouraged them to. On Facebook, on my personal page, I encouraged people to vote for Hillary Clinton, trying to make it as clear as possible that I was not speaking for anyone but myself, and definitely not for our local fellowship. I encouraged people to do so because, at the time, and to this day, I view the presidency of Donald Trump as an existential threat.

On our private Facebook group, which is pretty recent for us, there have been some calls to action about state legislation, and information about Saheeda Nadeem, a woman taking refuge in the building of Kalamazoo’s First Congregational Church. This is another commonality that Nathan Dannison and I have: our churches are both housing and supporting an immigrant or refugee in our meeting houses! I think this activity is fine, although if it were to be all politics, all the time, I might change my mind. Or, if the politics were to be overwhelmingly partisan and not issue-based. But, as I say, the group is new for us, and we are feeling our way. We’re more likely to post Bible verses or funny videos, or to encourage one another to visit our elderly member at her nursing home.

That’s our internal messaging. I do not, and probably would not, encourage our little fellowship to take “church-wide positions or initiatives” for a number of reasons. A very important one is simply time and resources. We’re a small church, we all live busy lives. The closest thing we have to paid staff is the child care person who comes on Sunday morning, and she’s not going to lead us in storming the barricades.

Another, related, reason is that we have church members involved in social justice, care, and peacemaking, and supporting them in their work seems more valuable than working on causes directly. Often that means loving them as they parent their children, work through the frustrations of their jobs, and encouraging their spiritual lives, all of which makes it possible for them to be more effective in their ministries. Of course, we try to do the same for anyone, and we don’t value a career doing social justice over a career doing accountancy. But we also put our money where our heart is, and support agencies and advocacy groups like the ones listed above.

Frankly, I am wary of official church positions for a number of reasons. We have seen in our Mennonite history how some members of a comfortable church, frightened by real dangers, ended up making extremely bad decisions about their place as part of Hitler’s Volk. And I have viewed with increasing skepticism the capture of the American evangelical church by Trumpism. It’s a foolish conceit that we are going to make just the right call, when others, not really any worse or stupider than we, did not. I also recognize that sometimes we just need to take the risk, though the church worldwide and through history has not had a great track record, especially when the church has been in places of privilege.

The passage from Romans quoted above is an excerpt from a longer description of what Paul thinks a healthy church should look like: mutual love and honor,a common life of virtue, prayer, generosity, hospitality, and so on. All of these things are about what it means to be in, and extend, the kingdom of God. Jesus promises that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied, and that peacemakers will be called God’s children. It’s not an either/or thing; it’s not a choice between a common life of virtue, and fighting for a more just world.

I mentioned previously the charism of our church. Of course, I have no illusions that we are the perfect model of a church, no illusions whatsoever. And I can affirm that other churches have other gifts or a calling to do something different. Much of what we do has grown organically (in a vine-like way, I hope) out of our own size, resources, and abilities. I might want to post warning signs about getting too cozy with powers and authorities, but I don’t assume that other churches making policy pronouncements are necessarily in bed with Beliar. In fact, I await with eagerness to hear what the other discussants say.

It’s hard to do a good job at being the church; it’s difficult to make decisions for ourselves as individuals, much less a common life of people at different stages. One way to engage in respectful conversations is to recognize, with humility, that we might be wrong and others might be right (and so are called to learn a new way of virtue), or that we might be right and they might be wrong (and so are called to extend grace), or that we might both be right (and so can praise God for a divine gift of diversity). Of course, the most likely thing is that we are both wrong, but in different ways. So we need to throw ourselves on the grace of God, and the promises of God, and remember that “underneath are the everlasting arms.”

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Reader Comments (2)

Will, I am impressed by your article. I think you have written clearly, you state well the chrism of your church, and you give a fair description of the larger Mennonite church.
God bless you and your church.

I still remember you living close to us.

I have been reading several of N. T. Wright's books in Kindle form, I am now reading "Jesus, and the Victory of God". He says wonderfully, and I agree that Jesus was proclaiming the coming of God's Nation. A structured set of people following Jesus, living by Jesus teachings such as the Sermon on the Mount. These teachings were not because Jesus only expected the world and his disciples to be around a few more years, but that the old Jewish kingdom was developing into God's nation open for all peoples.

June 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAlbert Steiner

Thank you, Albert!

June 7, 2018 | Registered CommenterWilliam Fitzgerald

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